What I’ve been reading lately, part 44

Made in America — Bill Bryson

The USA-specific counterpart to Bryson’s celebration of the English language, Mother Tongue, it’s about twice as long as the original volume because it also contains an episodic and selective history of the USA, viewed from a linguistic perspective.

To my mind, this makes it even more fascinating than Mother Tongue, because it ticks an important box for me: I am not very interested in history per se, but I am very much interested in the history of things: history of music, history of science, history of football, what have you. And what really fascinates me is seeing how these various History Of X‘s intersect. For example, Harry Govier Seeley published his classic paper “On the classification of the fossil animals commonly named Dinosauria” in the same year as the Football League was created, Edison’s phonograph was first demonstrated in London, and Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie was published — 1888. Bryson is really good at tying together such disparate threads, and what emerges is a kind of synthesized picture of a nation through nearly 400 years.

A Brazen Curiosity: A Regency Cozy — Lynn Messina

I’d not come across the term used “cozy” in this way before, and I’m still not sure what it means, but this book is a murder mystery written somewhat in the style of Jane Austen. The heroine is an overlooked young women, an orphan who was raised by an uncle and aunt out of obligation rather than love, who happens to discover a dead body in the library of the great house that her adoptive family is visiting. To determine the truth about this death, which is initially ruled a suicide, she finds herself teaming up with a duke who she despises, and … well, you can guess much of what follows.

The writing is not bad — it doesn’t keep yanking you out of the setting with inappropriate vocabulary or ideas. But it’s not perfect on this score, and from time to time I found myself feeling that the prose really could have done with editing by someone intimately familiar with literature of the period that this purports to be from. Some of the concepts seem off to me, more like a parody of the conventions of the time than an accurate representation: for example, when the heroine searches a man’s room for clues, he returns and finds her there. She explains that if he makes trouble she will scream, bringing other people running, and the discovery of the two of them alone will oblige him to marry her. I don’t believe there was ever any such convention.

Anyway, despite reservations, this was good fun, and I will happily read the sequels if they come my way at a good price.

Everything You Ever Wanted — Luize Saums

A fascinating chick-lit/sci-fi crossover, in which a somewhat Bridget Jonesish protagonist becomes one of 50 people who take a one-way trip to start a colony on an alien planet by means of obscure technology, committing themselves to being cut off from the old world. What starts as rather light fun gradually becomes darker as social and technological problems progressively afflict the colony, and the ending is ambiguously hallucinogenic. Well worth reading.

Trouble with Lichen — John Wyndham

For my money, not among Wyndham’s outstanding books, this one is the story of a female biochemist who discovers an effective anti-aging compound that is extracted from a rare lichen. It shares the trait frustratingly common to Wyndham’s books of trailing off rather than reaching a proper ending, but unlike his better works it reaches that point without ever really piquing the curiosity. The ramifications of the anti-aging serum are laid out, but none of them really come as surprises. Workmanlike.

Five Children and It — Edith Nesbit

Nesbit is known for two kinds of children’s novels: broadly realistic ones like The Railway Children and The Treasure Seekers, and those that introduce an element of magic into the story. This is in that latter category. Like the realistic books, the central characters are a group of young children — ages are not given, but I would guess they are around 8–12 years old. But then encounter a Psammead (“sand-fairy”) who grants them a wish each day. Episodic chapters recount the various wishes the children make, and the various ways they go wrong.

All of this could be unbearably twee, but it works well because the book takes itself completely seriously on its own terms. Adults are an immovable force of nature; magic is real, and can be dealt with in quite a matter-of-fact way; the relationships between the children are the core of what matters. As a result, Five Children and It is pleasingly brisk and unsentimental, not to mention a lot of fun.

Nesbit’s magical books were one of the main inspirations for C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books (The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Horse and his Boy, etc.) Those are among my very favourite books, so it’s interesting for me to see their ancestors, and recognise the commonalities in tone between Nesbit’s and Lewis’s work.

The Status Civilization — Robert Sheckley

A rather pulpy novel from an author who specialises in throwing characters into hazardous and bizarre situations. In this case, the protagonist wakes up not knowing who he is, only to find he has been transported to a prison planet run on authoritarian and arbitrary lines. Fun, but not particularly deep.

The Other Bennett Sister — Janice Hadlow

The story of Mary Bennett, the younger sister of the better known Jane and Elizabeth who are two of the main characters of Pride and Prejudice. The world is full of P&P fan-fiction, most of it risible, but I really enjoyed this one. It starts out recapitulating the familiar events of the parent book from Mary’s perspective, but quickly broadens out into flashbacks of her earlier childhood, and then leaps ahead past the Bingham and Darcy weddings into Mary’s life a year or two later.

The events that follow are interesting enough, but where the book really scores is its sympathetic portrait of Mary, its compassionate treatment of Mr. Collins, and its recognition of what terrible parents Mr. and Mrs. Bennet both were, in their different ways. More shocking is the realisation that Jane and Elizabeth, who we love, are also flawed and rather selfish people: Lizzie’s love for Darcy leaving her essentially uninterested in anyone else, and Jane’s goodness revealed as largely a passive acceptance rather than an active choice.

Recommended.

Star Island — Carl Hiaasen

When I read this back in part 12, I wrote “I’ve read all of my Hiaasens more than once, and this will be no exception”, and I was right. I re-read it and re-enjoyed it. What more can you ask of a book?

Stormy Weather — Carl Hiaasen

Having read one Hiaasen, I was keen for more, and I picked this one off my shelf at random. It’s another re-read, and one of the more memorable examples of his style. This time the plot centres on the aftermath of a hurricane in South Florida — trailers blown away, having been certified as hurricane-safe by corrupt inspectors, low-lives scamming insurance companies, and most centrally a honeymooning couple of whom the husband sees the hurricane as a tourist attraction. Hiaasen’s great secret is that his books contain no boring passages: every paragraph not only advances the story, but also is fun to read in its own right.

 

One response to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 44

  1. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 45 (DRAFT) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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