Emma — Jane Austen
I usually think of this as my second favourite Austen (after Pride and Prejudice, naturally), but on my re-read of all six, I found to my surprise that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps it’s partly because I had overdosed on screen adaptations recently: the Kate Beckinsale and Gwynneth Paltrow versions from 1996, the 2020 film with Anya Taylor-Joy, and the 2009 Romola Garai TV series. I really enjoyed all of them, but I guess having seen four rather different perspectives on the novel, the novel itself didn’t really have much more to show me.
Anyway, for someone not already OD’d on Emma, it remains fine read, and a courageous offering from Austen, who gives us a heroine that we are actively invited to dislike. Priliveged, self-satisfied, interfering, condescending — yet, in the end, good-hearted. So, despite my lukewarm assessment above, I do recommend it to Austen newcomers.
The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side — Agatha Christie
Probably the best of the Miss Marple mysteries that I’ve read so far. The plot is typically labyrinthine, and one feels rather more corpses accumulate than are strictly necessary, but it does all make sense and ends up being genuinely tragic.
The Railway Children — E. Nesbit
A strangely affecting story, written in a very simple and straightforward style for children, and all the better for it. It tells of the three children — a son and two daughters — of a high-ranking civil servant who suddenly has to leave the family for reason we are initially left to guess, but it gradually becomes apparent that he has been imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason. With his income gone, his wife and children have to move out of their London house into the countryside where they encounter kindness from various sources. The magic here is in the utter lack of sophistication. Everything that happens is seen simply, as a child would see it. Well worth reading.
The Sea of Monsters — Rick Riordan
The sequel to The Lightning Thief, with all the same positives and all the same negatives. Unfortunately, that’s not quite enough to make it compelling, at least not for me. It felt rather like a retread, as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets does of Philosopher’s Stone. The shtick of constantly escaping from one perilous situation into the next started to feel old before the end. If I go on to The Titan’s Curse, I hope it will kick into a different gear, as Prisoner of Azkaban so successfully did.
Is it unfair of me to spend almost all of this brief review comparing Percy to Harry? Possibly. But it really is such an obvious point of comparison. Percy’s stories start from a stronger position in so far as they benefit from the mythic resonance of the actual mythology that forms their foundation. But there is something workmanlike about Riordan’s prose that makes Rowling’s shine all the brighter by comparison. Yes, she can be lumpen; but she can also sparkle.
The Dirty Parts of the Bible — Sam Torode
A BookBub freebie, this is a modern-setting retelling of the deuterocanonical story of Tobias and Sarah from the apocryphal book of Tobit. It’s set in mostly-rural America, and told its story efficiently enough. I enjoyed it, but not enough to make we want to go out and find more of Torode’s books.
Unplugged — Joe Barrett
It’s been a while since I read this, and all the details are hazy. It’s about a young but rich tech mogul whose ex-girlfriend is on the psychotic side, and … lemme think, here … If I remember rightly, our hero forswears network access, and there’s some kind of big complicated protest about unscrupulous housing development, and — well, I don’t know. Obviously it didn’t leave much of a footprint in my mind, but I do remember it being an easy and enjoyable read. Make of that what you will.
UFO: Shoot Out the Lights — Martin Popoff
I re-read this in preparation for a couple of articles I was going to write about UFO’s album, like the retrospective I did on Whitesnake a while back, and the two-part one on Genesis. But the WordPress, in trying to convert the substantial drafts I’d written to their unspeakably crappy “block editor” instead discarded 2000 words of carefully researched prose, and I lost the will to live, so those posts won’t be appearing. Anyway, Popoff’s album-by-album history and musical analysis is fascinating for those who already love the music; it will be of no interest to non-fans, but who cares about them?
The Story of the Treasure Seekers — E. Nesbit
I read this as a followup to The Railway Children, though as Nesbit’s first book for children it was published seven years earlier. It tells the story of six young siblings’ various attempts to make money after their family falls on hard times. In fact it has a very different charm from The Railway Children: while that book has a slightly wistful and occasionally sentimental quality to it, this one is rather more sardonic, less idealistic about the children, and definitely funnier.
As a case in point, we are told very early on that the story is narrated by one of the children, but he modestly declines to tell us which one. But as the story progresses, he occasionally lapses into the first person, so that we figure out which child it is. It’s done neatly and empathetically, so that we laugh at his carelessness even as we admire his kindness.
Well worthy of its classic status, I think. I intend to read more Nesbit.