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Pilgrim's search for Enlightenment... and Entertainment (2019 reading)

The Green Dragon

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Edited: Feb 17, 9:55am Top

It is probably hubris, given the anount of reading that I actually expect to be doing, but I was inspired by Narilka's reading list to set mine up in a similar way.

So, here is the master list of
Books Read in 2019


1. CyberStorm by Matthew Mather
2. Teachers : Life at the Chalkface from the Early Years of Punch (Past Times edition)


1. The Brontësaurus by John Sutherland
2. Killing It by Asia Mackay
3. Deadly Secrets by Britta Bolt
4. Smoke and Summons by Charlie N. Holmberg
5. The Humans by Matt Haig

Edited: Yesterday, 12:43pm Top

Series in progress (incomplete)

Chronicles of Amber by John Gregory Betancourt: P1, 1-10 - Chaos and Amber
Pieter Posthumous by Britta Bolt: 3 - Lonely Graves
Alpha and Omega by Patricia Briggs: 1-2 - Fair Game
Mercy Thompson by Patricia Briggs: 1-8 - Fire Touched
Sianim by Patricia Briggs: 3-4 - Masques
World of the Five Gods by Lois McMasters Bujold: 1.1, 2 -Penric and the Shaman, The Paladin of Souls
Agents of the Crown by Lindsay Buroker: 1 - Blood Ties
The Emperor's Edge by Lindsay Buroker: 1-8 - Diplomats and Fugitives
Fallen Empire by Lindsay Buroker: 1 - Honor's Flight

Spellslinger by Sebastian de Castell: 1-2 - Charmcaster
Greatcoats by Sebastian de Castell: 1 - Knight's Shadow
Chronicles of an Age of Darkness by Hugh Cook: 1 - The Wordsmiths and the Warguild
The Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell: 1-2 - The Lords of the North
Sharpe by Bernard Cornwell:1, 6, 8-9, 13 - Sharpe's Triumph

Marcus Didius Falco by Lindsey Davis: 1-6 - Time to Depart
Flavia Albia by Lindsey Davis: 1-2.5 - Deadly Election
The Great God's War by Stephen R. Donaldson: 1 - The War Within
The Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas: 1-3 - Louise de la Vallière

The Beginner's Guide to Necromancy by Hailey Edwards: 1 - How to Claim an Undead Soul

Metro 203x by Dmitry Glukhovsky: 1-1.5 - Metro 2034
The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula le Guin 1 - The Tombs of Atuan

Benjamin January by Barbara Hambly: 1 - Fever Season
Darwath by Barbara Hambly: 1-3 - Mother of Winter
James Asher by Barbara Hambly: 1-2 - Blood Maidens
The Unschooled Wizard by Barbara Hambly: 1-3 - Hazard
The Windrose Chroniclesby Barbara Hambly: 1-3 - Firemaggot
The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison 4-5, 9 - The Stainless Steel Rat Is Born
The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg: 1 - The Glass Magician
Numina by Charlie N. Holmberg: 1 - Myths and Mortals
The Soul Summoner Series by Elicia Hyder: 1-3 - The Taken

Conqueror by Conn Iggulden: 1 - Lords of the Bow

Robert Colbeck by Edward Marston: 1 - The Excursion Train
The Raven's Mark by Ed McDonald: 1 - Ravencry

Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters: 1-12 - The Rose Rent
Discworld by Sir Terry Pratchett: 1-15.5 - Soul Music

The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski: 1 - The Last Wish, Time of Contempt
The Rhenwars Saga by M. L. Spencer: 1 - Darklands
The Dolphin Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff: 1, 3-6, 8 - The Silver Branch

The History of Middle Earth by Christopher Tolkien: ? ?

(i) This list will make no pretence of being complete.
(ii) The named book is the next to be read
(iii) Inclusion of a series does not imply intent to complete it.b

Edited: Jan 23, 11:37pm Top

My Rating System

1/2 star - this is vile. I regret ever opening these pages.

1 star - this was a complete waste of my time.

1 1/2 stars - either boring, but with occasional flashes of inspiration; or a 2-star book let down by poor writing.

2 stars - OK. It passed the time pleasantly enough, but I don't feel that my life would have been the poorer if I had never encountered this book. In non-fiction, it is an adequate coverage of a topic, but not a good read.

2 1/2 stars - as for 2, but with occasional flashes of quality.

3 stars - I am glad that I read this but I probably won't want to re-read.

3 1/2 stars - either something disposable, but witb real flair, or a book let down by poor writing (or translating).

4 stars - a good, really enjoyable book, but not a great one. I will keep, and may well reread.

4 1/2 stars - a great, but flawed book.

5 stars - a book that reading has changed my life a little.

Edited: Feb 6, 7:52am Top

Medium: 1 e-Book, 1 hardback
Genre: 1 science fiction, 1 humour

Abandoned: 1 science fiction, 1 fantasy

Jan 23, 7:50pm Top

Nice tracker :D What about 2.5 star rating?

Jan 23, 11:34pm Top

Good point. Added.

Edited: Feb 10, 11:22am Top

Teachers : Life at the Chalkface - 3 stars

I read this because i felt in need of sone light relief, but the attendant associations made the experience rather bittersweet. I am fairly certain that I bought this as a gift for my mother, without having read it, but knowing that the apposite nature of the topic would combine well with her sense if humour. Having read it, I think she probably genuinely did enjoy it.

It consists of a collection of Punch articĺes, dating from the 1840s to the 1950s, on the theme of (public) school life. What struck me was how little the house style had chsnged: only the aspects satirized dsted the pieces.

The illustrations were line drawimgs with humorous captions. I rarely found these funny, and suspect that the captions are modern additions to stock images.

My favourite piece was a poem about the futility of excelļing academically without having the necessary social connections to enter s good career: law, politics, or the Church. (The fate of these miserable wretches is, of course, to teach.)

Edited: Jan 31, 10:33am Top

CyberStorm by Matthew Mather - 3 stars

The opening chapters of this novel are weak, and if I hadn't already read everything else that I had with me I might have given up at that point, but I am glad that I persevered.

The narrator, Mike Mitchell, is rather too obviously an avatar of the author. As such, his level of knowledge and insight veers between the cyber expertise that the author evidently possesses, and the befuddlement expected of an 'ordinary joe'. I also did not find him a terribly likeable person: he has a well-paid job that he enjoys, a beautiful wife and son, yet his dominant emotion is envy of those wealthier and better connected. He thinks his marriage may be in trouble; but his wife is the last person he would consider discussing it with.

We spend the first couple of chapters meeting him and some of the other inhabitants of his Manhattan apartment block. All the requisite stereotypes are duly ticked off: the gay couple, the liberals with activist connections, the token ethnic minorities (soth-east Asian, of couse), the Italian American doorman, the upper class guy who may be having an affair with his wife - and the convenient Virginia "prepper", who enables them to survive. (The tough, resouceful black kid turns up later of course.)

The only neighbours, outside our core group of Mike and his friend, Chuck (the "prepper"), and their families, who were portrayed with any degree of characterization were the elderly Russian Jewish couple, the Borodins.

But even the portrayal of the Borodins is problematic. The couple's memories of the siege of Leningrad mean that they are both in their late eighties, at least. This makes the very vigorous activity ascribed to them later in the book rather unlikely. And why does Irena have a Bulgarian name, rather than its Russian form (Irina)?

I was totally bored by these chapters: I could not relate to the protagonist and disliked his way of handling his perceived problems. The scene-setting assumed a familiarity with Manhattan and its lifestyle that for me was unwarranted.

However the quality of the novel improves markedly once the disaster begins. Instead of the apocalyptic high drama that I had been expecting, there was a realistic emergency: a disastrous combination of a cyber attack on logistics, combined with a storm at the worst end of the spectrum that New York experiences.

And civilization did not collapse overnight. Whilst there are opportunists taking advantage of the chaos, most people behave on a reasonable, decent manner, and the criminality is counter-balanced by ordinary acts of quiet heroism.

But as the storm worsens, communications fail and the fragmentary news that reaches them is confusing, revealing further hostile events but no clear explanation other than official admonishments to keep calm and wait for assistance, then the novel improves.

Their coping strategy relies heavily on the supplies Chuck has stored in the basement, but the narrative of how New Yorkers cope in extreme circumstances is well handled. There is both criminality and unselfconscious heroism. I suspect Mathers has drawn in recently published social histories of the siege of Leningrad here. On the whole it us plausible, although their survival relies on the assumption that the majority of Manhattanites flee. To where? The news that they are receiving does not suggest that the rest of America is in a better state. Whilst Chuck has a prepper's retreat prepared in Virginia, where are all these other New Yorkers heading for?

In the absence of hard facts, hypotheses abound. Some are proposed by group members, some originate in the increasingly wild speculations made by local radio commentators, who remain on the air longest. The competing plausible explanations, plus the increasingly paranoid versions also voiced, are also well written. The debates between the characters allow the author to discuss a variety of possible nightmare scenarios.

He is also forthright as to how most of them would be the 'chickens coming home to roost' of American foreign policy. Given that America has hacked both Chinese and Iranian facilities , it is naive not to expect retaliation, and America is "the most cyber-combustible nation on this plsnet". He appositely quotes Sun Tzu on the inadvisability of using fire as a weapon when something that you value is flammable.

The later chapters felt rather rushed, and the ending had "happy ever after" layers than were a little twee, but the basic resolution was a satisfying culmination of what hsd gone before.

This book uses the novel form to explore what a 'cyber' war would look like. On these themes it is an excellent read. It shows the human cost of cyberwarfare, and how it is far from being a "clean" mode of conflict. Instead, it is a form that, by attacking a nation's infrastructure, it inflicts suffering disproportionately on the civilian population, whilst military personnel fall back on means unavailable to the majority. I think that here, too, the author intends conclusions to be drawn regarding the USA's current penchant for attempting to influence events in foreign countries through disruption of their food supplies. (The situation in Yemen comes to mind.)

The initial chapters proved necessary to introduce a fairly large cast of characters. They are mostly stereotypes because their purpose is to cover a range of points of view. And Mike's paranoia with respect to his marriage provides necessary foreshadowing regarding his tendency to jump to conclusions in other situations..

However, the human interaction is still the weakest part of the novel. The shallowness of the portrayals make it harder to care about the characters, and the author really cannot write women! Despite being competent, educated professionals, the female characters play no part in the discussions, and innovate no actions. There is the wife (who exists solely as the object of our protagonist's jealousy, love abd protective instincts), the nurse (who provides necessary expertise) and the victim.

Irina, the elderly Russian immigrant, is the only subsidiary character with any actual personality. But even here the author's understanding is shallow and his research flawed. He implies that the Borodins have personal experience of "the gulag" - Aleksandr's response, on volunteering to guard the prisoners, is that it will be nice to be on the other side for a change - yet though the Borodin characters reference the gulag in how they intend to treat the prisoners, the method that they actually employ - of simply locking them up in their bedroom, thus burdening the survivors - is the antithesis of the fundamental principle of the GULag: that a prisoner must work, in order to earn the "right" to live.

I enjoyed this as a well-thought out analysis of possible causes, methods and outcomes of cyberwarfare (although even here some of the assumptions seem flawed, perhaps because if the option to steal resources from absent neighbours is removed, the consequences in terms of conflict level would be more horrific).

As a novel, it is fairly unremarkable. It is a vehicle for interesting ideas, rather than a good story in its own right.

Jan 29, 3:00am Top

>8 -pilgrim-: I must say I envy you your perseverance! I would probably have given up.

"A vehicle for interesting ideas rather than a good story"--isn't that almost a definition of classic science fiction?

Edited: Jan 29, 5:24pm Top

>9 haydninvienna: You underestimate the motivational power of being housebound, alone and unable to get to alternative reading matter! By the time I regained mobility, the book had reached more interesting parts.

Although that would stand as a good definition of classic SF, in practice the earlier versions would usually have thrown a bit more flash-bang excitement into the mix. This one is intended to be realistic; it is correspondingly low on action adventure.

I would recommend it nevertheless.

Jan 29, 3:14am Top

>10 -pilgrim-: well, I know a bit about being housebound over the last couple of days, but OTOH I had tons of reading available.

Edited: Jan 29, 7:22am Top

>11 haydninvienna: The moral of this tale is "never get stranded away from your library".

OTOH, in less adverse circumstances I would probably have given up, and this did turn out to be worth reading.

Jan 29, 4:06am Top

“Abibliophobia”: The fear of running out of reading material.

Jan 29, 7:25am Top

>13 pgmcc: After that month, that is a phobia that I may well develop. It was not the first time; an unexpectedly protracted hospital stay following surgery has left me going 'stir crazy' in the past.

Jan 29, 10:48am Top

Being stuck with only one book and it’s awful.

The horror.

Jan 29, 11:09am Top

My last spell of total booklessness fortunately was more than 50 years ago, after I broke my arm on a school trip into the bush, and spent three days on my own in a tiny bush hospital with nothing at all to read, not even so much as a jam tin label.

Jan 29, 2:15pm Top

The last time I was stranded without a book, we were on vacation in Tahoe and my good ole K2 crapped out on me. There are no bookstores in Tahoe. I was about to give up and drive to Reno when I found a small cache of novels in an antique store. The blessings you receive when you think you're being hosed by the universe: in this case Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. I probably would never have read it otherwise, and it's one of the best novels I've read in the past 10 years.

Coincidentally, MrsLee just finished it, so get over to her thread.

Edited: Jan 30, 9:25am Top

>16 haydninvienna: That sounds like true torment. The last time that I had an unexpectedly protracted stay in hospital, having read all the books thst I had brought with me, and everything that I could scrounge from fellow patients, I was at length forced to start writing myself. But a broken arm precludes even that resort...

Jan 30, 9:19am Top

>17 littlegeek: Ah, I have discovered many a treasure book hidden away in antique stores! No bookstores in Tahoe? :( Even my town has a used paperback store. At least for now...

That thought of unexpected booklessness is what makes me keep my tablet full of Kindle books on any trip. And remember the charger cable! Hopefully, there will be electricity.

Jan 30, 9:33am Top

>19 MrsLee: And remember the charger cable!

The big weakness. I have never had a paper book shut down on my due to flat batteries.


Jan 30, 5:57pm Top

>19 MrsLee:, >20 pgmcc: “Charger cable” has a permanent spot on my standard packing list. :) I have one of those small charging station things where you plug it into a single wall outlet but it can take multiple USB cables to charge multiple devices at once. One of the first things I do when I arrive at a hotel is plug that into an outlet near the nightstand. My phone, e-reader, and tablet all get plugged into it when I go to bed.

I’ve been reading e-books almost exclusively for over a decade now and I’ve never been stuck without anything to read, but I do plan ahead (or possibly over plan!) so I think that has helped me stay out of trouble. Plus I don’t tend to travel to places without electricity; if I did, then I’d take physical books. Before I leave on any trip, I download the next few books I plan to read and put them onto all three devices (e-reader, tablet, phone). It’s unlikely I’ll ever run all three devices out of batteries at once or have all three break at once. I can also use my phone as a hotspot in a pinch if I need to download a book when I don’t have WiFi access, but I try to download in advance to make things easier.

Jan 31, 8:55am Top

Speaking as a former hotel manager, it is just as important to "remember the cable" when you leave the hotel as when you pack to go on vacation. I think that charger cords were the most forgotten item we had. :)

Jan 31, 9:20am Top

>20 pgmcc: It appears that YouKneeK and MrsLee are unfamiliar with the trauma of power-outletlessness. :p

I have stayed in places without electricity. I have also been marooned in hospital beds where the only power sockets are occupied with medical equipment.

At least when you have read all the paperbacks that you have, you can start scribbling in the margins. Whilst a dead Kindle is just a lump of plastic.

Jan 31, 10:31am Top

One of my recurrent annoyances in hotels is too few power outlets. I can remember one hotel though (the M Gallery in Cologne, if anyone cares) that I fell in love with on walking through the door--it had power points everywhere I looked.

Edited: Jan 31, 10:51am Top

In 1982 I stayed in an old hotel in Navan. There is a long story about that stay, but the relevant part for this conversation is that the bedside lamp cable ran to the wall were its wires were connected to the mains wires by having been twisted together and wrapped in insulating tape. I was booked into that hotel for a week but left first thing the following morning. The electric cabling was not the worst thing about that room.

By the way, there were no other power sockets, or even loose mains wires hanging out of the wall, in the room.

Edited: Jan 31, 10:42am Top

>15 Bookmarque: See, this is why I read ebooks. I always have a massive library with me wherever I go.

ETA: And a charger and a converter if overseas.

Jan 31, 5:20pm Top

>8 -pilgrim-: I came across this thread in another group:

It seems that Matthew Mather's book, written 4 years earlier, has proved rather on point. I am now tempted to seek out more of his work (awful characterisation notwithstanding).

Feb 1, 9:15am Top

>23 -pilgrim-: For the record, I would always choose a paper book over an ebook, but I do think ebooks make a nice backup plan. Obviously if one is traveling out in the bush for 6 months they wouldn't work so well. :)

Feb 1, 10:21am Top

>28 MrsLee: It is not that I don't appreciate the Kindle option, I have just learnt, the hard way, not to rely on it. (Oh, the pain of taking it online in a different country, and then finding Amazon now refuses you access to the books that you own, until you return to the country where you bought them!)

Edited: Feb 1, 11:21am Top

Mind you, there can be issues with paper books too, quite apart from their bulk. Specifically, what if the book is banned wherever you happen to be? Reliable lists of what is prohibited tend to be hard to come by. This is a continuing minor concern for me because “material opposed to Islam” is a prohibited import here. To be fair, i’ve entered Qatar many times visibly hauling a lot of books and no-one has ever checked them. I wouldn’t try to bring in The Satanic Verses or God Is Not Great though. I have brought in both the Bible and the (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer.

Edited: Feb 1, 12:17pm Top

>30 haydninvienna: I agree that is a very valid concern, but is importing something that your host nation finds objectionable in Kindle form really any safer?

In my, admittedly limited experience, it is better to be openly carrying the possibly troublesome item, than doing it in a manner that could be interpreted, by an overzealous customs official, as "attempting to smuggle".

Feb 1, 1:08pm Top

>31 -pilgrim-: Fair point. I was just assuming that importing a prohibited book as a physical object would just be a bit more obvious.

Feb 5, 6:59pm Top

>32 haydninvienna: I think where we disagree is in whether 'obvious' is beneficial. My thesis is that, as you said, a stack of books is unlikely to be checked. But if it is, and an item is deemed to fall into a prohibited category, it is likely to be simply politely removed from your possession. You cannot be accused of "smuggling" what you are carrying openly.

However, although your Kindle is even less likely to be checked, if a customs official is zealous enough to do so, snd finds something he classifies as prohibited, he may also decide that it being "concealed" behind a password, in electronic form, constitutes "attempting to smuggle" - at which point things may get unpleasant.

My only practical experience was in travelling with the same items as yourself, into the Soviet Union in the glasnost era.

Feb 6, 5:44am Top

>33 -pilgrim-: I don't know that I actually disagree with you--I don't really have any basis of experience for doing so, fortunately. You may well be right that a zealous smut-sniffing customs officer would view a password as an attempt at concealment. And the general issue, that it's often very hard to find out what actually is prohibited, affects both paper and e-books equally.

All your hand baggage gets x-rayed here just before the baggage claim at the airport. Alcohol is of course a prohibited import. I saw a guy get pinged at Customs for a bottle of vodka in his luggage. He didn't get arrested or anything, just got the bottle confiscated. I understand that when you leave you can get confiscated bottles back, but I don't know how far I would rely on it.

Just in passing, my step-daughter is visiting here in a few days. I was looking to find out what actually is forbidden to be imported, just in case she decides to bring in some duty free liquor or whatever. There is a list on the airport website and another on the Customs Authority site. Neither one mentions "material opposed to Islam" or anything like it. I still wouldn't care to try bringing in a copy of The Satanic Verses or God is not Great.

Feb 6, 9:17am Top

>34 haydninvienna: Just a thought - do they have a specific "Banned Books List", rather than prohibiting a genre, and leaving it up to officials to interpret whether a given book falls into a certain category?

After all, although the Vatican was unenthusiastic about Catholics reading heretical works, they were not forbidden to do so, unless the books, or authors appeared on the (now abolished) Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Feb 6, 10:20am Top

>35 -pilgrim-: I have not seen any such list, not ever heard of one, and I can't think of anybody that I could usefully ask. "Material opposed to Islam" is of course open to lots of interpretation, especially since Islam is at least as prone to sectarianism as Christianity. Pornography is prohibited, and the State enthusiastically blocks web content. But making a list of that material is not ever likely to happen.

Back in the dark ages in Australia it was notorious that the Customs Department actually did keep a list of banned books, but the list itself was secret, so that you brought in your copy of an obscure book bought in Paris at your own risk. It was of course well known that Tropic of Cancer or Lady Chatterley's Lover would be seized if found even if the Department wouldn't admit it.

I was just going to ask how we got on to banned books and then realised that I started it!

Edited: Feb 6, 11:47am Top

>36 haydninvienna: Yes, it was the multiplicity of versions of Islam that led me to suspect that there would be an actual list, rather than relying on the official's personal interpretation of the 'true faith'. But whether that list is publicly available is another matter; its publication might inform the locals of the existence of volumes of which they would otherwise be unaware.

There are at least 3 possible levels of ban, anyway:
a) forbidden to possess/read
b) forbidden to sell
c) forbidden to publish.

And your mention of Australia reminded me of the whole Peter Wright/Spycatcher debacle. The frisson of mporting Australian imprints probably increased the readership well sbove the level of interest the book itself actually merited.

Edited: Feb 6, 11:41am Top

>37 -pilgrim-:

The frisson of mporting Australian imprints probably increased the readership well sbove the level of interest the bpok itself actually merited.

The banned book lists are like book awards. Publishers canvass, lobby and bribe to get their books on at least one banned book list before publication. Appearing on one of those lists can make the difference between incurring a loss and making millions.


It only took a few comments from highly placed members of the Catholic hierarchy, who had never read the book, to guarantee Dan Brown publicity that neither he nor his publisher could ever have afforded for The Da Vinci Code. Both Dan and his publishers have never looked back with regret.

Feb 6, 11:55am Top

>38 pgmcc: Agreed.

Other than being a shameless rip-off of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and appallingly written, The Da Vinci Code could actually be considered a recruiting advertisement for Opus Dei. Its portrayal of the spiritual refuge that it provides for poor Silas, and the saintly, but much-deceived, bishop, were actually a rather sympathetic portrayal of the organisation.

Edited: Feb 6, 1:34pm Top

>37 -pilgrim-: >38 pgmcc: I sometimes buy "banned" books because of a rebellious streak that I apparently have--I just don't like being told what I can and can't read. I bought The Satanic Verses many years ago when Penguin Australia was refusing to distribute it in Australia because of fears of retribution against booksellers and the distributor. I had to buy it from the US (from the now long-gone B. Dalton, in New York) before the days of easy international buying with a credit card, because I didn't want some verminous-bearded fanatic telling me what I could read. I bought Oscar and Lucinda when one of our home-grown god-botherers, the Reverend Fred Nile, wanted it removed from the Higher School Certificate reading list in NSW because it was obscene, or something.

You also have to wonder how much of the sales of the Harry Potter books are because of publicity such as Peter mentioned. They got attacked as satanic or something, didn't they? Fred Nile may have increased the sales of Oscar and Lucinda by 1 copy--mine.

ETA: I've never read any of the books mentioned in this post.

Edited: Feb 6, 2:23pm Top

>40 haydninvienna:, >38 pgmcc: I bought my copy of The Satanic Verses before the outcry and the fatwa ( although I confess to not having read it). Certainly the latter turned a relatively obscure piece of literary fiction into a coffee table essential.

Although I have met an American liberal who refused to let her children read Harry Potter because it "promoted witchcraft", it turned out thar she was expecting something along the lines of the TV series Charmed; when I explained that magic was treated as a 'technical subject', and there was no invoking of pagan deities involved, she happily reversed her embargo.

But I never really heard such claims made in the UK, so I doubt they had much effect on sales in JK Rowling's native land.

JKR's genius lay in reinventing the boarding school story in a acceptable form. The boarding school story works because it is a world with minimal adult intervention, where children have their own adventures, while hiding them from those in loco parentis. But, because only children from a certain socio-economic background get sent to such schools (in Britain), then the genre became unacceptable to teachers, and many parents, for its elitism.

But by making her boarding school select its pupils on the basis of magical ability (which no child has in practice, but any child can qualify for, in their imagination), rather than parental finances and social status, she invented an acceptable form of elitism that enabled the school story to come back into fashion.

Actually a lot of the magic aspects don't really hold together. She is the successor to Enid Blyton rather than a fantasy author.

The Harry Potter books also pretty much single-handedly revived the fortunes of British boarding schools. Numbers of applications had been declining steadily for 20 years before the books came out; they were becoming the preserve of children whose parents' overseas postings precluded them living with their parents. After the first couple of books, parents found their offspring were begging to be sent to boarding school (hoping for unsupervised adventures).

You may gather that I didn't particular enjoy the books (and gave up after the first few), but I do admire her skill in spotting an empty niche and coming up with the right material to fill it.

Feb 6, 10:20pm Top

>41 -pilgrim-: I was aware that HP was the boarding school story updated, but my contact with the boarding school story as a genre didn’t survive my reading of the Billy Bunter stories. I wonder if there are collectors of those. ( Goes to check.) Well, there’s a few copies on LT. I bet they’re nowhere near as popular as the girls’ school stories by people like Elinor M Brent-Dyer. No surprise there—only a few hundred Bunter but many thousands of Chalet School.
Hmm. A search for “Frank Richards” also shows a book called “Natural Birth Control”. I suppose being known as a reader of Billy Bunter would pretty much be a guarantee against fatherhood.

Feb 6, 11:53pm Top

And in the course of browsing Wikipedia about this, I found yet another manifestation of Rule 34: there is a series of books about a lady named Jiggleswick that are said to be an erotic pastiche of the Biggles books.

Edited: Feb 7, 3:42am Top

>43 haydninvienna: Argh. What a thing to read, first thing in the morning! Still, thanks to the unwanted mental images, you have completely eradicated any further desire for sleep.

>42 haydninvienna: What were the Billy Bunters like? At the appropriate age, I did read some Famous Five and Secret Seven, but even then I found the Chalet School stories appalling, and struggled to finish the one that I had been loaned by an enthusiast. I was too yoing to pick up any snobbish attitudes (if present), I loathed them because there seemed to be nothing to the plot except trivial schoolgirl bitchiness ("Oh horror! The most popular girl in the school is making up lies about me, and everyone believes her. Whatever shall I do to retrieve my good name?") It is as if the HP books were only about his rivalry with Draco Malfoy.

The only boarding school stories that I really remember with any affection were Stalky & Co.

Edited: Feb 7, 5:42am Top

>44 -pilgrim-: To tell the truth, I don't remember the Bunters all that well. I don't recall much overt snobbery. The boys were the sons of comfortable middle-class homes, there were few or no appearances of the lower orders, and the only really rich boy at the school, Lord Mauleverer, was a bit of a joke. Bunter himself was ill-treated a good deal and I suppose I would now think of it as bullying, but the character Bunter seems to have been designed in such a way as to invite it. I remember Bunter's father was a stockbroker and nothing adverse seemed to be attached to that. There was a boy from India and he was a full member of the Greyfriars "tribe", with no obvious racial or class animus against him. I do remember, and find it odd now, that in the winter Greyfriars played football (that is, soccer) rather than "rugger".

ETA: Never read Stalky & Co, and I can't remember any other "school stories" either, except that I may have read Tom Brown's Schooldays, or tried to.

Feb 7, 6:00am Top

>45 haydninvienna: I read Tom Brown's Schooldays in a "schools edition". I suspect the abridgement consisted on cutting down on the moralising accompaniment; even so I found the lecture/action proportion rather hard to take. I have no objection to books written with a polemical point in mind (that motivated Dickens, after all), but I do dislike being treated as so stupid that I need to have it laboriously spelt out to me. And the relentless cruelty of the bullying, although undoubtedly realistic, made reading the latter stages rather heavy going.

Edited: Feb 12, 8:49am Top

The Brontësaurus by John Sutherland - 4 stars

At last, I found something really enjoyable in my quest for some light reading.

Although I read several Brontë novels at the same age as Prof. Sutherland, and like him, from choice rather than as a set text, I did not fall in love with them the way that he so obviously did. Admittedly I was reading abridged versions from my school's library, or the old Bancroft Classics, but I don't think that that was what spoiled them for me. My impression now is of overheated Victorian melodrama. I prefer either characterisation to be realistic, heroes to be suitably escapist and heroic; implausible grimness did not really appeal.

So I would probably never have picked up a full scale formal biography of the Brontës. But this is not lightweight or gossipy either. Prof. Sutherland is a leading authority on the Victorian novel, and his understanding of the period makes this an extremely enlightening book.

Fir example: why did the Reverend Patrick Brontë fire his pistol out of the window every morning? Was he a crazy old man? Or was it simply that , like many who had memories of the Luddite riots, he slept with a loaded gun under his pillow for defence? If his pistol, like the habit, dated from that period, it could well have been of a design that could not be unloaded, once primed, except by discharge. So, being a responsible parent of inquisitive children, he fired it each morning, rather than risking his children getting their hands on a loaded gun.

The form of this book is a basically a collection of essays about aspects of the life and works of various Brontës - including Branwell. Prof. Sutherland discusses various current and past literary theories, sometimes favourably, sometimes not.

For example: he is somewhat dismissive of the popular modern theory that the Madwoman in the Attic is the "real heroine" of Jane Eyre. Personally I think the language used to describe Bertha is too unpleasant to entertain the theory that the author ever intended such a reading, coded or otherwise.

But that does not mean that he rejects all new ideas. I particularly liked the essay about how strange it was that Mr. Earnshaw, a farmer, should make a sudden trip to Liverpool, for unstated reasons, in the middle of the harvest season, and that he should choose to make a 60 mile trip on foot, when he evidently owns horses (given his daughter's request for a whip).

Three possible explanations are proposed, each of which give different answers to the question of Heathcliff's ethnicity. After reading this, I am more convinced than ever that Nelly Dean's description of Heathcliff as "gypsy" was intended literally. This interpretation not only makes complete sense in explaining both the reasons behind Earnshaw's behaviour, and why these reasons could not be stated explicitly, but also why the rest of the household is so hostile to the boy from the outset. Apparently Victorians regarded "gypsy" caravans as travelling brothels. If Earnshaw was visiting a mistress, that explains why he would travel himself, alone, and on foot - not wanting to welcome your husband and father's by-blow is a very human reaction.

Prof. Sutherland's version of close reading seems to be that, rather than attempt to twist a text to carry a meaning that it was not intended to bear, we should do the author the courtesy of assuming that the author had good reason to choose to write as she did, and look for that reason if it is no longer self-evident.
i.e. the trip to Liverpool is unexplained not because the author hss failed to think of a reason, but because it is such tgat neither Earnshaw himself nor a faithful servant would ever speak of it.

Prof. Sutherland's love of the Brontës is obvious, but this never descends into hagiography. He writes openly about less attractive character traits, such as Emily punching her dog in the eyes until it was half-blind and "thoroughly mastered" (her words), and the question as to whether Charlotte burned her deceased siblings' work to protect their reputation or her own.

The result is a lightly written, eclectic collection of interesting information. I read his earlier books Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Henry V, War Criminal?, several decades ago, I can happily report that this latest literary analysis provides just as much fascinating fun as its predecessors.

Edited: Feb 13, 12:48pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Edited: Feb 12, 8:54am Top

Killing It by Asia Mackay - 2.5 stars

This is a sort of semi-humorous spy thriller/chick lit mashup, and works rather better as the latter than the former.

Alexis "Lex" Tyler is going back to work after having her first child, and finds herself having to prove herself all over again as a woman in a "man's world", whilst worrying that she is missing out on important bits of her daughter's growing up and having doubts as to whether she should be doing such dangerous work after all, when it could leave her child motherless.

The author similarly left a glamorous field of employment, involving high pressure deadlines and a lot of foreign travel, to raise four children. So the maternal angst sections are well written, conveying the conflict that arises from the fact that, on the one hand, the process of being so intimately involved in the care of another life has changed her and her outlook fundamentally, whilst on the other, it has not diminished in the slightest either her professional competence or personal investment in her work.

But Lex is a member of a shadowy agency known as Platform Eight: a government department that does the dirty work which enables MI5 and MI6 to keep their hands clean. This is the aspect that reads less well. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the dirtier aspects of the espionage game were considered sordid, if sometimes regrettably necessary. Lex has no such qualms. She gets a buzz from her assassinations and enjoys torturing suspects.

Has 24 so infected public consciousness that the Jack Bauer approach is now seen as the norm? John Le Carré and other writers of his era (who had some experience of the real business) made it clear that interrogation by torture may get you the answers you want, but not the information you need, and that it is only useful in acquiring confessions (and therefore only used by regimes whose goal is to convict the victim, rather than ascertain their guilt). I was startled to see a British department being portrayed as relying on methods that have been rejected as ineffective (as well as immoral) for decades.

Lex is proud of her amorality. In the descriptions of her childhood, she is portrayed as a psychopath. The spy genre often has amoral protagonists, and James Bond's morality does not come under scrutiny. Why then do I find Lex's glee at the thought of inflicting pain so distasteful? Firstly, James Bond was completely ruthless, but his motivations were "for Queen and Country"; he did whatever "had" to be done (which could be pretty distasteful). With Lex Tyler, the motivation seems to be the other way around: she enjoys, killing, torture, mayhem and risk, working for the government is simply an ideal job because it gives her the opportunity to do these things.

I don't require that I should like the protagonist in order to enjoy a book. But the hypocrisy of mixing such gleeful disregard for human rights with paeans on the discovery of the preciousness of a single life, in the person of Gigi, her daughter, really grated.

Plus points:

  • the husband is not an incompetent, inconsiderate cliché, as is so often the case in chick lit. He is a successful, equally busy, professional, who takes his full share of childcare responsibilities (and enjoys them). The romance between him and Lex is utterly plausible, despite his ignorance of her true job.
  • The satire on competitive motherhood in the Notting Hill set is brilliantly observed, although occasionally at the expense of plausibility. Why would Shona's children ever be at the same school as Dasha's?
  • Although Russia provides the villain-of-the-moment, the plot does not jump on the "evil Russians" bandwagon. Platform Eight is interfering in Russian affairs "for reasons of national interest", and there are Russians on both sides of the plot.
  • It nowadays seems obligatory for the heroine of the novel to be the exclusive love interest of at least two men. Whilst the trope is present here, the protagonist at least handles the situation appropriately.
  • As a thriller, it unfolded at an appropriate pace, although I guessed the real villain very early, and one clue - the protection of the Three - was a bit of a stretch. And it did climax with a satisfyingly exciting showdown.

In summary: the originality of this appealed, and parts of this were very well written, but Lex's attitudes were a major negative factor for me. Perhaps I would rate this higher if I were a chick lit reader, but I came in from the thriller side, which is the weaker.

Feb 12, 4:13pm Top

(Just passing by and feeling a need to tell that I enjoyed the "banned book" discussion and what came after. To me banning is a sign of weakness: if you disagree with the book, discuss it and demonstrate why it shouldn't be taken seriously. You can't forbid people from thinking, whatever leaders from around the world may think.)

Feb 12, 5:21pm Top

>50 Busifer: I agree. I also think that, in countries that have not restricted access to the Internet, successfully banning a book is almost impossible. As pgmcc says, it tends to work as advertising.

But I remember reading articles about how recent changes in legislation have caused Scottish authors to 'self-censor'; the issue is not dead yet.

Feb 13, 8:30am Top

>51 -pilgrim-: This is a widespread phenomenon: let's not forget countries were not surveillance but risk of harassment from fringe elements forces a mode of self-censoring, so to speak.

Feb 13, 12:55pm Top

>52 Busifer: And thus has ever been, unfortunately.

My point was simply that I do not expect to see a repeat of the Peter Wright affair. A list of prohibited books is a very out-dated mode of proceeding. Governments nowadays use different methods of information control. I did not intend to imply that the UK is significantly different from other Western nations in this, but to compare now with 30 years ago.

Feb 13, 1:45pm Top

Absolutely so. There are abundant countries that still tries to stop people from reading ”the wrong things”, be it children reading Harry Potter or adults reading works expressing dissent with the rules or the ruling caste, though.

Edited: Feb 15, 2:10am Top

Deadly Secrets by Britta Bolt - 3.5 stars

The story starts from one point of view, which is quickly abandoned. For most of the time it alternates between two: Pieter Posthumus and Flip de Boer. The latter is the detective inspector investigating a serious assault (and its ramifications); he is likeable, competent, and with a satisfyingly ordinary private life. A POV section, for anyone other than the two investigators, seems to bode very badly for a character's longevity!

Pieter Posthumus is an endearing lead. He is middle-aged, and at the stage of wondering what happened to the youth thst he still feels himself to be, without being embittered by it. He is a council employee; his job is to arrange the funerals for anyone who dies within the city limits of Amsterdam, without next of kin. This involves both searching for relatives and, if none are found, researching also the life of the deceased, in order to plan a funeral that is meaningful and genuinely about them.

PP, as he is known, is not driven by any morbid interest in crime. He is, initially, simply doing his job. But, in the process of helping his father to cope with dementia, he has acquired the habit of observing and memorising details. He enjoys puzzle solving as a pastime, and loose ends irritate him. So when things don't quite make sense he doesn't let them be.

I enjoyed the setting of Amsterdam: a city that I do know, but not well. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this murder mystery, however it is flawlessly executed. All clues were in plain sight; I suspected the villains correctly fairly early on, but did not get tge motive until the denouement.

What impressed me about this particularly was the pacing: I never felt the need to skip ahead. The story unfolded itself perfectly.

This was the third book in a sequence, but the first that I have read. There was obviously some backstory that I was missing, particularly regarding thr relationship between PP and Anna, but the characters were so well-drawn that I did not find the omission uncomfortable.

Feb 15, 2:17am Top

>54 Busifer: Are there countries that act at the national level to ban books like Harry Potter? (Presumably on religious grounds?) I thought that action at that level tended only to be against books that governments feel threatened by i.e. are "ideologically dangerous" because they might results in adults thinking "wrong things".

Feb 15, 3:08am Top

>56 -pilgrim-: I don't know for certain, it's not something that I have spent lots of time on. Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on the Harry Potter movies last year. I don't know about the books, but witchcraft and sorcery is under general ban and reading stories containing it has at least previously been prohibited.
I have heard, too, that fx the recent version of Sherlock is banned in China due to "homosexual themes", and because of that the series has gained (so I have heard) iconic status in specific groups.

Feb 15, 6:22am Top

>56 -pilgrim-: The previous South African government has aptly been described as "so narrow-minded they could see through a keyhole with both eyes simultaneously". They tried this a few times, but the result was such massive increases in sales of the affected books that they soon dropped the idea. This is the group of buffoons that attempted to ban Beatles records for an ill-considered comment by John Lennon. The result? The records blotted all else off the sales lists, SABC listenership plummeted and LM Radio (privately owned, broadcast from Lourenço Marques, now Maputo) found their fortune made.

Feb 16, 6:29am Top

>58 hfglen: "so narrow-minded they could see through a keyhole with both eyes simultaneously"
Now that is an insult to treasure!

But have South African - or any other governments- tried book-banning recently? As you say, it has a tendency to backfire...

Feb 16, 6:59am Top

>58 hfglen: "so narrow-minded they could see through a keyhole with both eyes simultaneously"

I will treasure that insult.

Feb 16, 8:22am Top

Funny that I first heard that expression in the 1980s and have been using it ever since, although it's slightly different - so narrow s/he could look through a keyhole with both eyes.

Edited: Feb 16, 9:24am Top

>59 -pilgrim-: I have an idea that the legal machinery to ban books here was scrapped (guess why!) in about 1994.

ETA: I can't help feeling that I'm teetering on the edge of infringing on the sign in the entrance to our pub. Maybe I should say no more

>59 -pilgrim-:, 60 An alternative, rather agricultural, description I've heard is "a mind so narrow you can plow with it".

Feb 16, 11:15am Top

>62 hfglen: I, too, feel that. However, on the topic of banning books I imagine most in here share a view, if on nothing else.
That said me neither will say no more.

Feb 17, 9:58am Top

>62 hfglen:, >63 Busifer: I had hoped that by limiting ourselves to exchange of factual information, rather than venturing opinions on the same, we were remaining within the spirit of this place.

That said, I will defer to your greater experience on the subject.

Edited: Feb 18, 8:57am Top

The Humans by Matt Haig - 4 stars

This was not at all what I expected from the cover blurb. "Hilarious"? Not really. It is certainly amusing, in a comedy of manners sort of way, but that is not really what this novel is about.

It purports to be a report back by an alien sent to Earth to carry out a specific mission, to protect Vonnadorian society and, they would argue, human society too.

The 'science' behind how he was able to come to Earth and adopt human form is mostly 'hand-waved' as being impossible to explain to humans, although some of his biology-related "gifts" are better explained. The point of the story is an alien who, in the process of learning how to impersonate a human, learns what it means to be human.

The shmaltz level is lower than one might expect from such an outline; the absurd elements provide balance to what is otherwise a rather sweet love story with middle-aged protagonists. I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed this.

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