At Home: A Short History of Private Life

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 3 stars

The idea of this book intrigued me – a history of private life. I was expecting a social history, of how families and homes have changed throughout history. This wasn’t that book. Instead Bryson uses the rooms in his home as a jumping off point for random dips into (almost exclusively British and American) history. As another review put, it’s mostly just a collection of entertaining random facts. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but I do feel that there’s a missed opportunity here to write the book that I had hoped this would be.

So Bryson takes us through the kitchen and scullery (a chance to talk about servants and their relationships with their employers), the drawing room and dining room (talking about how dining and food have changed and comfort respectively), the passage (goodness knows), the bedroom and bathroom (a lot of pain here, as medicine, surgery and hygiene are discussed; disappointingly little sex) all the way up to the attic, which is an excuse to talk about Charles Darwin and in which Bryson tries to make us feel sorry for rich landowners because they get taxed. Diddums.

Bryson spends a lot of time with architects and big houses (unsurprisingly for someone who used to be president of the Campaign for the Protection for Rural England) and I did learn about the Gilded Age, a period in American history that I previously wasn’t aware was A Thing. But mostly, the collection of names, dates and facts went in one ear, briefly amused me and went out the other. I doubt I’ll retain very much knowledge from this book.

So, in my opinion, this book was a missed opportunity. It was entertaining enough, but not the book it could have been. On the other hand, that book is still to be written, and I’m ready to read it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781784161873
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2010

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Volume 2

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

This was a solid collection of fairly early(ish) stories from one of the greats of SF, one who did a lot to show that it could be more than pulp and could be real literature. Here, we have stories like Things, which has one man refusing to acknowledge the End of Things; The Stars Below about an early scientist who runs afoul of the religious authorities of his age and finds shelter in a worked-out mine; and, of course, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, possibly one of the most famous SF short stories. Hauntingly beautiful, we’re led from the description of a happy, prosperous city, step by step to the dark secret that underpins it all.

In amongst these beautiful pieces, there are more journeyman works. Vaster Than Empires and More Slow has a great premise and tackles interesting issues, but the psychological analyses are of its time. The Field of Vision is another very interesting story but I must confess that it rather lost me by the end. The Day Before the Revolution is a prequel to The Dispossessed, telling the story of Laia Odo, one of the key figures in the society of the novel. There’s also space for some more fun work. Direction of the Road is a humorous piece that I’ve read before and enjoyed every time. The only real misfire for me in this collection was A Trip to the Head, which seems to have themes of memory and identity, or maybe just drugs, I really wasn’t sure.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586046234
Publisher: Panther
Year of publication: 1978

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 5 stars

Update 2018-05-14: second time round, I loved this book as much as I did previously. The only comment I’d make is that since I now knew where Jane’s story was going, I could engage much more with Sidra early on. Definitely a book that rewards rereading.

Original review:
I didn’t think it would be possible, but I adored this book almost as much as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I thought I would miss the crew of the Wayfarer too much, but the Lovelace instance last seen leaving the Wayfarer in an illegal body, in the company of a tech wizard slowly enchanted me. This book tells both Lovelace’s (soon renamed Sidra) story and that of Pepper, and why she is so keen to help Sidra. For the first half, I found Pepper’s story much more engaging than Sidra’s, as she was suffering worse (or, at least, more relatable) deprivations.

But Chambers is better than that, and she slowly draws you into Sidra’s head and you feel for her as much as you do for Pepper and then she draws the two strands together at the end in a joyous and satisfying conclusion that may leave you blubbing but buoyant and with no AI-cide this time round, either!. Speaking of blubbing, I made the mistake of reading this on public transport, and was welling up more than once (Owl meeting Jane in the Big Bug sim was a roundhouse to the feels!), so be warned.

The theme of AI rights, which was touched upon in Small, Angry Planet comes much more to the fore here. Like in Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary books, it’s something where (sentient) AIs are taken very much for granted in this world and aren’t considered worth spending any time on, but as we found out in Small, Angry Planet, they can grow, feel and fall in love. Sidra is constantly terrified that others might find out what she is, and she’ll be terminated, because she’s not considered to be a person. And this fear means that she has to hide who she really is, and deny her self and her purpose.

I hope that this thread will be picked up again in later books, but given how different this is to its predecessor, I’m willing to bet that Chambers will surprise us all over again. And I, for one, am hugely looking forward to it!

Book details

ISBN: 9781473621473
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2016

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz & Other Stories

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rating: 2 stars

I’m completely unfamiliar with Fitzgerald’s work, so when I found this collection of short stories in a charity shop, I thought it was a great way to introduce myself. I sort of wish I hadn’t. I really didn’t enjoy this collection at all. Every time I finished a story, I’d go and look at the table of contents to see how many more I still had, and that’s never a good sign.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Fitzgerald is a bad writer, far from it, but I just didn’t enjoy his stories Most of them are set in America’s gilded age and focus on the rich and just go to show that wealth doesn’t mean happiness. Most of the characters in this book are resolutely miserable, despite their wealth, and suicide crops up more than once. I think what got me was the almost complete lack of any joy or happiness for anyone in any of these stories. The penultimate story, The Lees of Happiness comes closest, and given its premise, that’s saying something.

The last story in the collection (The Lost Decade) I completely failed to understand at all. It was mercifully brief but I was left completely scratching my head, and had to go and look it up online (although that may have just been me).

Definitely not one I’ll be rereading, in fact, it’ll be back to the charity shop next time I’m visiting. It would be one star, but it gets another for the quality of the writing.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853262128
Publisher: Wordsworth Edition
Year of publication: 1922

Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book One (Fables: The Deluxe Edition, #1)

By Bill Willingham

Rating: 4 stars

With the homelands invaded by The Adversary, the characters of myth, legend and, yes, fable, flee their worlds for ours, and establish a hidden colony in New York, where they preserve their culture, their society and their magic, hidden in plain sight amongst the normal people of the world. With a reformed Big Bad Wolf as their sheriff and Snow White as the deputy mayor, this first deluxe volume introduces us to these characters and their world.

This volume collects the first two story arcs, the first covering the disappearance, in violent circumstances, of Rose Red and the subsequent investigation; and the second covers the goings on at the place where all the Fables who can’t pass as human live: the Farm, in up-state New York. There’s a reason that arc is called Animal Farm. The nods to Orwell’s story are all too plain.

We’re only just getting to meet the main cast of Fables here, but I’m already intrigued. Snow White is hard and very capable as an administrator and politician; Prince Charming is feckless and mostly just seeks pleasure; the Wolf is possibly the most intriguing of the characters so far. Although we follow him throughout the first arc, we see little of his personality. He seems reformed from the Big Bad Wolf of yore but whether he truly seeks redemption or whether he’s just being practical in the confined spaces of the Fables’ community remains to be seen (and I look forward to having more of his personality teased out in future). One thing that does come across is that he has an awful lot of fun when he gets to do a real, honest-to-god parlour room scene.

The art is very pretty, and the covers of each issue, interspersed throughout are especially gorgeous, having a dreamlike quality that befits the subject matter. There’s a lot to like about this volume and I look forward to reading more, finding out about the Fables, their lives and history and about the Adversary who drove them out of their own lands.

Book details

ISBN: 9781401224271
Publisher: DC Vertigo
Year of publication: 2009

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

Rating: 5 stars

This is an old favourite and one that I come back to every few years. Jane is a character very dear to my heart, very different to Lizzie Bennett, yet I put them in the same place in my head. Jane may be poor, plain and friendless, but she is a strong character. Although she plays the part of subservient, demure governess, the relationship between her and Mr Rochester is anything but.

I always find the start and end of the book a bit difficult. The start because I empathise with Jane immensely, and her cry of “unjust” rings through my head as I follow her, first through the trials of Gateshead, from “master” John to the Red Room, then through Lowood school and the heartbreakingly good Helen Burns. The tail end, after she’s left Thornwood, I find hard for a different reason: the character of St John Rivers. He’s dizzyingly stern and uncompromising as a rod, but more than that, I find him intensely creepy. His domination of Jane is very different to her relationship with Rochester. It’s not just the lack of love, but the fact that he knows what he’s proposing will kill Jane quickly and it doesn’t move him. This time round, I also realised that he’s a windbag, as well as being sanctimonious. All praise to Brontë for an incredible character.

I love the various set pieces throughout the book, from the first meeting with Rochester on Hay Lane, through the bedroom fire, “portrait of a governess”, the fortune teller, the wedding right through to “Pilot knows me” and, of course, “Reader, I married him.” These are just the scenes that come to mind off the top of my head, there’s very little of the book that I dislike at all. Even the opening and tail end sections I talk about above are marvellous to enjoy and I mention them specially only because of the intense emotions they invoke: the true sign of a master storyteller.

I’ve not mentioned Bertha Mason in this review. She’s a problematic character to modern sentiments but fits the gothic and dramatic tone of the book. I believe various books have been written to tell her story and paint her more sympathetically, although I’ve not read any. I just ned to put my “product of its time” filter firmly in place (something I’ve had practice with, as a fan of Golden Age SF).

(Aside: I happened to be rereading this book when a touring theatre production of Jane Eyre came to my city. It was incredible: intense, modern, touching on all the highlights of the book, condensed into a stage play. If you have the chance, do go and see it.)

Book details

ISBN: 9780142437209
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1847

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