One Corpse Too Many (1979): Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book 2

In times like these, it’s comforting to read a book where the author is entirely in control: where everything gels beautifully, and you don’t have to do anything but be carried along on the story. Few books convey this ‘sinking into a warm bath’ feeling better than Ellis Peter’s Cadfael series. I read the first book some time ago now, and actually read this second instalment immediately afterwards, but didn’t write about it at the time. It’s been long enough that I’d completely forgotten what happened, and had the pleasure of reading it all over again: disguise, distrust, nefarious deeds and all! It’s 1138 in Shrewsbury and King Stephen and his army are camped outside the town walls, while the last of the Empress Maud’s loyalists wait defiantly within the castle. When the castle finally falls, as all know it must, the garrison are executed. The monks of Shrewsbury Abbey volunteer to undertake the pious work of burying the 94 dead men, but when Cadfael takes charge of the task, he makes a troubling discovery. There are not 94 corpses but 95, and the extra man has not been hanged along with the rest of the garrison, but garrotted. How has a murder victim come to be concealed among the bodies of these men, and who was he? Cadfael and his new assistant Godric resolve to find out.

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Before They Are Hanged (2007): Joe Abercrombie

★★★½

The First Law: Book 2

Wow, that got dark very quickly. The second instalment of the First Law trilogy spreads our characters out across the world, many of them facing insurmountable odds, and all of them, at various points, encountering an awful lot of violence. There is a lot of blood. This is not one for the faint-hearted, but Abercrombie’s sense of irony prevents it from getting too crushingly miserable. In her comment on the last post, Heloise noted that he undermines the conventions of the fantasy genre throughout the series, and I noticed more examples of this here: not so much in terms of characterisation, now, but in the plot itself. And yet this does feel very much like a ‘middle book’: while it begins with the feel of a new chapter, taking our characters away from the debatable safety of Adua and into foreign climes, it finishes with many storylines still in progress. Nevertheless, it manages to keep up the pace with aplomb, and raises more questions than it answers.

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The Blade Itself (2006): Joe Abercrombie

★★★★

The First Law: Book 1

I bought this book in 2013 and have started it several times over the years but, for some reason, kept getting distracted after a few chapters. Now, however, the stars have aligned, and I raced through from the first page to the last, happily captivated. In fact, it’s remarkable that it’s taken me this long. I’ve read and enjoyed other works by Joe Abercrombie, and his First Law trilogy seems to be widely regarded as a modern classic of fantasy. I should have come to it much earlier. It blends elements of sword-and-sorcery with court politics and, though it does little but lay the foundations of the plot for the rest of the series, it introduces us to a series of deliciously complex characters. This first instalment drops us into a world peopled by fantasy tropes, who gradually develop into rounded, complex individuals before our eyes, treated both with wit and compassion. For those who’ve read the series, I wonder: can you guess who my favourite character is?

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Happy New Year!

2020 is finally on the way out, like the nightmare house guest you thought would never leave. If only for that reason, this New Year’s Eve, more than any in recent memory, is surely worth toasting with something crisp and bubbly. I’ve decided that optimism has to be the rule here. I’ve written several drafts of this post and all the others degenerated into me grumbling about Christmas and lockdown, which is neither original nor helpful. In fact, it’s probably best not to look back at all, but to look resolutely forward, and to be hopeful, as far as possible. Things may not be back to normal next week or next month, but vaccination programmes are rolling out across the globe and, by the summer, we can reasonably hope to be able to visit family for a weekend, or go to a wedding, or even take a holiday abroad. There are other things I long for too: the chance to rummage around second-hand bookshops again; opera performances; pub lunches in the middle of long country walks; and days out at National Trust houses with cream teas in the cafés. Tell me: which things are you most looking forward to doing once the restrictions are lifted?

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The Final Empire: Brandon Sanderson (2010)

★★★½

Cosmere: Book 2 / Mistborn: Book 1

I’ve now been back at work for a couple of weeks, thank goodness, and have been happily readjusting; although this strange new world brings new challenges. How, for example, does one manage to appear professional on a Zoom call from one’s bedroom? (I need to experiment with backgrounds.) However, weekends are still sacred and I’ve spent this particular chilly Sunday afternoon curled up on the sofa with The Final Empire. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Brandon Sanderson and, while it isn’t the first in his Cosmere saga (that would be Elantris), it marks the beginning of its own sub-series, Mistborn. I’ve heard a lot about Sanderson in recent years – he’s definitely one of the most popular modern fantasy authors, in part thanks to his completion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series – and my expectations were, inevitably, high. While his inventive world-building and magic system didn’t disappoint, I was initially underwhelmed by his writing style; but that bothered me less as I made my way through the book. In part a self-contained adventure story, and in part a clearly-signposted springboard for future events, this is a satisfying romp full of honourable thieves, dark religions, disguise and politics: just up my street.

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The Made-Up Man: Joseph Scapellato

★★★

It has been much too long, hasn’t it? It wasn’t meant to be this way: when the lockdown started in London, back in March, I thought this would be the perfect time for reading and blogging. Yes, I thought I’d finally get round to ploughing through Proust. Instead, I’ve spent seven months in a one-bedroom room flat (save a few days here and there), on furlough, with a steadily dwindling sense of purpose and intellectual capacity. It turns out that, when you have nothing to do, it becomes increasingly hard to do anything at all. And I was one of the lucky ones: having my partner here with me has been a joy throughout. But it has still been immensely hard. This is the longest gap in my blogging since I started writing The Idle Woman in 2011 and I’m sorry for that. I even forgot the blog’s birthday back in July! But things are, hopefully, on the mend now. I’m returning to work in just over a week, and am looking forward to honing my mind again because, quite frankly, it feels like unformed putty at the moment. And I need to write. I’ve been genuinely lost without this blog over the last few months. Feeling unable to focus on reading, unable to write a blog post, has deprived me of some of the most joyous hobbies in my life. Writing this blog brings me contentment, discipline and, crucially at the moment, contact with you lovely people out there in the ether. In an ideal world, I’d be taking up the reins again with a post about a staggeringly brilliant book (for which, see Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi). I have more complex feelings about The Made-Up Man, but come along with me and we’ll see if we can thrash out an opinion about it somewhere on the way.

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Piranesi (2020): Susanna Clarke

★★★★★

Piranesi lives in the House. There is nothing beyond or outside. He has explored with scientific rigour, as far as he can go, diligently mapping his progress. His findings suggest the House is infinite, its upper halls thick with drifting clouds, its lower levels submerged beneath silent waters. Each hall has its own collection of statues, which Piranesi catalogues with earnest devotion. He is entirely alone, save for weekly meetings with the elusive Other, the only other living man in the House. Piranesi likes to believe that they are colleagues, working together for the greater good, but he knows deep in his heart that he and the Other have different ambitions. The Other dreams of discovering some great and terrible knowledge hidden within the House, while Piranesi cares only for the well-being of the House itself, in all its majesty. Susannah Clarke’s long-awaited new novel transports us to an extraordinary world and poses a question: How can we understand and rationalise our world when we can’t escape it? Dream, reality and perception tremble on the brink in one of the most original novels I’ve ever read.

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Snake (2020): Erica Wright

★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

I’ve read several other books in the Object Lessons series and they’re always thought-provoking, quirky and inventive. Each book takes an everyday object and examines it from various perspectives – historical, social, ecological, cultural or mythological – offering unexpected angles on things that we might have taken for granted our entire lives. But the subject of this book is less ‘everyday’ than the others, at least for those of us in the UK. Erica Wright’s throwaway comment that, ‘If you’ve never killed a snake yourself, you probably know someone who has,‘ definitely isn’t true for me, but perhaps I just associate with particularly unadventurous non-snake-killing types. Wright is American and this book feels very heavily weighted towards a US perspective, whereas the other books I’ve read from this series manage to take a more universal approach. While there’s plenty to fascinate in Wright’s discourses upon all things serpentine, her book lacks the firm narrative command that some of the other writers in this series have achieved. Instead, Snake has a slightly frustrating, meandering quality that means we dart from subject to subject without really getting our teeth into the topic.  Continue reading

Consumed (2014): Harry Wallop

★★★

How We Buy Class in Modern Britain

Harry Wallop is well-placed to write about class. The cousin of the Earl of Portsmouth, he went to private school, learned from a young age how to tip a gamekeeper, and went on holidays with his nanny until his parents felt he was old enough to appreciate travelling abroad. But in recent years he has moved away from the world in which he grew up: he now lives in Islington and works as a journalist and television presenter (which is essentially just a different kind of social elite). Class is something that, we’ve been told, many times, is no longer relevant in the modern world, but anyone who lives in Britain knows this isn’t true. In this book, Wallop argues (and I agree) that the great post-war age of social mobility is over. Class is becoming more entrenched and more subtle than ever. He describes the new social tribes of modern Britain, and how they are defined not so much by birth but by lifestyle and consumer choices. It’s a lively and engaging book – albeit full of sweeping generalisations (but that’s the point of any work of classification) – and extremely British. The shades of nuance described here will be difficult for foreigners to pick up, and rightly so (you would be forgiven for exclaiming, on numerous occasions, “But why is that even a thing?!”), but I imagine that native Brits will feel shimmers of recognition. You might come to Wallop’s book for an accessible discussion of how class continues to shape modern society – but you stay because you want to find out which of his categories you fit into. Reading this book is, in itself, an act of class anxiety.

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Edith’s Diary (1977): Patricia Highsmith

★★★

We are all familiar with the concept of the unreliable narrator in fiction. But how much greater is that unreliability, how much greater the pinch of salt or the necessary adjustment, when we read someone’s diary! Many of us will have kept diaries, in our teens if not for longer. Looking back on them provides us with an opportunity to reassess the self-delusions of someone who is no longer the same ‘us’ are we are now. To read old diaries is to engage in a constant process of negotiation with a past self. Diaries give us the chance to tell our own stories: to present the world as we know it, with ourselves as the central characters, and everyone else swirling around us in secondary roles. We are unreliable, not through intention or malice, but through simple solipsism. Edith, the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, also keeps a diary. It was given to her as a gift when she was young and idealistic, starting out on a life that she felt sure would be full of success. But increasingly, as we follow Edith through her life, that diary becomes a reminder of life’s unpleasant tendency not to fit in with nice, neat expectations. The appropriate narrative arc never quite seems to arise in real life. Family members, somehow, never quite fulfil the expectations we have of them. More and more, Edith finds herself having to correct the shortcomings of real life in her diary, an imagined world of perfection which could all too easily become more real than her own imperfect life.

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