Thursday, June 27, 2024

D is for Death - Harriet F. Townson

I am so conflicted about this book. On the one hand, it's funny, pays homage to golden age crime fiction, specifically, but not only that of Dorothy L. Sayers, and does it with both wit and wholehearted enthusiasm. It's an entertaining setup for a series to come, has likable characters, dozens of easter eggs for like-minded fans of the aforementioned golden age crime writers, is set against a publishing and library background which is jolly, and makes some interesting social points.

On the other hand, it gets some silly details wrong - it's set in 1935, tights are mentioned instead of stockings, a man wonders around the Cafe de Paris holding a Nebuchadnezzar of champagne in 1 fist - it's a 38-kilo dead weight, I've tried lifting them, it's not a one-handed job. More importantly, there are some weird continuity issues around the main characters and all of it should have been picked up by an editor. Harriet F. Townson is a pen name for Harriet Evans which makes it all the more surprising. 

On the whole I really enjoyed it and think this is a series that's going to be worth following. I will never not appreciate a chapter heading of 'Miss Pym Supposes', it might be a while since I've read Dorothy L. Sayers but there were references I recognised instantly, and a very fitting almost direct quote from the punt scene in Gaudy Night (if you know, you know). The inclusion of people of colour, queer characters, and Jewish ones is done smartly and underlines both the diversity of pre-war London and the politics of the time. References to real-life characters such as Baba Metcalf and Brenda Dean Paul (I looked her up) are well used too. If you don't know or remember who they are and do look them up it adds depth to the reading and serves as a reminder of how much more colorful real life can be than fiction, but it's done with a light enough hand that there's no need to follow up if you're not inclined to.

My biggest issue was with Dora and her mysterious money. We meet her escaping from a thoroughly unpleasant fiance - initially, she's described as swiping all the cash she can find in the more or less abandoned for now family home, she's meant to have inherited money from her mother but doesn't know what's become of it, later there's talk of a bank account that she's using (an unlikely thing for a girl to have in 1935) then there are postal orders that she's spent on clothes, and finally, she's been saving every scrap of pocket money for her train fair. As the money discussions are generally accompanied by reflections on how financially precarious a woman's situation was in the 1930's especially those who had been bought up to be ladies it matters. 

There's an aristocratic male character who seems destined to recur who's troubling too. There's a reason that Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham made their aristocratic sleuths younger sons, so spoiler, the reveal about Ben (well sign posted throughout the book) undermines the believability of his character somewhat. 

Overall if you love Sayers read it for the references and the jokes, enjoy it for what it is, and hope that the continuity issues are sorted out before the next book comes out. If these kind if details ruin a book for you though, it's going to be best avoided. 

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Not In Love - Ali Hazelwood

My reading is all over the place at the moment, it's also included a lot of advance review copies and I'm never quite sure what the etiquette is for those - do review when I've read them, in this case a month or more before they come out, or do I wait as I did with Cairn? I think I wait, which means my head is full of Jen Hadfield's extraordinary biography about her life in Shetland, but I'm looking at Not in Love which I read a couple of weeks ago pre-funeral when I was in a totally different mood.

Ali Hazelwood continues to be my favourite contemporary romance writer - and as I've given up dabbling much in that pool that'#s unlikely to change anytime soon. She has a note at the beginning to say this book is less romantic comedy and more erotic romance - which is sort of true although I'm not a hundred percent convinced it's markedly more erotic than her previous books. The mood is slightly different though and her plotting and characterisation improves with each book so I'm not complaining.

You know what you're getting with a book like this, and you definitely know what you're getting with Ali Hazelwood - is the heroine an intelligent and able scientist with her life mostly together but some personal issues - yes she is. Is the hero equally smart and capable in his daily life but emotionally flawed - yep. Do they work it out together - they certainly do.

This one skirts around kinks, is more sex-positive than some of the earlier books in that the characters unapologetically enjoy hookups (in this it's a more explicit take on Mallory's character in Check and Mate) but has the same enthusiasm for consent that previous books have. Consent is sexy so that's a plus in y reading. 

I liked that the villain here (SPOILER) was a not much more senior female scientist and the setting is industry rather than academia - not a huge difference at the end of the day, but with Hazelwood, it's the background details of the workplace and the associated politics that make her books stand out. Basically this does exactly what it says on the tin, it's intelligent and funny romance with a convincingly happy ending. 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Cairn - Kathleen Jamie

The last few weeks have been busy, a funeral followed by working at a book festival interspersed with normal work with the now traditional skeleton staff and all the problems that brings with it. It's been exhausting but I think the worst is over now and I can work on getting back to something normal. 

I read Kathleen Jamie's Cairn a couple of weeks ago after getting an advance copy through work, it blew me away (though how publication date has worked around so quickly is frankly frightening). It's a slim book that could be read in a couple of hours, though that would not be the best way to approach it - this is one to dip in and out of and consider at pleasure. 

Jamie has collected her thoughts here - sometimes just a paragraph at a time, and used them to build a marker of turning 60. She considers grieving the loss of her parents, seeing her children embark on independent adult life, how the climate crisis has developed - it's been a recurring theme in her writing. How it feels to get older and a hundred other things. It's a contemplative little miracle of a book that came to me at exactly the point I needed to read it - 50 and caught up with my own grief. 

I have loved Jamies's writing since I discovered her (late) in 2012, I don't know if this is her best book - maybe not, but the right book at the right time is a powerful thing. There is a Shetland word - meid, that refers to prominent landmarks, such as a hilltop cairn, seen from the sea. Line up 2 or 3 of these and they tell you exactly where you are, and help you maintain a fixed point at sea - generally a favoured fishing spot. This summer Cairn, and Jen Hadfield's Storm Pegs are the literary equivalent of meid's for me. Between them I've found a place of calm in uncertain times.

I read somewhere that this book really pushes the line between poetry and prose - I take the point and can't really argue with it, but I might be more inclined to say that for Jamie here there is no line to blur or cross. Anyway, it's a beautiful, meditative, book that says much about the experience of being well into middle age without trying to impart any particular wisdom, and for that last point I'm especially grateful. 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Queen Macbeth - Val McDermid

It's been a long couple of weeks, but it's time to look forward again and get organised. I've read and am reading some remarkable things, and whilst I'm trying not to be over hopeful I'm keeping everything crossed for an election that brings a certain amount of change with it. 

I think Val McDermid's Queen Macbeth is the 5th book in Polygon's Darkland tales series (I've checked, it is), and what an excellent series it's turning into, even if not all the books are for everyone. I didn't dislike Alan Warner's 'Nothing Left to Fear From Hell' but I doubt I'll revisit it. Equally, I still feel a little nagging guilt that Ginny Jones disliked Columba's Bones which will probably be one of my best books of the year. But dissent and discussion are a good thing and hopefully, she will forgive me/still more or less trust my judgment. 

Lady Macbeth is having quite a moment - there are 3 reasonably high profile feminist retellings of her story around at the moment. This book, Ava Reid's 'Lady Macbeth', and Isabelle Schuler's Lady MacBethad. And there is of course Shakespeare's play overshadowing all of them. Mcdermid departs quite quickly from Shakespeare's version of Gruoch, though she does keep the witches and I like the way she does it. 

This version relies more on a history that doesn't need to flatter a Stuart king and interestingly she has Gruoch betray her first husband to conceive her child with Macbeth himself. It's maybe another swipe at Shakespeare who conspicuously makes his Lord Macbeth incapable of fathering a child (last time I saw the play this seemed a key point in it to me). 

In this version, Gruoch and her closest companions have been in exile after the apparent loss of Macbeth in battle, and now the loss of her son before he could secure the Scottish crown. This Macbeth and his Lady have ruled the country well for some years, they have friends and loyal subjects as well as political enemies, but the tide has turned on them. Gruoch is a danger to Malcolm, the next man to claim the kingdom - there's enough support for her that she might prove a rallying point. We meet them as they're about to be discovered and be forced to flee.

What follows is a tense journey full of danger and heartbreaking loss set beside Gruoch's memories of his this all came to be. There's an unexpected twist at the end and a clever resolution - and as definitely the shortest of the 3 Lady Macbeth's around at the moment is a very good place to start with her. MacDermid's take is thought provoking and smart. If the Darkland series excels at one thing (it excels at a few) it's in getting a lot into a novella. This Gruoch is compellingly human and less morally grey than some depictions, less supernatural too - though again, the way prophecy is handled here is interesting. It's fun to see MacDermid writing ina  different genre too. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

How many books are you reading right now?

Way back when I started blogging one of the things it helped me do was focus my reading - one book at a time. It worked for years and then it all fell apart, a process accelerated by getting a job in a bookshop where the tempatation and the proofs are constant. Somebody somewhere, probably Twitter, was asking if they were the only person to have an upstairs and a downstairs book. 

Obviously, they were not. I live in a one-bedroom flat so I don't even have the excuse of stairs being an effort to justify the state I'm in here. So these are the books I have on the go. There is the bedroom reading - Storms' Edge is currently on the left hand side of the bed, Godkiller, which I started months ago, and was really enjoying but somehow never finished is on the right along with Silver Birch which has been my intended next book for a while but keeps getting pushed down the pile on the right hand side.

I'm not sure these really count, but they probably do - my collection of Slightly Foxed quarterlies live in the bathroom. It's ideal for reading in the bath if you want to avoid turning into a chilled prune whilst the water cools but you need to read one more page.

In the kitchen there's Greekish and Sebze which I'm cooking from extensively at the moment, Sebze is an interesting read as well if like me you don't really know much about Turkish food or culture. 

I'm behind on reading Rosie Andrews Puzzle Wood - again, a very promising start, it is currently my bag book, the one that leaves the house with me.

In my sitting room there is the chair book that I didn't mean to start the other day but which was so compelling that a quick glance was all it took to find myself 30 pages in. 

There's the floor book for the jumper I'm knitting - it's by the sofa, and got moved because I started reading the sofa book, also very promising. I bought this one based on the comparison to Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood - that's an intriguing combination if accurate.

My desk gives as good an indication as any of the amount of books around read as well as unread at any one time.

I could pretend that the other chair didn't have its own book - The Penguin Book of Murder Mysteries, the books on the floor here mostly function as a useful place to balance a cup of tea with the added bonus of occasionally throwing out a forgotten gem.

And finally, there's the book I'm truly thinking of myself as reading at the moment - an arc of Jen Hadfield's Storm Pegs which I'm enjoying very much, I only hope I can find the focus to finish it in a timely fashion. 

What are you reading at the moment?