Seahenge: An Archaeological Conundrum, Charlie Watson
A short and beautifully illustrated book on Seahenge, mostly focusing on the practical issues of how it was made, how it was found, how it was excavated, and the hard facts discovered since from analysis of it. There’s less concentration on the speculations about a ritual landscape in the area, etc, than you find in Pryor’s book on the same site, and a lot more illustrations and photographs. The two complement each other, I think, though I am reading them quite far apart — this is much more ‘just the facts, sir’ than Pryor’s book, while Pryor did the work of interpretation.
If you’re just looking for some background on Seahenge, you’re definitely safe with this one!
In The Nine Tailors, Peter and Bunter find themselves stranded in the Fen country due to their car being driven into a ditch. Taking shelter for New Year’s Eve in a small vicarage, Peter gets pressed into joining the vicar and his bellringers in ringing in the New Year, literally, with a complex and record-breaking peal. The reader might be slightly confused by this beginning, which features no crime, but after a while things become clear: the vicar writes to Peter later, asking for his help. A body has been found in the grave of a woman who died that New Year’s Day, and nobody knows who he is, who killed him, or even exactly how he died.
This was one of my favourite of the Peter Wimsey books from the start of my acquaintance with them, when I was rather less under the spell of Peter, and more inclined to be sceptical — I think I might’ve given Whose Body? two stars, so thank goodness I didn’t have a blog then: my mother would’ve had a fit. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why this book is a favourite, though. Part of it is a sense of place — the desolate power of the Fenlands, the beauty of the church, the brooding menace of the bells… Part of it is that refrain from the book: “Nine tailors make a man.” For me, anyway, there’s a kind of magic in that phrase, in the idea of the bell slowly tolling to announce a death. And there’s also a good deal to love in the care Sayers took in using the bellringing for so much, weaving it into the plot inextricably, and making all the infodumps about change ringing useful to the rest of the story. There’s a powerful melancholy in the whole book.
(I’m sure for some people that’s also a reason to dislike the book; it’s a fairly measured and slow-paced story.)
For me, there’s also significant pleasure in the ironies of the story, and to elaborate would be to spoil the story. It’s a rather literary effort, compared to the snappier books from earlier in the series: for me, that’s a positive thing, though I like the earlier books as well. Could use more active involvement of Parker, though…
I was enjoying reading this, intrigued by the world and rather appreciative of one of the main female characters’ and her drive to understand the world. I can definitely appreciate a scholar! There were a few things that I felt weren’t really set up well enough — rather than feeling like I was understanding the world as I read, I felt like I was missing key pieces of information. It took a long time to understand what was going on in terms of skykin/shadowkin, and I’m still not clear (having stopped around 30% of the way through the book) what’s going on with the shadowlands and the skylands.
I was quite prepared to sit tight and keep working through that, but I had a quick Google to see if the description of the book prepared me any better, or anyone’s reviews; maybe someone would say something that would make everything fall into place for me (and make me feel like an idiot).
Instead, I found The Captain‘s review. Thank goodness I did, because I’m fairly sure I would’ve found the described rape scenes upsetting; having skimmed ahead in the book, I know for sure that I find the behaviour of a main character’s brother, and the main character’s reaction to it, disgusting. It turns out, after a long search for him, that Rhia’s brother Etyan was part of gang-raping a girl who he then found dead after going to pay her off for her silence. Rightly fearing what would happen, having found her dead, he ran away. And Rhia decides to forgive him, because although he brutally raped a girl, he didn’t kill her. So she decides to forgive him, because he was just being young and stupid, and at least he wasn’t as bad as she’d feared.
Gag. Spare me. I’ll read something else. Some of the ideas in this book intrigued me, but I’m not going to invest the time for that payoff.
If you don’t actually know much about the history of science, this book might well be for you; for me, it was painfully obvious, hitting exactly the topics I expected, skimming over what I expected it to skim. A worse crime, however, is that the author simply wasn’t accurate: if you’re going to write a non-fiction book, it’s important to make sure you don’t speak beyond your research.
It does not take much research to find out that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not pictographic representations of language. (To be perfectly accurate, some of the characters echo in form the thing they name; a cow head shape might mean the word cow, for instance. However, the languages also contain phonetic characters.)
I didn’t read beyond that. On that point, I knew the author was wrong — on a subject that isn’t even a particular area of expertise for me; how, therefore, could I trust him to have done his research about anything else? If we’re talking deeply technical details, that’s different, but it is widely understood that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not solely logographic. There’s too little time for something where I distrust the research and editing and I’m bored.
Greenwitch is the shortest book in the sequence — in my collected edition it is, anyway — but I find that there’s a lot more to chew on than in the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone. Here the world of the first book and the world of Will Stanton collide, and we glimpse both the high purpose and the kids at play. There’s more moral complexity here, a little more maturity… and then there’s also those very human kids getting jealous because Will’s friends with their Great-Uncle Merry.
I think the most appealing thing about this book for me is firstly the focus on Jane, on her actions, on her decency and insight as a human being actually being the key that unlocks victory for the Light… and secondly all the weird and wonderful hauntings of Cornwall that Cooper invokes. I want to know all the background of the weird night of horrors Jane glimpses relived due to the Greenwitch; I want to know who captains the black ship… It’s all fascinating and tantalising, and Cooper never explains too much. She leaves us wondering.
It’s not my favourite book of the sequence by far, but it has its own wild magic, for sure.
In this book, Amory and her husband Milo go — together, as a couple! with no drama about who is sleeping where! – to a country house at the request of her cousin, a dear friend, who was once on the periphery of a murder and has been called back to the site, along with other people, for some new revelation. Feeling uncomfortable, and knowing Amory’s stuck her nose in a few police investigations, she asks Amory to come — and though she’s no detective and not qualified, etc, etc, she goes, to support her cousin. So far, so very typical of the genre, honestly, and the rest of the book more or less continues that.
I don’t think I’ll continue with this series; it’s nice mindless stuff, and at least she’s stopped (for now at least) playing with the drama about Milo being a playboy. But it’s just a bit too much like everything else, and Amory hasn’t caught my attention in the way Daisy has. I might pick up the next book if I’m bored sometime, but the library wanted it back, and I didn’t care enough to reserve it again, so… there you go.
Part discussion of the Burgess Shale, part rebuttal of Stephen Jay Gould’s premises in Wonderful Life, this book was a bit of a slog to get through for me. It’s a topic I find fascinating, but something about the style mostly had me snoozing, even when he entertainingly decided to take a turn for the science fictional and imagine a whole dive into the seas at the time of the Cambrian explosion. (That bit was mostly entertaining through being surprising, though also through trying to bring to life the animals that could’ve been seen if that could happen, and how they would have behaved — the most speculative bit of the book, basically.)
I feel like Wonderful Life is probably the more fun to read and the more comprehensive, but it’s still fascinating to read about the point of view of a scientist who has actually worked with the Burgess Shale. Whatever you think of Conway Morris’ style, he’s a scientist Gould respected and an expert in his field.
After rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey books at a fairly leisurely pace for a while, I more or less sat down and devoured the ones I had left, in December. Murder Must Advertise has long been a favourite for the fun of seeing both somewhat of how an advertising agency works, and how Dorothy Sayers herself worked in such an environment. (One feels one’s glimpsed her particularly in the figure of Miss Meteyard, I think — though Sayers herself was writing copy, more in Wimsey’s job than Miss Meteyard’s.) The book features Peter’s one real sustained undercover op: he embeds himself into an advertising agency under the name of Bredon, sniffing out a murder and a dope gang, all at once.
It’s also one of those books with a sincere sense of danger, and a bittersweet ending in which Peter allows a man the dignity of choosing the manner of his own death rather than immediately telling the police what he’s worked out. That tendency is one of the things that irritates me about Peter as a sleuth; his code of honour means he feels he has to allow people an out, even if that out is an honourable suicide. Of course we know that it never does go wrong, for Peter, but it could and it’s a flaw in him for me that he’s always so tempted to put the decision in a murderer’s hands. In this case, he suggests a method of suicide to someone that means their family won’t be overshadowed by the trial — but leaves him no chance of a fair trial. Peter is judge and jury, and the murderer themselves becomes their own executioner. It might not feel like cricket to turn people in to the police, but darn it, the legal system is there for a reason. Peter’s meant to be too decent to back someone against a wall and make them think all is lost, but still. Real people aren’t always right, or always decent.
All the same, for the most part it’s a bit of a romp, with Peter coming up with advertising slogans, and leading a double life to provide himself with alibis (of sorts). Harriet’s not really mentioned, and Bunter and even Parker are often in the background, with the setting and characters of the advertising agency taking centre stage. It makes a nice change.
I was surprised to read that this was something of a filler book, while Sayers was actually working on The Nine Tailors to get all the details right, but it makes sense in a way. It doesn’t advance Peter’s character arc much, or really do anything profound — apart from the last act of bravery on the part of a particular character.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge
As so often with books that have enraged certain types, this isn’t the screed against white people that folks would have you believe. The essay of the title was written to explain that the author, Reni Eddo-Lodge, is tired of explaining prejudice to people not equipped to listen. She acknowledged in the original piece and in this book that that doesn’t mean all white people, and it certainly hasn’t meant that she’s stopped talking about race. But she’s given herself permission to avoid doing Racism 101 every five seconds, and more power to her — it’s easy enough to Google that shit, people. Whenever you have a minority identity, there’s questions you get asked and comments you have to hear that just recur like clockwork. I refuse to go back to my last hairdresser because I heard that tape starting with regards to my sexuality: “But have you ever tried going out with a man?” It’s tiring, and I can imagine it’s much more so when your difference is visible, when you can never choose whether it even has the chance of becoming a topic of conversation.
That said, this whole book is a way for Reni Eddo-Lodge to talk to white people about race — if we’re willing to listen. It’s UK focused, which I think was very much needed: a lot of the narrative online focuses on racism against African-Americans, and it’s different here in the UK… though, after reading this book, I have to admit it’s not as different as wishful thinking imagined. A lot of the problems with institutional racism are the same, and though we may have fewer shootings, that seems more likely to be because we have fewer armed police officers than because our attitudes are markedly different.
It’s very much worth reading this, even if you think you’re pretty up to date and in the know. There’s history I had no idea of, attitudes that are alive and well which I didn’t know were still considered acceptable, and overall, further to go than I thought. For that reason, this isn’t an easy read (though it was easy in the sense of being well-written and easy to follow) — and I sense that Eddo-Lodge was still pulling her punches for white people’s sake, even so.
Dead in the Water is the 6th in the Daisy Dalrymple series. In this book, Daisy and Alec are officially engaged, and he’s actually got to face her family — thankfully, her more likeable aunt, and not more time with her strict and old-fashioned mother! Of course, as usual, Daisy quickly falls over a fraught situation, expects murder, and eventually gets it. The same formula is in place here as usual: a crime is committed, and by the time Alec investigates, Daisy’s picked someone to champion. In this case, it’s actually someone she doesn’t even like, who she feels deserves better than he’s been getting all the same.
It’s little things like that (Daisy not liking the person she champions) that help bring some variety to the series; if it was always the exact same kind of person, it’d quickly get tedious, but there’s always just enough variation that it works. For me, and so far, at least. Daisy herself is a worthy sort of heroine: not totally unflappable, but practical and trying to keep her head; a girl who works for her living when she doesn’t have to (except of course, she considers that she does have to, valuing the work); someone with a sense of justice. Alec, too, is a basically decent guy, doing his best to find the culprits and put aside personal feelings. And their relationship is sweet, too.
It didn’t blow me out of the water (heh), but again it’s a fun entry in a series that’s working for me.