I’ve got a long way behind with these — I’m reading faster than I can blog — so I’ll try to move quickly and catch up with myself.
Off to be the Wizard — Scott Meyer
Debut novel from the creator of the wonderful Basic Instructions comic strip. I held off buying this for a long time on the grounds that being a clever cartoonist doesn’t necessarily mean you have the skills to be a novelist; but having seen a lot of positive reviews, I took the plunge when the e-book was heavily discounted. I’m glad I did, and now eagerly await a similar discount on the sequel. I don’t want to say too much about this for fear of spoilering, but I will say that the book launches on a fascinating science-fictional premise, and quickly takes a left-turn that took me by surprise. It’s not very literary, but it’s immensely engaging, which in my book counts for much more. Recommended.
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens — J. M. Barrie
A set of chapters extracted from Barrie’s book The Little White Bird (1906), this is now mostly read in isolation because it’s the first appearance of the character Peter Pan — though in a very different from from how he’s generally known. In Kensington Gardens, he is only seven days old, and although he ages somewhat he is never more than two or three years old.
The story of an infant talking to birds and playing with fairies should be mawkish sentimentality of the worst kind. Yet somehow, it’s very powerful and I have to admit I was moved to tears more than once. There are aspects of being a child that are legitimately delightful, and Barrie captures them very poignantly. Recommended.
Parker Pyne Investigates — Agatha Christie
A month or two on, I can’t remember one single thing about Parker Pyne, or about what he investigates or why. On consulting his Wikipedia page, I find his “Are you happy?” shtick familiar, but still don’t remember any of his cases. As far as I remember, I quite enjoyed reading this at the time, but now it’s completely gone.
Childhood’s End — Arthur C. Clarke
This on the other hand is some of its author’s best work. Clarke of course was one of the Big Three of science fiction in the 50s-80s, along with Isaac Asimov and (apparently) Robert Heinlein. Childhood’s End (1953) is one of his earliest novels — the third of fifteen or so), and is astonishingly mature in that light.
Irritatingly (for you), this is another book that I don’t want to say too much about for fear of spoiling it. Much of the delight on a first reading comes from only gradually figuring out what the story is actually about, and I won’t take that away from anyone. But on second and subsequent readings, it retains much of its power, and I have to admit to being genuinely moved by the last few chapters. Childhood’s End is justly regarded as a classic, and it well worth the effort of tracking down and reading.
Longbourne — Jo Baker
I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels three or more times each (yes, even Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park) but there’s no denying the justice in Pride and Prejudice being the best known of the six. Not only is the novel itself absolutely perfect, it’s also spawned two superb and very different screen versions: the six-part BBC mini-series of 1995, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth; and the 2005 movie starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. The latter has not been so widely acclaimed, but it’s one of my very favourite films [note to self: must do a Top Ten Movies some time] — light, crisp, and consistently delightful. Also very, very funny.
So much for Pride and Prejudice. Jo Baker’s Longbourne is a novel set in the same time and price as Austen’s novel, but with the servants of the Bennett household as the principle characters. With the exception of the housekeeper Mrs. Hill, these characters are barely mentioned at all by Austen, so Baker has to invent a whole new plot out of whole cloth, while the well-known events of P&P trundle along in the background, mostly ignored. Longbourne is in no sense a re-telling of P&P, as Baker is at pains to point out.
Does it work? Well, sort of. I enjoyed reading it, and am glad that I did; but I don’t feel moved to read anything else of Baker’s and I’m unlikely ever to re-read Longbourne. The bottom line is perhaps that the characters are just not very interesting, so that even the hero’s long journey overseas with the army (which doesn’t really fit the mood of the rest of the book) can’t lift it much above “OK”. I’d recommend it to Austen completists, but not to the general public.
Foundation and Earth — Isaac Asimov
And so we come to the end of the Foundation series, having read the original trilogy, Foundation’s Edge and then this. (I’ve not yet read either of the prequels and have no immediate plans to do so.) To be honest, this one felt like a slog. It suffers from all the same problems as Foundation’s Edge — far too much time spent in the company of unengageing characters, jumping through arbitrary hoops to reach an end-of-level boss that frankly stretches credulity (as well as casting a new and unwelcome light on some of Asimov’s earlier work). To add insult to injury, it doesn’t even wrap the series up properly — we never see how the Seldon Plan pans out.
I’m left wishing that when Asimov returned to the Foundation series, he’d done so in the spirit of what made the original parts great: brief narratives based on fascinating ideas, skipping forward prodigally through the 1000-year history of the Seldon Plan.
The Wisdom of Father Brown — G. K. Chesterton
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this. Father Brown is justly Chesterton’s best known fictional character, an unprepossessing Catholic priest whose experience of people enables him to solve mysteries. On the first time through reading these stories, the main interest is in trying to solve the crimes; but I come back to them for the sheer warmth,godliness and humanity of the eponymous Brown. Freely available at Project Gutenberg, and well worth anyone’s time.
[Read on to part 7.]