Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Flying Shadow - John Llewelyn Rhys

I'm very late reading this (sorry Judith at Handheld - I had the best intentions, honestly) but having put down my knitting for a few days to try and catch up with some reading it finally got a chance to blow me away. I started 'The Flying Shadow' back in November but everything got in the way and whilst there was nothing off-putting about the first couple of chapters they didn't immediately suck me in either. When I started reading again in earnest over lunch earlier this week I really warmed up to both book and author. 

The plot of 'The Flying Shadow' is so-so. Robert Owen has left the RAF (it's the early to mid-1930s and you only get to serve for so long), a talented pilot desperate for another flying job. He finally gets taken on as an instructor for a club somewhere in the south of England. He settles in, we encounter the club members with him, go through the process of training pupils, follow his love affair, almost see a happy ending, and then don't. Something and nothing. What makes the book remarkable is the snapshot it gives of flying in the 1930s, and beyond that for the way the characters think and interact.

For anybody interested in flying and its history, this is a book you need to read. There's no shortage of technical details (explained well enough in the glossary to make sense) which interested me considerably more than I expected them to, along with the descriptions of what flying feels like, especially to Robert. My sense of it is a constantly shifting balance between the adrenaline rush of dealing with risk and the familiarity of routine which minimises those risks. 

The 1930s is still early in the history of aviation, the inter-war years the time when flying becomes accessible to anybody who has the money to spend on it. The clubhouse, the people who frequent it, the heavy drinking, their social aspirations, hopes of employment, and search for novelty are all documented. The way Rhys writes these scenes reminds me of contemporary paintings with their fragmented viewpoints making a coherent whole and adds to an almost dreamlike quality that I thought was going to be what would characterize the book until I was about halfway through.

At this point Robert starts talking about poverty, the thing he fears most. It's a couple of brief conversations, but along with some of the exchanges Robert has with one of the girls at the flying club who's interested in him they provide a contrast in tone that lifts this from being an interesting book to a really memorable one. There's no particular sense of Robert, or Rhys' politics - but the stark descriptions of how debilitating poverty is are remarkably powerful.

There's a lot going on here, and a lot to like. Currently, I'm most interested in the questions it raises about class and privilege and how they limit and oppress the various characters. Some of it seems ridiculous now, but some of it still rings true. But again, as part of the history of aviation, as a broad portrait of the era, or a more detailed view of a particular segment of society at a particular moment, there's so much to be interested in here. It's a remarkable book. 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief - A. F. Steadman

This was one of the most keenly publicised children's books of last year, and we're pushing it hard at work. With the paperback due to be released and the second installment in a planned series of five books due out later this spring, I thought I ought to read it. It's given me a lot to think about, especially in the week when 'Spare' was going crazy.

Now 'Spare' was always going to be big, but even so, I don't think anybody had any real sense of how big it was going to be. I assume the leaks weren't accidental and the final early January publication date was lucky too - it's so obviously the distraction so many want to deal with the grimness of January generally, and this January in particular. But there's still been something organic about the way interest has grown around it since it was published. Everybody, buying it or not (and it does feel like everybody) has an opinion they want to share. Booksellers aren't having to put any work into selling this one. It's all been done for us.

Skandar is the opposite - Simon and Schuster went to town on it, the film rights have been sold, and as booksellers we've been invited to share the hype and excitement. As far as I know, 3 of us at work have read it, the other 2 enjoyed it - their recommendations are genuine. I didn't hate it, but honestly, I don't think it's a match for the hype, and I wonder if interest will be sustained for the full series. 

The elevator pitch for this was it's the next Harry Potter - I don't think it is, though as the hand full of other bewildered 1 and 2-star reviewers on amazon suggest, there are a lot of similarities. In some ways that's unfair, Harry Potter followed a well-trodden path and is now so entrenched in popular culture that it would be hard to avoid. Comparisons with How to Train Your Dragon are maybe more to the point. 

My biggest issues with Skandar and the Unicorn Theif are how uneven the tone is and the lack of internal logic to the world-building. I'm not the target audience and 9-12 year olds almost certainly find fart jokes funnier than I do but if you want your unicorns to be fearsome, vicious, wielders of elemental magic which present a genuine threat, having them light their own farts seems at odds with that. 

Then if you have immensely powerful magical creatures that can control the elements and give their riders access to the same magic you'd think maybe they would do more than just race and fight each other. But that seems to be all they do so despite there being genuinely interesting ideas and themes here, they get lost. Or at least that's my opinion. I think there are better children's books out there, and I wonder how one of them might have done with the same marketing power behind it? 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Stolen Heir - Holly Black

The closest I came to a new years resolution this year was to read and write more. So far I'm not doing very well. I'm surrounded by half-read books and am too often distracted by the news (grim) or too tired at the end of the day to concentrate on anything much beyond very low-brow television. I've got a week off coming up which I hope is going to restore my equilibrium a bit - or at least let me catch up with emails.

I read 'The Stolen Heir' via a kindle app and keep forgetting to write about it, but am recommending it widely at work. Holly Black is one of the few writers I've found (it's not been an exhaustive survey) whose young adult books work for me as an adult. I enjoy her writing, love her take on fairy tales and folklore, and have become more of a fan with every book of hers I've read.

'The Stolen Heir' picks up 8 or 9 years after the 'The Queen of Nothing', focusing on two of the younger characters from the last trilogy - Oak who featured as a minor but significant throughout, and Suren who if I remember correctly only really appeared in 'The Queen of Nothing', you don't need to have read the earlier books for this one to make sense.

Oak has grown from an indulged child into a troubled young man - which is Black's specialty, Suren who was a damaged child (another Black specialty) is an equally damaged young woman who has been living rough for a couple of years on the edge of both her own fae community and the human one she had known as a changeling. Together they set off on a quest to defeat Suren's mother. 

This is the first part of a duology - 'The Stolen Heir' is told from Suren's point of view, and the next book will be told from Oak's. There's a definite sense of only having half the story here which is tantalising - I'm very much looking forward to having the other side of the puzzle.

There are spoilers here so ignore this part of the post if you might plan on reading the book. There are definite echo's of Grimm fairy tales here, and maybe Hans Christian Anderson. I'm sure I've read a children's version of a fairy tale where a child is created from snow but I can't currently think what it was and google hasn't helped me. I can't imagine that Angela Carter didn't inspire Black - there's almost the same disquieting menace in places, though filtered to be age appropriate. I'm also reminded in passing of Edith Oliver's 'The Love Child' - possibly because the same fairy tales are source material for both. 

Altogether, this is a fun, absorbing, book with enough depth to it to be satisfying as well as entertaining. Black has moved things along nicely - the world is familiar to anybody who's read the folk of the air, but she's covering new ground too, and nicely setting us up for the next installment. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The White Priory Murders - Carter Dickson

This is the 2022 mystery for Christmas from the British Library Crime Classics series, which I did actually start on Christmas Eve, though I got a little bit distracted by other books along the way so it's taken me a while to finish. Which is okay. As a rule, I like to stick to one book at a time, but it's been a tough month so I'm giving myself some leeway. 

The White Priory Murders doesn't have a particularly Christmassy feel although when I check back I see it is specifically meant to take place over Christmas. It's mentioned briefly in the opening chapter and then never referred to again. Possibly because a murder gets in the way, but maybe because the family at the White Priory is so magnificently dysfunctional that the idea of Christmas with them is too horrible to examine.

James Bennett is the son of someone important in American diplomatic circles and employed in the same business in a small way himself. He's also the nephew of noted sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale. Bennett unexpectedly finds himself in England for Christmas and with an invitation to The White Priory in the train of film star Marcia Tate, herself a daughter of the aristocracy. He stops by to see his uncle first to tell him about some odd things that have been happening around Marcia, then arrives at the priory just as her body is discovered.

Carter Dickson is John Dickson Carr writing under a pseudonym and a classic locked room mystery. Marcia's body is found in a pavilion surrounded by snow in every direction. There is only one set of prints, they've just been made, and they lead to the pavilion, not away from it, but Marcia died after the snow stopped falling so how was it done?

Several ingenious suggestions are made and dismissed throughout the book before the eventual answer is revealed (and it's a good one). I love John Dickson Carr for his gothic atmosphere which isn't lacking here, although some of the more macabre details he delights in seem to have been dialed back - the book is all the better for it. Maurice Bohun is believable in his awfulness, which makes him much worse. So is Marcia Tate which gives the reader some sneaking sympathy for whoever had enough of her (not enough to condone murder, and John Bennett emerges as an actual character which isn't always the case with Carr's signature handsome young American.

Altogether an excellent mystery for the long winter nights, and not just for Christmas. 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

My Top Ten Books of 2022

2022 has been an out of the ordinary year for me - I got married in June so the first half of the year was taken up with preparing for that, and the second half of the year has been characterised by bereavement, the reality of having aging relatives and all the responsibilities that come with that. Work has also been a challenge - if you follow these things you will know Waterstones has had significant IT problems for the last 6 months, it's been exhausting. 

All of those things have meant that I've read far less than I normally would in a year, there have been a couple of real disappointments amongst the books I did finish, and quite a lot that I enjoyed but which I can't say stuck out in any significant way. This is the list I'm left with, and it's arranged by month starting at the beginning of 2022.

Sheila Gear's 'Foula, Island West of the Sun' is a reprint from Northus, it's both a classic Shetland Memoir and arguably a lost, or maybe potential, classic piece of nature writing. First published in 1983 when Oil money was really beginning to change Shetland the Island life Sheila is describing would have sounded like a throwback to an earlier generation for any mainland Shetlander even then. But Foula is 15 miles off the mainland and they go their own way there. Maybe the most pertinent part of this book is in the moments when Sheila wonders why they choose to love the way they do, and if it's a way of life that can be sustained. 40 years later Foula is still inhabited, still grappling with the same issues and this book feels more relevant than ever. Foula, Island West of the Sun

Susan Stokes-Chapman's Pandora was the first book I couldn't put down in 2022, a fabulous debut that hit all sorts of right notes for me. I loved the way she kept certain plot points ambiguous and how she used smell as a way to set scene and atmosphere. I'm not always a fan of historical fiction, but this book nailed it. Now just out on paperback I highly recommend it for the mix of mystery, atmosphere, and romance. Pandora

Denise Mina's Rizzio (and the next book on my list) is one of Polygon's Darkland series where notable Scottish authors take an episode from history and turn it into a novella. This is a short book that feels like a whole world. It details the murder of Mary Queen of Scott's secretary, the attempted coup against her led by her husband, and her escape - all in the space of 48 hours. It's a literary white knuckle ride which makes the history live. I haven't read any of her other books - I'm not sure anything could live up to this. Rizzio

Straight after Rizzio I read the second Darkland book - Jenni Fagan's Hex, and it was every bit as powerful. This time it looks at the fate of Gellis Duncan, accused of witchcraft. I think the novella format is part of what works so well for both of these books. Jenni Fagan packs a lot of big ideas into a small space. It means everything else is pared right back to basics, but it's done withe exceptional elegance and I suspect that the characters are shapeshifters, taking on something from each reader. Hex

Amy Jeff's Storyland is a book to fall in love with. A quiet hit for us at work that's sold consistently well in hard and paperback and which has led to a lot of enthusiastic conversations. It's a history of Britain through legends that have been more than half forgotten by most of us and it's full of splendidly mad stories. The key thing though is that whilst the stories might not be well remembered, they're buried deep in the national psyche and Jeffs makes a convincing job of showing how they're woven into our sense of Britishness. Thought-provoking and fun - a brilliant combination. Storyland

Holly Black's Book of Night is her first adult title. Her Folk of the Air series has been a tik tok hit, though even before that she had a huge online fanbase. I loved her young adult books which is unusual for me, there's no shortage of excellent authors writing for the 13-18+ age group, but as someone a long way on the + side of 18 there are only so many young people working out their worlds I want to read about. In the Book of Night the tone definitely shifts from teen to adult, and does it without excessive smut. It took me about 50 pages to click with this one, but when I did it left me increasingly interested to see what she writes next and where she goes with her fiction. Book of Night

I read Katy Watson's The Three Dahlias on my honeymoon when I was struck down with Covid. I feel like it deserves more attention than it got, and hope it makes a splash in paperback. I liked this book a lot, it was easy enough to read when ill, has lots of great female characters, celebrates their friendship, would make a brilliant TV adaptation, has tons of fun with Golden Age crime conventions, and generally ticks all the boxes for a rainy day read. The Three Dahlias 

Best Days With Shetland Birds might just be my book of the year, mostly because it's been such an unexpected joy. I'm mildly interested in birdwatching, but this had contributions from a couple of artists whose work I admire, which is why I bought it. The birders involved range from the serious and professional to the amateur, but all of them share a real enthusiasm for Shetland and its possibilities. It's the enthusiasm that is impossible to resist - the shared joy in seeing something good, the camaraderie between the local birding community, and just how good some of those sightings apparently are. Every chapter was a mood lifter, and I keep it handy for when I want something to cheer me up now. Best Days with Shetland Birds

Mark Diacono's books are always good, and Spice: A Cooks Companion is no exception. It's full of delicious things (including a quince mincemeat that was a big hit this festive season) and is generally good kitchen company. I don't like hot spices (can't tolerate them at all, the M&S red pepper hummus with the single chili rating used to be unpleasantly hot to me) but there's still a lot of stuff for me here - and honestly, what better thing could a say about a spice book? Honestly, at least look at this book, and then buy it, and then buy all the earlier ones. Spice

And finally - Alice Lascelles The Cocktail Edit. If you drink alcohol this book is brilliant. A practical guide to home cocktail making that starts with a nicely considered drinks cabinet and then gives you a whole lot of options on what to do with your bottles. The older I get the less I want to drink and the more important a simple but elegant cocktail becomes. When one drink is enough I want it to be a good one and that's exactly what this book provides. The Cocktail Edit

Thursday, January 5, 2023

New Year

2023 has so far been characterised by Men Who Don't Understand What A Gift Receipt Is which has been tedious (no, you can't get a cash refund with a gift receipt, yes you have had to take time to drive here, it has cost you in petrol and car parking, so maybe use some of that time to phone, email, google, or even think before doing it again, and no it's very much on you, not us, that you wasted your time). My current New Year's resolution is not to say any of that out loud to a customer while they get increasingly aggressive towards my 20-year-old colleagues who I'm assuming they think they can bully into submission. 

There is a top ten book list coming but I've spent most of today taking down my Christmas tree - the room feels very empty and dark without it and safely stowing all its treasures safely until December comes around again. I've also made a point of keeping all my Christmas and birthday cards this year. I've been keeping nice ones for ages, and started putting them out again a couple of years ago, something people can be weird about. I've been told it's cheating and that I don't have that many friends. Both seem like an overreaction. 

I started keeping cards that were handmade, prints of the sender's original artwork, or otherwise special, but last year some of them had replies to wedding invitations in, they all got bundled up and I only sorted them out properly in early December when I really thought about what the pile in the corner of the bookshelf was. Amongst them was a card I might not normally have bothered to keep, there was nothing special about it apart from the sender, who had just died when I found it. 

That card has sat next to my desk for the last month and will come out again next year. It's a small thing to keep but a powerful reminder of somebody who was an important part of my life for more than 40 years. Inevitably there will be other losses in the future but I find the idea of Christmas being a time I can bring out those small tokens of affection and tradition deeply comforting. 

Otherwise I'm hoping to read more books this year, review more here and elsewhere, and make sure to prioritise the people who matter to me. I'll be 50 by this time next year, and right now it feels like there's nothing more precious than the time I have with the people I like - and nothing less worth spending time on than being polite to idiots who don't understand gift receipts or manners. 

Happy New Year.