BooksOfTheMoon

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

Dimension of Miracles

By Robert Sheckley

Rating: 4 stars

I was introduced to Robert Sheckley when I was in my 20s, by a friend who was keen to promote him. I took to Sheckley a lot and devoured pretty much everything my friend had, although I don’t remember this one from back then. Incidentally, this is the first Sheckley book that I’ve encountered that hasn’t been second hand. I thought all his work was out of print, so I’m very glad to see this available, and hopefully it’ll help introduce a new generation to his work.

Carmody, a human, is randomly selected in an interstellar sweepstake to win a prize (sorry, Prize). He collects this, and then has to set off on an epic voyage to return home, encountering gods, dinosaurs, parallel worlds, and, most terrifyingly of all, bureaucrats, along the way.

Once we’re off the Earth, the majority of the book is a sort of travelogue of Carmody’s attempt to get home, accompanied only by his not-so-trusty sentient Prize while being chased by a Predator tailored to him. He has conversations about the purpose of godhood; about the invention of science; and the meaning of death.

Sheckley is, first and foremost, a humorist. His work has been compared to Douglas Adams and, stylistically, it’s easy to see why. The humour is easy and unforced but present in just about every page, combined with satire regarding the world he saw around him. Like Arthur Dent, Carmody is an everyman (although less tea-obsessed), and he even meets a person whose profession is building planets (including the Earth) – all over a decade before Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series.

There’s an awful lot to enjoy here, and there’s a surprisingly poignant ending. I’m glad to have rediscovered Sheckley and hope that there’s more on the way (although I do think that his best work was in short stories, rather than the longer form).

Book details

ISBN: 9780241472491
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year of publication: 2020

Night Watch (Discworld, #29)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

I bought this book when it came out in 2003*, as I did with all new Discworld books at the time, read it once, and for whatever reason, it never quite gelled with me, so it’s been sitting on the shelf and has never been reread. But I know lots of people for whom Night Watch is their favourite Discworld novel, so eventually I thought I should give it another go. And I’m quite glad that I did, because it’s a very good book. There’s a lot of depth to it, with complex discussion of justice, revolution, complicity and much more.

But (you knew there was going to be a ‘but’), for me, the best Discworld novels marry complex themes with a light touch and lots of humour. While there are lines here that made me smile, there were none that made me laugh. And, to be fair, even Pratchett would struggle to wring humour out of torture and police brutality. So while I enjoyed this book a lot (and will probably reread it again), I still pined a bit for Men at Arms.

Here, Vimes is pulled out of his comfortable life, shoved back in time and left with nothing. He’s got to capture a dangerous criminal who came back with him, teach his younger self how to become a copper and worry about a revolution, all without breaking history. We’re introduced to an older, more dangerous Ankh-Morpork, one that hasn’t yet been tamed and strengthened by Lord Vetinari, where a paranoid man sits on the Patrician’s chair, seeing plots wherever he looks. And has his special Watch squad, the Unmentionables, out “dealing” with them, while the rest of the Watch looks the other way, and tries not to think about the special cells under the watch house.

So, a good book, a very good book. Lots to think about, and, despite everything, a lightness of touch as well. I can see why so many people love it – it’s got a good plot, complex characterisation (for Vimes, at least) and interesting themes. But for me, it’s a little too dark and is a little short on the humour that I feel characterises the cream of the Discworld.

* Yes, I’m one of those cheapos who waits for the paperback**
** That reminds me, another (lesser) complaint is that there’s far too few footnotes in this book

Book details

ISBN: 9780552148993
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 2003

The Complete Mapp and Lucia, Volume 1

By E.F. Benson

Rating: 3 stars

A friend recommended the Mapp and Lucia books to me some time ago, and I got given this omnibus for my birthday this year. Having read the first two (of three) volumes in this collection, I’m firmly of the opinion that I’m not going to read the third, nor will I be looking for volume 2 of this series. I didn’t hugely enjoy either book, although I preferred Queen Lucia to Miss Mapp, the eponymous protagonist of which I actively disliked. Individual reviews below.

Queen Lucia

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, universally known in the village of Riseholme, where she lives, as Lucia, is the undisputed reigning monarch of the village, in culture, music and art. Riseholme is awash with well-off, bored inhabitants, all heavily invested in the tiny dramas that play out in the village, from the saga of the guru to the mystery of who’s taken the empty house. Lucia is a ridiculous, pompous creature, but entertaining in her own way.

The strange baby talk that she indulges in with her “grand vizier”, the rather camp Georgie is odd (and a little creepy to my mind). Georgie is possibly the most sympathetic character in the book, although he’s no less ridiculous than the rest of them. The inhabitants of Riseholme, while all scheming and gossiping, for the most part aren’t actively malicious towards each other. Lucia has a need to be the centre of attention and sometimes does underhand things to achieve that, but she usually gets her just desserts.

Spoiler
While I was fully expecting the guru to be a scoundrel, I was disappointed that the only non-white character in the book also turned out to be a thief. This left a sour taste to an otherwise entertaining escapade.

Three stars.

Miss Mapp

Miss Elizabeth Mapp lives in the village of Tilling, where she aspires to fill a similar role to Lucia, but is more just a hate-filled, hypocritical shrew. She has shallow, rivalry-filled friendships with her neighbours and spends her evenings plotting and playing bridge.

The most enjoyable relationship in this book was that between the “frenemies” Major Flint and Captain Puffin, who spend their days playing golf together, and their evenings “writing memoires” and “researching Roman roads” respectively. Miss Mapp’s intervention in that friendship especially made me quite angry.

I wasn’t interested in the stories of these people at all (although the duel was quite entertaining to begin with). I found myself waiting for Mapp to get her comeuppance on a regular basis, which isn’t the basis for me to enjoy a book at all.

Two stars.

Book details

ISBN: 9781840226737
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Year of publication: 2011

A Man Called Ove

By Fredrik Backman

Rating: 5 stars

It’s very difficult to describe the plot of this book without spoilers, so I’m mostly not going to. We first meet Ove, a fifty-nine year old man, shouting at an assistant in an Apple Store, trying to buy a COMPUTER while waving an iPad around. Now, whatever your thoughts on how much the smug assistants in an Apple Store deserve everything they get, it’s not a good first impression of our protagonist. This poor impression deepens over the next two chapters as we follow Ove on his morning routine, as a busybody around the neighbourhood, making sure that everything is as it should be.

At this point, I was wondering if I’d be able to finish the book, given how unlikeable that Ove is. And then the fourth chapter comes around and wallops you in the feels. And it continues to do that repeatedly for the next 260-odd pages. By the end of the book I was completely in love with Ove, and was full-on sobbing at the end.

The book is a fantastic character study, showing very much that no man is an island, no matter how much he may want to be; or rather no matter how much he thinks he wants to be. Ove’s life changes when his new neighbours accidentally reverse a trailer into his postbox. This leads to him having to interact with them, start to get to know them, and from that, a life is unveiled.

Backman spends some time in Ove’s past as well, from his childhood, showing us the sorts of things that made him the man that he is: the man who knows right from wrong and for whom the world exists in black and white, without any inconvenient shades of grey. And when seen from that perspective, it all entirely makes sense. The author builds Ove up, one thought and moment at a time, and in no time, the curmudgeon from the first few chapters is someone you want as your granddad.

I laughed and cried so much reading this book. I absolutely loved it, and that took me by surprise. This isn’t the sort of book that I normally read, but when it was recommended to me by someone whose opinion I trust, I thought what the hell, and I’m so glad I did.

I wonder what it’ll be like reading it again, this time knowing Ove’s character from the start. How much difference that will make when reading particularly the early chapters again. I can’t wait to do so, but I need to leave it a while as I’m still feeling emotionally wrung out from the last read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444775815
Publisher: Sceptre
Year of publication: 2015

The Amazing Maurice & His Educated Rodents (Discworld, #28)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

Riffing off the story of the Pied Piper, here Pratchett has more animals become intelligent after hanging around Unseen University too long. First it’s the rats, and then Maurice, a cat. The rats may be clever, but Maurice is streetwise. They band together, along with a stupid-looking-kid™ to do the old plague of rats trick on unsuspecting towns, but in Bad Blintz, they find something very unexpected, and very dark.

Maurice is a fun character. While I’m not their biggest fan, Pratchett really gets cats and he writes a good one. The rat Dangerous Beans, on the other hand, is at least partially well named. As Darktan realises, he makes maps of the earth, while Dangerous Beans makes maps for the mind. He thinks the thoughts that the others don’t. He’s an idealist, and a visionary and a naive young thing. He’s a wonderful creation.

In the character of Malicia, Pratchett takes another swipe at those who get too carried away by stories and storytelling. This was a central theme of Witches Abroad and while it’s somewhat less subtle here than it was in that book, the point is well made, and the character is very fun to read.

I think this was the first Discworld novel “for younger readers”, preceding the Tiffany Aching books. I’ve put ‘for younger readers’ in quotes since at times this book can feel very dark, covering, as it does, topics including faith, its gaining and loss, ageing, hate and man’s inhumanity to anything it considers ‘other’. Despite this, it retains Pratchett’s trademark lightness of touch and humour. An older (or less sensitive younger) child will devour this, as will adults.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552546935
Publisher: Corgi Books
Year of publication: 2001

Love Among the Chickens (Ukridge, #1)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 3 stars

Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge descends upon his friend Jeremy Garnet and persuades him to come to the country and help him farm chickens. Whilst there, Garnet falls in love with a nearby resident but love’s course never runs smoothly. And while Garnet is wooing (or, at least, trying to woo) the young lady, the chicken farm goes from calamity to calamity.

This is very early Wodehouse and I found myself skipping entire pages in frustration. I just didn’t like the character of Ukridge. Unlike other (later?) creations, he has all the flaws of a Wodehouse character, but none of the compensations; he’s not charming, just boorish, arrogant and completely self-absorbed. Thank goodness he’s not the protagonist of the book; it would have been too much to take. Thankfully, large chunks of the book are focused on Garnet and his love life which is much more like the Wodehouse we know and love, coming up with a plan Jeeves himself would have been proud of (and then dealing with the consequences when it went horribly wrong). That’s the only reason this book is scoring as highly as it is from me.

Book details

Publisher: Herbert Jenkins
Year of publication: 1906

The Adventures of Sally

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this book, focussing on Sally Nicholas, who’s just come into an inheritance, and her adventures, starting with a holiday in Europe where she meets Ginger Kemp, who’s a good egg but who can’t seem to hold on to any work.

It’s interesting, in that there are more clouds in these particular sunlit uplands than I’m used to with classic Wodehouse. Not necessarily many, but it feels like he was trying to add a bit more depth (and even pathos?) to his writing. Paragraphs where Sally muses on the nature of men’s focus on success to the exclusion of all else, or the (more than one) references to suicide bring this into relief.

But there’s still a lot of humour, and Wodehouse’s patented absurd characters, not to mention frightful relatives (an uncle, this time, rather than the more traditional aunt) and it wouldn’t be Wodehouse if it didn’t all get untangled by the end.

Book details

Publisher: Herbert Jenkins
Year of publication: 1922

Matilda

By Roald Dahl

Rating: 5 stars

Matilda was always one of my favourite Roald Dahl books as a child, and after seeing the musical recently (which is rather marvellous, by the way, and if you get the chance, you should go and see it), I was inspired to re-read the book. I’m very pleased that it holds up very well to adult reading, and still made me laugh as much as it did when I was young. It’s got the trademark Roald Dahl darkness as well, which is just delicious, most obviously in the character of Miss Trunchbull, but also in Matilda’s neglectful parents, who think that books are pointless and who fail to see anything special in Matilda herself.

A fantastic book, that well deserves its place in the canon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140327595
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of publication: 1988

Space Opera

By Catherynne M. Valente

Rating: 4 stars

I have very definite feelings about this book. I feel that I need to read it again before I come to any solid conclusions. This book was sold to me as a lightweight Eurovision-in-space. Instead, it starts as slightly poor Douglas Adams pastiche, settles into something very readable but occasionally not just punches you in the feels, but gives them wedgies and steals their lunch money.

Okay, so, yes, it is Space-Eurovision, with an annual galactic song contest to relieve tensions in the galactic community, with the added twist that to avoid recurrence of the sentience wars (in which we, who are People, want to kill you and take your stuff because we think that you are Meat) any newly discovered apparently sentient species has to prove their sentience by not coming last in the Galactic Grand Prix. That in itself is a fascinating idea, giving species the chance to prove themselves by moving the watching fans enough to not come last: to prove that you have and can create empathy.

I nearly didn’t get that far though. The first couple of chapters nearly put me right off. On a first read, they felt like the book was trying (and trying too hard) to be Hitchhikers, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The tone settled down after Decibel Jones, former Brit-pop glamgrinder and the one chosen, along with his band, to be the Last Best Hope for Earth, was introduced and I started to enjoy it a lot more. I get the feeling though, that upon rereading, those first chapters would probably resonate a lot more.

Neither Decibel, nor his bandmate, Oort St Ultraviolet, are particular likeable, but that’s sort of the point. They’ve been through the system, have been chewed up and spat out the other end. They’re damaged goods, struggling to cope without the third member of of the band, Mira Wonderful Star. They make the sort of mistakes and arguments that two people who love/hate each other would do and try their best not to get killed before the main event starts (Rule 20, it’s all about Rule 20).

And between all the glam, and the silliness and really weird alien species, Valante has a lot to say about us. About whether we deserve that last shot at all, about the sort of people we can be at our best, and at our worst.

So, what did I think? I think I need to read the book again. But until then, it left me with a lot to think about and a whole bunch of slightly bruised feels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472115072
Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2018

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