Time now for the third instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do. Here’s why I’m doing this. Perhaps surprisingly, the pandemic lockdown hasn’t increased my reading rate much – although it has increased my baking rate, my Wii Golf playing rate, and most recently, my cab-view-train-trip-youtube-video-watching-rate. Anyway, on to the most recent stack of books.
The Word is Murder (Anthony Horowitz, 2017). This is a murder mystery, but a rather light and playful one (those who don’t read murder mysteries may find that a strange idea). It’s also one with a gimmick: the author is also a character. I don’t mean just that it’s told in the first person; instead, the author Anthony Horowitz literally appears as the narrating character, with the same name and background, frequent references to his other books, and so on. The Word is Murder has lots of things I enjoy in a book: a carefully constructed British mystery, details of something I don’t know much about (in this case, acting school), and a connection to books and the world of writing. But I can’t decide if I liked this book a lot or merely a little. The gimmick seemed a bit gimmicky, and the carefully constructed mystery sometimes felt a bit, well, constructed. There’s nothing wrong with a quick, light read; but next time, back to Peter Robinson or P.D. James.
This Poison Will Remain (Fred Vargas, 2019). This is the ninth in a series featuring Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, and set in France. I picked this one up because it involves suspicious deaths that appear to be from spider bites (European recluse, Loxosceles rufescens). That’s an unaggressive and not-all-that-venomous spider, which is actually a major plot point. The mystery was intriguing (and its resolution nicely complex), although I didn’t warm to Adamsberg as a protagonist. I did enjoy Vargas’s interest in words – the book features lots of connections between words, events, and characters. It even dives into etymologies of Latin names a little bit (and you can imagine how that got my ears perked up) – as when Adamsberg’s deputy Danglard complains that Loxosceles is unsatisfying because it combines Greek (loxo, oblique) and Latin (celer, one who hides) derivations. While it’s true that “Latin” names can be based on any language, not just Latin), I share Danglard’s dislike of the untidiness of mixing languagues in a single name. I have to admit, though: I may be the only person on the planet who would see this as a feature worth commenting on in a mystery novel!
Master and Commander (Patrick O’Brian, 1969). Many people love Master and Commander and the 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, that it begins. And I’ve been told repeatedly that the books are wonderful, and are more than they seem at first glance. Well: if you need evidence that no book can please everyone, look no further; I was left cold. It would be unfair to characterize Master and Commander as 328 pages of “Unship the stuns’l-boom iron and touch up the ends of the stop-cleats, Mr. Lamb, if you please”. But it wouldn’t be very unfair. Yes, there’s the friendship between Jack Aubrey and the naturalist Stephen Maturin; and yes, I learned some interesting naval terminology (my favourite new word being xebec – a two- or three-masted sailing ship with both lateen sails and oars). But one naval battle runs into another, and in the end I had no sympathy for Aubrey, who attacks and burns merchant ships but resents his own ship being captured, and who seduces his superior’s wife and is surprised when this impairs his professional progress. A historical question: did everyone in the 19th century really converse in such formal, stilted sentences even while under cannonfire? Anyway: if you love naval stories and historical warfare, perhaps you’ll love Master and Commander as so many people have. I did not.
Elidor (Alan Garner, 1965). I have a few books I return to regularly, reading them over once a year or two – the Narnia books, for example, and Elidor. (Come to think of it, they’re mostly children’s books, of which I am fond). Elidor is an urban fantasy (although written before that genre had a name, I suspect): four children in gritty 1960s Manchester stumble into a door between worlds and become guardians of the last hope for the dying world of Elidor. Nearly all the action takes place in our world, at places and times where the two worlds touch. I love this book. There’s a place at the end, involving the mysterious creature Findhorn, where I (literally) shiver – exactly the same place, every time.
Sleeping in the Ground (Peter Robinson, 2017). I think I’ve mentioned that I read a lot of crime fiction, and in particular a lot of British crime fiction. There’s nobody better than Peter Robinson. Sleeping in the Ground is the 24th novel featuring Inspector Alan Banks and his police colleagues in Yorkshire. This time, there’s a shooting at a wedding, but a quick identification of the assailant turns into a longer and more complicated investigation. I discovered Robinson and Banks via a used copy of In a Dry Season I picked up at the Iowa City Public Library’s used-book sale, 20 years ago. It was so good I keep half-expecting to be disappointed by another book in the series, or to tire of it (the way I have of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels, for example). Is there a formula? Sure: there’s a crime, and it’s not what it looks like at first, and Banks has complicated relationships with colleagues and lovers and listens to a lot of music while roaming Yorkshire dales and villages. But it’s a really satisfying formula and handled so adeptly that it’s never grown the slightest bit stale.
I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith, 1948). This was a recommendation from a friend – one you might think equally unlikely to pick up a novel tracing the coming-of-age of a young woman in between-the-wars Britain, by an author who would later pen The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I’m too old to worry about whether I’m the intended demographic for a book (as has probably become clear, if you’ve been reading these posts). The story is told by Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year old living with her family – but without money – in a crumbling castle. Writing and writer’s block turn out to be significant plot elements, along with what I might call ‘teenage love drama’. A lot of I Capture the Castle reminded me strongly of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, although with the weirdness being charming rather than creepy. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2001). This is a castles-swords-and-court-intrigue fantasy – but a very, very good one. Fantasy is an interesting genre. There are breathtakingly original books (for example, NK Jemesin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which if you haven’t read, drop everything and read now). But there are also enormous piles of boring, derivative crud that endlessly recycles old themes and devices. The Curse of Chalion is neither. It’s built entirely from well-worn, even trite, fantasy tropes; but it’s so well executed that I didn’t mind. More than that: I couldn’t put it down. Lois McMaster Bujold is best known for her Miles Vorkosigan novels (which are space opera, but similarly well executed) – but I think I’m now a convert to her fantasy writing. There’s a sequel, Paladin of Souls, and I’ll be picking it up.
By the way, one passage from The Curse of Chalion really struck me, pandemic-wise. It’s a bit of dialogue between two major characters. Bergon: “Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, you were still unfailingly courteous.” Cazaril: “Events may be horrible. Men have always a choice”. #Endorse.
The Mistress of Nothing (Kate Pullinger, 2009). A Victorian lady’s maid travels to Egypt, falls in love, and experiences the iniquities of the English class system and 19th-century Egyptian politics. This doesn’t sound like a book I’d like – but I loved it. It’s atmospheric and Sally, the protagonist, is really compelling. In contrast with another 19th-century-England book I could mention (cough, cough, Master and Commander), the characters may wear restrictive corsets and stays – but the prose doesn’t. Just scrolling back up – that’s five thoroughly enjoyable reads in a row. Have I just jinxed the sixth?
© Stephen Heard May 7, 2020
Image: they’re piling up. OK, I haven’t read THAT much. CC 0, via pexels.com.