Time now for the fifth instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do. Here’s why I’m doing this. This strange pandemic summer went by in a blur. Thank goodness for the books along the way.
Rotherweird (Andrew Caldecott, 2017). What a marvellously indescribable book – urban fantasy, I suppose. It’s the story of a strange town, in but not part of England, populated by eccentrics both evil and good (it takes a while to figure out which are which). There’s a portal to another world, a mysterious threat to that world and to the town, and a generous helping of other oddnesses (for instance, a scientist who pole-vaults across the town’s rooftops at night). There’s a strong flavour of Ghormenghast, somehow leavened with a little Ankh–Morpork, and… well, I did say indescribable, right? But hugely enjoyable, and the two sequels are absolutely on my reading list.
Asta’s Book (Barbara Vine, 1993). Barbara Vine is a pseudonym for Ruth Rendell, who wrote straight-up crime fiction under her own name. As Vine she wrote books that often involve crimes, but are really psychological studies of the ordinary people involved. Asta’s Book involves the diaries of an early-20th-century Danish immigrant to England, and as the curtain is gradually pulled back we find an unsolved murder and a child of mysterious parentage; the two puzzles may or may not be connected. Vine manages to pull the curtain back very, very, very slowly and yet somehow keep you engaged all the while. I don’t always love the Barbara Vine books, which sometimes get a little overbearing and (as my grandmother would have said) can feel like much of a muchness; but I enjoyed Asta’s Book very much.
Broken (Karin Slaughter, 2010). Well, that was dreadful. Sometimes a book’s clunky prose is made up for by its innovative plot or its compelling characters. Other times, it’s Broken. I feel a little bit dirty that the suspense was (just) enough to keep me reading until I was too close to the end to quit – despite my irritation with the thorough unlikeability of every single character. (I think of this as the “Seinfeld problem”.) On the plus side, I got my copy from a Little Free Library in my neighbourhood, so I could give Slaughter a try for free. Free was about the right price for this book – or perhaps a little steep. I’m going to drop it off in the next Little Free Library I pass and try to forget I ever inflicted it on myself.
The Navigator of New York (Wayne Johnson, 2003). I loved this book even though it wasn’t quite what I expected. It follows a young Newfoundland man in the early 1900s who gets involved in the rivalry between Peary and Cook for “discovery” of the North Pole. The focus really isn’t on polar exploration, though – 600 km of winter sledge travel up the coast of Greenland can be disposed of in a paragraph, while a decision on whether or not to answer a letter can go on for pages. I came for the settings and stayed for the characters, I guess. And as a bonus, it motivated me to read about some of the skulduggery – and worse – involved in that era’s exploration of the Arctic, the Antarctic, and Earth’s higher mountains. I knew there were rivalries; I didn’t know just how far they went.
A Fearsome Doubt (Charles Todd, 2002). One in a series of mysteries set in and around London just after the First World War. The detective character returned from the trenches at the Somme with what we’d now call PTSD (then, shell shock) and haunted by the ghost of a man he had executed for refusing orders. The ghost proves quite helpful in solving crimes, and I expected to find that rather original plot device more interesting that I did. I’ve read two books in the series now, but they just don’t grab me. But no book is for everyone: I know people who devour this series.
Wrong Hill To Die On (Donis Casey, 2012). Some books are recommended to me; some books I find browsing shelves in the library. This book I came across because I needed an image to illustrate a blog post about the foolishness of those who insist that the word “data” can only be plural (I was once one of them). So I Google-imaged “wrong hill to die on” and was taken by the books’ cover. I forgot about it for six months, until the “data are” purists had their next freak-out on Twitter… and decided I should actually read it. I’m glad I did – it was charming. I suppose “charming” is an odd word for a murder mystery, but it’s the right one. The book follows Alafair Tucker with her ill daughter Blanche to 1915 Tempe, Arizona to visit her sister. There she (of course) stumbles into and solves a mystery (such is the genre). It’s an interesting portrait of Arizona, with its Anglo, Latino, and Indigenous residents, and the plot ends up turning in large part on the racism of one group toward another – and on those who refuse to entertain it. I enjoyed the historical setting and the characters, who are convincing and (mostly) charming despite their human failings.
Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1851). When I started this series, I made a slightly snarky comment about how many people name-drop the “classics”, so I’m a bit self-conscious about this, but yes, I read Moby Dick. It’s the novel that ruined its author’s career (during Melville’s lifetime it was critically drubbed, unbought, and unread). I took a stab at it myself in high school and found it utterly boring. I’m older now, and arguably boring myself, and the book and I have become a better match for each other. Is this the Great American Novel? I’ll let others worry about that. It’s not by a long shot my favourite American Novel; but I enjoyed it. It takes a little getting into. Melville writes like a dog worries a bone, spending paragraphs on what could have been a line (or what could have been excised). But you can take your pleasure in the bone-worrying rather than the urgency of plot or character development, and enjoy what you learn about whaling, and what whalers knew of whales. And while I once thought of Moby Dick as the quintessentially long book, I’m now five books into the Outlander series… By the way, Moby Dick has some interesting implications for scientific writing.
The Farseer Trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest) (Robin Hobb, 1995, 1996, 1997). I’ve learned to be wary of a certain kind of book recommendation. If I profess my love of a particular book, and someone says “Oh, you should read this one, it’s even better” – well, I’m usually in for a disappointment. The Farseer trilogy came about that way – in comments on my inclusion of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry in the last instalment of this series. Farseer is medieval-kingdom fantasy, the story of a bastard son of a royal line as he schemes and fights for the rule of the king-by-rights who will make all right in the kingdom. Is Farseer better than Fionavar? To my taste, not nearly. There are too many tired tropes and too few original twists on them; and the writing is competent but rarely sparkles. But: I read the three books all in a row, and enjoyed them, largely because (as Daniel Grüner put it on Twitter), Hobb “develops her characters with such care and empathy” that you want to stick with them through thick and thin (a bit too often, it’s through thin). There are two more trilogies set in the same world and with some of the same characters. Maybe later.
It’s September now – and with summer behind us and a new semester about to start, this is a good place to leave the series. Drop back in a couple of months to see what I’m reading next.
© Stephen Heard September 8, 2020
Image: One of my neighbourhood Little Free Libraries, © Stephen Heard CC BY 4.0