Weekend at Thrackley is a country house mystery of a sort, but not exactly the cosy comfortable sort. It’s clear fairly early on that the host of the party is a crook, and up to no good, and there’s something very sinister about all the proceedings. I have no idea why the editor of the series refers to this as being like The Red House Mystery, because the tone is utterly different — there might be a couple of points where the style is similar, but really I don’t see much similarity between the two books at all. It’s also an odd duck among the British Library Crime Classics: there’s no murder case per se.
Our Hero is Captain Jim Henderson, who seems chronically underemployed and lodges in a boarding house. One morning he receives a mysterious letter from someone he’s never even heard of who claims to be a friend of his father’s. Intrigued, and definitely up for free food and drink and entertainment for a weekend, he accepts the invitation. Turns out one of his buddies is going too, so they head down there together. The house is odd and secluded, but full of all kinds of comforts, so they settle in. And then… things start to happen, of course. It’s an intriguing set up, and though I had a guess about one of the enduring mysteries, I wasn’t positive until the end.
There’s a love story, of course, and in true Golden Age style it proceeds at a massive pace and doesn’t really reflect much on how real relationships work. There’s some fun dialogue, and like I said, it’s far from a cosy: there’s a genuine sense that people might be murdered any minute, and it’s surprising that the body count ends as low as it does. The story is rife with useful coincidence, but all in all it’s entertaining and a fun read.
This book professes to explain the importance of the Irish border, and to delve into its importance in the Brexit negotiations. I thought this was something worth informing myself about, because my knowledge of Irish history of any era is fairly limited, and I want to be better informed. This… is not a good place to start, I think: it throws names of politicians and political parties at you rapid-fire, and expects you to already have much of the context in mind. That makes some sense in a book focused on the border, but I’d still start with a bit of context to help orient people who are picking the book up for the reasons I did.
In the end, I couldn’t finish it. I found the style too dry and it just wasn’t calibrated for the level of knowledge I went in with. I’m sure it’s fine if you’re interested in the topic already, but then, a primer on the topic is why I thought the book would be useful, so it’s a little misleading in terms of the jacket copy.
Gina Rippon and other writers like Cordelia Fine between them attempt to totally rip to shreds the idea that there are such things as “male brains” and “female brains”, writing convincing critiques of studies which are then just as convincingly critiqued in their turn. It’s difficult for someone outside the field (even someone with a biology degree that included modules on human biology and on “the science of the mind”) to know how to pick this apart, and I worry that a lot of the time we go looking for someone who supports our view, and then believe them because they sound most convincing. (And of course they do! It’s easy to convince someone of something they already believe.)
In terms of the book itself, Rippon’s not as engaging as Cordelia Fine; I actually got a little bored and bogged down at some points. It definitely wouldn’t be my first choice as a primer for a pop-sci book that’s sceptical of the pink-brain-blue-brain debate. There are some interesting sections: the discussion of attitudes toward menstruation is particularly interesting, as it suggests many of our negative ideas about menstruation (including PMS) are culturally received. (Then again, Rippon doesn’t engage with the genuine issues of people with conditions like PCOS or endometriosis, which very clearly make periods exactly the misery people fear.)
In terms of the evidence presented, I think some of the debunking is useful for sure, and the reminders that some of these differences are actually vanishingly small. However, Rippon uses examples of women with high testosterone, and possibly other intersex characteristics as well, without bothering to think about whether it’s the binary that’s serving us poorly. We know that biologically, sex is a spectrum with groupings around two points, not two separate and wholly discrete categories. I’d love to see more work dealing with that and what that might mean; this book ain’t it, because it tacitly accepts from the start that there are men and women, and that everyone can be sorted into one of those two boxes.
Reread this in preparation for the (sob) last book! In Dreadful Company, Greta goes to Paris for a medical conference and finds herself caught up in a conflict of Ruthven’s (although Ruthven is not actually conscious of anyone holding such a vendetta against him) as she’s kidnapped by a vampire coven. There are also weird things going on in Paris — hauntings that should be long-settled, strange timeslips, and the appearance of surprisingly large numbers of summoned monsters. Naturally, Greta ends up in the thick of all of it, since she’s our protagonist.
The book features more of the burgeoning relationship between Greta and Varney, and it’s adorable. Even though that’s the case, Greta’s hardly a damsel in distress; in fact, it’s fairly clear from the beginning that she isn’t going to just sit around and wait for Ruthven to rescue her, however much she misses him and longs to see her friends again. She continues to be a wonderful character: a doctor with a genuine calling, someone who loves what they do and also believes in it. She saves the lives of several of the vampires imprisoning her, because she’s a doctor and that’s what she must do, and I love it.
We do also get to see a good amount of Ruthven being badass, Varney pulling himself together and genuinely participating in society and having friends and generally not slipping back into the depressive funk we see him indulge in a couple of times in the first book. There are also several new characters, while other characters from the first book (Cranswell, for one) are more in the background. There are also new creatures and new supernatural lore, all of which adds very satisfyingly to the world.
I don’t know much about what the last book is going to cover and how things are going to wrap up, but I’m so ready for it. And while we’re at it, I adore the way Greta constantly refers to Corvin as an edgelord, because it’s a bloody perfect description.
Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet, David Beerling
I picked this up on the strength of The Green Planet: in that book, Beerling’s fascination with and passion for everything to do with plants was palpable. It was a really good book, and he wrote clearly for any audience. Making Eden is perhaps a little more technical, or just a little less polished: I honestly found it a little dry, overall, and I can’t say I loved it nearly as much. Obviously I’m a bad judge of what works for people without a scientific background, but once or twice I found myself getting lost, so my feeling is that it probably misses the target a bit.
It is fascinating to think about how plants made that step from the oceans to the land, though, and it was a worthwhile read to understand a bit more about that. The importance of fungi doesn’t surprise me, though I was pleased to get a chance to read a bit about the experiments that more or less proved it. That leads neatly into Beerling’s final chapter, which… discusses the impact of humanity on plant diversity.
I get it, it’s an important subject, but at this point with me you’re not just preaching to the choir, you’re trying to teach them a song they already know — and it’s not even a more specialist look than perhaps I might read elsewhere, because it’s just 20 pages at the end of a book on its own topic. It’s boring. I know why it’s there; perhaps it’s even irresponsible not to put it in there somehow. But… none of it is new to me, and this book didn’t excite me enough in general to really get over that.
So, overall a bit disappointing. It’s still readable, but I didn’t find it compulsive reading like The Emerald Planet, and it didn’t get me excited.
The History of Life in 100 Fossils, Paul D. Taylor, Aaron O’Dea
This isn’t entirely a coffee table book, but it is a little sparing on details — sometimes I really wanted to know how a certain fossil was formed, and they don’t mention it, or their related text is barely related to the actual fossil they’re presenting. And of course, there are fossils I’d like to see discussed and aren’t, and some I wouldn’t have put in my personal lineup of the history of life. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to see someone else’s choices, and follow the timeline of the development of life through their examples.
And of course, some of the fossils are just flat-out gorgeous.
This book begins by establishing the character of a little Devonshire farming area, and a young man who comes to settle there and work on the land after having to leave the army before the end of the Second World War. He’s a quiet man, but conscientious, with a love of hard work for the right purpose. The first couple of chapters establish that he’s well thought of, that he gets along with his neighbours, and his efforts on the small piece of land and cottage he leases are painstaking and well done.
In the fourth chapter or so, however, it jumps to a police inquiry into this man’s death. It looks like an accident, but the carelessness that would allow such an accident seems unlike the man, and it also seems unlikely that he — trained as a Navy man — would sleep through the fire to be burnt alive in his cottage. People are reluctant to believe that it could be murder, but likewise find it difficult to square the idea of him being careless… and Macdonald (Lorac’s series detective, though he doesn’t have much characterisation from book to book — they can be read in any order) is inclined to agree that there’s something strange going on.
As in Lorac’s other books, the order of the day is slow careful detection: speaking to the people involved, checking up on all the details, and piecing together the larger picture. It takes a while to come into focus, but it all comes together beautifully — and damn, this one is sad, because the victim sounds like a genuinely lovely person who was just trying to make a life ready for the woman he loved.
Each of Lorac’s books has a great sense of place and atmosphere, and while this one is quieter than her London-based books, the same applies here. You can almost smell the earth. It’s beautifully done.
Part memoir, part political treatise, part history, Madeleine Albright’s book does a quick overview of Fascist regimes in history, taking in the obvious ones, digging into how they took power, legitimised themselves, and made it difficult to get rid of them by dismantling constitutions and laws. Most of that isn’t new to a casual student of history, though some of the details are, but then she moves into some of the more recent dictators and fascists of the world. In some cases, the leaders discussed don’t fit the definition of fascism as stated by her, and sometimes it feels more like the title should be Dictators: A Warning.
Her bias, as a former member of the Clinton administration, is obvious, but her respect for George W. Bush is a rather welcome note in that. Her lack of respect and trust for Trump is explicit, though she stops short of calling the Trump administration a fascist one (granted, the copy I read is from 2018, so her views may have updated somewhat since).
There’s some fascinating insights from Albright based on her experience, including of living leaders (Putin, for one), and her direct experience in Czechoslovakia. As I was reading it, I was thoroughly absorbed by her conversational and clear style. I do doubt how well it translates for people across the party line. (From the look of Goodreads, not well.) Interesting, though not entirely new to me in terms of what fascism looks like.
I had a frazzling week or so there, and so naturally I turned to Dorothy L. Sayers for comfort. (You’ve all heard the story about when my mother used a Lord Peter audiobook to calm me down when I came out of anaesthesia after an operation, by this point, I’m sure.) Unnatural Death is a very clever story which I’ve never really considered a favourite, even though it contains so many things I love: Miss Climpson and the cleverness of her characterisation; quite a lot of banter and partnership between Peter and Parker; and yes, that ingenious murder method that puzzles Peter until almost the end of the book.
It begins in a restaurant: Peter and Parker are debating whether doctors report things they suspect to be murder, or whether any number of murders might be going unsolved and almost unsuspected. Peter says that doctors risk their livelihoods by making accusations, and someone overhears and breaks into their conversation to say it’s happened to him. Naturally Peter’s fascinated, and decides to look into it — and finds that by acting, he actually causes the killer to take further actions, intending to hide their tracks.
The murder method used is indetectable, even on autopsy, and the motive is completely unclear as well: the obvious suspect does not appear to benefit at all by the death of her elderly aunt. Nonetheless, Peter’s sure this is the perfect murder — a well-executed murder which almost defies detection — and he’s completely fascinated. It’s a bit ghoulish, honestly, and a little more examination of the mayhem he’s caused might be warranted on Peter’s part, but it makes for a fascinating story all the same. The motive and means are both ingenious, and we get some delightful bits of dialogue and character sketches along the way.
In short, though it doesn’t have a big hold on me as a sentimental favourite, nonetheless is a solid and clever read.
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, Olivia Waite
This is a lovely historical romance in which a young girl, Lucy Muchelney, seeks a patron to help her continue her work as an astronomer after her father’s death. She did much of his work in the years before his death, but has never been acknowledged as the author — though she has high hopes that the Lady of Moth, Catherine St. Day, will listen to her and sponsor her as the translator of an important astronomical work written in French. Catherine St. Day is a widow, freed from an unhappy marriage to a scientist, and reluctant to jump into supporting yet another scientist, even in his memory.
Obviously, she decides to do so (early on — that isn’t a spoiler) and the two quickly grow close. Their romance is sweet, though I was frustrated by the miscommunication plotline in the last section of the book. I know constant communication between partners can’t be the norm because everybody seems weirded out by my relationship, but yeeesh, I am tired of it as a complicating trope in romance fiction. On the other hand, I am glad that fear of exposure wasn’t a huge plotline here — it’s hard to shape a happily ever after around constant massive fear of exposure or disgrace, so in that light I was glad Waite steered clear.
I do kind of wish that the former lover wasn’t so petulant… I loved the sympathy with which her husband was treated by the narration and the characters, and I wish she as a character seemed more worth all the devotion she supposedly inspires.
For my folks who’re asexual/demi/just not interested in sex in books for whatever reason, this book does contain sex scenes. They’re not 100% necessary to the plot, though they do demonstrate the emotional connection between the protagonists, and deepen it through intimacy.
All in all, enjoyable enough and I’d read more in the series, though it didn’t blow me away.