The Witch Who Came in From the Cold – Various

I supported this year’s Super Nebula Author Showcase Humble Bundle, so my ereader is now full of sci fi. Quite a few are from Serial Box, presumably for business reasons (get the audience hooked on season one…), and this was my first exploration of this style of storytelling. Although I’m not sure I’ll get an episode subscription (partly because they only seem to have an Apple app, not Android), I can see how the model works.

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold is set in 1970 in Cold War Prague. Two superpowers are grappling to gain the upper hand in an international war. And then there is the secondary plot where the USA and USSR are playing power games.

The play for power for the occultorganisations thrives in the spy world, where the small key cast all have at least two loyalties to play with, and are torn between these. And of course, as in straight forward spy fiction, all the players are somewhat scarred from earlier missions, but continue playing their games.

I was surprised by how well the large writer team pulled together a coherent narrative, which flowed well and both reached resolution and set up a good cliffhanger for season two.

 

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Confessions from Correspondentland – Nick Bryant

Bryant has had an interesting career, shuttling between war zones and first world politics, filing regular reports with the BBC the whole way. He’s been on the sidelines through lots of key events through the last couple of decades, and spends much of this book discussing American policy: from his position as a Washington correspondent, then a war correspondent during the War on Terror.

Although Bryant is a good writer, his style is (probably unsurprisingly) fairly episodic. He writes a few pages of absorbing text, but then that section is wrapped up neatly without a strong “hook” to the next section. This continues for 400 pages.

This disjointedness is worth enduring through however. We see people’s lives close up as wars progress, and the interplay between correspondents and the rest of their teams.

An enlightening book

The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry

The librarian is a lonely, frustrated woman, who one day finds a reader who has been locked in her library overnight. She gradually reveals her thoughts on the library system, people and her crush.

Unfortunately, although her insights are sharp, the device that she has an imprisoned audience who she forces to listen to her innermost thoughts without any indication that he finds this anything other than uncomfortable. Divry also delivers the whole book as a single paragraph, which does reflect will the stream of consciousness, but remains deeply irritating to read.

Her ending is also very much unfinished, but this is acceptable on a book of novella weight.

Guards! Guards! Chorley Little Theatre

The reason I was retrying Discworld was the knowledge that Guards! Guards! was on this season’s programme at Chorley Little Theatre.

As could only be expected at this juncture, the play was well-acted and directed, and the set builders had done a brilliant job. There was one entertaining moment where the Night Watch managed to all end up inside the secret society without all making their way through the door!

The set and costumes were designed to mimic the cartoonish designs of Discworld covers, and many of the jokes are taken word for word from the text. In some ways, there are more jokes in the play as timing and delivery allow for some which are not possible in text.

I liked the use of a crow to deliver footnotes and other important asides. And Death, one of my favourite characters, appeared in a way which managed to be both humorous and ominous.

A good night, but I expected no less from the Little Theatre, and am sorry to have missed the talk on staging that ran today.

A Woman’s Work – Harriet Harman

I’ve never actually had all that much patience for Harriet Harman, seeing her as yet another New Labour architect. But in A Woman’s Work, she takes the opportunity to set out her case, and highlight the compromises she took that in her belief improved the world around her.

Her memoirs run from the heartbreaking of struggling against the establishment during the Thatcher era, through to the ridiculous of Robin Cook’s assumption that she was having an affair, when in truth she had kept a promise to her son about a day out. Her lessons from this are:

Firstly, while children will never forget a broken promise, there’s always someone who can stand in for you at work. And secondly, that while it would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.

But throughout the strong clear message is that compromises are not ideal, but they are worth it if it means that Labour can get into power and start making changes for the betterment of society. When she unexpectedly finds herself as acting leader after Brown’s resignation, her speech is that

….we should be proud of our legacy and that it would endure.

We also get a ringside seat for the Blair/Brown troubles from a woman who was close friends with both, which provides valuable insight to how the power struggle there started, and how it would end. She is also how Ed Milliband first enters politics, along with providing mentoring support to so many of the women who are now household names.

But above all else she is in politics for feminism. To promote equal rights and be a leader who facilitates other women’s liberation. Her use of her whole career to this arena is impressive, and despite her claims that too little progress has been made, to see how much can be attributed to Harman directly or indirectly is inspiring.

The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr and E. B. White

The Elements of Sytle is a classic writing style guide, referenced by The Sense of Style, and then again mentioned in an edition of Slightly Foxed.

Not a book for a single reading, this is full of advice on how to write – from how to structure writings through to specific grammar rules and full of examples. The advice is good, however after reading Strunk’s guidelines to omit needless words, it is hard to write at length about this tiny little guide.

Men Without Women – Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women is a set of short stories by Murakami, about central male characters for which a large part of their identities is the absence of specific women. From this central theme we have an actor in declining health, a bar owner and various degrees of criminal.

Murakami convincingly enters all of these minds, and draws us into the mystery of their current existence. He is a skilled writer, and builds each story elegantly to draw the reader in. However none of the stories end on a satisfying high note. Instead each conclusion is bitter, or in some cases, downright frightening.

Slightly disappointed, as I mostly read for escapism and like there to be some joy in my reading, along with the writing quality.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing – Menna van Praag

This is a very improbable book, made less so by some of the characters having stated Powers. However it runs into the uncanny level of Powers, I find it easier to read full-blown fantasy than “real world” with people just having supernatural levels of perception. The former is escapism, the latter is a bit weird.

However once that has been set aside this is a lovely comfort read. Nothing very challenging, and about the power of writing to transform lives. The historical story set within letters is more emotionally challenging, but is set at one step removed.

I would recommend Menna van Praag’s writing for lazy Sunday morning reading.

Acts of Union and Disunion – Linda Colley

This book was written in the lead-up to the Scottish Independence referendum, so should be read through a filter of not knowing the outcome of either that, nor the Brexit vote.  But as a historical look at how the constituent parts of the British Isles have combined and been seperated through history, this is fascinating. The perspective of each of the four main nations are considered, and both peaceful and warlike.

As a Northerner (England) I particularly appreciated an acceptance that there are parts of England that do not benefit from Westminster rule, given the London bias and also that having the English and UK representation from the same parliament causes consitutional issues.

This is well-written about a subject matter that could be very dry, and is worth a read for anyone wondering how the UK got into the pickle it is currently in.

Tempests and Slaughter – Tamora Pierce

With the Numair Cronicals, Pierce is doing what she does best, and is taking us back to school. But this time we are not learning to hit things with sticks, but Numair is learning how to practise magic. Not only Numair though, we are back with his closest friends, Osborne and Varice.

We don’t start with the fiercely competent Numair from the Daine books, but an awkward Arram Draper, who is sick when watching the gladiator games when his father comes to visit. But we follow him being escalated through the normal classes as an obviously extremely talented student.

“And magic depends on perfection,” Cosmos interputed.

I love that instead of making the teachers difficult people, for the most part Pierce makes them motivated good mentors, who share their research and work with a gifted boy, as long as he works. And work hard is what he does, what all three of them do to work out how to find their own places in the world.

How Ozorne is shaped through this period, instead of being a cruel tyrant this now becomes a tragic story arc to those of us who know its conclusion. His starting place is just to be a boy who wants his own home and a place to practice magic, and he is renowned as the boy who will never get to be emperor. He does not get the same safe supportive mentors as Draper, but instead is manipulated through his grief-stricken state.

I look forward to seeing where Pierce next takes this arc, and the Numair we know is being shaped from the boy Arram.