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Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's contribution to the Hogarth Press's series of contemporary reworkings of Shakespeare. It's a Russian doll of a book, a retelling of The Tempest which is also a novel about a production of The Tempest which is derailed, for at least some of the audience, by an act of revenge based upon The Tempest. The central character is Felix Phillips, a somewhat experimental theatre director (his productions include Pericles with spaceships and The Winter's Tale with Hermione as a vampire) who is dismissed from his post as Artistic Director of a theatre festival due to the manipulations of the scheming, ambitious Tony. He disappears from public view, living like a hermit in a tumbledown shack and dreaming of revenge. His opportunity arises after he takes a job running an adult literacy programme in a prison, teaching medium-security prisoners (hackers, fraudsters, pickpockets) to perform Shakespeare, when he discovers that his enemies will be attending the performance, and sees his chance to act.

It's beautifully written, as you'd expect from Atwood; sparkling, witty, compassionate, moving. The structure enables her to explore the original play and characters both through the retelling and more directly, as Felix and his class prepare for their production. I think it was particularly good to read this the week after seeing the live streaming of the RSC's current production of The Tempest, as that meant that the plot was fresh in my mind (I found while watching the RSC production that I'd forgotten quite a lot of the plot), though I think the book would still have been enjoyable if I hadn't remembered it so clearly or even if I didn't know the play at all.
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It must be very nearly thirty years since I found a copy of Margaret Elphinstone's The Incomer in the local library. I was a science-fiction loving teenager who was passionate about feminism, and the Women's Press's SF imprint was a sure sign that a book would be relevant to my interests, so of course I snapped it up. Somewhat unexpectedly, it ended up having a profound influence on me; among other things, it was the book that first introduced me to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and I also remember it as being the first time I realised that it was actually possible for someone to be attracted to both men and women, and to act on that*. I think I read it a few times over the next couple of years, but I hadn't really even thought about it in years before I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop a couple of years ago**; it took me a while to get round to re-reading it, partly because I was worried about how it would stand up, but I found myself thinking of it recently and decided to take the plunge.

The Incomer is, basically, a classic 80s postapocalyptic feminist utopia***, set in Galloway a distant future where, following the destruction of "our" society by an unspecified cataclysm, people have returned to subsistence farming, living in small, close-knit communities, working in harmony with nature. The patriarcy has been replaced by a matriarchy, with women as "householders", leading extended family groups of children, siblings, aunts, nieces and nephews, but not fathers and partners; the nuclear family is no more, and whatever romantic relationships may be formed in adult life blood relationships and the family of origin remain the most important thing, while children belong to their mothers and only know their fathers as friends and neighbours. It's a peaceful, contented vision of the future, and if adult-me is perhaps less enamoured of the idea than my younger self was (there's a lot to be said for modern technology) I could imagine a lot worse. The novel follows the villagers through a winter when a stranger, a travelling musician, is staying with them; it's not particularly plotty, more a gentle exploration of their society, and the way in which the women of the village safeguard it from the dangers that lurk in the past and threaten to emerge into the present.

It's beautifully written, full of lovely, lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the forest. It's scattered with quotes from Four Quartets (the characters find two books from the old world, a romance novel which they find incomprehensible, and Four Quartets which seems to them the most straightforward and logical thing in the world), but reading it now I'm so much more familiar with the poems I can also see their echoes throughout the book, in the language and imagery and the way the characters experience the world around them and its relationship to the past. Even some of the structure of the novel seems to owe something to Eliot; there were times when I felt that I was reading, if not quite a feminist reworking of Four Quartets, certainly a feminist response. It's a quiet, thoughtful book, and I did enjoy revisiting it; it certainly hasn't lost everything that I found it it years ago.

One thing that hasn't stood up well, though, is the depiction of gender. It's telling that, in the 80s, the only alternative to the patriarchy seems to have been a matriarchy; it's clear, in the world of The Incomer, that the women are in charge, and the men are seen as a bit useless, not party to the deep mysteries of the world. The women are the keepers of the new peace, and are ruthless in the extent to which they will go to preserve it; an act of violence sees them transformed into Furies, pursuing the wrongdoer and exacting justice. Women are nurturing and keep their society together, while even in this brave new world the men struggle to express their emotions, to talk between themselves about what matters or to behave with tenderness and compassion to each other. Almost all of the femal characters are seen in sexual relationships with men, and although one mentions the possibility that she may have had female lovers and this is accepted as perfectly normal, it still seems to be a largely heterosexual society. Really, it's a sign of how far the dialogue around gender has moved in the last thirty years; not that it was completely impossible to imagine a post-gender future in 1987 (Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time managed it a good ten years earlier, after all), but it was clearly still possible for a radical green utopia to feature very traditional gender roles and heterosexuality-by-default in a way I don't think it would be now.

And as for my bisexual epiphany? Well, on re-reading, I do wonder if the scene were two female characters, both of whom have prevously been seen in sexual relationships with men, declare their love for each other and get into bed together was really just intended to be platonic bed-sharing, companionship and friendship and mutual support; it's certainly not spelled out that this is a sexual scene, if it's supposed to be one. (The heterosexual sex scenes are not remotely explicit, but it is pretty obvious what's going on.) Still, I don't suppose it really matters what the actual intention was; what matters is the realisation it brought me to.

* I was about 13, and it was the 80s; there was no Internet and Clause 28 was a thing, so this wasn't necessarily an easy thing to find out, but I'm very glad I did as I'm sure I was at least marginally less confused because of it.

** Although I appear to have subconsciously plagiarised it, or at least produced something very derivative of it, in my 2009 Yuletide fic. It's just as well I don't do Yuletide any more.

*** Interesting that that really was a thing; more modern postapocalyptic visions tend to be dystopias, but there was certainly a pervading view in the 80s that the end of our civilisation (which was probably just around the corner) might herald the birth of a better one. Even Star Trek got in on the act, while in more recent books, Station Eleven seems to be part of the same tradition.
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I bought a copy of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint last year because lots of people I knew seemed to be reading something called Tremontaine, which I gathered was a prequel of some kind, and also because I read a post somewhere about writers who were influenced by Dorothy Dunnett and Kushner was mentioned there.

I originally tried reading the book in the autumn, shortly after the US election; everything I'd heard about it suggested it would be just the kind of entertaining swashbuckling romp that would be perfect escapist reading when the world was going to hell in a handbasket. In fact, though, I didn't find it comforting at all. It's set in an unnamed, decaying city, with lawless areas where the poor and undocumented live in the ruins of grand houses; the ruling class are corrupt and decadent while the poor exist in a world of casual violence, and yet the tone of the narrative is so detached as to be almost whimsical, and it really wasn't what I wanted. So I put it to one side and read something else (Sense and Sensibility, I think).

I don't like giving up on books after only one try, though, so I picked it up again this week, and was obviously in a better place as I was able to appreciate the atmosphere of corruption and decay and enjoy the political maneuvering, while the detachment of the narrative didn't jar as it had done when I tried before. I found the central characters engaging and sympathetic, and I liked the relationship between Richard and Alec a lot. I suspect I will end up reading the later books set in the same universe sooner or later (especially as they now seem to be available for Kindle, which they weren't when I bought my copy of Swordspoint).
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After Foxglove Summer's venture into rural Herefordshire (which I really enjoyed, though a lot of people seem to have disliked it) and a long wait for publication (the book was originally scheduled for autumn 2015 but wasn't actually published until this November*), it's back to business as usual for Peter Grant in the sixth instalment in Ben Aaronovitch's series of urban fantasy police procedurals; running liaison between supernatural entities and his colleagues in the more normal branches of the Metropolitan Police, fighting crimes, causing significant collateral property damage and trying hard to avoid people who want him out of the way.

I think this series is getting better and better; Peter's voice and character have got surer and more consistent since the first couple of books, and if his transformation into a geek isn't quite consistent with his characterisation in the first book the frequent SF references are fun enough for me to accept the inconsistency (though it is what kept throwing me out of Moon Over Soho, where I really wasn't expecting it). It's funny and the plot zips along with occasional episodes of relatively mild peril, and I enjoyed how The Hanging Tree pulled together loose threads from throughout the earlier books rather than just concentrating on the main plot points. And if it didn't actually seem to do that much with them, or move the plot on all that far, well, I kind of get the feeling that Ben Aaronovitch is having too much fun writing about Peter to be particularly interested in winding things up any time soon.

*and I think they skimped on the proofreading to get it out then; the Kindle edition had quite a lot of missed or extra words, plus someone had obviously done a find-and-replace to hyphenate "back-up" without realising that there are also a number of occasions when characters go back up stairs, or driveways, and all of those got hyphenated as well...
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I think I liked Sherlock better when the clients and cases were central to the plot, and not just thrown in as asides to make people familiar enough with ACD canon (of whom I am not one, having only read most of the stories once) feel smug when they can recognise the updates.

Also, wtf does John Watson think he's bloody playing at?

Oh well. Next Sunday Endeavour is back and on at the same time. I'll take Douglas Richardson in a trilby over Martin Crieff being a clever-clogs any day.
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I started reviewing books here fairly early in 2016, and started cross-posting the reviews to Goodreads later on in the year (around Easter, I think, though I can't remember exactly). You can see the reviews by clicking on the "2016 books” tag. I make it 83 books, which is a surprising increase even on last year's 50, especially when six of them were by Dorothy Dunnett.

List )

I don't seem to have logged Did Not Finishes this year, but I know there were a couple; Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, possibly Courtney Milan's The Duchess War, though that may have been last year (both of these were DNF basically for Too Much Sex, though in rather different ways) and Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint (much more whimsical than I was expecting it to be and not really what I was in the mood for at the time, but I might give it another try some other time).

And now it's New Year's Eve, possibly my least favourite daye of the year, and I'm trying to decide whether I should be polite and stay up and go with my parents to see the New Year in with lots of complete strangers in the second freezing Norfolk church in two days or just go to bed and read The Hanging Tree which I treated myself to on Kindle as no-one had bought me the hardback for Christmas and be sound asleep well before midnight. After all, 2016 was the first New Year I'd stayed up for in about 15 years and look how that turned out...
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Given that I find the Christmas and New Year period a particularly trying one in the best of years, and that 2016 hasn't been the best of years by anyone's reckoning, I wanted something frothy and comforting, and you can't get more frothy and comforting than Wodehouse. I'm not actually sure whether I'd read this one before or simply seen the Fry and Laurie TV adaptation multiple times (it must be about 30 years since I discovered Wodehouse and read my way through everything the local library had to offer), but either way this was delightfully familiar territory; Bertie Wooster getting into a series of scrapes while trying nobly to extricate everyone around him from theirs, in this case largely centering around a silver cow-creamer, and narrating in characteristically breezy style, and incidentally delivering a stinging response to the thuggish would-be dictator Roderick Spode which gladdens the heart of 2016 as much as it must have gladdened those of 1938.
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I haven't been on Twitter much lately; after the US election it just wasn't doing my mental health any good at all, so I took a bit of a break. I've dropped back in again a few times in the last couple of days, mostly because I clearly have too much time on my hands in a week at home with nothing to do, but partly because I remember that it used to be fun. Today, though, I've been confronted by endless retweets of someone's thread about how, in the wake of the deaths of 53-year-old George Michael and 60-year-old Carrie Fisher, we all need to reduce our stress levels so that we can live to 90 instead of dying so young. Which, well, yes, they were both much too young, but most people don't choose to be stressed and are in fact stressed by factors beyond their control; health issues (including mental health), poverty, prejudice, war, and the amount of privilege inherent in assuming that we can just "choose" not to be stressed is staggering. Plus, it's bullshit anyway. My dad's heart problems weren't cause by stress, they were caused by viral damage to the heart muscle. Probably food poisoning, to be exact. Stress may increase vulnerability to some infections, but I'm not sure food poisoning is one of them. One of the most laid-back people I know died last year of acute pancreatitis, at the age of 45. (As Facebook has helpfully reminded me, today would have been his 47th birthday.) A colleague's wife died at 40 of metastatized melanoma, which is caused by UV damage, not stress. I may not be a doctor, but I'm still fairly sure more sleep - even if that's possible for you - is probably not actually going to make you live longer. And anyway, what's so great about living to 90?

Maybe my New Year's resolution should be to delete my Twitter account. I'm not sure it's ever going to go back to being fun like it used to be.
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I always really enjoy hearing Susan Calman on Radio 4, so when a friend mentioned that she'd written a memoir about her experience of depression I promptly added it to my Amazon wishlist, and then forgot all about it so that it came as a complete surprise when it turned out to be what one of my brothers had bought me for Christmas. And, as Christmas is generally a pretty low time of year for me anyway, I thought I might as well read it straight away.

Calman writes pretty much the way she speaks; I could hear a lot of the book in her voice. Like her radio shows, it's very funny, if perhaps more wry-smile-of-recognition funny than rolling-on-the-floor-in-hysterics funny, and it was nice, as someone who is pretty much the same age as her and has spent a similarly long time struggling with mental health issues, to read another person's story that had so many points of similarity with my own. The bit about how no-one in the 80s talked about mental health resonated particularly; I had no words to describe what was going on in my head for a long, long time, because I didn't even know there were words for it, and I'm sure that's part of why I still struggle to articulate what I'm feeling. Also, the bit about Clause 28, and just what that said to LGBT teenagers in the 80s about where we belonged in society. It's an excellent read for anyone who's suffering from mental health issues and wants to feel a bit less alone.

As well as being a memoir, this is also in some ways a self-help book, as Calman talks through the various strategies she's developed over the years for managing her depression. This part of the book felt quite basic to me, probably because I've spent as long living with my depression as she has with hers, although there was still some interesting stuff in there, particularly the identification of the different ways depression can manifest and different strategies for coping with each; this may well be something I do, but it's not something I've ever tried to taxonomise in that way, and maybe it would be helpful to do so. It was also really helpful and positive to read about someone else who was trying to live with depression through simple, straightforward actions, and not medication or therapy (I have found NHS therapy unhelpful at best, can't afford private and don't believe in it anyway, and while I occasionally wonder whether giving up the medication was really sensible I genuinely do feel that I'm better off without it*). However, I suspect the advice would be more use to someone who is suffering from depression for the first time, or perhaps to someone whose friend/significant other/child/parent is suffering and who wants to understand a bit more about what they're going through and how to help (and, indeed, how not to help).

*there's a lot to be said for not needing 10 hours of sleep a night and being able to lose myself in a good book again. Especially the book thing. I missed reading so much, and am not prepared to risk losing it again.
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It's possible that Genevieve Cogman's The Invisible Library suffered, for me, from being the book I picked up straight after such a complete knockout as Thus Was Adonis Murdered, because it seems to have a lot of glowing reviews, but I thought it was really only OK. It also wasn't quite what I was expecting; I thought there would be more about the Library and its Librarians, whereas in fact that only seemed to be the McGuffin for a fairly standard steampunk* romp. I also found the central character so utterly unmemorable that every time I picked the book up I was surprised to find that it was told in tight third person from her point of view and that her name was Irene, while the supporting characters didn't have a great deal of depth (possibly because they were all seem through the tight third person narrative of a character who appeared to be a really bad judge of other people's characters).

There were some entertaining nods to other books scattered throughout the story; I particularly liked the reference to Irene's Swiss boarding school which specialised in languages and prided itself on turning out young women who were ready for anything, though as there was no mention of spineless jellyfish maybe I was just imagining the reference there. The aristocratic detective, on the other hand, was such a blatant Holmes/Wimsey expy that it was lampshaded in the text. And my suspension of disbelief was well and truly shattered by a comment that it would be impossible to set a Library-based protection spell on the British Library, as it would be broken as soon as anyone took a book out...

Not a dreadful book, but not one I particularly enjoyed.

*I am starting to wonder if, however much I like the idea of steampunk, the truth is that I just don't enjoy reading it. It ought to be right up my street - Victoriana! Clockwork! Zeppelins! - but with the exception of Ankaret Wells' Firebrand I'm not sure I've ever read a steampunk novel that didn't leave me with an overwhelming sense of "meh".
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I normally buy goats instead of sending Christmas cards, but this year I've donated to Hope Not Hate and MSF instead. Wishing a very merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate, and a better 2017 to all of us.
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I bought a Kindle copy of Sarah Cauldwell's Thus Was Adonis Murdered a couple of years ago after [personal profile] legionseagle recommended it, and decided to start reading it last week after it came up in the books thread on [community profile] fail_fandomanon. I wish I hadn't waited so long to read it, because it was an utter delight, although on the other hand it was absolutely the perfect thing to read at the end of a long Michaelmas Term in a long and difficult year.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered is a cosy (I might almost say frothy) murder mystery, focusing on a group of young barristers, one of whom is accused of murdering a man she met on holiday in Venice. Most of the action actually takes place in London, as her colleagues read her letters and conduct investigations remotely, advised and guided by the narrator, Professor Hilary Tamar, an utterly Oxford donnish Oxford don whose gender is never revealed. It's wonderfully witty and arch and simultaneously an engaging mystery and an absolute hoot. It reminded me a bit of Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen novels, except without the casual misogyny which really put me off The Case of the Gilded Fly. I will definitely be buying and reading Cauldwell's other novels, and already feel sad that she only wrote four.
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Given the time of year, I thought Hogfather might be an appropriately seasonal re-read. I have to say that it's never been one of my favourite Pratchetts; I love Susan Sto Helit, and really like the central exploration of the relationship between fantasy and humanity, but there are a lot of subplots and some of them seem a bit superfluous, and Teatime is a fairly cartoonish villian and a lot less chilling than similar characters in some of the other books. I enjoyed re-reading it, but it didn't leave me with the overwhelming sense of how much of a loss to the world Pterry's death was that some of my other recent re-reads have done.
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I didn't read Patrick Leigh Fermor in 1990, when I had discovered travel writing via Bruce Chatwin and The Songlines* and someone (I think it was my A-Level English teacher) had recommended him, because when I looked for his books in the local bookshop I saw that the third volume of the trilogy had yet to be published, and thought I'd wait until I could read all three (at that point, Between the Woods and the Water was recent enough that this didn't seem like too remote a possibility). I finally bought a copy of A Time of Gifts in 2011, when the news of Leigh Fermor's death suggested that, in fact, this was not going to happen, and I might as well just read the two instalments he had managed to publish. However, despite the writer's block which prevented the final book appearing during his lifetime, an early manuscript (actually predating the writing of A Time of Gifts) still existed; in the last years of his life, he began revising this, and after his death the travel writer Colin Thubron and Leigh Fermor's biographer Artemis Cooper prepared the manuscript for publication.

The Broken Road isn't a complete, polished work like the earlier two; the main narrative breaks off in the Bulgarian port of Burgas, still a long way from the walk's final destination, and is followed only by some scrappy diary entries from PLF's stay in Constantinople and a section of longer entries describing his subsequent visit to Mount Athos. The descriptions of the landscapes, towns and people of Bulgaria and Romania are as stunningly beautiful as those of the earlier books, and if The Broken Road does sometimes feel like the less mature work that it is in origin that's not a reflection on the writing; rather, it's the more personal content, with the long historical and geographical digressions of the earlier books mainly absent and replaced by reflections on the process of writing an account of a journey undertaken thirty years previously and the childhood events that had brought him to the point of setting out on the walk. There's more of a sense of occasional homesickness for London here, and also a much clearer impression of the way this charming and good-looking young man was taken up and fêted, not just by the aristocracy across Europe but specifically by the women he met; a Greek-Bulgarian student in Plodiv, the landlady of a hotel in Rustchuck, the whole staff of the brothel he mistakes for a hotel in Bucharest... There's also more melancholy in the reflections of the fates of the people Leigh Fermor met on his journey during the intervening years, especially those in Bucharest (where he is careful only to mention by name the people who are dead or who had escaped to the West by the time of writing, to avoid anything that might put his friends in danger at the hands of the Communist authorities); I don't know whether this is because of self-editing in the first two publisheed books, or because Romania was the place where Leigh Fermor ended up living for several years between the end of his walk and the start of World War 2, and the losses have hit him more because of that.

I found the diary entries from Mount Athos the weakest part of the book. I can see why the editors included them, as they do offer a more satisfactory conclusion than breaking off mid-sentence in Burgas, but PLF at nineteen is a very different person from PLF in his fifties looking back; he already had the facility for description that is the defining feature of the work of his later self, but he's (understandably) much less mature and his descriptions of the people he meets lack the subtlety and insight of the later work. His dislike for the food offered in many of the monasteries (vegetables and olive oil, horror of horrors!) comes across as somewhat brattish, and his discomfort at encountering a monk who insists on holding his hand is an interesting contrast to his more open-minded reflections, earlier in the book and later in his life, on homosexual relations among the people who gave the English language the word "bugger".

It is a glorious book, though, and I'm glad that we did get a third volume in the end, even if not quite a complete one.


*It may be 25 years, but I still got full marks on the set of bonus questions on Chatwin on this week's University Challenge, which was more than the students did.
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Because A Perfect United Kingdom is not enough we need The Best Experts (The Expert Dreamers) to build a Future beyond imagination, so unbelievable and extraordinary that not a single person on the surface of Planet Earth ever thought it possible in our lifetime. This is why we are contacting 415.142 Experts among the most talented Britons. We can move beyond Hopeless Denial and Frustration to circumvent the establishment and launch a new governance paradigm in which a perfect government is not enough. We have called this new paradigm post-politics, in which creativity, knowledge and imagination are used to construct the best possible long-term future for All Britons.

Ah bless. Poor dear deluded spammer, don't you know that Britain has had enough of experts?
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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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