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I wanted some comfort reading, so decided to turn to Jane Austen (where else?). I don't think Sense and Sensibility is her best novel; it definitely feels like an early work, and the characterisation lacks the subtlety of her later novels. Elinor Dashwood is too much of a paragon to feel quite true (clever, sensible, patient, kind, able to bear disappointments stoically) and most of the other characters feel more like caricatures, with even the kindest being mocked for their foolishness or lack of common sense, taste or interesting conversation. Still, there are some lovely moments of social comedy, and I was particularly struck by John Dashwood's reasoning for not giving his stepmother and half-sisters any money following his father's death, because "They would only enlarge their style of living if they felt sure of a larger income, and would not be sixpence the richer for it at the end of the year." I feel sure I have heard that argument in the mouths of opponents of the welfare state very recently...
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Apparently autumn is when I read Gwyneth Jones's Bold As Love series; I can't remember when I read the first one, but I vividly remember finishing the second in a holiday cottage with a stunning view over Hastings harbour very early one morning exactly ten years ago this week (I know it was then, because we'd gone there to celebrate ten years together). I read the third last year and finished it the evening of the Paris attacks, and somehow, even though I thought I wanted something cosy and calming to drive away the fears the current state of the world have provoked, when I was flipping through the books on my Kindle last week trying to decide what to read it just felt like time to read the fourth.

I really like the series; a retelling of Arthurian legend (with, I think, a particularly strong nod to the Arthur of Rosemary Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers and Sword at Sunset) disguised as, or transfigured into, a near-future sf fable about what might happen as the world of the twentieth century disintegrates. For a series first published between 2001 and 2006 it still feels like a remarkably plausible vision of the future (unlike her 1991 White Queen, which I also read last year and which is set in a 2038 where people still use fax machines and there's no internet), and I like her rockstar-turned-politician characters, both the central trio and the supporting cast. And actually, even though the series is about civilisation falling apart as the world collapses into a new dark age, I don't find the books dark and depressing; the world in Band of Gypsys has moved a long way from the not-very-different-to-now world of the first book (in some ways it felt as though it was set much further from "now"), generally not in any good ways, and there are deaths and destruction and unhappiness, but there's also sunlight and the English countryside and love and friendships and small acts of kindness, and the overall effect is somehow uplifting and hopeful despite the horrors of the setting.

The books are out of print at the moment, but cheap Kindle editions are available, and although I have paperbacks of the first three I bought Kindle copies of the later ones, and would advise anyone tempted to do the same thing to seek out secondhand paper copies instead - I have never read such a dreadfully formatted Kindle book, not even free editions of classics (well, there was the copy of Linda Grant's When I Lived In Modern Times which kept insisting that it was entirely in italics, but apart from that).
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Reading Race of Scorpions, which is set largely in Cyprus, reminded me that I had a copy of Lawrence Durrell's book about the time he spent living in Cyprus between 1953 and 1956 (handily shelved next to the Dorothy Dunnett). I bought it years ago, probably about the time I read Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, but didn't really get on with the writing. Still, I hung on to it, and I thought I'd give it another go.

There are some beautiful descriptive passages which made me long to see Cyprus for myself, but I didn't much like Durrell as he characterises himself in his own book; too much British Imperial superiority and humorous anecdotes about the comical Cypriot peasants he encounters in his quest to buy and refurbish a house and in his work as a teacher at the Gymnasium in Nicosia, along with a fair amount of name-dropping about the visits he receives from the literati (Rose Macauley, Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor, to name but a few of many). The latter part of his stay in Cyprus coincided with the rise in violence as the Cypriot struggle for independence from Britain and union with Greece, and the second half of the book, which I thought was both darker and better than the first half, describes the gradual descent from normality into chaos. I found it somewhat unsettling reading at this particular point in history, I have to say.
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I'm still reading Dorothy Dunnett when I want comfort reading; not that her books are entirely comforting in themselves, given her penchant for throwing her heroes into one dire situation after another and piling misfortune on misfortune, but they're books I can lose myself in, and that's what I wanted this week. In the third book of the House of Niccolo series, Nicholas ends up in Cyprus, where both claimants to the disputed throne want him and his army to fight for them. There are battles and twists and romance; some plot threads from the earlier books are resolved, while others emerge.

I do feel as though I'm starting to get a bit of a handle on Nicholas's character, which I struggled with in the first couple of books. Even though long sections of the narrative are written from his point of view, unlike Lymond, where we only get a handful of scenes from Francis's point of view throughout the series, and those tend to be solitary action rather than introspection, I've found him harder to understand; perhaps because the amount of point-of-view time he gets is deceptive, and there's a lot of crucial stuff we don't see. With Lymond, the overarching mystery always seemed to be what had happened in the past to make him the way he was, but with Nicholas, I think it's more about what kind of a person he really is.
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I bought this because it was one of the many fascinating-sounding books mentioned during the "Transformative Shakespeare" panel at Nine Worlds this summer. Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five stories by five different authors inspired by Shakespeare's plays and looking at the lives of his characters after their canon stories have finished. The stories are located in a kind of shared world where all the plays take place together, almost simultaneously, and each one builds on the events of the earlier ones to create a wider arc plot.

The stories themselves were variable. My favorite was Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Even in the Cannon's Mouth", an entertaining romp combining characters from Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It and Twelfth Night and featuring magic, swashbuckling and humour. I also liked Emma Newman's "The Unkindest Cut", a much darker story about prophecies and fate, and Foz Meadows' "Coral Bones" which explores Miranda's life after The Tempest along with much more modern ideas about gender and sexuality. I was less keen on Jonathan Barnes' "The Twelfth Night", which was about (a version of) Shakespeare himself rather than the characters from the plays, and thought that Kate Heartfield's "The Course of True Love" was definitely the weakest of the stories, a fairly unexciting romance with some magical elements.

Overall, it was enjoyable enough to read, though I didn't quite feel that the different stories tied together as neatly as I think they were supposed to, and I might have preferred more separate stories.
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I'd been putting off reading the third of the Cazalet Chronicles, because I wasn't quite sure I wanted to read about people living through the grimness of World War Two when the world seemed to be falling apart around me. Actually, though, the grimness seems less obvious in this one than it did in Marking Time; it begins in 1942, three years into the war, and where the last book showed how life changed in the early years of the war, in this one it feels more like a steady state which people have got used to. The main point of view characters are still Louise, Polly and Clary, growing up during the war and almost unable to remember what life was like before it; much as I like them, I would have liked to see a bit more of the rest of the family, who mostly only seemed to make very brief appearances as the novel took them through the last three years of the war (and some of the sections that didn't focus on the three girls actually focused more on one-off characters, including two who appeared to have wandered in at random from a Mary Renault novel; they were probably having a slightly jollier time of it in Howard's book, though not by much). Generally, though, I'm continuing to enjoy the series a great deal and looking forward to reading the next book soon.
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Night Watch is arguably the Best. Discworld. Book. Ever., and definitely one from the phase when Pratchett had completed the transition from the parody of the earliest books in the series to the more pointed satire of the later ones, after a mid-period where the two coexisted a little uneasily. This is the point at which I came back into step with the books, having not really managed to get what Pterry was trying to do in the half-dozen or so before it on first reading (actually, I think I had to give Night Watch a second reading, but I obviously managed to see that there was enough there to merit a second reading, whereas I spent an embarrassingly long time thinking Jingo was dreadful).

Unlike its precursors, Night Watch really is a Sam Vimes book, rather than a City Watch book. Carrot and Detritus both appear briefly, Cheery Littlebottom gets a couple of lines, Angua doesn't appear at all, because for most of the time Vimes is adrift from his own time; after falling through the dome of the Unseen University Library while pursuing a murderer, he finds himself sent back thirty years and becoming part of a very different City Watch. This isn't the run-down rump of the Watch we saw in Guards! Guards!, but it's a Watch where bribery and paying less attention to evidence than to who it would be easiest to pin a crime on are rife, and where none of Ankh-Morpork's ethnic minorities are represented, while Ankh-Morpork as a whole is also a lot less diverse than in Vimes's present. It's really a lot like Life on Mars, although as that was made four years after Night Watch came out if that's more than coincidence the book must have influenced the TV show, and not the more usual other way round.

Night Watch isn't a book with a lot of laughs. It's a serious book, about corruption and justice and law and freedom and hope, and it's a book that always made me cry even when Pterry was still alive and I wasn't just crying at how much poorer the world is without his clarity of vision (there's a passage about refugees close to the start that got me that way). And it's amazing.
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Cordelia's Honour is an omnibus volume of the first two novels, in terms of internal chronology and within the main timeline, of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. I actually read the first, Shards of Honour, about eight and a half years ago, and felt a bit meh about it; looking back at the post I wrote about it then, apart from the strong sense that the me of eight and a half years ago really was a pompous ass, it's clear that back then I was reading sf for ideas and new ways of seeing the world, whereas now I read books for enjoyment and escape and the chance to see through someone else's eyes and try to understand what it might be like to be them. I think this is probably a reflection of just how much I've changed over that time; finally, and somewhat belatedly, I've developed a modicum of emotional intelligence and can now enjoy a book which isn't about grand ideas, it's just about people, and about love and loyalty and the intersection between different cultures.

That said, even though I enjoyed Shards of Honour much more for reading it as a character-driven novel rather than one primarily driven by plot, the fact remains that the plot is fairly thin and relies quite a lot on fortuitous coincidence for a happy resolution; it's mainly just an excuse for Cordelia and Aral to meet, have time to get to know each other and fall in love (surprisingly quickly, for people who met as enemies, though on Aral's side this seems to be largely due to his cultural background and lack of experience, while I think Cordelia's initial attraction develops into something more during the months between their first and second meetings, knowing that Aral has already offered her marriage and the children no man she's met on her home world has), be parted and meet again. The second book, Barrayar, is much plottier, combining political intrigue with comedy of manners and showing the development of Cordelia and Aral's relationship, their relationships with others around them, and Cordelia's interactions with Barrayaran society (a process of adjustment on both sides).

I'm glad I decided to give Bujold another try; I often do find that if I don't get on with a book or an author the first time, I will at another time, and this time I was obviously ready to appreciate her.
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I've seen quite a lot of mentions of Kerry Greenwood's series of 1920s-set mysteries starring Phryne Fisher over the years, and was finally propelled into buying the first book after Nine Worlds, where one of my favourite cosplayers was the woman playing Phryne in a series of stunning dresses.

The book is pure fluff; Phryne Fisher is rich, clever, charming and confident, and solves crimes (aided by her maid, a couple of Communist taxi-drivers and a rather wonderful Scottish woman doctor) while changing her outfit multiple times a day, taking an awful lot of baths and making everyone fall in love with her. I thought at first that it was going to be too fluffy for me, and the plot is certainly fairly thin, if dramatic, but it grew on me, and I liked the strongly feminist slant; apart from the woman doctor, one of the sub-plots concerns a backstreet abortionist who is exploiting desperate women, and Phryne is an independent, sexually confident woman who is fully aware that she lives in a society where that isn't normally accepted. I don't feel compelled to rush out and buy all the subsequent books, but I wouldn't rule out reading at least a couple more sometime.
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I bought my copy of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Asssassin just after we moved to Oxford, in early 2001, but then I never got round to reading it; there were always other books, and for a long time I read so little, and so slowly, that I was daunted by the prospect of embarking on a book of more than 600 pages. Happily, these days I'm reading more and faster, and long books are no longer offputting, and as I'm going to see Atwood speaking at the Sheldonian in November I thought I ought to try to catch up on her back catalogue.

The Blind Assassin is an intriguing, multi-layered novel. The main narrative is reminiscent of a family saga, set in smalltown Canada in the 1920s and 30s, as Iris Chase Griffen, now in her 80s, remembers her childhood and early adulthood and her relationship with her sister Laura. We learn two things about Laura at the start of the novel: that she killed herself just after the end of World War II, and that she is the author of a celebrated posthumous novel, The Blind Assassin, and this novel, the story of a love affair between two nameless characters, is woven alongside Iris's narrative, a novel within the novel. There's also a third narrative, as the man in Laura's novel is a writer of pulp SF and spins out a story, or several stories which sometimes intersect, across their many meetings, and a running commentary of newspaper stories. Atwood is a skilful enough storyteller to let the multiple narratives twine around each other, occasionally intersecting, creating a space between them which coalesces into the shapes of the secrets which have been hidden for half a century and which only Iris is left to remember.

It's not a happy book; it's full of loss and heartbreak and empty, unfulfilled lives, but it is beautifully written and vivid and made me stop and think about what being alive really means, and it reminded me (if I needed reminding) just why it is that Atwood is one of my favourite writers. She doesn't deal in comfort, but she always captures the truth.
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The Baba Yaga is described as being the third book in the Weird Space series, which was created by Eric Brown and then passed over to Una McCormack, who wrote this book and the soon-to-be-released sequel. I haven't read the two books Brown wrote, but I didn't really feel that it mattered, as the opening chapters gave enough background that I didn't feel I was missing anything.

The novel is set sometime in the distant future, when humanity has recently made a fragile peace with the alien Vetch, largely in response to a new threat from the Weird, strange alien beings from another dimension whose encounters with humans and the Vetch to date have been catastrophic. This isn't a utopian Star Trek future; old enmities and suspicions are hard to put aside in the face of new threats, and humanity is split on whether to try to destroy the Weird before it destroys them or to find some way of negotiating a peace. The central character, intelligence analyst Delia Walker, is on the side of negotiations, and has heard rumours of a distant planet where humans and Weird live in harmony. Forced out by the hawkish ascendency in the Intelligence Bureau, she sets off in search of this world, which may well just be a myth.

Part space-opera quest, part Spooks-style thriller, the real delight of this book is in the characters, who are complex and three-dimensional and sympathetic while not always being likeable. Also, almost all of them are women, and reading an SF novel full of well-drawn, non-token female characters was an utter and unexpected joy. And that was before I got to the part where McCormack creates a society which is basically a 1970s feminist utopia brought into a 2010s novel.

Although you don't have to have read the previous novels set in the same universe to understand this one, the ending is very obviously setting up the sequel and although some of the sub-threads are tied off the wider plot is very far from being resolved. Apart from that, the only slight quibble I have with it is that the Kindle edition could have benefitted from more thorough copy-editing, as there were a lot of small errors, particularly missing words or moments where part of a sentence had obviously been rewritten but some of the grammar of the surrounding text needed to be updated to match. But overall, I loved this book, and am really looking forward to the sequel.

(Disclaimer: Una McCormack is an online friend, and I might well not have bought the book in the first place if not for wanting to support her. I'm really glad I did, though, and I'll be buying the next one because I want to read it.)
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One of the people I spent time with at Nine Worlds mentioned that she was going to the Gollancz Festival this weekend, and as T was going to a 50th birthday do which meant he'd be away from Friday to Sunday afternoon I thought I'd go along for the morning and afternoon sessions yesterday.

It was an enjoyable though rather tiring day out (I got the 7:45 train to London and had booked on the 19:35 home; in fact I would actually have been able to make the 19:05, but hadn't wanted to take the risk of missing it given that I was buying super-cheap advance tickets and if I'd missed it I'd have had to buy a new full-price ticket); it was great to catch up with people and spend the day listening to conversations about books. I also spotted on Twitter that a university friend I hadn't seen for about 25 years was there, replied to him and got to catch up at the mid-session break*. I bought several paper books, and later several more in the festival ebook sale**. I did find that after spending two three-hour sessions sitting in rather uncomfortable chairs which were packed closely enough together to leave very little leg or elbow room, even for someone as short as me, I was quite achy and very happy to be able to relax into a comfortable train seat, and the auditorium at Foyles was also mostly uncomfortably hot, but those were minor irritations.

Less minor was the fact that the panels were firmly set on "transmit", with no opportunity for audience questions ("Why?" called one inspired heckler after a panel chair explained that he'd been told that they couldn't take questions), so as well as being six hours of sitting in uncomfortable chairs in an over-hot room, it was also six hours of being talked at; unlike something like Nine Worlds, where the membrane between audiences and panels is fully permeable, here it was very clear that they were the experts and we were the audience. Also, because the panellists were all authors, there was a tendency for them to talk mostly about their own work and not more widely about books in general, and I never find authors talking about their own work as interesting or helpful in terms of getting recommendations as people talking about other writers' work they've enjoyed.

More serious, though, was the lack of diversity among the panellists. In the morning, of 17 people on stage, 6 were women (including one moderator); in the afternoon, there was one female panellist and one female moderator out of 16 people. The table of books for people to buy and get signed also skewed heavily male, even given that it was necessarily a reflection of the authors there, as there were multiple books there from several of the male author while I didn't see more than one from any of the women; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, when the panellists did mention the work of other authors very few of authors mentioned were women. There were also no BME or visibly disabled panellists. C and I both tweeted about this repeatedly during the afternoon using the festival hashtag, with no response from Gollancz (though C, who also went this morning, has tweeted that one of the organisers did acknowledge the issue when she mentioned it in response to being asked how they were finding the festival). I realise that because this is a publisher-organised event the list of potential speakers is going to be restricted to Gollancz's authors, but it does rather suggest that they aren't very good at publishing women, BME and disabled authors.

I also thought that the organisation of the festival into completely independent sessions wasn't ideal from a logistical point of view. I can see that it would have made setting up the booking system much easier to get people to book for each session separately, but it meant queuing up multiple times to have our names checked off the list and get into the room, and, because each booking entitled the attendee to a goody bag, people attending more than one ended up with multiple identical bags, and while the bags themselves were great (nice sturdy canvas totes), the contents mostly consisted of promotional postcards and book samples, the vast majority of which have just gone straight into my recycling bin. I couldn't help feeling that it would have made more sense, at an event where a lot of people were going to multiple sessions, to have devised a system with multi-session bookings, and only offer one goody bag per person. Or even put different things in the bags for each session; I might still have recycled a lot of the samples as not really looking like my kind of thing, but I'd have felt better about it if I wasn't recycling two of some things.

*Not that there's actually that much you can say to someone you haven't seen in 25 years in a 15-minute break, because where do you even start? But it was really nice to see him again. Surprisingly, he didn't look that different, and I can't have changed that much either because he realised I was sitting two rows in front of him. I suspect that if we hadn't each known the other was there we'd just have thought "that person looks vaguely familiar" rather than "oh, hello long-lost friend!", though.

**Two of the three paper books I bought turned out to be in the 99p ebook sale, but as they were the ones I thought I'd really like to read, rather than "I'll buy this because it's cheap and might be worth reading", I don't really mind. I still love my Kindle, but I love paper books too.
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Ursula Le Guin's A Very Long Way From Anywhere Else is one of the books that got me through my teens, and although I hadn't read it for years before finding a copy in the second-hand bookshop in Stratford last week I've often thought about it. Unlike most of Le Guin's work, it's not SF; instead, it's a fairly simple story about two geeky contemporary teenagers. It's also less than 100 pages long, which I hadn't remembered, but even so it's probably the truest depiction I've ever come across of what it's like to be a thoughtful teenage loner, trying to learn how to do the human act and work out what the point of all the years stretching ahead of you are. It's also one of the very few books I encountered in my teens that touched on the subject of depression (the other one is Fire and Hemlock); it doesn't refer to it by name, but when I first read the narrator's description of the mental fog that descends on him I knew that he was feeling the same way I was, and I didn't feel quite so alone any more.

Thirty years later, I still found it beautiful and moving and insightful; it was good to be reminded of some of the things it taught me about living but which I'd half forgotten over the years.

(Interestingly, I think the UK edition must have been anglicised in a way I don't think happens so much now; there are references to "maths" and "primary school" and a few other things that now strike me as incongruous in an American book.)
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The second of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo books takes her hero (now definitely Nicholas, rather than Claes, and leader rather than apprentice) on a trading mission to Trebizond in 1461. Having looked up Trebizond when I read The Towers of Trebizond, I knew from the start that this wasn't likely to be an entirely uneventful trip, as indeed it wasn't, featuring Dunnett's trademark twisting plots; sequences that had me turning the pages, unable to put the book down until I found out how Nicholas and his comrades would get out of the latest tight spot; and other sequences where her hero's dazzling audacity pulls off feats that are simultaneously amazing and hilarious. I think I must be getting used to Dunnett, though, as while I couldn't have begun to guess at how most of the plot twists would unravel, there is one unwelcome final turn I saw coming a long way off.

Having started to unravel the enigma that is Nicholas in the first book, this one gave a bit more insight into his own thought processes. Certainly more than we ever get of Lymond, though I do love the way the Lymond Chronicles pretty much never show scenes from Lymond's point of view; saying that, I'm not sure how trustworthy Nicholas is as a viewpoint character. Several supporting characters also return and are further developed, and I felt that the cast of this series were really starting to come alive. Also, it reminded me how much I love Dunnett's women, who manage to be tough and independent while never feeling as though they are modern characters dressed up in historical costumes.

I'm definitely warming to the series after being a bit lukewarm on the first book, and look forward to moving on to the next one soon.
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Recent RSC price rises have meant that we're more inclined to watch the live broadcasts at the Picturehouse than to go to Stratford, but I got an email last week offering £15 tickets for Cymbeline and, as I'd got the week off work anyway, we decided to return our cinema tickets and go to this afternoon's matinee instead.

I didn't know the play at all beforehand. The plot felt like something of a mash-up of elements from other plays; the jealousy plot from Othello, the faked death being mistaken for real from Romeo and Juliet, cross-dressing, long-lost siblings. I'd always thought it was a tragedy, but although the production featured a fair amount of gore there were surprisingly few deaths, and the ending was much closer to that of a comedy, with lovers reunited, lost children restored to their true heritage, general celebration and rejoicing. It did feel rather as though Shakespeare was phoning this one in; definitely more of a curiosity than a sadly neglected classic, I'd say.

The production was very much played for laughs, particularly bawdy ones, as well as for gore and brutality (within the confines of a stage production, some of the violence was still quite shocking). Visually, the look was definitely aiming for near-future dystopia, with the British in patchworks of tweed and denim (and Cymbeline herself in Ugg boots and a long patchwork cardigan a lot of the time) and the Romans in military uniforms and sunglasses, while the set featured graffiti and a decaying-industrial-landscape vibe for Britain (for me, it very much caught the aesthetic that Gwyneth Jones's Bold As Love series suggests) and a sleek nightclub atmosphere for Rome. The non-British characters also spoke at least some of their lines in non-English languages, reinforcing their differentness; the Romans, obviously, spoke Latin, Iachimo spoke Italian and the French character French, with the English originals projected onto the backdrop.

Apart from the translation, the text was also changed to allow for the fact that several of the parts were gender-swapped; in this version, Cymbeline is a queen rather than a king, and her scheming spouse is a Duke rather than a fairytale-style wicked stepmother, while the elder (and bloodthirstier) of the two long-lost children is a daughter rather than a son. I felt this did interesting things to the dynamics of the play; apart from the fact that if Cymbeline had been a king it would have seemed a lot more reminiscent of King Lear, it replaces the standard trope of the woman scheming for the advantage of her own child over her stepchildren with a man trying to bring down a powerful woman. Meanwhile, the men mainly seem to be Terribly Poor Stuff, especially Posthumus who not only lets Iachimo talk him in to a stupid bet but believes the lies he is told in return; Iachimo, this one at least, is no Iago and his manipulation doesn't come across as particularly subtle, while the reelvant lines from Ovid are projected on the backdrop when he mentions the story of Philomel, in case anyone in the audience wasn't aware of what was being referenced. It felt like quite a feminist reading of a play which could easily have been anything but.
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My mother mentioned Simon Armitage's Walking Home, an account of his walk along the Pennine Way, to me when I was reading Hunter Davies's A Walk Along The Wall in preparation for our walking holiday, and then Armitage was on last week's Great Canal Journeys talking to Timothy West and Prunella Scales about the Pennine landscape and, as I was between books (having just abandoned Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light because it simply wasn't managing to interest me at all; I know it's an SF classic, but maybe it's just too much of another time, or maybe it was just the wrong time for me) I bought the Kindle edition and started reading it straight away.

The thing I don't understand is how many books about walking appear to be written by people who don't actually enjoy walking. I know that I was really worried, before our walk, that I wouldn't enjoy it; I think I was actually more worried that I'd have a miserable time than that I wouldn't be physically capable of completing the trail, but in fact once we started it was quite simply the most amazing experience, and minor discomforts were as nothing compared to the sheer joy of being out there, surrounded by the countryside, just having to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not having to worry or even think about anything else. If it rained, well, we had waterproofs, and Gore-Tex lined boots, and waterproof covers for our backpacks, and if it wasn't very warm, well, after half an hour's walking I was generating enough body heat that I was quite pleased the outside temperature was only around 15C and I was perfectly comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt, and if my legs ached after a day's walking, it was a good ache, accompanied by a rather smug feel of satisfaction at having really achieved something. Armitage also had doubts before he set off, which is hardly surprising, as he was a middle-aged man with no experience of long-distance walking embarking on what is probably the most challenging of British long-distance walks (the toughest section of the Hadrian's Wall path shares its course with the Pennine Way, and Armitage's book confirms my suspicion that that is one of the easier bits of that trail), but even once he starts walking a lot of negativity remains; the frequent complaints about the rain and fog and cold, the difficult terrain and hard-to-follow path all give the impression that he really isn't enjoying himself. He can also be rather snide and mean-spirited about the people he encounters. I particularly disliked his comments on a "slower and heavier" couple he and the Pennine Way Ranger he's walking with pass one day, who then arrive at the summit ten minutes after them and "crack open a tin of biscuits"; Armitage can't see them, from where he's sitting, but he "can hear their giggling and the sound of chubby fingers prising bourbons and custard creams out of the plastic packaging". From which I can only assume that he must have amazing powers of recognising biscuits by sound alone, as he's already said he can't see them, and that he doesn't think fat people should be allowed to climb hills and if they do, they shouldn't opt for biscuits as a convenient and calorie-dense snack when they get to the top. I also wonder whether the owners of the B&B in Byrness were particularly chuffed with the way they were portrayed, mocked for the number of signs put up for the benefit of their guests and for the old-fashioned range of snacks on offer in their tuck cupboard.

However, Armitage is a poet, and has a poet's way with language, and he grew up in Marsden, just off the Pennine Way, and has a real feel for the Pennine landscape. He writes beautifully, and the book is definitely at its best when the focus is on the countryside and its flora and fauna; which, to be fair, is actually most of it. Even if he didn't enjoy his long-distance walk, he reminded me of what I enjoyed about mine, although I'm not tempted to try the Pennine Way any time soon (I'm realistic about my abilities, and apart from anything else I don't have three weeks to spend on a walking holiday).
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I absolutely adored Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword when I first read it at the age of 11 or 12. It had a capable, likeable heroine who didn't need anyone else to get her out of trouble, and a big loyal cat, and some wonderful friendships, and a romantic subplot which was sweet but not threateningly sexy, and after discovering it in the library I read it and the prequel, The Hero and the Crown, several times each. I never owned my own copy, though, but when someone posted a picture of the cover of their copy for a book meme on Facebook recently I found myself really wanting to re-read it, so I sought out a secondhand copy on Amazon (the availability of McKinley's books on Kindle is quite patchy, and this isn't available, though The Hero and the Crown is).

Re-reading something you used to love so much is a slightly scary undertaking. What if the book has been visited by the Suck Fairy in the intervening years, and the amazing story turns out to be rather dull and ordinary? Happily, The Blue Sword remains as wonderful as it always was; Harry is still likeable, her friends are even lovelier than I remembered, and Corlath hasn't turned into the kind of masterful hero who makes me want to throw books across the room. I was a little bit worried that the book's setting, which is fairly obviously a kind of fantasy-British-Raj-India, might have aged badly, but while I can't really see it as anything but a fantasy India analogue the details are vague enough for it to read as Generic Fantasy Hot Country With Some Critique Of Colonialism rather than anything more appropriative. There were even a couple of really very ordinary sentences (really, really very ordinary - one of them was "He did not look very majestic while glaring at a cat") which I found had spent the last 30 years sitting somewhere in the recesses of my memory, completely detached from their context, so that I was both surprised to find that this was where they were from and delighted to encounter them again.

It's still a lovely read. I can see why I read it so much as a child. Harry starts off rather lonely and feeling adrift in life, unsure of her place in the world, and ends up finding love and community and a place to belong, which is a fantasy I very much needed in those days, when I was awkward and geeky and never seemed to be able to make real friends. (I loved the Chalet School for much the same reasons, but that didn't have swords.) It's not a book that deals in shades of grey; the enemies Harry has to fight are barely glimpsed but demonic and evil, so there's never any question that there might be two sides to the war, while all the human characters are genuinely nice, thoughful and noble and trying to do good, with only some very minor disagreements and misunderstandings to get in their way. I suspect that, having rediscovered it, it'll continue to be a book I reach for when I want a comfort re-read, and I'm very glad it's held up as well as it has done.
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Before reading it, my impression of We Have Always Lived In The Castle was of a cross between I Capture The Castle and the Addams Family, and actually I don't think I was all that far off. As well as titular references to castles, both it and I Capture The Castle have female first-person narrators in their late teens, girls on the verge of adulthood, perhaps a bit consciously naive, and relationships between sisters are at their hearts, while the isolated Blackwood house and the shunned, eccentric family within are certainly examples of the same American Gothic tradition as the Addams Family.

It's a short book, but there's a lot in it. The story of Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood and her sister Constance, who live alone apart from their disabled uncle, isolated from their community following the deaths of the rest of their family in a notorious mass poisoning which Constance was accused and acquitted of, it's often extremely creepy and quite disturbing, exploring themes of madness and bullying and how society reacts to difference (I think if the novel had been written now rather than fifty years ago Merricat would almost certainly be considered neurodivergent) in a similar way to classics of feminist literature such as The Yellow Wallpaper and Wide Sargasso Sea. And yet it's also utterly charming, and not actually an unhappy book at all.
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Falconer's Lure, recently reprinted by Girls Gone By Press, fills in a lot of the gaps that confused me as a child reading Antonia Forest's Kingscote books; how the Marlows seemed to live a long way from the school at first, and then much closer, and who Patrick was, and why he only appeared later on, and where the hawks came from. It's a much more "typical" children's holiday story than The Marlows and the Traitor, or indeed Peter's Room which I finally read a couple of years ago, with a loose and episodic plot covering typical (and not so typical) summer holiday activities; swimming, riding, hawking. Forest being Forest, though, this isn't your typical sunny summer holiday book; death and bereavement loom large, and the Marlows continue to be deeply dysfunctional in a stiff-upper-lip kind of way and not entirely likeable.

There are some really stunning passages in this book; the scene where Nicola and Patrick are on the Crowlands, watching Jon's plane in the distance, struck me in particular (I knew from reading later books, online synopses and fic what was going to happen, but it was still incredibly well done). I love how Forest shifts the viewpoint from character to character, never letting the reader completely sympathise with anyone but giving everyone, even the rather difficult characters like Ann and Ginty, at least a moment of sympathy. And Peter's diving scene reminded me of the thing I most loved about the Marlows as a child, and still do now: the way they use quotations and scenes from fiction and poetry to understand and interpret the world. I never really identified with any of the Marlows; they were all too brave and sporty and outgoing for me, apart possibly from Lawrie in whom I can see a lot of the things I least like about myself, but I absolutely recognised that way of filtering life through art, and I don't think I'd ever seen it described before. Certainly not in such a recognisable way. (Also, the idea of Peter and Selby earnestly debating whether Childe Roland defeated what was in the Dark Tower or not until the person behind them got fed up is wonderfully entertaining, and also absolutely the kind of thing I would do too.)

There's now only one Marlows book I haven't read, The Ready-Made Family. I was going to wait until Girls Gone By reprinted it, but having just realised that it comes after The Thuggery Affair and not before and is therefore likely to be more like 18 months away than 12 I have ordered an expensive secondhand copy. I hope this one turns up - I did try this once before and was then told that the book had been returned to the sender after being damaged in the post, though I can't help wondering if they actually had it to send in the first place.


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December 2016



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