Autumn – Ali Smooth

This is not any autumn, this is the drawing in of autumn Street the Brexit referendum, with the shock and disbelief spreading through the country and anger against imigrints at a high. But it is also about parenthood and nostalgia.

Elizabeth starts to understand her childhood, and how inspired she was by the musician who lived downstairs and frequently looked after her. At the same time her (previously presumed straight) mother falls in love with her female childhood icon from tv. This is intertwined with current affairs as the country tried to understand what it had just voted for.

The writing style is quite modern and detached, making the pages fly by. The sort of style that gets a book into a Man Booker shortlist.

I appreciated how at the end we just broke into the personal lives of the direct characters, and ended on a note of hope that maybe we could take the he best of the nostalgia with us.

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The Gallery of Vanished Husbands – Natasha Solomons

This has merely a single vanished husband, but a gallery full of portraits. A nice fluffy story, about love, loss and beauty.It is also about a small close Jewish community, motherhood, and the cost of family values. Most the the plot is about a husband who never appears in the pages of the book, and a bohemian artistic community that Juliet finds herself falling into.

This was the third book in a week to mention Constable’s sky studies, so I wandered down to the Manchester Art Gallery to see this one in real life. Its beautiful and I’ve been back twice since in my lunch break to visit it and tour the gallery a bit more.

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

This was part of my (not yet complete) attempt to read the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist for 2017. One of two which I purchased rather than accessed through the library, this one didn’t make the shortlist so was dropped into the guilt pile.

This was Atwood’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there are two main ways that such a reimagining can take place: the character names and plot can be uplifted and used in a different setting without ever mentioning the source material, or a “book within a book” device can be used to include it directly. Atwood chose the latter option for Hag-Seed, which largely revolves around a production of the Tempest, as well as lifting the plot and characters. This enables her to delve deeply into analysis of how the plot works whilst creating another layer around it, and it works well.

The depths were enjoyable, and the revenge angle made this into the sort of book which cannot be put down, as I was desperate to find out how the plot would unfold.

BlueEyedBoy – Joanne Harris

I am more used to Harris’s magical realism, but this crime mystery novel is way outside this genre. I love the style it is told in: the protaganist’s blog posts and discussions in the comments. It reminds me of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book which I didn’t keep, but found a good strong read.

The setting is of course as grim and gritty as is expected in this style of book, and in the absence of magic we instead have synaesthesia, because Harris can never have characters who are entirely normal human beings. As the characters are built, we get the feeling of the rug being shifted under us, with nothing ever quite fitting the picture I already had. But despite knowing a twist must be coming, the one taken was not what I expected.

A disturbing but satisfying read.

The Secret People – John Wyndham

The Secret People is a scifi classic with a setup reministent of Blyton (plus extramarital passion). We have a rich boy with a private jet who manages to crash it in the most inconvenient place possible. But then we take a swift turn into the underworld and discover “The Secret People”.

I loved the main concepts of this: environmental changes and evolution of races of peoples. It also considers zenophobia and true fears. Everything hangs together well on the two central characters and their investigation of this world. My only quibble is that the ending could have been improved above the current one!

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.

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

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.