I read this around Christmas, because it’s seasonal, and why not? It’s a set-up with tonnes of atmosphere: heavy snow falls, trapping trains on the tracks where they stand, and a group of travellers leave to try and walk to their destinations, or a working station, or just because of sheer boredom. The weather worsens, however, and one of them twists an ankle, and so they end up sheltering in a house they find empty, but open and ready as if for visitors. The mystery grows as a couple of other people join them, and as they explore the house. This is even one of the sort of mystery novels where there’s a hint of the supernatural, as a paranormal investigator is one of the group, and another susceptible member of the company finds herself experiencing weird episodes of pain and fear.
In the end, there’s some down to earth murder going on as well, and a touch of romance. To be honest, although I’ve enjoyed Farjeon’s other books, this one rang a little hollow for me and I wasn’t as keen. He does the atmosphere pretty well, but the characters are an odd bunch who wear their flaws rather openly, and I honestly just got confused by the comings and goings and mysterious happenings. It relies on coincidence a bit too much, and just… doesn’t in the end quite work for me. Sad, since I was sure it’d be a good one!
This book is, I’ll warn people right up front, also a history of how the Mayan specialists in the West failed to break the “Maya code” for far too long, due to petty jealousies and larger than life characters. Quite often Coe sketches a mini-biography of someone who was involved in the decipherment (or more often, the failure of decipherment); sometimes the biography isn’t so mini.
Still, I think it’s better written than his other book on the Mayans, which I read not that long ago — it certainly worked better for me, anyhow. Perhaps because there are glimpses of the scholars and larger than life characters who put in the work, erroneous though it often was.
The book is illustrated, both with full reproductions and sketches. For me, the full-page spreads of Mayan characters were meaningless, but I’m sure it would appeal a lot to some people to be able to have a crack at it themselves. I know I’m not visually inclined enough, so I tended to skip the examples and such, but they are there and I’m sure more visually inclined people could pick out some of the features Coe discusses.
Gaudy Night looks to be the chunkiest of Sayers’ novels on my bookshelf: in effect, it’s a book-length musing on women and education, on equality in a relationship, and in doing the thing that you’re best suited to do — and making the sacrifices that may entail. Although there’s another book after this, it’s really the culmination of the series in some ways, resolving the romance between Peter and Harriet, and finally bringing the two of them into balance.
The plot itself takes Harriet to Oxford, a place she’s avoided since before she was tried for the murder of her lover. She didn’t think she could go back, after both taking a lover and being tried for his murder (even if she was acquitted), but she quickly finds there’s still a place for her there, and a life that has its charms of quiet contemplation and good hard work. She’s asked to stay there to help them track down something rather odd going on in their midst, a cross between a poison pen and a poltergeist, bent on causing disturbances that will reflect badly on the good name of the college — something that could be a pretty harsh blow to women’s education. In the meantime, she gets embroiled in various rivalries and misunderstandings, meets Peter’s nephew, and generally gets herself into trouble.
Really, the mystery isn’t as important to this book as Harriet’s struggle to forgive herself, and to begin to trust again after what happened to her. Although it’s been some time since the trial, she hasn’t really been confronting the demons and letting the wounds heal, and this book makes her do so. It also makes her really look at Peter, and discover how she actually feels about him.
It’s a book that dramatises badly: the BBC television adaptation is by far my least favourite of the three with Edward Petherbridge, despite the manifest delights of both him and Harriet Walter’s performance. The BBC radioplay is actually narrated by Harriet, and sticks much closer to the book, and so is more successful as a cohesive listening experience, though perhaps less so as a dramatisation. It’s a pretty insular book, and I think you may have to love Harriet, Peter, Oxford, or all of the above, to really appreciate it.
I really do. The thing that excites me most about Harriet and Peter as a couple is the fact that from their first meeting, everything hinges on them becoming equals and seeing each other as such — this isn’t a relationship where either of them subordinates their own wishes. Both are fully formed people, and Peter wants it that way — and Harriet doesn’t know or believe that he does, instead believing that any relationship will involve the subjugation of one to the other. Her realisation is beautiful, and Peter’s patience with bringing her there likewise. I think that aspect of the books has aged well, even if the concern about educating women to a high level seems much less relevant.
Styx and Stones is basically the same as the other Daisy Dalrymple books in its basic outline: somehow, Daisy ends up finding a dead body, and getting embroiled in the case to discover exactly what happened, despite Alec’s best efforts. In this case, she gets involved because her brother-in-law asks for her help in a little matter of someone writing poison pen letters to him — and perhaps to various other people in the village. Taking Alec’s daughter Belinda with her for a holiday, Daisy charges right in to see what can be done.
It’s a generally enjoyable book, with Daisy enjoying the quiet village life and poking her nose in everywhere. Her reactions to the local Scarlet Woman are, as you’d expect from her character and the fact that she’s designed to appeal to a modern reader, tentative but overall positive. As usual, she quickly decides who can’t have done it, based on personal feelings, and lets that colour her whole view of the case — and lead her somewhat astray at times.
My enjoyment of this book is mostly marred by the fact that there is a patently ridiculous chapter in which Alec decides Daisy’s been dragging his daughter into danger, Daisy has a tantrum about it and returns the engagement ring, and then they swiftly make up because Belinda gets sad about it. I’m not sure Alec ever really deals with the fact that he’s mad about Belinda getting into danger, and Daisy never really answers the accusation that she got Belinda into a nasty atmosphere (because I do think Alec has a point that maybe a village where someone is writing nasty and potentially threatening poison pen letters is maybe not the best place to take a child), and basically proper communication and discussion never really happens. I mean, it’s cute and all, but hmm. If there was an issue to begin with, it never does get resolved.
That being said, still a mostly enjoyable book, with a couple of little twists on the subject of who is writing the letters and who did the murder, for variety.
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.