The Temeraire Series (9 titles) – Naomi Novik

I first started the Temeraire series some years ago, but ran out of momentum on book 6 (The Tongues of Serpents) which had a very weak ending. But on this reread I felt driven to continue on through the rest of the books, which return the series to the high standards of the series start.

Set in Napoleonic times, dragons are as important to the defence of Britain as its’ navy is, and Temeraire is a large and talented dragon, so obviously forms a key part of this. But he is not given just this simple role, but instead we learn about more of his talents as he undergoes character development and finds his own place in the world. His companion Laurence has similar struggles as he makes life-changing moral decisions and deals with love, the war and friendship on firstly the terms of others, and gradually his own terms.

Each book moves around the world, although some settings are returned to, and the cast around Temeraire evolves as life for a deployed member of His Majesty’s Service continues. I like the imaginative way that dragons become part of the Napoleonic era without displacing true history too much, and how they do not instantly solve problems but instead present new ones. But the best subplot is the one around dragons’ personhood, set against a backdrop of the abolition of the slave trade by parliament. This beast that can destroy ships and kill soldiers without effort has far more interest as a political being than as a warrior.

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The Clothing of Books – Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a lovely little essay I borrowed in ebook format from the library. It examines how little influence most authors have on their book jackets, and yet how much what is on the book jacket influences reader perceptions.

The opening is not on books but on real clothing, and how we choose it to present who we are to the world. She then explores her experience as a normal author, and how covers change between translations.  One little gem was how Virginia Wolfe’s first edition covers were designed by her sister following conversation between them.

I love this look at this aspect of perception of books, and the irony as I was reading this as an eBook, chosen based on the library service’s tagging of it, so with the cover having such little impact on my reading experience!

Notes on a Thesis – Tephanie Riviére

One of my current goals is to undertake a PhD, although life events keep stopping me from starting that (such as children!) But the cynical look at PhDs in the comic press always helps steer me away, as opening up for such a long drag always comes with hesitation. Riviére’s examination of a PhD is one of that tone, a woman who starts with dreams and ambition, and just about manages to end it.

A grim and adult look at relationships under pressue, family, ambtion and poor mentor support. Only the last I thought was unfair – putting words into the mouth of an advisor to make them unsympathetic rather than just distracted. Although French academic culture may be different in this regard.

But there are plenty of dry laughs in here, and a driving need to see if Jeanne succeeds. The art is also inspired, with lecture theatres full of vicious tigers one moment and shy kittens the next as she learns to manage lecturing and conferences. Worth a read!

 

Rethink – Steven Poole

Rethink is a look at the history of ideas. How there are very few truly new ideas, but a lot of ideas which were thought up before they reached their time. The focus was spread across scientific, political and economic disciplines, leaping from astronomy to mental health via chess.

The encouragement is to look again at currently discredited ideas, and to be patient with new ideas that require time and understanding be accepted as conventional. It makes fascinating reading, as links to modern ideas are found in ancient texts, and I enjoy a good story on an old academic debate, where what we know as a fundamental truth was first proposed.

Then there is a look at what ideas could be due for renaissance. This is where we steer quite firmly into political and economic territory, betraying Poole’s lack of scientific training. But these are all ideas which are moving into the Overton window, and becoming feasible in a way that they weren’t 20 years ago.

An interesting look on how ideas develop and move in and out of being accepted truths in human society.

Saffy’s Angel – Hilary McKay

Saffy’s Angel is well-written young adult fluff. It has the bohemian arty family, an adoption, and a strict family to put the artists into context.

Fundamentally, Saffy discovers that she should inherit an angel, and most of the book revolves around her quest to try and recover it. But there are side plots, with sister Caddy’s torturous learning to drive with Michael Darling, the father who spends most of his time at his London studio and other adventures of the rest of the family.

There is lots of rich humour, with some children allowed to do what they want, and some much more constrained, and not a single one of them being set up to be taken seriously. It forms a nice light book, touching on serious topics. However I don’t feel any great need to read the other three in the series.

The King’s Justice – Stephen Donaldson

The King’s Justice is a short and punchy novella, with the mysterious character “Black” who turns up in town shortly after an unsolved murder. But this book is not really about that murder, but about the balancing of forces and the understanding of who makes up “The King’s Justice” and how they become who they are.

“Very well,” begins Black. “You are aware, I hope, that you are both charlatans.”
The priests stare…

As so many fantasy novels are, it is in a pseudo-medieval setting. My only complaint is the origin of the enemy, but at least that is not gratuitous, but rather necessary to explain how he has access to magic that the King’s Justice doesn’t.

Well worth reading

Unfinished: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Selected Poems

I’m torn on Coleridge. For most of his poems I enjoy each stanza. However he does not seem to have heard of short poems. If I’m in a poetry mood I tend to lean towards the short. Poems hundreds of lines long, in some cases without even seperate verses, just take too much concentration: I feel the need to read some almost breathlessly.

Off to the charity shop for someone with better concentration than me!

 

The Seventh Sword Trilogy – Dave Duncan

Another trilogy lent to me during recuperation, this one is one I’d read before. This trilogy brilliantly subverts genre tropes, with a modern chemist catapulted into another world during the Age of Legends. Wallie Smith has to understand both how this world works and what is happening to fulfil a mysterious quest set to him by a god.

We have the trials, the faith and the work to drive the world to a better place. But we also have “magic” and strategy and leadership. Of course there is a culture clash, as Wallie has to get used to social norms in the World.  How it ends is inspired, and I love that the big picture the gods view includes the purpose for souls, and the need for that soul to be the right age at the right time.

The characters are both strong and flawed, just how I like them! And the world-building is brilliant as we understand the geography and what the Age of Legends means in this world.

Looking for other work by Dave Duncan I am torn to discover that he has added a fourth book to this series. Unlike the existing books, which happen in swift succession, this one is set 15 years into the future. Such a distant epilogue feels like cashing in on a successful trilogy rather than having anything interesting to say

Wicked – Gregory Maguire

I am a big fan of musicals, including Wicked, and wanted to revisit the novel that inspired the musical.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West does not have the same plot as the musical, but the same starting premise. Elphaba is given a stronger destiny, and Galinda more socially constrained in the novel. Not to mention the stronger political tones with genocide and murdering dissidents.

This is a full story of a life, starting with a difficult childhood, and an escape to university which is more complex than expected, and full circle being reached again with family links. She has life-long friendships throughout this in the flawed but loving Nanny and Boq, her partner-in-crime. But fundamentally it is about the life of a woman who faces discrimination and battles it to try and be a force for good in the world.

Maguire’s reimagining of Oz manages to be magical and political. He weaves together complex characters with a range of motives, each of them flawed, but so many driven by a higher purpose or destiny.

And of course, it being Wicked, we need a video. I’ve had a good few weeks of concerts recently, and have heard Defying Gravity at both Idina Menzal’s world tour and at an orchestral performance sung by Ashleigh Gray.

Persuasion – Jane Austen

With the second centenary of Austen’s death there are many events going on to commemorate her and celebrate her works. This runs from appearing on banknotes to plays and other cultural events. I went to a modern “retelling” of Persuasion at the Manchester Royal Exchange, which was both true to the original language and hilarious in its modern interpretations. I confess I didn’t recall a foam party in the text.

Having seen the play (at short notice) I then returned to the book, to take in the depths and layers that a play with limited cast and a short timeframe couldn’t include. Cousins are added, the full detail of who Mrs Clay is and a bit more detail that makes the courtship make more sense.

It is of course beautifully written, humerous in places and shows Anne Elliot manoeuvring her position to navigate through life and find a suitable future for herself.

Have you recently revisited any classics?