There is something about winter which seems to turns folks’ minds to blood, murder and mayhem. Which is nice. So long as we are just talking about fictional blood, murder and mayhem, of course…The combination of dark nights, wild weather and time spent with the further reaches of your friends and family group with no hope of escape makes crime fiction seem like the best possible option. Luckily the world of publishing knows this and breaks out the good stuff for the autumn schedules. At the moment we have new books by Lee Child, Martina Cole, Michael Connelly and Belinda Bauer covering all sorts of modern day killers and their victims but I decided to go for something a little bit more classic.
Crimson Snow is a collection of short stories in the British Library Crime Classics series. The stories were written between 1906 and 1992 – which goes to show that a good, seasonal crime story is a pretty timeless thing – and, although most are pure detective stories, some have an air of ghost stories giving an eeirie cast to the book. Some of the authors are well-known (Margery Allingham, Julian Symons) and others less so. The lesser known authors, however, look to be worth looking into – some are very good and rather prolific. My personal favourite is the last story in the book, The Carol Singers by Josephine Bell, which is nicely twisty and rather twistedly nasty.
Ah November! Season of fireworks, moustaches and complaining that Christmas has come too early! And, of course, the season when humour books breed faster than rumours on t’internet. Honestly, every time I have a day off I walk back in the shop and we’ve had to swap the stock onto a bigger table (and then a second table, and so on…). This year we’ve a whole new set of adult Ladybird titles (including Cats, Dogs and the Zombie Apocalypse), spoof Famous Five and I-Spy books and many perennial favourites. The Broons are back, as well as Viz and Private Eye annuals and, thank goodness, my personal favourite – a new QI fact book. Yes, those elves have been busy once again (because they have to have something to do between series, obviously).
The elves (Alex, Mandy, Andrew, Anna and Dan – not a Twinkletoes or a Snowflake amongst them) have done another great job. My head is now full of important facts about the word ‘Czech’*, the Tanzanian name for a roundabout** and the names of flies in the genus Pieza***. I have discovered the name for one of my phobias (the one about running out of something to read – which is abibliophobia) and that I share my other one (a fear of buttons) with Steve Jobs. For those who are counting the toll of 2016 we have the fact that the lifespan of a rock star is 25 years shorter than the average (which makes Keith Richards even more remarkable) and for those worried about inflation we discover that, for the last 70 years, the average price of a small car has maintained itself as being that of 20,000 Mars Bars. Although one of the facts that makes me happiest is knowing that the Statue of Liberty was designed as a Muslim woman guarding the Suez Canal.
As ever this is an amusing and informative volume. Something for the stocking of your favourite know-all, perhaps? (Although if I’m your favourite I already have a copy…)
*it is a Polish word
** a kipilefti
***Pieza kake, Pieza pie, Pieza rhea and Pieza deresistans – never say scientists don’t have a sense of humour!
I’ve recently been thinking about the difference between books which are ‘fiction’ and those which are allowed to be described as ‘literature’. Are there differences between the two? Is one better than the other? I’m not sure it is possible to answer these questions about books in general but it is certainly something which we tend to do with individual titles. Just look at the discussions around the long and short lists for the Man Booker prize in almost any given year. Some authors are, somehow, automatically assumed to write ‘literature’ and others, well, …not. It is fairly easy to work out which is which with 18th or 19th century authors – if we are still reading them today they must class as ‘literature’, surely? – but I’m not so sure. For me, I think it boils down to whether I am reading a book for the plot, the story, or for the words, the language. If the former is more important then, in my mind, it is ‘literature’. I’m quite possibly wrong – and, to be fair, it is quite likely that it doesn’t really matter anyway – but I do like to categorise things. Interestingly, since Swing Time is the first Zadie Smith novel I have read, I suspect I am quite happy to describe the book as a good story more than as literature. I have seen plenty of reviews praising Smith’s use of language but, for me, it was the story itself which impressed.
The story involves a narrator who never gives her name and her childhood friend Tracy – two mixed-race girls who want to be dancers. Only Tracy, however, has any talent. The narrator drops out of university to become a personal assistant to a pop star (who seemed to me to have hints of Kylie, Madonna, Angelina Jolie…) and the two girl’s lives diverge. Although we start in London large parts of the book are set in a development project in West Africa (which Aimee, the pop star, starts although she does drift away to other interests later). I was particularly fascinated by the way the narrator feels like she stands out as a black girl in her ballet class as a child yet is treated as a white woman when she is in Africa. Race is certainly not treated as a simple, either/or, issue.
If you enjoy a good story but like your books on the literary side then I can recommend this. If you really need to get closure then just remember that we never find out the narrator’s name….
The first recollection I have of one of my all time heroes – the astronomer Carl Sagan – was when he undertook, for the Royal Institution, the Christmas lecture series at the end of 1977. As a fascinated 11-year-old I absorbed it all and I still remember his demonstrations of lunar cratering with the aid of marbles “except you don’t find marbles down craters”, as well as his talk around the still-new Viking Mars missions and the just-launched Voyager mission with the interstellar record of music and messages to be a present for any future aliens who might find it.
A precis of Sagan’s lecture is just one of the thirteen summarised in this lovely little book – a great present for Christmas – which brings back historic lectures, aimed at young audiences, on the subject of space and time, ranging from 1881 to 2015. The book is a fascinating mixture of lecture history, science, RI archive content such as handwritten letters, and photographs and transcripts. The book explores what we thought we knew then and what has been discovered since. The emphasis of the lecture series has always been ‘don’t just tell – show’ – which is brought out well in the book with drawings and photographs of how children from the audience, from decade to decade, have been invited down to get involved in experiments in the Faraday Lecture Theatre.
The earlier ones – Robert Stalwell Ball of 1881, Herbert Hall Turner of 1913 are lovely period pieces, indeed Ball’s own full lecture notes – available in his book “Star-land” – are full of the more poetic language of the age. Compiler Colin Stuart compares what was believed then, with what is known now – for example the common belief in 1881 that the lunar craters were volcanic in origin, and the Martian Canals controversy – active from the late 19th to the early 20th century – was a common theme returned to in the earlier lectures.
Classic lectures by the giants of the mid-20th-century follow by James Jeans, Harold Spencer-Jones and a team led by Bernard Lovell, and as we move into the space age proper the latest lectures by Monica Grady and Kevin Fong continue to find ways of showing cutting-edge science to a young audience. In the final lecture Kevin Fong introduces British astronaut Tim Peake via video screen to talk to the audience – live- from orbit in the International Space Station, a sight that Robert Ball would no doubt have loved to have witnessed.
This is a great and unusual little book for all ages to enjoy.
13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution by Colin Stuart, with a foreword from British ESA astronaut Tim Peake. 224pp, Michael O’Mara publishing
Way back in the summer (before the snow, political shenanigans and many of the deaths which made us all cry ‘go home 2016, you’re drunk!’) I went to the Harper Collins Big Book Bonanza over in Manchester. A great evening meeting colleagues from the north-west, eating pizza, drinking free wine, meeting authors and, last but not least, getting lots and lots of new books to read and review. I’m working my way through them in publication order (because that is how I roll) and I have now reached An Almond for a Parrot, a first adult novel for an author who usually writes children’s books under the name Sally Gardner. It is not uncommon for authors to write for both – think Katie Price, Mary Wesley or Andy McNab – but, after reading this, I can see why Gardner chose to use an alternative name. She keeps the historical elements she uses in her tales for younger readers and the strong strand of magic but she has added in more than a hint of the erotic.
Tully Truegood is an orphaned young woman in the mid 1700s, intelligent, passionate and possessed of strange powers which enable her not only to see the spirits of the unquiet dead but to make them visible to others. As the story begins she is in prison, and will hang if found guilty, and her trial will be a sensation. Because Tully is a high-class whore who works at the most notorious brothel in London, the Fairy House, and is said to have murdered her husband. She tells her own story from her prison cell and spares us nothing. In her childhood her widower father treated her as a servant until she was 12, when he arranged a marriage for her with a mysterious young bridegroom who immediately went to sea. This cleared his gambling debts for a short while but when he dies in debtor’s prison she throws in her lot with the woman who she thought was her stepmother but who turns out to be a brothel-keeper with taste and ambition. She finds love more than once, with men who become her protectors, but also danger, fear and violence. Finally, her erstwhile husband – a vicious young man with unsavoury tastes for brutalising very young girls – shows up to reclaim her.
Tully is an engaging character and the plot is interestingly complicated. The sex scenes are fairly graphic but not gratuitous and the language used seems right for the mid C18th setting – in fact there is quite a Moll Flanders/Fanny Hill feel to the whole thing. The magic elements, for me, fitted in quite well – it is described quite matter-of-factly, as if it were a very plausible thing – and it is a very necessary element of the plot. This is proper grown-up historical fiction (with added magic) and I hope that Gardner/Delaney writes more adult fiction in future.
I really enjoyed my time at school – I was good at the lessons (so long as we aren’t counting P.E.), I had good friends and excellent teachers. I wasn’t one of the popular girls, or the sporty ones (obviously…) and I don’t think we’d invented geeks at that point. I suppose that sometimes people were mean to me (I did have remarkable hair, like Crystal Tips, and freckles, and no idea about fashion, and my nose in a book all the time) but I don’t think I can ever recall being bullied. I’m certainly not saying it didn’t happen at my school (it was a boarding school but it certainly wasn’t Enid Blyton!) but I was never aware of it. If bullying of the kind that happens in the Lonely Life of Biddy Weir occurred I like to think I’d have been able to tell – but who knows, bullies are often so likable for anyone they aren’t victimizing.
Biddy Weir is a rather solitary child. Her mother left when she was just a baby so she was raised by her father, a middle-aged man who was himself at the mercy of his own rather overbearing mother. She is dressed almost entirely from charity shops and her father has very old-fashioned views on modern life but she is happy enough. She isn’t bothered about having friends, preferring to watch the birds and draw, so she is not prepared for what happens when a new girl joins her class at primary school. Alison Flemming is pretty, clever and popular but she decides that Biddy is weird and she makes sure that everyone agrees with her. The bullying escalates over the years, with Alison being clever enough to get her groupies to do most of her dirty work, until it all becomes too much for Biddy on a residential school trip. The descriptions of the acts of bullying are, frankly, awful – but mostly because they are so realistic. What I found even harder to deal with was the fact that almost every teacher or adult involved in Biddy’s life seems to take the side of the prettier, easier, more ‘normal’ child – it is uncomfortable to think of times when that has been the easiest way to deal with a group of youngsters.
But the book is not all doom and gloom and it is all because of Biddy herself. She is a hugely endearing character who wants to be allowed to live her life. She is obviously intelligent and a talented artist and, as she rebuilds her life after her father’s death leaves her all alone, she strikes up a friendship with a semi-retired counsellor which gives her the confidence to carry on. Biddy eventually learns the most important lesson: being normal is highly over-rated and weird, if that is who you are, can be wonderful.
The late (and very much lamented) Douglas Adams had this to say about deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. When said deadlines loomed it is alleged that his publisher would lock him into hotel rooms in an effort to get the book finished on time. I don’t know how true this is but it may be a tactic which Ben Aaronovitch’s publishers may want to consider since this, the sixth book in the Rivers of London series, has been promised for the best part of a year as far as I can see. In fact when we were told the publication date had been set for 3rd November there was an awful lot of scepticism. When I mentioned on Twitter that the date had been confirmed (and I had an e-proof from Netgalley to prove it) there was probably an equal amount of doubt and over-excited squeeing. The customers who have been in so far to actually collect their copies have generally shown a curious mixture of disbelief and elation. And I’m fairly certain that when they have read the latest outing of P.C. Peter Grant and his colleagues in that branch of the Met which investigates ‘weird b*llocks’ they will forgive Ben Aaronovitch for the delay.
The Hanging Tree has everything that you would expect from the series. Peter Grant does lots of the leg work for his boss, Nightingale, while also trying to compile a proper Operations Manual for the Falcon department. He is given back-up by Guleed, a kick-ass female, hijab-wearing DC, and tolerated by the rest of the force. Mostly because he deals with stuff so they don’t have to. There is plot aplenty – involving rich teens getting mixed up with drugs, collapsing buildings, mysterious shell companies who own some eye-wateringly pricey London real estate and general peril – but I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say there are a lot of familiar characters (the personifications of the Rivers of London themselves are still my favourites) and villains. The Faceless Man shows up (or rather doesn’t) as does Lesley May, Peter’s ex-colleague turned baddie, and there are interesting new faces who, I hope, we will see again in future novels.
I enjoyed the wit and pace of this book – as always they are like a normal police procedural story with added magic, humour and weirdness – and I really like Peter Grant as a character. Little comment is made about his race (and as a whole race is only mentioned to describe white characters – an interesting twist on how these things usually happen) but we do see some of the difficulties he faces. Much is made of the way that London itself plays a major role in this series but I am particularly struck by the way that the books reflect the city’s generally accepting attitude to diversity.