What I’ve been reading lately, part 40

If I Never Met You — Mhairi McFarlane

This is is my fourth McFarlane book. (Previously: You Had Me At Hello, It’s Not Me, It’s You, Here’s Looking at You). She continues to impress and delight, although I do have to admit that by this point the plots are slightly starting to blend into each other a bit. This is the one where the comfy long-term boyfriend moves on from Laurie, leaving her devastated and not really understanding what’s happened and why. For classic sitcom reasons, she and a colleague from the office strike up a fake relationship. Laurie is left to figure out whether new relationship might be real after all, and whether there is anything worth salvaging from the old one.

Told in outline, the story is nothing special, even rather clichéd. As always, the actual writing is what it’s all about, and as usual McFarlane’s clear, spare prose effortlessly draws the complexities of the heroine’s inner world as she moves through different feelings and attitudes. I came away feeling I understood Laurie in a way that I don’t usually understand protagonists; or understanding her on a deeper level.

Now We Are Six — A. A. Milne

Milne’s second book of poems for children, following on from When We Were Very Young. It has the same strengths and weaknesses: excellent craftsmanship, so the perfect scansion and rhyming feel effortless; and a rather maudlin quality that perhaps idealises childhood in a not altogether healthy way. Still, it does paint a vivid picture of what life must have been like for poor Christopher Robin at the age of six or seven.

London’s Strangest Tales — Tom Quinn

One of those books that’s thrown together in a hurry by a jobbing author, based on bits and pieces picked up from Wikipedia. And yet, I find I don’t object to that. I read this in fragments while otherwise engaged(*), and found the one-or-two-pages per entry format approachable and appropriate. And a lot of what’s discussed here relates to places that I am at least slightly familiar with, which helped keep it interesting. I won’t read it again, but it got the job done.

(*) a euphemism for taking a dump.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World — John Mark Comer

It says a lot about my life that, while I read this only a couple of months ago, now that I come to summarise it I find I’ve been so busy in that time that I can hardly remember any of it. Comer is a Christian pastor who stepped back from much of his ministry when he realised that all that rushing around was harming him physically, emotionally and spiritually.

I really need to re-read this book, and actually learn something from it this time.

Fifty Stories for Fifty Years: an Unauthorised Guide to the Highlights of Doctor Who — Andrew Hickey

I’ve read this at least once before, but it was well worth revisiting. Hickey is a knowledgeable and insightful writing whose perspective on pre-2005 Doctor Who in particular is consistently interesting. (His dislike for the 2005 reboot means that the later chapters, mostly on episodes of the rebooted series, are often only grudgingly positive, and that makes them less fun to read.)

If you’re in the UK you can buy it from Amazon: the paperback is a tenner, but the eBook is currently discounted to £3.23, which is a bargain for the historically aware Whovian.

The Lightning Thief — Rick Riordan

This is the first in series of charming Young Adult books, and unfortunately the foundation for an utterly charmless film of the same name that will have effectively dissuaded millions of kids from reading the source material. (Since I wrote my excoriation of that film, Riordan has published some of his own thoughts on his website. Although they are guarded in places, they leave you in no doubt whatsoever what he thought of it all.)

I enjoyed reading this years ago when my sons were the right age for these books, and I enjoyed it again this time — its blend of whimsy, down-to-earth situations and Greek myth is a winning one. But it’s hard to read it without seeing a very strong influence from Harry Potter. Like Harry, Percy doesn’t live with both parents, and is relentlessly picked on in his mundane life. Like Harry, he discovers that he is very special, and is whisked away to a magical school; like Harry, he immeditely makes enemies at that school, but also two friends: an omni-competent girl and a fallible but loyal; and of course, like Harry, he quickly finds himself involved in a battle with far more serious enemies than those he has made at school.

I’m not sure how much that constitutes criticism. Perhaps instead of feeling that Riordan lacked imagination here, we should congratulate him for spotting that the Potter-like story skeleton still has plenty of capacity for hanging different flesh on it.

The House at Pooh Corner — A. A. Milne

The sequel to Winnie-the-Pooh, of course, containing the second and last set of ten stories about the eponymous bear and his friends. Most what I said about the earlier book still stands: there is a lot to enjoy, but the stories don’t quite earn their classic status for my money. I might have enjoyed them more had they not been so imbued with significance by popular culture. Ultimately the stories reach a genuinely emotional end with the goodbye to Christopher Robin as (it is implied) he leaves the Hundred-Acre Wood to go to school. But the emotional effect is as strong as it is precisely because it’s not indulged. The farewells are understated, almost businesslike; and all the more affecting for it.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées — Agatha Christie

Six short stories, the the first five featuring Hercule Poirot and the last Miss Marple. I enjoyed this: a longish short story is perhaps the ideal length for the kind of fiction Christie writes, allowing enough space to lay out and satisfactorily resolve a reasonably complex mystery but without requiring any of the padding that mars some of her novels. This collection would be a good introduction for someone who wants to sample Christie.

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