Let Sleeping Vets Lie

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not sure I can write anything about this third volume of James Herriot’s (fictionalised) memoirs that is really that different from the first two. Herriot continues to be in love with the Yorkshire Dales, and with the beautiful Helen, although he seems incapable of wooing her in any sensible way. Somehow though, she sees past all that and decides that she likes him anyway.

Siegfried and Tristan both continue to be true to their established characters, although now that I’m ready for them, they become funny traits that I look forward to seeing. Herriot obviously puts a lot of love into the characterisation of the various folk that he comes into contact with over the course of his practice, both the loveable ones and the not-so-loveable.

This is mostly just very pleasant, light reading with nostalgic fondness for a hard time, long gone. Although in saying that, there are a couple of tear-jerking stories, and I tense up every time that Herriot has to go and visit a dog in the fear that something bad might happen to it.

I’m not really an animal person, and not a country person, but I do find myself enjoying these memoirs a lot.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443548

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street #2)

By Natasha Pulley

Rating: 4 stars

Picking up a couple of years after The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Thaniel and Mori are living together fairly happily (albeit with Thaniel in fairly constant fear of anyone finding out that his relationship with Mori is more than just tenant and landlord), with their adopted daughter, Six, when Thaniel, a civil servant in the Foreign Office is posted to Tokyo as a translator. The whole family goes out together, where Thaniel finds himself in the middle of a plan that Mori had kicked off years before and meets the eponymous Mrs Pepperharrow. But events spin out of control and even Mori’s foresight might not be enough to get him out of trouble.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. Mori’s tangled web is impossibly complicated; Japanese prime minister Kuroda is violent but competent, a former friend of Mori, who now wants to use his clairvoyance for the Japanese state. Mrs Pepperharrow is a bit of an enigma to start, but we get flashbacks to her past, and her connection to both Mori and Kuroda.

In some senses, the weak link here is Thaniel, our protagonist. He’s a bit of a wet blanket, really, moping around the place, somewhat lovelorn. He’s even got the dying of consumption down pat. When he gets out of Tokyo for a bit and does some espionage he’s a bit more fun, but he’s often quite passive – in contrast to Mrs Pepperharrow, who is a ball of quivering anger and who doesn’t hesitate to take action.

The secondary characters don’t get a huge amount of characterisation, other than Six, who’s got a sideways way of looking the world. We might say today that she’s on the autism spectrum. I enjoy reading her when she’s on the page.

It’s a twisty and complex book where things don’t slot into place until the very end, but satisfying for that. The emotional arc is especially so, with a character having a late revelation that explains a lot about their behaviour (once again: the moral of the story is to be emotionally honest with your loved ones and we wouldn’t be in this mess). Definitely worth your time (although do read Watchmaker beforehand, you’ll get much more out of it if you do).

Book details

ISBN: 9781408885147
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

Dark Fire (Shardlake Series)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s 1540 and Matthew Shardlake finds himself defending a teenage girl accused of the murder of her young cousin. This act brings him back to the attention of Thomas Cromwell, who commissions Shardlake to find two missing men, who claim to have the secret of Greek Fire (an ancient incendiary weapon used by the Byzantines; something like napalm), before a promised demonstration before the king in a fortnight. As Shardlake delves into the matter, he finds himself getting tangled deeper into a conspiracy that leads to the highest levels of society.

When we first met Matthew Shardlake, in Dissolution, he was fervent reformer (sorry, Reformer), with the zeal of breaking away from the Catholic church running through him. The events of that book got shot of that and while he doesn’t wish for a return to Rome, he sees the terrible things that Cromwell has done in the name of Reform and finds it wanting.

I was hoping that the theological arguments would have been left behind in the first book, but they weren’t. For all that the theology is conjoined with politics (when is it not?), I find it a fundamentally uninteresting discussion – the more so when it so deeply affects people. Shardlake’s friend and fellow barrister loses his job because he disagrees with the currently ascendant Duke of Norfolk on the matter, and he got off lightly: others are burned at the stake.

I kept wondering why I didn’t find this as annoying when I read the Baroque Cycle a few months ago, and although the faith of the monarch was pivotal to events there, it didn’t drive the rest of the plot. Also, at that point, state killing over theology was mostly done. It was pure politics and machinations, whereas in this period, a hundred years before the Enlightenment, a difference of theology leads directly to barbaric deaths. I just find that distasteful, and not something I want to read about, even indirectly.

The plot regarding Greek Fire is quite interesting although since we know that Europeans didn’t have it, we know it’s somehow going to not be a thing. The solution to that is pretty neat and works well. The other plot, with the accused girl, is also pretty interesting. Once again, we’re reminded about how bad prison conditions were, and how badly people with mental health problems were treated in the period.

After being abandoned by his assistant in the last book, this time Shardlake is saddled with one – Cromwell has Jack Barak work on the case with Shardlake. And Barak is not an easy character to like. He’s rude, opinionated and often ill-informed. But the author goes to lengths to soften those edges, pointing out that his bluster is often to hide his feelings. Maybe, but he’s still very often, as he likes to call almost everyone he meets, an arsehole.

So an overall good mystery, and I did learn something I hadn’t known before about the Duke of Norfolk and his manipulation of the king into marrying Catherine Howard. Since I was finding myself checking how much more book I still had to go, I still don’t think I’ll read any more of the series though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781743030875

What Abigail Did That Summer : A Rivers Of London Novella

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

It’s the summer holidays and Peter Grant’s cousin Abigail has been left unsupervised. She finds herself getting involved with a mysterious old house and a bunch of disappearing and reappearing kids. Oh, and the militarised talking foxes seem to have taken a liking to her.

I enjoyed this long-ish novella. Abigail has been around for a while now, as a secondary character, but this puts us properly in her head. Set at around the same time as Foxglove Summer (Peter is away chasing unicorns in the country), I must confess that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of the timeline between the novels, comics and novellas (thank goodness for the Follypedia) but this is before Abigail becomes a proper junior apprentice to Nightingale. It seems to be her first encounter with the foxes as well. Speaking of the foxes, I like them a lot. They seem to think they’re a spy unit of some kind, although we never find out (yet, at least), what their overall mission is. But for whatever reason, they take a shine to Abigail and hang out with her and help her locate the missing children.

One issue with the book is that I never entirely believed that the narrative voice was that of a thirteen year old girl, even a precocious one who’s well on her way to taking her Latin GCSE early. There was a lot of Peter’s snark, and quite a lot of his knowledge of architecture as well. There’s a few “yoof” slang thrown in, but I still don’t quite buy it.

That’s a fairly minor quibble though. This is a great fun novella, that deepens Abigail’s character, and gives her some secrets and leverage of her own (can’t wait to find out what comes of her contact with Simon’s mum). Nightingale is present, albeit as very much a background character, and the other recurring cast don’t appear at all. This is pretty much all about Abigail, although Simon is interesting, and Simon’s mum is terrifying.

This scratches my Rivers of London itch for the moment, but I’m very much looking forward to the next full novel.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473224346
Year of publication: 2021

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children, #1)

By Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 stars

Everyone talks about the kids who go away to magical lands and have adventures. Nobody asks what happens when they come back. Miss West understands though. She was one of those children, back in the day, and now she’s set up a school to help them try to reintegrate back into society, when often they want nothing more than to return to the worlds that spat them out. Nancy is one such girl, returned from the Halls of the Dead, and her parents can’t deal with how she’s changed, so they send her to Miss West’s school. But instead of the sanctuary she was expecting, she finds death and danger.

The Problem of Susan aside, nobody ever wonders about those who are ejected and can’t return to the places they come to think of as their true homes, and what that would do to them. Miss West does know, and she is kind and understanding. She tries to protect them, and prepare them – both for this world, and for what to do if they do get a chance to return.

This is a great book for diversity, with our protagonist making clear early on that she’s asexual (not aromantic), and one of the few close friends that she makes is a trans boy. It’s very much a book about being who you are, and being accepted (or not) for it. Children and teens are still children and teens. Some lash out because they’re hurting, others are just mean. McGuire paints a sympathetic portrait of a young woman who feels like she’s lost everything and wants desperately to get it back.

This is also a nicely standalone book, although it does a good job of worldbuilding, leaving lots of space to tell more stories (and, indeed, there are several more books in the series). A good execution of a great idea.

Book details

Year of publication: 2016

Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries, #6)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 4 stars

There’s been a murder on Preservation station, and no, it wasn’t Murderbot, it would have hidden the body way better. But it reluctantly joins the team assigned to investigate, and has to spend valuable media time voluntarily talking to people.

I’ve loved every Murderbot story I’ve read to date, and this novella does nothing to change that. Against its better instinct, our favourite failed psychopathic killer is learning to interact with the people around it in the open, not pretending to be an augmented human or hiding behind a faceless helmet. In other words, learning to be a person itself.

The mystery here is as twisty as you’d expect from Wells with a number of satisfying twists and turns. We mostly get a new supporting cast here, particularly Indah, the senior investigating officer, and Special Investigator Aylen, and while some of the people we know already do make cameos, they’re mostly off-stage, or brief. Indah is interesting, as the senior officer who really doesn’t like the idea of a rogue SecUnit running around without anyone watching it. It’s classic buddy-cop, as the initially antagonistic relationship grows, on both sides, into grudging respect.

There are few big action scenes in this book, but it’s always special when we do get one, and Murderbot shows off what it can do. But mostly it’s a murder mystery, and follows those tropes. (There’s no “I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here…”, but it would have been brilliant if there had been!)

I couldn’t quite figure out where this fit in the timeline of the series, but after a bit of thought, I think it comes after Exit Strategy and before Network Effect, since the events of the latter aren’t mentioned (and there was quite some fallout from that). It’s pretty standalone, so can nominally be read without any knowledge of the rest of the series, but I’d still suggest reading all the other novellas before reading this one. That way you’ll have have an idea of Murderbot’s character and care about it and the people that it has come to care for.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250765376
Year of publication: 2021

A Quiet Afternoon

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I heard about this collection because a friend of mine has a story in its sequel, and when I went to have a look, I was intrigued by the idea of “low-fi” speculative fiction, something low-stakes and gentle, compared to the grandeur and world-threatening nature of much of the genre. And I’m really glad I picked it up.

The collection starts strongly, with The Baker’s Cat, about a girl who really wants to be a baker, but just isn’t very good at it, and the small acts of kindness that lead to her getting the help she needs. Other highlights include The Dragon Peddler about a boy who can see dragons and Tomorrow’s Friend about getting the friend you need, when you need them. Hollow is a nice twist on the magic quest, and the final story, Of Buckwheat and Garlic Braids (not garlic bread, as I first read it as) is a lovely little tale of travel and belonging.

As in most collections, there’s some that didn’t work as well. I didn’t really get Ink Stains, or 12 Attempts at Telling About the Flower Shop Man (New York, New York). Both pleasant enough, but I didn’t really grok them.

But overall, it’s a pretty good collection. It’s one that you sit and pick a story almost at random to read if you’re feeling a bit down, and you’re pretty sure that it’ll be okay in the end.

I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9780994009746
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2020

It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume of James Herriot’s veterinary memoirs follow much in the same vein as his first. He talks about specific cases and characters from his time practising in the Yorkshire Dales, as as well as the eccentricities of his boss Siegfried and his boss’s brother Tristan, who also helps out, when he’s not studying. This volume also introduces us to Helen Alderson, whom our intrepid vet starts to woo. (The dates that he takes her on are toe-curlingly disastrous, but she keeps coming back, so I guess there must be something to the young man).

Herriot paints a lovely picture of a time that’s now long gone. I wonder what he would have made of modern industrial farming, without the space for the eccentrics and smallholders that populated the dales in the first half of the 20th century and who Herriot describes so lovingly. While I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to live in that period (or, indeed, any period without modern medicine and a decent Wi-Fi connection), I can be slightly sad that we’ve lost something as we’ve modernised.

These books are a charming, low stress look into the past and I look forward to reading more of them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443463

Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries, #5)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 5 stars

Now living on Preservation and working security for Dr Mensah, Murderbot is currently assigned to a survey team. It successfully gets them away from pirates on the survey planet, but as they return home to Preservation, they’re attacked by an unknown vessel. Murderbot and Dr Mensah’s daughter Amena are captured and taken to an unknown system. Our friendly rogue SecUnit is miffed when it reboots after being knocked out, but that’s nothing compared to how it’ll feel once it finds out what ship it’s on.

I love the narrative voice that Wells uses for MurderBot. It’s self-assured, snarky, and vulnerable, all at once. It’s a joy to read, whether it’s describing violence against things that are trying to harm MurderBot’s humans, or trying, and often failing, to avoid having feelings that aren’t related to media.

This being a full novel rather than a novella, we have more space to let the characters develop. We get to spend a bit more time with Arada and Overse, as well as getting to meet new characters, like Amena, who has a knack of getting under MurderBot’s skin to some degree and understand its feelings. It also leads to a more complicated plot, including the welcome return of ART, from Artificial Condition. I did struggle at times to keep track of the various lost colonies and who was from what polity and what they all wanted. But it was totally worth it, and I’ll be reading it again at some point. Now that I know what happens, I can focus on the details on the next read (well, that’s the theory at least, Wells keeps the whole thing ticking over at a breakneck pace, without much in the way of chance to catch your breath, so I suspect I’ll be just as desperate to read the next chapter next time round too).

If you’re already a fan of MurderBot, you’ll love this. If you’re not, technically you could read this without reading the preceding novellas, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s best if you get to know MurderBot, Mensah and the other humans and it cares about, and, of course, ART. Then, by the time you get here, you’ll be a fan of MurderBot.

And now that I’m finally finished this review, I can go back to enjoying my media…

Book details

ISBN: 9781250229861
Year of publication: 2020

If Only They Could Talk

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

Prior to reading this, my knowledge of this series by James Herriot didn’t go any further than knowing that the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, starred in a BBC adaptation of it in the ’70s and ’80s. In fact, I thought it was a fictional account of a country vet, rather than a fictionalised memoir. In any event, it’s not a book that I would ever have picked up for myself, but a friend bought me the entire box set for my birthday and I’m now glad that she did.

It’s a very gentle, low-pressure account of the practice of veterinary medicine around the middle of the 20th century in the countryside of the north of England. A time when you could drive to the pub, drink several pints and then hop back into the car to go home (this made me shudder every time). Herriot quietly teases out the eccentric personalities of both his fellow vets (he’s the assistant here to the very strange Siegfried Farnon, whose younger brother Tristan also hangs around, when he’s not at university, allegedly studying to be a vet himself) and the good people of the Yorkshire dales where he works. You get a real feeling for both the place and the people.

I’ll definitely read more in the series, but it doesn’t make being a vet sound enticing at all (not that it did before – I am not an animal person), but being up all hours to be feeling around in the rear end of a cow, or having to put down a dog is not my idea of a good way to spend my working life.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330447089
Publisher: Pan Publishing
Year of publication: 2006

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