The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

This is becoming a historical novel, describing an alternative present in the 1960s, Dick uses the device of a book offering the perspective of the route history did take, which is widely held as both dangerously radical and impossible. Strangely though, little pivots around that device except the author of the book (who only appears in the last couple of chapters) and one of its readers. Far more pivotal is the I Ching, which slowly develops from a quiet source into a key active component, and the one detail that ties all plots together.

As this was written in the era when the world was coming to terms with the horrors of Nazi Germany and the development of nuclear powers, the obvious question as to how horrifying a future in which these two elements were combined is explored. It also deals with complete authoritarian superpowers who run the whole world. Interestingly it becomes clear that over time Hitler loses the respect he commanded, but that the power base he had built up had too many vested interests to allow for his systems to be disbanded. Instead horrors perpetuate without checks and balances.

Even though there isquite brutal violence, I now need to read more of his work.

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Heritage of Lakeland – A. Harry Griffin

Prior to picking this book up, I was unaware of Harry Griffin’s writings about climbing and general life in the Lake District. He wrote in an interesting era, as the national parks were set up, and climbing was becoming a more popular hobby. He also has the great benefit of writing as a local, who lived his life at the foot of the fells, and knew both the fells and the people who climbed them and made a living from them intimately.

This collection is broken into distinct sections, covering the main publications he wrote for: the Lancashire Evening Post, Cumbria, Fell and Rock Climbing Club, The Guardian Country Diary pieces, and a set of other writings. Each of these display that intimacy, and give imersive descriptions of climbing and exploring the fells, or meeting shepherds in the pub, or of his life as a music journalist.

His descriptions are so inspiring that I am tempted to learn to climb myself, and not just plod across the summits. But I think I’ll stick to plodding and skiing for now. His music pieces have also returned me to regular piano-playing

Because he loved the Lake District so much, this shone in not only his climbing but also his curiosity as to how the ancient routes across the fells came to be. What did Moses of Moses’s trod really smuggle? Who is the Jack that Jack’s Rake is named after? Sadly these are unknown, and become more unknowable as time passes, so they remain as open questions.

This is a well-curated collection by a writer who loved his subject, and well worth reading through.

2017 in Review

This was a good year for reading and blogging: 72 posts, of which some were about series so reflected more than one book. Given some books were also missed, I easily smashed my self-set book-a-week target. Onwards to 2018 with a to-read pile that threatens to cascade across my library. I’ve also got two books on request at the library and my ereader is never far from my hand.

Aside from my new Discworld discovery I am not sure what I’ll be reading all year though.

I’ve also been to the theatre ten times, although only reviewed nine times (sorry Chorley Little Theatre – I missed off the panto during the hectic pre-Christmas rush). There’s been a selection in there, from musical theatre to serious drama and opera thrown in.

We already have our local amateur theatre season tickets for next year, and I’m browsing the listings of the other theatres for what I intend to watch.

Mort – Terry Pratchett

I have spent about 20 years telling people I don’t like Pratchett’s writing. Periodically I’d pick one up and give it a try, but it never quite chimed with me. Then a few people convinced me to give it another go, and I ran out of books with only my ereader on me, and spotted Mort (start of the death series) was immediately available.

For everyone who over the years has shook their heads at me not liking Pratchett, I apologise. Mort was unputdownably brilliant.

I now have Reaper Man on order at the library, only because I am too short on shelf space to buy every Discworld book right now (the long-planned library remodelling will be the subject of a later post).

I liked Mort as a character, but Death himself really was what dragged me in. His attitude to life, and kittens, along with the attempt to find an apprentice were all very compelling. The plot is perfectly paced, and the humour light.

Sadly the library auto-returned my copy before I wrote this post though, so I have lost my bookmarked quotes. I shall do better next time…

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Gaiman leads us on an adventure through Norse mythology, as we discover the complex network of relationships and characters that make up this mythology. As he states, it is a shame that many of the supposed tales have been lost through time, and Gaiman only works with those that remain.

The Norse myths to me do speak of a cold mountainous land. One where powers struggle against each other to gain an upper hand, and giants roam the lands beyond. But it is a fully-realised world, with details filled in to make compelling tales.

Gaiman celebrates Loki’s cunning, whilst slightly mocking Thor’s excessive use of strength. And they are all very fallible. In fact the fallibility of the gods is most of what the stories are about, combined with their willingness to sacrifice each other for personal gain, and inhuman speed, strength and stamina.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre is a wonderful heroine – determined to win through in a situation and social system that doesn’t give her much of a chance. She finds her own way to escape her impoverished background, and shows real strength of character throughout.

However Rochester is so deeply flawed as a love interest that I find the ending hard to swallow. Is it not enough that Jane has achieved independent wealth and a family that love her? Why does she need to return to a man who would have made a good stepping-stone in learning who she is? An off-page incident in which he becomes dependent on her does not make compelling storytelling to me.

Of course this is probably a very modern perspective, in which moving on to a new man in your twenties is eminently possible, and Jane does very well at managing herself and not settling for an inferior option, or for a man who is in a strong position to exploit her. And she chooses for love rather than duty when it comes down to the final decision, a woman who knows what will fulfil her in the end. I just wish Rochester was a better human being.

 

Not in God’s Name – Jonathan Sacks

An exploration of the history of the three Abrahamic religions and their sibling-like relationship.

Aside from the inbuilt assumption that God is real, this made for fascinating reading. The history of how the three religions came into existence is told through the parables of sibling rivalry. Then we understand how theology has developed peacefully and how all the intention of peace between tribes is subverted into violence and rivalry.

Unfortunately as this was recommended to me by someone who was trying to explain where faith comes from to me, it still felt like faith as a social control method, even if it is supposed to be used for good.

 

Tortall: A Spy’s Guide – Tamora Pierce

Despite me doing so, this isn’t really a book to be read in a single sitting. It is a collection of “papers from George’s work” which hang together to build an image of what was going on behind the scenes in Tortall.

But there are gems of worldbuilding in here, and what fan could fail to love the tidbits of information that are sneaked out, including the backstory of why George wouldn’t let Aly do spy work. And how initial treaties with the Immortals were formed.

I also love that for the first time really since the Song of the Lioness, Jon becomes fully human again, a father who could do anything to protect his children, rather than the very distant and responsible figure he became under the Protector of the Small (although Aly knew him as a human, it was an abstract human given her separation from Tortall).

An essential read for any Tortall-world fans, but not a standalone piece of writing.

A Distant View of Everything – Alexander McCall Smith

Isabel’s charmed life continues with only a few hiccups. A new baby, Magnus, has arrived, but Grace and Jamie are so ever-present that she still continues to volunteer at her niece’s shop on top of managing the review and helping other people. Occasionally she recalls her children when out and about, but only to ring Grace and confirm that she will be a little longer.

Obviously though she does love her family, and occasionally listens to Jamie when he offers advice, but more often, blunders on obliviously getting herself into dreadful pickles. But of course in her side of Edinburgh everyone is very nice and understanding, so by the end of the book no harm has been done.

McCall Smith has obviously written himself into a bit of a loop here: unable to give Isabel’s tale a decent ending he is just dragging it out into repetitive books. They no longer stand up to rereading, but are worth picking up from the library in hope of improvement.

 

The Memoirs of Lady Trent – Marie Brennan

The first two books in this series are covered in an earlier review.

After a wait for Voyage of the Basilisk (acquired through inter-library loan), I devoured the last three books of this series. The setup for the twist in Within the Sanctuary of Wings was sufficiently obvious through that I had spotted it mid-series. Especially once Isabella married.

But whatever the lack of surprise, it is more than made up for by the fast-paced adventures, foolishness and the Victorian woman willing to risk her family life in order to make scientific discoveries. The “science” is good fun, and the weaving in of other disciplines adds depth. Regular readers may recall I was quite taken by a drive to discover a lost language, and the Temeraire series which is another non-traditional “dragon history”.

If fast-paced fantasy novels are your thing, then these are good reads, and Isabella makes a fabulous heroine, always ready to try something foolhardy and usually win out. At a fair few points I could only bring myself to keep reading in the knowledge that as the writer of her own memoir, she surely couldn’t die in this adventure.