I bought "Halfway To The Grave" a year ago because I was looking for new series and this got positive, "Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs" kinds of reviews. I'm reading it now as part of my Thirty Firsts TBR Reading Challenge.
I'm abandoning it at 25% because it's a little too light and too slow for me.
The conceit the story is based on is fun: Cat, a young woman, born half- vampire (no, I've never heard of that before either), as a result of rape, grows up to seek out and kill vampires and then gets entangle with Bones an old vampire who hunts his own kind.
Some of the dialogue is witty and the tone stays light, despite the often unpleasant content. I think a lot of people could have fun with this.
I recommend avoiding the audiobook version if you're English. Bones is English and Tavia Gilbert, who otherwise does a good job on the narration, seemed to me to be channelling Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins every time Bones spoke. It kept throwing me out of the story.
I was also put off by Cat's innocence and easy embarrassment. It was just a little over-played and my suspension of disbelief cord kept snapping and hitting me in the face.
Given that I've only read the first quarter of the book, I'm not attempting a rating. It could be great by the end but I'm not having enough fun with it to continue.beyond the 25% point.
If you want to assess this for yourself, listen to the SoundCloud extract below. Bones appears just before the end.
My favourite Discworld character is Vimes, who heads the City Watch. In "Men At Arms" we start to get a clearer view of the kind of man he is and why he is where he is. We're told, early in the book, that Vimes knows that he is not a good copper because he has
"a certain core of stubborn bloody-mindedness... which upset important people, and anyone who upsets important people is automatically not a good copper."
This attitude alone would be enough for me to admire him but it's the thoughts he shares on the relationship between the poor and the rich and between honest men and kings that would make me want to buy him a pint and ask him to tell me more.
Here are my two favourite quotes so far:
In "Excellent Women" Barbara Pym lets us see London, immediately after World War Two, through the eyes of Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman's daughter of modest independent means, who works mornings in a charity for aiding impoverished gentlewomen, is active in her local High Anglican church and is, at a little over thirty, on the cusp of becoming a spinster.
Mildred is a bright, public school educated woman who spends large portions of her life doing things for other people. She has a well-developed sense of the absurd and a, mostly compassionate, insight into the peculiarities of expectation, habit, manners and introspections that shape her own behaviours and the behaviours of the people around her.
The plot is largely a series of opportunities to explore the lives and choices of the, often ignored or patronised, "Excellent Women", who make lives for themselves that aren't centred around marriage and children.
I re-read "Excellent Women", after a gap of forty years, as part of a buddy read on BookLikes. Since my last read, the post-war years, with their rationing, their high levels of divorce and accelerating social change, have receded from being the years that my parents married in and have become History and in the process become a foreign country where taken for granted things like living in bedsits with a shared bathroom, need to be explained. Over the same period, my age has nearly tripled and my experience has broadened. Consequently, my reactions to the text this time were very different from last time. It confirmed to me that no man can step into the same book twice.
The first surprise I had was that Mildred Lathbury, was stronger and wittier than I remembered her. I suspect my twenty-something self mistook some of Mildred's politeness for acquiescence. Now I see that much of it was controlled anger.
The second surprise was how clearly I heard echoes of a slightly more acerbic and world-weary Jane Austen in Pym's writing. The novel opens with Mr Mallet ( a name to conjure with) rivalling Mr Collins in his ability to be simultaneously pompous and patronising. It prompts a self-assessment by the Mildred that is an inverse echo of "It is a fact universally acknowledged etc" in the opening of "Pride and Prejudice" but with Mildred declining to let go of her pride (self-respect) and bridling at Mallet's prejudice:
"I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business and if she is also a clergyman's daughter, then one might really say there is no hope for her."
One of the comments that was made most frequently during the buddy read of "Excellent Women" was how relatable Mildred Lathbury was. We see the world through Mildred's eyes and find that the view from there is honest and kind but also filled with rueful humour and questions about her own place in the world.
The first impression that Mildred makes is often of being a very conventional woman. As we get to know her better her wit, often expressed only inside her head, comes to the fore and we realise that acknowledging convention isn't the same as being conventional.
For example, in her first meeting with her new neighbour, the married but very independent, I'm-an-anthropologist-Darling-so-I-don't-have-time-to-cook Helena, Mildred sounds conventional when she asks herself:
"Surely wives shouldn’t be too busy to cook for their husbands? I thought in astonishment, taking a thick piece of bread and jam from the plate offered to me."
and then shows her dry wit when she adds some thoughts about Rockingham, Helena's husband:
"But perhaps Rockingham with his love of Victoriana also enjoyed cooking, for I had observed that men did not usually do things unless they liked doing them."
I think part of what makes Mildred relatable is that she's not always sure of how she sees herself or how others see her. Even with access to Mildred's inner voice, I was sometimes unsure of whether Mildred was a prisoner of her manners or simply has a deep acceptance of who she is.
For example, is she accepting or rejecting the label given to her when Helena says:
" 'Of course you’ve never been married,’ she said, putting me in my place among the rows of excellent women."
As I got to know Mildred better it seemed to me that she was someone who sees too accurately to comfort herself with anything but the truth and who is instinctively kind but still sometimes feels the weight of duty and carries it anyway. When she considers her future, she most often sees herself living out her life as a spinster who is seen by others as an eccentric but excellent woman.
Here are a couple of quotes that illustrate the quiet economy with which Pym gets these ideas across
“I forebore to remark that women like me really expectedvery little –nothing, almost.”
“Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”
Perhaps Mildred is relatable because, although she likes herself, she recognises that she lives on the margins of a society that expects things of her that she isn't able to provide?
At one point, Mildred tells the story of her younger self attending a dance where she feels out of place and finds herself waiting in the toilets in the hope that the dance for which she didn't have a partner would be finished before she returned, but knowing that it wouldn't be.
That brought me back to the heart of all those times when I've found myself surrounded by people who expect certain social skills or talismans of competence from me that I can't provide
I think it's a mark of her strength of character that she describes the experience as "deep" rather than mortifying. It's not unexpected or unbearable merely bleakly familiar. She seems to use it to reflect on how own connection or lack of it to society.
Another thing that makes Mildred relatable is how clearly she sees life and yet how much compassion for those of us living it she sustains. I love this quote, giving Mildred's reaction to her best friend, Dora's battles at the school she teaches at:
"I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us –the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction."
She's perfectly right. Life is like that. But it's rare to find fiction that is honest enough to say so and still be engaging enough not to be a chore.
It seems to me that one of the main themes of "Excellent Women" is spinsterhood. Not whether it's good or bad or whether it is a state that should be ended as swiftly as possible, but about what it means to live a full and valued life as a single woman.
Spinster has become pejorative and unfashionable. It is so unlike bachelor that we've had to invent bachelorette to capture the equivalent expectations of women.
But what if spinsters were not just referred to as "excellent women" by way of disguising the extent to which their services were taken for granted but in true acknowledgement of a way of life, either chosen or accepted and lived well?
As an introvert living in a very extrovert world, I have found myself constantly having to explain, defend, or disguise my need for solitude, the volume and variety of noise in my head when I am alone and my lack of pleasure in so many of the things that are meant to signify having a good time.
It seems to me that creating a space to live a full life as an introvert in a society of extroverts has a lot of parallels to creating a space to live a full life as a spinster in a society built on the expectation of marriage/coupledom.
During the buddy read, we discussed a couple of articles that explore Pym's rehabilitation of spinsterhood. If it interests you, take a look at: "Barbara Pym and the New Spinster." and "Marvelous Spinster: Barbara Pym at 100"
The women in this book may be excellent but I found all of the men to be irritating. None of them seem to have grown up. They manage an offensive combination of neediness, entitlement and disregard for others that I find staggering.
I'd write it off as Pym having a go except very similar, if somewhat more worldly, men appear in Lessing's writing of the same period.
It would be nice if there was at least one man who knew what he wanted and didn't need a woman to look after his poor helpless self.
Pym places a fine selection of men in Mildred's life. The charming, charismatic but facile Rocky (what a name) provides an example of complacent, lazy, selfish sex appeal. Everard Bone (another wicked name) with his often mentioned meat that he is willing to share but unable to cook, provides an example of a more reliable but equally self-absorbed and emotionally distant man. Then there is the tedious, pidgeon-feeding civil servant, Dora's brother, who Mildred meets out of habit once a year for a lunch where he is always more engaged with the wine waiter than with her. Finally, there is the nice but weak Vicar that everyone except Mildred assumes Mildred would like to marry one day.
With this set of men before her, Mildred reflects on what would be added to her life and what would be lost if she were to marry.
I think her most unguarded reaction, which speaks to her heart rather than her sense of duty, is the White Rabbit reaction that she'd already mentioned to Bone and raising again when discussing the love of a "good woman" with the Napiers. Rocky with the ungracious thoughtlessness that only the truly charming are forgiven for, compares the love of a good woman to an army blanket, dull but useful. Mildred, her tongue loosened by wine, offers:
"‘Or like a white rabbit thrust suddenly into your arms,’ I suggested, feeling the glow of wine in me. ‘
Oh, but a white rabbit might be rather charming.’
‘Yes, at first. But after a while you wouldn’t know what to do with it.'"
I think that the possibility, however imaginary, of a relationship with Rocky, charmer of awkward WREN officers, was like a White Rabbit to Mildred.
Later, as we near the ambiguous close of the novel, Mildred considers the ways, dull and dutiful, in which a woman might be of use to a man and asks herself:
"Was any man worth this burden? Probably not, but one shouldered it bravely and cheerfully and in the end it might turn out to be not so heavy after all."
I can't decide if this is Mildred sense of duty or sense of humour talking. I suspect the latter. I believe her sense of self is so strong that neither being wife nor spinster would change her identity. Perhaps the power of the book and the charm of Mildred lie in the fact that I'm unsure of the answer but I care what choice she makes.
This a well-written example of male wish fulfilment fantasy. I think this offers men an analogue of the escapism offered in bodice-ripper romances.
It gives us the chance to imagine being someone we know we'll never be and someone that, deep down, we know we don't want to be: a disciplined, potent, loner who has all the toys and all the money but is still driven by a code of honour to protect the weak.
It's a world where problems can be solved with violence and sacrifice. Where women need to be rescued and bad people need to be killed.
The hero pays a price, of course, or else he wouldn't be a hero. He's burdened with isolation, the constant risk of death or injury and the need to keep secret who he is.
Still, the opportunity to be Batman without the melodramatics of that creepy cape has a strong appeal.
The best part is, when I close the book, I can return to civilisation and the rule of law and frown upon any would-be vigilantes trying to impose Jack Bauer problem solving on the real world.
Am I the only reader who'd like to have a Skip-To-End-Of-Overlong-Sex-Scene button?
This book was going well. Then we had the sex scene that was almost a chapter long, almost all of which was cinematic I.e with a strong emphasis on what the sex looked like rather than what was going on on the heads of either participant. The fight scenes tell me more about the hopes, regrets, excitments and fears of the combatants than this description of sweaty gymnastics provided.
Perhaps there's something in the contract with publishers that makes these scenes mandatory. Maybe most readers find that they add some excitement to the book.
Personally, it triggers my Avicci response: wake me up when it's all over.
Giving Hugh an English Northern accent in the audiobook is an inspired choice.
He's still a violent, dangerous man who pursues his self-interest without hesitation or regret but now that he's no longer doing Roland's will, I'm curious to see how he'll define self-interest.
Then there're the witches. The Ilona Andrews version of witches has never felt wholesome. There's always a whit or rot and a twitch of insanity. This lot seem... slippery.
Great fun so far.
This is surprisingly good.
Who knew I could find myself interested in Hugh?
The tone is darker, more muscular and more rage-filled than the Daniels books but the humour is still there. This line, from Hugh's negotiation for a warhorse, amused me. Dropping this into Trump's America can't be unintentional:
HUGH: He's white.
HORSETRADER: Nobody's perfect.
Terry Pratchett imagined Brexiteers more than twenty years before they inflicted themselves on the British public. He created Edward d’Eath, who wants to save Ankh-Morpork and thinks like this:
”And it was right that it was Fate, and the city would be Saved from its ignoble present by its glorious past...
...He could think in Italics. Such people need watching. Preferably from a safe distance.”
Sadly, these days d’Eath would be a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for planning the self-imposed isolation of an island nation, entirely dependent on trade, from its nearest neighbors.
It's been snowing all night here in Bath.
It's not that deep but this hilly city has still almost come to a halt.
I'm already missing the winter tyres I was told I wouldn't need in England.
I pre-ordered this book, based on positive reviews of ARCs.
I was hooked by the idea of a murder mystery being investigated by an American academic stranded in a remote Swiss hotel when a nuclear war kicks off.
The book arrived in my audible library today and I dived right in.
I abandoned the book at 10%, with the body discovered but the murder investigation not yet underway, because nothing about the setting made any sense.
I think the problem is that I lived in Switzerland for sixteen years and I'm very familiar with its hotels, with its government and with its arrangements in the event of a nuclear war.
Hanna Jameson seems to be writing about an alternative Switzerland that I've never visited.
The real Switzerland is a densely populated and there are no hotels that are remote in the Amerian sense of the word. There are always villages and towns nearby, even in the mountains. Local government is strong in Switzerland. The local Commune would never leave people abandoned at a hotel. The Civil Defence organisation would manage allocating people to local nuclear bunkers. Every village would have a pharmacy, often two or three, so you'd never have to head out to a "superstore" to find medical supplies. The hotel would hold the passports of all guests so their occupations and personal details would be known whereas, in the book, we get a list of "occupation unknown" statements.
The hotel in the book has fourteen floors and almost a thousand rooms. This is very unlikely. Switzerland isn't Vegas. You don't get hotels this large except in the biggest cities and even then they're rare. A hotel that size would have hundreds of staff and strong ties to the local community. Hanna Jefferson seems to be writing about a big resort hotel in Maine à la "The Shining".
Then there's basic physics. The hotel manager decides to save (as in store up) electricity by cutting power to floors above a certain height. How does this save electricity? Hotels are not battery powered in Switzerland. This is like Tom Sawyer painting faster because he's running out of paint.
The only person who is actually described as Swiss in this book has a very American name. Then we have people described as Swiss-Russian. This doesn't exist. I can see Swiss French and Swiss German but there is no Swiss-Russian.
I should probably find these things less distracting than I do but if you decide to set a novel in a real place, some basic research would help. If I can't believe the setting, why should I believe anything else?
Perhaps I'd have stuck with this if the main character hadn't been such a zero-charisma wimp. An academic historian who seems to lack the ability to think things through. Perhaps he's just drifting along in shock but that doesn't make him a great choice as the POV to write the story from.
Maybe there's a fascinating murder mystery here, which, if it were reset on an abandoned space station or a hotel in Alaska, I'd find fascinating. I'll never know as I've already returned the book to Audible.
Molly Harper's new series, "Sorcery and Society" goes in a completely new direction from her adult romcom romps about the vampires and werewolves of Half Moon Hollow, Kentucky.
"Changeling" is a Young Adult story, set in an alternative England, ruled by "Guardian" families with magical abilities who, shortly after the start of the Industrial Revolution, seized power iacross the world in a coordinated coup called the Restoration. Over the generatiaons that followed, the non-magical population, know as snipes (presumably from Guttersnipe), has been turned into a servant/serf class in a feudal system in which they are each owned by a Guardian Family.
Against this background, we follow the adventure of Sarah Smith, a fourteen-year-old snipe girl, as she discovers she has powers that should only be available to those with a Guardian bloodline, is taken away from her family, is renamed Cassandra Reed and sent to the elite school Miss Castwell’s Institute for the Magical Instruction of Young Ladies.
What follows is a wonderful bubble of Young Adult escapism dealing with all the usual conflicts between adolescents girls at school but amplified by Cassandra's need to keep her Sarah Smith identity secret, by the dark secrets that sit behind how the Guardian families maintain power and by a whole world of magic.
This is a feel-good book with a serious background. The characters have enough to depth to them to make them real rather than just plot devices. Sarah's Guardian sponsor, Mrs Winter, is fierce and resourceful. Sarah and her friends are likeable. The bad-but-popular girl is a bit a cypher but that makes it all the easier to hiss at her like a pantomime villain.
The plot has some surprises in it and the world-building is more complex than I'd expected. I was also pleased that, as this is a Young Adult book, we didn't have any of the obligatory let-me-tell-you-about-the-great-sex-we-had scenes that I find so tiresome in the Half Moon Hollow books.
What I enjoyed most about the book and what it most has in common with Molly Harper's other books, is the sassy humour, this time with a slightly drier, more English flavour to it, that defines the book's tone.
Amanda Ronconi, who narrates the Half Moon Hollow books so well, is also the narrator for "Changeling". I was unsure of this at first, given the variety of English accents the plot requires. Most of the posh English accents are close enough but the regional ones are a bit of a mishmash. The only glaring error was pronouncing "clerk" the way it's spelt rather than pronouncing it as if it were spelt clark, as any English person would.
Nevertheless, once my ear adjusted, I was very happy to be listening to Amanda Ronconi. Her comic timing is perfect and she gave the main characters distinct voices that fit well with their personalities. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of her performance.
Molly Harper's latest series goes in a completely new direction: set in (an alternative) England, the heroine is 14 so the pitch is YA (which means none of the obligatory let-me-tell-you-about-the-great-sex-we-had scenes that she seems to cut and paste from one book to the next) and a whole new world of magic.
This year I've decided to tackle my TBR pile by reading thirty books from it that are the first in a series and assess my eagerness to read the rest of the series in terms of Yes / Probably / Maybe / No.
In January, I've read six of these books of which, half were for series that I'm very keen to read.
The best two where "An Accidental Death" which gives me a UK crime series to read with a strong, credible main character, and "Shards Of Honour" which kicks off an enormous space saga by a multi-Nebula /Hugo winning author.
"Cry Wolf"gets a yes mainly because it's a spin-off from the Mercy Thompson series but I have hopes for it.
"Random" was a first-rate and very original serial killer book that gets a Probably because I can't see where a subsequent book would go.
"The Zig-Zag Girl" gets a Maybe because I'd read it if it was around but wouldn't go looking for it,
"Casimir Bridge" gets a No because I DNFed the book.
So that takes six books off my TBR pile but gives me at least three series that I actively want to pursue. Not so good a strategy for bringing down the TBR pile perhaps, but a good one for focusing on reading the things that will give me the most pleasure.