Ethel & Ernest

By Raymond Briggs

Rating: 4 stars

This is a charming short book in which Raymond Briggs tells the story of his parents, the Ethel and Ernest of the title, from their first chance meeting in 1928 up to their deaths, very close to each other in 1971. It’s a lovely story, without much in the way of embellishment. Ernest was a working class lad, and proud of it, while Ethel was upwardly mobile and wanted more for her family. They lived through the second world war and the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s and we see how life changes for them over the decades.

The art is lovely. Typically Briggs and very appropriate for the story being told. This is social history told through a single family, right up to their heartbreaking, not to mention tear-jerking, final months. Definitely recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9780224046626
Publisher: Random House
Year of publication: 1998

I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld, #38)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

Tiffany Aching is getting on with the job of being the witch of the Chalk, taking the responsibility for bringing people into the world, helping them leave and all the bits in between. For a young woman it’s a heavy load, so she really doesn’t need an ancient malevolent spirit being awoken and coming after her.

I enjoyed this book and feel that I should really have more to say about it, but I can’t really think of an awful lot. There were some small surprises for me, such as the character of the Duchess and how she evolved, along with her daughter, but I didn’t really feel an awful lot of fear for Tiffany herself. She seems to have reached the same sort of stage as Granny Weatherwax, where she’s pretty much indestructible so I felt sure that she’d be able to deal with the Cunning Man.

The Cunning Man, by the way, is a pretty excellent villain. His origin story is marvellously gruesome and the idea of this eyeless creature full of hate and malevolence is very evocative.

The other thing the surprised me was Preston and his story. I was sure that Pratchett was going to take Tiffany along the dutiful, lonely road, so it was a bit of a surprise (a pleasant one, mind) when he and Tiffany did actually sort of get together at the end of the book. It’s nice to get a happy ending for the person who spent her own time ensuring happy endings for others.

The humour in this book was the thoughtful, ‘wry smile’ variety rather than the belly laughs of Pratchett’s early work, although there were still some really laugh out loud moments. These were almost all provided care of the Nac Mac Feegle, who retain all the charm of their early days for me as they enthusiastically fight, steal and generally caper through life, but always protecting their Hag o’ the Hills. They’re a joy to read and, I imagine, to write. I can just imagine Pratchett sitting at his keyboard, chuckling to himself as he wrote them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552166058
Publisher: Corgi Childrens
Year of publication: 2010

On Liberty

By Shami Chakrabarti

Rating: 4 stars

I can’t, in all honesty, say that I enjoyed this book, but I do think it’s an important one and one that I got a lot out of. I had to read it in reasonably short doses because it would just make make angry. The behaviour of politicians and the media leaves a lot to be desired and Chakrabarti has no qualms about dipping into the mire for examples to illustrate her case.

The fact that people have such short memories that they actively argue that rights accorded to a person purely for being human, without fear or favour, no matter their nationality, colour or creed, are a bad idea strikes me as privilege of the worst kind. The sorts of people so secure in their own station that they lose empathy. As Chakrabarti repeats more than once, we’re all foreigners sometime and somewhere.

I found this book important because it makes a clear and, to my mind, incredibly persuasive, case for universal human rights and gives me the tools to argue for those rights when I would have found it difficult to find the right words.

For full disclosure, I’m a member of Liberty, the civil liberties organisation of which Chakrabarti is director and I passionately believe in what they stand for, so me giving this book a high score is not unexpected. What I really want, and what is less likely to happen, is for those who argue that human rights shouldn’t be universal to read the book. I’d like to give it to Daily Mail readers and right-wing politicians. And, more positively, I’d love to see it in school libraries and other places where young people could read it and use it to help form their opinions.

The book is also highly readable. The arguments are laid out clearly, using examples and counter-examples from her own life and work both in the Home Office and with Liberty. Chakrabarti argues with the passion of a lifelong believer in her subject and the clarity of a trained lawyer at their best. This is a subject that is important for all of us: privileged or poor, refugee or citizen, having rights that we can all call upon against the terrifying power of the state is one of the things that allows a country to call itself civilised. And Chakrabarti shows us just how thin that veneer of civilisation in the UK really is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141976310
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014

We’ll Always Have Paris

By Ray Bradbury

Rating: 3 stars

I can never turn down a new collection of Ray Bradbury stories and I did enjoy these, but I felt that it was missing the sparkle of Bradbury at his best. Despite being from 2009, the stories felt very nostalgic, perhaps to be expected from Bradbury of all people, but I would have liked to see a little more modernity to the stories. The one nod to the 21st century that I did see was that there were a couple of stories that had gay characters in them, but other than that, they could have been set in the ’30s or ’40s (as, indeed, some of them were).

There’s not much in the way of SF in this collection. There’s a Mars story and a story of the dead rising along with one or two others, but mostly this is just Bradbury writing about life, love and remembrance.

It’s a nice collection, but it’s not The Martian Chronicles or R is for Rocket.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007303649
Publisher: Voyager
Year of publication: 2009

The Ringworld Engineers

By Larry Niven

Rating: 3 stars

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read this book to start with because of the change to Louis Wu’s circumstances at the start of the novel (he’s a junkie, addicted to the pure pleasure of electrical stimulation of the brain). But that actually turned out to be one of the more interesting things about the book. Why would a character as obviously strong as Wu turn to the wire? That question does get answered, along with the other obvious question of what he does next. Perhaps his escape from addiction was a little too easy, but, as I’ve said, we know from the previous book that Louis has a very strong will.

The return to the Ringworld itself is interesting if not novel. The quest that Louis and his alien companions find themselves on is, eventually, to deal with the instability of the Ring and save its trillions of inhabitants from doom as it crashes into its star.

The one moment of pure ‘sensawunda’ in the book, for me equivalent to learning about the Fleet of Worlds from Ringworld, is when we learn how the Ringworld’s meteor defence system works. That left me giggling to myself in awe for quite a while.

This sequel is, in no way, essential. Ringworld stood on its own perfectly well. The only reason I picked it up was because it was very cheap at a book sale and I needed another book to get the four-for-a-pound deal. I don’t regret having read it, but I doubt it’ll leave much of a mental impact.

Book details

ISBN: 9780708880746
Publisher: Orbit Books
Year of publication: 1979

A Portable Shelter

By Kirsty Logan

Rating: 3 stars

I’m not really sure what to write about this collection. The stories are wrapped in a meta-story of being told to an unborn child by its parents who hide their storytelling from each other because they had agreed to “only tell the child the truth”. This is a bit ridiculous to start with, but okay, let’s go with that for the moment.

The stories themselves are beautifully written. There’s no doubting Logan’s skill as a wordsmith, but I fear that I’m not the target audience. I’ve never got on with Literature-with-a-capital-L and I’m not too fond of depressing or miserable stories. And there’s a lot of both in this collection. The parents seem to want to frighten the child into never coming into the world, it seems, by the tales they tell it. The only story that really stands out to me as even maybe having something approaching a happy ending is Flinch, the story of a selkie fisherman.

Beyond that, there’s some quite brutal stories here. From the one that starts us off (a metaphor for domestic violence?) to the one about starvation in a small community and the lengths they go to to survive, to the one about a couple whose children go missing and the mother’s attempts to find them.

Like I said above, I can appreciate the writing in these stories. It’s beautiful and all the stories are very well written (even if I don’t have much time for the stupidity of the parents in the meta-story) but the contents are not for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9781906841232
Publisher: Association for Scottish Literary Studies
Year of publication: 2015

Whisky Galore

By Compton Mackenzie

Rating: 4 stars

It took a while but I really warmed to this story of the Western Isles and how the locals deal with officious mainlanders. The whole whisky thing is almost an aside. There are several threads to the plot: the marriages of Sergeant Odd and George Campbell; the attempts of Captain Waggett to instil discipline into his Home Guard troops; and, of course, the sinking of the S. S. Cabinet Minister carrying 50,000 cases of whisky.

It took a while to settle into the flow of the book. I wasn’t really sure where it was coming from, but once I let it go at its own pace, the gentle pace of island life, if you will, I began to thoroughly enjoy it. I started off being indignantly angry with the officious Captain Waggett and the other officials trying to meddle while insisting that there’s a war on, but I soon realised what fun that Mackenzie was having at their expense. I enjoyed the subtle jibes at that sort of thinking.

The book is very easy to read (although it was easier after I discovered, about half way through, that there was a Gaelic glossary at the end!) and left me with a smile on my face at the end. Not to mention, a desire to go and visit some of the Western Isles.

It’s different from the film and doesn’t have the focus that the film does on the whisky plot, but then an 80-minute film has to be narrower in scope than a 300-page book. Take it for what it is without comparing too much to the film and there’s an awful lot to enjoy from this book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140012200
Publisher: Penguin UK
Year of publication: 1947

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