Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Runaway Heiress - Emma Orchard

Apologies for the lengthy silence, and a far bigger apology to my poor manager - I've spent much of the last week preparing for a work review, including writing an 18 page mini epic about how flipping fabulous I am at my job. Possibly even more tedious to read than it is to write, although I absolutely am fabulous at my job. That's now done, an article I'm writing is well in hand (for now, I'm waiting on responses from many different people so it might get a bit tense as the next week if more answers don't come in), and I've been doing a bit of reading. 

The Runaway Heiress is Emma Orchard's second book, we are fellow members of what started as a Georgette Heyer readalong on Twitter during lockdown, and so I've had a little behind the scenes look at the production of these books. A third in the series instalment comes out next week with a new publisher, so I'm currently feeling both very pleased to have finished this in time for the next one to arrive, and looking forward to reading that too. 

Emma's books are perfect for Heyer fans who don't mind, or positively welcome, a little bit more spice whilst demanding the same quality research and sense of humour. I will always contend that first and foremost Heyer writes adventure stories with the romance taking second place to that, these books are definitely romance first, and they're very good at it. 

The characters are likable, the side characters are properly drawn, people behave in a believable way, consent is a feature, bodily practicalities are acknowledged (a pet bother is that nobody ever seems to need to go to the toilet in a lot of romances) there are lots of references to favourite Heyer moments for fellow fans and altogether this is a lot of fun. I really liked 'The Second Lady Silverwood' (first book) with the minor reservation that there was more sex than I'd normally look for.

In this book I feel the balance between the saucy bits and the plot is better managed, and that overall the feel of it is more confident and assured. In short the series has found it's feet which is why I'm looking forward so much to book three and whatever happens next. 

Monday, April 1, 2024

The Prisoner's Throne - Holly Black

It's been a while - mostly due to how exhausting it is dealing with the feral kids we get during School holidays. It's very easy to believe teachers when they say behaviour is the worst they've ever known it to be. The worst offenders for us are the gangs of teen boys who run through the shop shouting p***s as loud as they can in people's faces, often whilst filming. They're too young to report through the usual channels and are fully aware that there are no real consequences to their actions. 

It's left me ready to go more or less straight to sleep as soon as I've got home, the endless rain hasn't been much of a mood lifter either, ut at least the clocks going forward hasn't had the negative effect it normally does on me, and hopefully a bit more daylight will lift my energy levels. 

I read The Prisoner's Throne just before I went away a couple of weeks ago. I liked it, but not as much as I've liked the rest of the series. I don't know if that's because this is the first Holly Black I've read that had a male protagonist, or if Oak's story was never going to be quite as interesting as Wren's, or maybe just that his story doesn't get quite enough room here given how far back it stretches into her world-building. Or maybe it's because he's the least human character she's centred on, or perhaps that the the reappearance of Jude and Cardan didn't hit quite right for me. Regardless I still enjoyed it and am encouraged that there seems to be more to come set in the same world. 

I followed up reading this by going back and listening to The Cruel Prince and skipping through key parts of the the rest of the series. I wondered if I'd still like them as much - I did. Holly Black absolutely remains as my favourite young adult writer, her take on fairy tale and folklore is a joy and I keep on recommending her to everybody who I think might enjoy these books.

The Prisoner's Throne is the second part of a duology based on minor character from the earlier Folk of the Air series. Wren, the snow child queen takes a back seat in this half, whilst Oak - the literal fairy tale prince takes centre stage as he tries to sort out the various messes he's made. I think there easily could have been three books in this series as well, especially with the reintroduction of older characters which I felt left more unresolved than otherwise. Though if there are more books to come perhaps some of those looser ends will be tied up.

I don't want to give spoilers, but there are Black's hallmark dysfunctional family relationships here, found family, young people coming to terms with who they are and want to be, a really well-built world based on centuries of folklore and myth, and a writer who never dumbs it down for her younger audience. Black isn;t just my favourite Young Adult author, she's almost my favourite fantasy author too - along with Sylvia Townsend Warner with her fairy tales. 

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Columba's Bones - David Greig

Packing shorter books was a sound plan, I'm on a roll with them - Columba's Bones is 183 pages, both myself and husband read it yesterday with plenty of time to discuss how much we enjoyed it. It's book 4 in Polygon's Dark Lands series which has different authors take a moment in Scotland's history and re-imagine it. It's an excellent series to date with the promise of more good things to come.

I've been sitting on this book for a few months - it came out in October last year - of all the books in the series so far it was the least immediately appealing to me and my expectations for it were relatively low. As it happens I loved it, it also turned out to be a good companion read with Carys Davies 'Clear', touching on some similar themes. 

It opens with a short description of Iona, I as it was known in early times, as the Viking Grimur sees it sometime around 825 as he lands in a raiding party. From the Viking's point of view the raid is of mixed success - they do not find the reliquary they seek, but they get plenty of other silver and slaves. From the monk's point of view it's disastrous, almost all of them are brutally slaughtered, their monastery all but destroyed. Grimur gets dead drunk and is buried alive - but emerges more or less unscathed so his day is more mixed. 

Grimur emerges from the ground to find a single remaining monk, and Una the mead wife responsible for seeing him into his premature grave are all that's left of Iona's population. everyone else has shifted to Mull or beyond where they'll be better protected from future raids. The three form bonds of friendship and affection despite their differences, and then as Autumn comes the raiders return threatening everything all over again.

It's a funny, often brutal, insightful book. Greig uses fairly contemporary idiom to good effect, succinctly capturing the emotions of his characters when faced with either the necessity to slaughter or the impact that violence has on those who witness it. The humour emerges in the relationship between Grimur and Una who make each other laugh.

Greig's obvious knowledge and love for the Viking saga's is something else I loved about this book. He captures the rhythm of them when he talks about his Vikings, along with their jokes and epic nature. Brother Martin's struggles are told in a different voice, closer to the plainsong chanting of the monks perhaps. Iona is used well too - a living island with a pull of its own on the imagination, there's a tantalizing hint that it's a place of magic - although the nature of that magic is ambiguous - it could mean saintly miracles, or the promise of a home.

More than anything though, I think I might be charmed by moments like this: 

"In August, the puffins had left I. A Thousand tiny bird ships with muti-coloured head-prows bob on the wild green sea."

It's a perfectly evocative description, and one of many that will make this a book to turn back to. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Clear - Carys Davies

Good intentions got away with me and it's been a while. I'm currently on holiday in the Scottish borders - idyllic, so idyllic and full of nice things to do that despite packing a lot of books I only had time to start reading yesterday (we got here on Saturday). Before that I read Holly Black's new YA title (The Prisoner's Throne) and then started re-reading through some of her previous titles just for the fun of it. More about that when I get home.

My holiday book packing was mostly shorter books that I want to clear from my TBR pile, one I had low expectations of and a couple I'm excited by. 'Clear' by Carys Davies was the low-expectation book, it's getting glowing reviews but I'm distinctly ambivalent about it. It's set in 1843 against a background of the Scottish clearances and the great disruption of the Scottish church. John Ferguson is one of the ministers who has joined the Free Church, putting himself and his wife in a perilous financial situation in the process. 

To ease this he has accepted a job found through his brother in law to visit a remote (imaginary) island somewhere between Shetland and Norway. He is to serve the last remaining inhabitant with an eviction notice and survey it for the suitability of putting sheep on it. Unfortunately, he meets with a near fatal accident almost immediately and ends up being pulled naked, and unconscious from the beach by the man he has come to displace. 

Over the next few weeks they slowly build a relationship, despite Ivar having lived entirely alone for 20 years and John Ferguson not speaking his language, based on the Norn that would once have been spoken in Orkney and Shetland. The reason for John being there, and Ivar's withholding of the photograph of John's wife that he found before he rescued the man sit as uneasy secrets between them.

Carys Davies writes well, but there's a lot of story to fit into 146 pages and I think she's trying to do too much. She was partly inspired by Jacob Jacobsen's dictionary of the Norn language - a Faroese researcher who came to Shetland in 1893. The last known Norn speaker had died in 1850, although plenty of words survived. It's worth reading up on Jacob Jacobsen's work and the influence it had. 

My issue with this book is that I feel the setting and the plot are at odds. I can go with Ivar being the last man standing on his small island after everybody else chooses to leave, I can't quite imagine the size of it - maybe something like a thousand acres based on the number of sheep expected to live on it. I can imagine the climate, though I'm not convinced that Davies has, but the bigger issue is that the island has essentially already been cleared. I'm not even sure why the factor assumes that Ivar is still alive, but the small amount of land he uses to feed himself would have no discernable impact on the number of sheep that could live there and he'd be the ideal shepherd. The airy dismissal that such a role is required doesn't really make sense.

I spent far too long considering the logistics of getting a lot of sheep to the Island, the chances of losing a lot of sheep over the edge of the island, the chances of losing sheep to passing sailors, and if it would make economic sense to go so far to remove the wool and the quantities of unwanted rams each year. There's also the probability that a man who has spent so much of his adult life alone isn't remembering a language once spoken, but has developed his own language to describe the world around himself.

There's also the relationship between Ivar and John Ferguson, which initially seems to be framed in terms of a parent and child dynamic, first Ivar takes care of the completely helpless Ferguson, and then as Ferguson regains his strength and memories he seems to take a paternal interest in his companion, the pivot to a more romantic relationship between them again felt like trying to force too much into the small space of the book. 

You cannot always have it all even when you're the author, so for all the beautiful writing, this lived down to the expectations I came at it with. 

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Game Without Rules - Michael Gilbert

That's another week that's gotten away from me - we've been both short-staffed and very busy at work - it's been all I can do to stay awake long enough to eat and shower when I get home. Hopes of finishing a jumper I'm working on by next week have gone by the wayside.

I have managed to reclaim 'Game Without Rules' from my husband for long enough to write about it though. Michael Gilbert is one of my favourite discoveries from the British Library Crime Classics series, the three novels they've republished are all excellent (Death has Deep Roots, Smallbone Deceased and Death has Deep Notes). Gilbert wrote a lot, Mr. Behrans and Mr. Calder are recurring characters in a series of short stories - this collection spans the 1960s and for the most part I love them, but they're harder to recommend than the novels.

Mr Clader and Mr Behrans are Second World War veterans of the utmost outward respectability. They're also spies and assassins for British intelligence. Gilbert's style here verges on the clipped noir of a Raymond Chandler but with more humour and distinctly British. Written at the height of the Cold War for a generation whose morality had been shaped by a hot war there are things here that seem startlingly callous. It's a very effective way of creating an atmosphere and beats Ian Flemming's Bond novels hands down for me.

In the case of this particular edition, there are a couple of annoying typos which are a distraction. They don't bother me too much, but I know for some people it's enough to ruin a book. There are also some old-fashioned attitudes toward race which read oddly now. I wouldn't call it racism as such, it certainly doesn't seem to me that that was ever Gilbert's intention or way of thinking (though I'm not well qualified to judge) but it's definitely a colonial way of thinking, and 60 years or more after these stories were first written some of them have aged better than others. I don't find Gilbert offensive, but it seems worth saying that readers with more finely tuned sensitivities might.

There may be the death of some pets which I found extremely upsetting - as I was meant too, and again I feel like a fair warning is due. Otherwise if you like a bit of cold war espionage you're hitting gold with this book and you should buy it immediately. 

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Someone From The Past - Margot Bennett

I've been in a bit of a slump recently, sleeping badly and very tired, which has mad doing anything seem like exceptionally hard work. It's been all I can do to drag myself through a workday more often than not, and there doesn't seem to have been time for anything else. I think this might partly be due to the pills I'm taking to counter the symptoms of large fibroids - I'm 9 weeks in and the upside is I think they might be settling down and that just maybe I'll find a new normal. The downside is that it's taken this long and if this is the new normal it's not great.

Meanwhile the books have been piling up and I haven't known where to start or what my concentration would hold up to - but luckily I picked up 'Someone From the Past' this weekend, and I have been enthralled. I read and liked both of Margot Bennett's previous titles from the British Library crime classics series (The Man Who Didn't Fly was twisty and interesting, The Widow Of Bath - atmospheric British Noir) but for me this book leaves both of those standing.

'Someone From the Past' was published in 1958, our narrator, Nancy is 26, she's in love with Donald, but he's also been in love with her best friend Sarah, who makes an ill-timed re-appearence for Nancy just as it looks like Donald is about to propose. Someone has been threatening Sarah and she wants Nancy to find out before she marries serious money. The next day Sarah is dead, Donald is in it up to his neck, and Nancy is lurching from crisis to crisis as she tries to protect her man, evade the police, and find out who actually killed her friend. 

I loved this book for the way it shows 2 young women from outside of conventional society making their way up the social ladder on the fringes of bohemian post-war London. They meet working for a magazine publisher, they work their way up, go to parties, have affairs, and slowly reinvent themselves. Both women know it must be one of the men from Sarah's past who threatened her. Nancy knows it's someone she considered a friend, and maybe more, who must have killed her. 

The mystery is good, the clues are there for the reader to spot (I spotted the clues, but not quite the killer) and the characters, revealed in flashbacks, are nuanced and sympathetic, but it's the atmosphere and the friendship between Nancy and Sarah that make this so special. It's a view of the 1950s that I don't often see - and miles away from a Miss Marple vision. Nancy is a fast talker full of wisecracks and sarcasm - both women clearly live (or lived) by their own moral code which Bennett makes clear is just fine. For all the destruction Sarah's beauty leaves in its wake we never doubt her intrinsic loyalty or kindness, or the hard work that she's put into her magazine career. 

Bennett has Sarah make observations that feel important, but are too much of a spoiler to discuss here - but honestly, this has gone straight to the top of the list of my favourite books in this series and I absolutely encourage you to read it. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Shetland Fine Lace Knitting - Carol Christiansen

I have a new book and I'm very excited about it. Shetland Fine Lace Knitting is the result of a project at the Shetland Museum to asses their lace collection. The result is a scholarly overview of the art of fine lace knitting in Shetland that invites further research and a really practical book of patterns and motifs.

The original pieces are broken down into their individual elements, we get charted instructions and written ones, and excellent photographs of both the original very fine lace, and samples that have been knitted up in a less challenging modern 2ply lace weight. It's not possible to machine spin yarn as fine as the handspun used for these older shawls, and the skills to do it have gone. There are some simpler patterns in here that I'd like to use - it's good to see what I'm likely to be able to create using laceweight I can actually knit with. 

I have a cone of Jamieson and Smith's 1ply supreme lace weight which was developed alongside the museum's fine lace project - I bought it long before I had any understanding of the skills or effort needed, and the last time I tried I couldn't even knit with the stitches I managed to cast on. I might as well have been trying to knit with hair - and yet the handspun yarn was finer. I don't know if I'll ever have the patience, never mind the skill to try and make something with my yarn, but it serves as a useful reminder of the range and depth of skill this knitting requires - and that's worth having.

Meanwhile, this book is a masterpiece and a must for knitters or people with an interest in the history of fine knitted textiles. It's informative, clearly laid out, useful, and inspiring. A fine addition to my growing library on Shetland knitting and something to treasure in its own right. Don't hang around if it sounds like a book for you - all too often these books don't get large or repeated print runs and they get very expensive secondhand. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Hex and the City - Kate Johnson

I have a jumper I need to finish (I put it down for a minute and now it's days later and I'm going to Scotland in a couple of weeks where I'll want to wear it so I need to get a move on with that), books I need to read, and a neighbor who has set off the fire alarm at 10pm for the last 2 nights in a row, and if I find it which of the 4 flats is responsible there will be some extremely passive aggressive comments to be made. I don't know who's responsible because whoever they are is staying inside, presumably confident that it's only dinner burning and not the building. 

I also have a couple of books to catch up with here including Hex and the City which I read a while ago. There's not a lot to say about it other than that Kate Johnson is good at what she does - and a lot better than books in a similar vein that I've tried reading. Poppy is a witch with magical hair who seems to trail chaos in her wake, she accidentally sells stage magician Axl Storm a cursed necklace which leads to adventures, great sex, peril, and a happy ending. There's also friendship, found family, and guest appearances from a previous book (Hex Appeal). It's definitely at the cosier end of the current romantasy market and it's fun.

I don't know if it's because Kate Johnson is British and I just don't have the patience for the particularly American* take on this sub-genre of witchy girl messes up then saves the day, or if she's a considerably better writer than the other authors I've looked at (it's part of being a bookseller to pick up things that are popular and try and get a sense of what people are looking for - not always a fun part). I think she's a better writer. She gives her characters realistic insecurities, her heroes aren't as two-dimensional as a lot of them tend to be, and she writes with kindness and humour. 

We talk quite a bit at work about how difficult it can be to find romance writers who work for you - we're not all looking for the same things. I want a happy ending, characters I can believe in, and that are light on red flags, much more than I want smut. I don't want to be put through an emotional wringer, I'm not interested in brooding intensity, but if something makes me laugh (with, not at) I'll enjoy it. If that's your kind of romance too Kate Johnson is worth a look.

*Americans may not see the appeal of the British version either, some things just don't translate, and the US version of Halloween is one of those things for me. 

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Undying Monster - Jessie Douglas Kerruish

This, the latest in the British Library's weird collection and, I think, their second foray into a full-length novel, has been a wild ride. Jessie Douglas Kerruish threw everything at at - do you want speculation about Vampires, Werewolves, necromancy, Norse legend, grave robbing, a hand of glory and unexpected applications of William Morris and Wagner - because if you do you're in luck. 

It is by any measure A Lot, it's also a lot of fun if you don't take the excesses too seriously, underneath those excesses there are some interesting ideas at play, and this overall is what I love about this series. The Undying Monster is a tale of the fifth dimension - it's only a very small spoiler to say that Kerruish thinks of that as the human mind and its unconscious power here. The fourth dimension is a more mundane spirit realm easily detected by dogs, cats, and supersensitives such as our heroine, Luna Bartendale. 

The Hammands are an aristocratic family of great antiquity, reduced by the War to a brother and sister. There is a curse or Bane upon the Hammonds that has lasted a millennium and more, the head of the family, if they find themselves under pines and firs on a clear frosty night see a monster - those that survive the encounter go mad, and commit suicide. The locals think that Hammonds who have died prematurely remain behind as Vamoires, for entirely unclear reasons no one has thought to get rid of any pine or fir trees in this part of Sussex. 

When Oliver Hammand survives an encounter with the monster his sister Swanhild calls in the help of Luna, the white witch - can she save Oliver from his seemingly inevitable fate? Despite throwing almost everything at the plot there's an internal logic that makes sense (mostly) and as a splendid yarn with some frights along the way it all works very nicely. 

Given the continued, if passing, references to Oliver's service in France, and that the book was written in 1922 it's hard not to find metaphors for shell shock and the deep collective trauma the war left behind. Even the spiritualist and folklore elements tie into this and the renewed interest in them during and after the First World War. It's this that I find really interesting about 'The Undying Monster' - the question at its heart is how do you reconcile a great horror in such a way that you can go on living with it?

Hammand ancestors could not, the Hammand who got through the trenches just might be able to with the right help. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Bride - Ali Hazelwood

This has to be the most atypical, off-brand, for Hayley book I've read in years. I don't go for paranormal romance, I didn't care about Twilight, and the vaguely kinky stuff seemed silly to me. I love Ali Hazlewood, who clearly likes all of these things, for writing it. Romance is a demanding genre, readers don't always look kindly on authors doing something a little bit different but what's the point if you can't have some fun?

In fairly typical Hazelwood fashion, Misery Lark, Vampire, is also a really amazing tech woman working in IT, although she only does that for about 5 minutes before Vampire and werewolf politics take over and she finds herself married to a tall, broad, brooding man who isn't great at communication but is obviously extremely decent, capable, and great with young children. And a werewolf (for more or less only one discernable reason - the kink that I still can't really take seriously). Like any self-respecting alpha wolf, he's also really into consent. 

As a bookseller as well as a reader the last bit is important to me. I very much dislike selling young girls books that glamourize frankly abusive behaviour (thank god young girls no longer buy Jilly Cooper). I'm much less worried about the smut element when there are no major power imbalances and everyone is enthusiastically consenting. 

When I say worried, I'm not book police, I'm not advocating for any sort of censorship, and as long as you know what you're letting yourself in for I'm happy to sell it to you - I do worry that not everybody knows what they're letting themselves in for, and have had enough parents return their children's books to feel this is justified. 

Meanwhile if you loved Twilight and were team Jacob you'll probably adore this book. I really like seeing Hazelwood do more with plot, and I liked the expanded cast of characters here. My colleague talks about books like this being a bad good time and how sometimes that's exactly what you need. She's right, and Hazelwood is likely to remain one of the handful of authors I'll return to for exactly that.