Whatever else you can say about Raymond Chandler, he was a hell of a writer. He didn’t use tired old imagery — I could probably easily find dozens of phrases and descriptions throughout his book which are specific, precisely calculated and completely fresh, without trying too hard in any way. That and the pace of his novels makes them just roll along at an incredible speed; I don’t always follow his mystery plots entirely, but I’m hooked on them.
Of course, his writing about women is just gross nowadays, objectifying and patronising and just plain unpleasant. There’s not too much that I recall of his racial politics either, but they come up in Farewell My Lovely, and are beyond gross. I don’t think calling him a man of his time excuses it, per se — it’s not that difficult to understand that other people are human, and bother to speak to them for five minutes. But I can’t help but enjoy his work anyway for his writing, for the way he sketches out Philip Marlowe and his reactions to the world around him so that all of it is very clear and in focus. I can almost visualise his scenes because he makes it so easy: you get an idea of what everyone is doing, without him taking a million words to do it.
Honestly, it’s wizardry. I can’t help enjoying it.
A History of Ancient Egypt: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom, John Romer
Oh, yay, I have now discovered there’s going to be a third volume of these. Despite some reservations when I read the first volume, I find Romer’s writing pretty clear and engaging — though honestly, for me it would be difficult for someone discussing tombs and chapels and the statuary and pomp of the Egyptian courts to actually become boring. From the reading around I’ve done, Romer is accurate and thoughtful, working with the knowledge we actually have of the Middle Kingdom to discover as much as he can, without getting carried away and deciding everything is ritual, mysticism and slavery, as people are prone to do when considering Ancient Egypt.
The book has an extensive bibliography and notes, so it’s easy to look things up for more information. Personally, for all that I love the lavish description of tombs and the decoration of temples — and especially the importance of hieroglyphs — this book does feel very long (it kind of is very long, but it feels longer than it looks, if that makes sense). So it might not be for you if you’re more interested in a quick overview: it’s definitely detailed. I find it fascinating, though, even though a lot of the description washed right over me and won’t be socked away into long-term memory. It’s interesting just to read.
I think this is the second time I’ve read Farthing, and it gets more chilling all the time. It’s an alternate history in which Britain compromised with Hitler, and documents the creeping anti-Semitism and losses of freedom. It’s about compromising with the devil — and in the case of one of the characters, knowing exactly what you’re doing, hating it, and knowing you’re not strong enough not to do it. I love Carmichael, but god, I hope I’m not like him (though I fear I am; one can only hope that when they get offered a choice like that, they have the brains to see it and the guts to say no).
It’s particularly painful for me to read because I do see it happening in Britain now; gradually, people are becoming more and more negative toward foreigners, and it’s all been legitimised by Brexit. I hate it, but I’ll be honest: I’ve started hesitating to admit that my wife is European, gauging the audience to make sure it’s going to be okay. I’ve been told I’m a race traitor for marrying a European; I’ve been told I’m an EU collaborator and a traitor to the UK — etc, etc, all that sickening crap that comes from a certain kind of Brexit supporter. (Not saying all Brexit supporters are doing that and saying things like that, but it’s happening and it’s shocking how little anyone cares apart from to assert it’s not them saying it!)
I imagine US folks would probably have much the same experience right now, and more so.
Despite that, it’s also a deeply entertaining book — Lucy’s narrative voice is great, and the Golden Age crime fic pastiche is great fun. This was the first of Jo’s books that I ever read, and it had me hooked — and it did again this time. She’s excellent with character, with mood, with description, with pace… Honestly, I can’t think of any complaints I have about Farthing, except perhaps that it’s far too on the nose right now.
Essentially, this book is about getting past partisan divides and trying to find some kind of objective overarching morality that everyone can apply and understand, a “metamorality”. For Greene, the answer is very clearly utilitarianism, and he makes a spirited defence of that point, countering many of the standard objections to utilitarianism and clearing away the misconceptions. He starts by defining the problem, of course: discussing how we make moral decisions, using trolley problems (“trolleyology”) as the “fruit fly” of morality experiments.
He talks about ideas you’ve probably read elsewhere, sounding very much like Jonathan Haidt’s “rational tail wagging the emotional dog”, and talks about the basis of this in the human brain. There’s a lot of unpicking of why we have two levels of response to moral situations, and when each one comes into play, which is fascinating in itself, but not new to me. The defence of utilitarianism was, for me, the important part of the book. I’ve always had a bit of a kneejerk reaction against it, and Greene does a good job of dissecting why that happens, and countering that perception.
He also has some very good discussion of how to balance the ultimate aims of utilitarianism with being a fallible human being with emotional wants that feel like needs (even in cases where they’re not).
Overall, worth the read, and I do think he has a good solution here for a system of metamorality that isn’t perfect (he doesn’t seem to think a perfect metamorality exists or is possible), but can be applied and understood by everyone, and which serves our needs for 99.999% of our problems in the real world.
This is exactly the sort of story you expect from the British Library Crime Classics reissues: a smallish village, a murder, Scotland Yard gets called in… it’s not astoundingly original or surprising, with an alibi that falls apart the second you realise that a certain fact doesn’t necessarily constitute an alibi at all — but it’s comfortable and it rolls along at a reasonable pace. Okay, there’s a madwoman (sigh) who commits violence, but even that’s pretty much par for the course and not something I consider a complete turn-off with classic crime fiction. There’s even a little funny vicar who does his best for his flock and is rather anxious and unhappy about testifying against a parishioner, etc, etc.
The writing isn’t the sort of level where you particularly take note, but it works… apart from maybe the phonetic accents. I could do without those. I wonder how comprehensible they even are to people who haven’t heard the actual accent.
So yeah, fun and worth the read if you’re interested in picking up something cosy-ish (I mean, sure, there’s crime, but nobody likes the victim, so that’s almost okay in these books). I’ll definitely happily read more of Bellairs’ work.
This British Library Crime Classics reissue goes to one of the most iconically brooding, romantic and mysterious staple settings of all: the Scottish highlands, in the castle of a laird. It’s a murder mystery, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s filled with some rather unpleasant people — and I don’t love that it leans rather on the themes of madness and manias leading to violence to untangle the whole plot. It’s one of those where you can’t really regret the murder victim, and though the psychology of it all is well-observed, the family struggles weren’t all that appealing to me.
Still, it does the mystery well and evokes a good sense of atmosphere, and it was a pretty entertaining read even if I didn’t exactly root for the characters — and I finished it in just about no time. No real complaints! I don’t know if I’d try another by the same author, but all the same, it filled the time pleasantly enough. Not a stand-out for good or ill, really.
Coming back to this one for a reread was a good idea, definitely; reading it knowing a little about the fourth book and having had time to digest it, so to speak, worked out for me. The ending still feels a little inconclusive, like it surely can’t be that easy — it still feels like too much of an easy return to the status quo. But with the fourth book ready to go straight away, that felt less weird.
The series remains a romp through space and, sort of, through time as well. Although there are definitely romantic feelings flying around, it never becomes a show-stopping thing where everything grinds to the halt for some drama and everyone to figure out how they feel. Irene, Vale, Kai — they all get on with it, and the plot keeps on ticking over the whole time. Which I think is part of what actually makes me so invested in those three. Above all, they stick together, whatever their feelings are. I hope that’s something these books don’t lose.
Overall, this series just… goes down easy. It’s a lot of fun and it has so much scope for more hijinks, even after a fairly apocalyptic ending to this book.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
I decided to reread this (and the second book) before I read Record of a Spaceborn Few, because they’re lovely books and why not? So I sank back into this one gratefully. I think I liked it more this time (not that I disliked it before), and I really got to appreciate the characters and the way they interact, the found family they make, warts and all. (Sorry, Corbin, but you kind of are.) It helped to be really invested in the crew right from the start, instead of feeling my way with them, and it also lessens the feeling that it’s leaning a bit too hard on Firefly (Kizzy = Kaylee in many, many ways).
Even so, there’s still a part about 60% of the way through the book where it went from “mildly fun” to “completely hooked and rooting for these people and oh goodness please let nothing bad happen to them”. This time, I actually cried through several parts near the end, because it really works — we’re not just told these people are close, but you feel it too.
I do also enjoy all the aliens, and the way they actually feel both like aliens and like plausible friends, in many cases. Sissix is undeniably not human, but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine anyone as a better friend for Ashby — to me, that’s a difficult road to walk, making aliens alien enough while also making a crew that fit together as well as this. And Dr Chef might’ve been my favourite, this time, with the way he cares for everybody, but again… definitely alien. There’s attention to detail in setting up several rather different alien cultures, and even different cultures within humanity.
All in all, a very fun time was had by all, as I fully expected. I do kinda wish the second (and third) books followed the Wayfarer as well. I don’t want to be done with Ashby and company.
This is a multidisciplinary synthesis of all kinds of information about the populations of Europe and how they got here. There have been trends in understanding the movement of peoples that anyone dipping into the topic will know about, largely the great argument over migration and whether it’s ever really occurred or not. I think Manco’s book shows that, in the end, it’s the middle road that’s the answer: sometimes there has been movement, sometimes not; usually, there’s been some movement, whether of traders or invaders.
The book presents tons and tons of evidence, drawing from genetic analysis, written records, archaeological remains and linguistic traces. No doubt some of the details are wrong here and there, but I strongly suspect that the overall sweep of it is a good picture of how Europe was populated, and how populations interacted and lived together. It’s quite attractively presented, too: it’s printed in colour throughout, with colours used to good effect to produce heatmaps and all sorts illustrating the density of certain genetic markers or linguistic groups.
It’s also, to my mind, a pretty easy read. I did get a little lost at times when it fell to listing the markers that characterise this or that population, but for the most part Manco remembers to keep all the evidence in mind, and not simply regurgitate strings of haplogroup identifications. She also explains how the genetic analysis techniques used work, which helps — not in enormous detail, so nothing new to me, but enough to contextualise the work she’s presenting.
Interesting stuff, and while I wouldn’t call it a pageturner as such, I read it in two days.
This book is just… kind of gross. If there’s a woman on the page, North is bound to describe her breasts. If she’s anything less than a perfect housewife from the 1800s, she’s a whore and the narrative — and main character — treat her as such. Even the murder victim is described in somewhat less than sympathetic ways: that kind of desperate-for-a-man stereotype for a stalwart police officer to pity when she inevitably comes to grief.
I don’t understand Martin Edwards’ praise for this book in the introduction. The writing style is probably a matter of taste, but it felt clumsy to me, and way too reliant on staccato narration: “This happened. Then that happened. The man was afraid. The woman laughed.” That kind of style. It creates a certain kind of tension at times, but doing it that way for the whole book is just actually kind of boring.
Skip Gil North’s writing, even if you’re collecting the British Library Crime Classics. Ugh.