Mr Popper’s Penguins, Florence Atwater, Richard Atwater
I’ve never read this one, so when I was in the market for something short last week I just mainlined it. I think overall it’s neither something particularly special nor anything objectionable, except perhaps for the penguins being used as performing animals. There are some rather cute bits with Mr Popper’s pride and excitement in the penguins, and cute/funny descriptions of their performances… and the illustrations are pretty fun.
I don’t really have more to say, though — I bet I’d have enjoyed it as a kid, but it doesn’t have a lot to offer an adult reader beyond a bit of escapism. There’s nothing bad about that, and it filled the hole I needed it to fill, but I can’t exactly gush with praise either!
Lorac starts this book by setting the scene, with a young doctor and his wife moving to an idyllic little village on the moor, self-contained and insular. They’re quickly accepted because of the doctor’s skills, of course, but there’s a little friction with a staple of the place: Sister Monica, a rather severe woman who rules over a little children’s home with an iron fist. Everyone says she’s “wonderful”, and yet there’s something forced about the superlative.
Since it’s a Golden Age crime novel, no surprises that Sister Monica is the one found dead, and that it unravels a whole snarl of issues in the little village. Lorac’s series detective, Macdonald, comes in to take a look — understanding the ways of a small village, but not bound by then, and able to cut some of the knots with plain-speaking and an inability to be rattled.
As always, Lorac is great with a sense of atmosphere: you can practically hear the sounds of the village, smell the scrubbed barren children’s home, feel the spray of the water in the mill race. The killer was the person I guessed, but Lorac avoided tying things up in too neat a bow: there are a couple of questions unresolved, and there’s no “sit all the culprits together in a room” moment. You do get a sense for how her detective works and how she likes to shape a mystery, after reading a few of her books — there are commonalities between this and her other books that felt a bit fresher the first time you read them.
Overall, though, Lorac’s ability to portray a place and a bunch of complicated characters remains a big draw, and I think her books are among the finer ones in the British Library Crime Classics collection (contrast Bude, for example, who I find entertaining but unremarkable as far as style goes).
What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, Leah Price
This book is less concerned with what’s inside books and more about what we do with the actual physical book. Leah Price is a book historian as well as a literary critic, and the reason I bought this book was for her insights on how we read and how you delve into how people in the past read. With some old books it’s easy: you can tell by whether the pages are cut or not. In cookbooks, you might be able to tell from where the pages are stuck together or splattered with ingredients. There’s also folded-over corners, of course, and just letting the book fall open and see where it opens to… Price talks a little about these considerations, but mostly this isn’t what the book is about.
She discusses the physical form of a book in the first chapter, the joys of pre-owned books and scribbling in the margin, and even how those habits have evolved over time. Much as we like to think of the book as a well-worn and traditional object, we haven’t always read from folded wood-pulp paper folded into covers, and our habits around books have changed accordingly. Books haven’t always been affordable, either: subscription libraries where people clubbed together to buy and share books were once very common. Scribbling in the margins and doing underlining was a lot more common before modern libraries discouraged the practice.
(I fear Price wouldn’t think much of my shelves, which are loaded which books kept in almost mint condition, even when I’ve read them. I think she’d see them as lacking personality and even love, instead of finding my rather obsessive, jealous, hoarding love of books on every single shelf. Not much room for nuance in her words here, approving most of books where she can clearly see the fingerprints of previous readers.)
Price also discusses the big one: pbooks versus ebooks. She’s fairly nuanced, and mentioned some fascinating insights about how different countries consume their ebooks. (In France, apparently, mostly via laptop screen; in the UK, dedicated readers giving way to reading on phones.)
She’s also got some things to say about the uses books are put to, discussing the book prescriptions service provided in Wales (which I’ve used!) and so on. To be honest, this seems like a bit of a mish-mash of subjects, and it doesn’t really come together very coherently. I was most interested in the first chapter and her commentary on ebooks, and I’m glad to have picked up her term for physical books (pbooks) — way easier to say than “dead-tree books” — but… overall… I wasn’t that enthused? It took looking at the contents to refresh my memory on what she even said, which isn’t a super great sign.
In the end, I’m not sure what she wanted to say and whether she ended up saying it.
Hey folks! I keep thinking I’m on top of things again and then crumbling by the end of the week, but I swear there’s progress — and I’ve been reading a lot! I’ve also been getting a lot of books! I haven’t included them all this week, only up to Saturday morning, so I’ll still have something to show off next week. 😀
I think a lot of people are picking this up expecting it to be a handbook, from the title — a list of actions you can take, a discussion of prejudice and the prejudiced things people can inadvertently do: something, in short, that tells you what to do. It isn’t that. How to be an Antiracist is a memoir, which charts the journey of Kendi himself through both racist and antiracist thoughts, through all the things that shape his response today. There are definitely things here that can point to what you need to do (primarily taught through example: one of the important things to do is reflect on how your thoughts and actions could contribute to or fight against racism), but it isn’t a recipe book.
Which is good: I don’t think any single book can tell us what needs to be done, because Black people are not a single organism with one mind. Kendi believes that racism against white people is possible, for instance, which I know a lot of Black people disagree with (using the definition that racism requires power). Kendi lays heavy stress on changing racist policy (a term he prefers to “institutional racism”) rather than confronting racist people or even racist actions. His theory is that social attitudes are informed by what policy dictates: he suggests that the changing of minds and hearts will come after a change in law, and changes to laws should not be held up to wait for the changes of attitude.
Kendi’s also looking mostly at the way racism operates in the US; my impression is that while there are commonalities, things play out differently in different countries because of the different histories and policies. If you’re going to read just one book on racism, I’m not convinced this is the right choice for everyone, even though the title makes it sound like a panacea.
It’s true too that it isn’t just a memoir: Kendi sets out each chapter carefully, beginning with a definition and then using examples (often from his own experiences) to illustrate the problem, how it affects people, and how he grapples with it and has grappled with it in the past. In some ways, you can treat it as a template — because you can go through it and substitute your own experiences or those of people you know, and understand the same issue from where you’re standing. But still, I’d say it’s primarily memoir, and that accounts for the fact that it can be a little repetitive (we see the same issues and themes examined in different parts of Kendi’s life) or unfocused.
For me, there were some snippets of history and culture that were new to me, partly because I’m not from the US; I think it’s also worthwhile on that level, though it isn’t a history book and doesn’t delve deeply into it.
Overall, my feeling is that it’s a worthwhile read, alone or as part of a little self-taught curriculum of books about racism and how it impacts people — and how to be better, taught through example.
The Sussex Downs Murder is the third book I’ve read by John Bude from the British Library Crime Classics series, featuring the same detective as the previous two. Meredith is a policeman, and much of the story involves careful police work: cross-checking, putting a man on this and a man on that, and slowly amassing more evidence — so much that at first it’s hard to sort out what’s relevant and what isn’t, and which of the herrings are a suspiciously ruddy colour.
Bude’s writing is like that: methodical, thorough, a little slow, but ultimately assembling a pretty fascinating picture, with some nice set-pieces along the way. I don’t visualise things easily, but Bude brought to life the chalky cliff and the grassy downs of the setting, as his characters walk through them — a sketch, perhaps, but one that suggests just enough to contextualise what the artist wants to show.
I’ll admit that I find John Bude’s plots a trifle obvious, though Martin Edwards’ introductions don’t always help with that. He dropped a clue that raised my eyebrow right at the start, so I figured out where we were going. Still, I didn’t know quite how we’d get there, and with Golden Age crime fiction that’s usually the main thing.
In all, it’s a solid story, I didn’t spot any major holes, and it has its moments for characterisation, setting and humour. Not perhaps the best of the series, but an enjoyable specimen of the species.
Pet takes place in the utopian city of Lucille. They’ve rooted out all the evil at their core: the violent policemen, the corrupt politicians, the liars and abusers… It wasn’t easy, and those who had to hunt for the evil in their midst had to do terrible things, but now there are no monsters in Lucille. Jam has been raised in this world, and is shocked when a spatter of her blood combines with a painting made by her mother and calls forth a monster which calls itself Pet and says there is a monster in Lucille, in the home of her dearest friend. Worse, it says she has to help it hunt down that monster.
It’s hard to put a finger on quite where Pet sits, though it’s labelled as YA: Jam feels rather young, despite the fact that she’s older than fifteen. I suspect that’s partly because of her naïveté, though. I don’t know how old I was when I first understood that children around me were being abused by family members, but I can’t have been more than ten. The idea of children being able to be that naïve is a pretty shocking one from that perspective: of course they wouldn’t have to grow up as fast. Of course they could have space to figure out their way through their lives.
So despite how young it feels in that way, YA is probably fair — especially because of the things Jam discovers while she’s on the hunt with Pet.
I really enjoyed the different kinds of representation here: there’s a family with three parents, one of whom is non-binary; Jam is trans; Jam prefers not to vocalise and uses signs and alternative ways to communicate; race feels unimportant to the world but is clearly signalled to the reader (with Jam’s afro, learning to do her hair in cornrows, etc — not to mention the cover)…
And as for the story… It feels simplistic, but there’s a lot of stuff to untangle. I enjoyed Jam’s friendship with Redemption, and the easy way they help each other, make each other better, and figure out their way around their problems. The relationships between Bitter and Aloe, Jam’s parents, and within Redemption’s family as well, have that feel to it as well. A world where people communicate and figure things out — and yes, are awful to each other sometimes, but figure things out as well. And there’s the whole issue of the monsters in Lucille, which people don’t want to see: we’ve done the work, they say. The work’s been done, there are no monsters.
There are always monsters, and we can’t pretend we’ve got rid of them for good, no matter how righteous we are, no matter how we purge and purge. We always have to be ready to listen, to accept that we could have been wrong.
Pet does a lot in a very short space, and it’s very worth a read at this particular moment in time especially. It has the simplicity of a fable or a parable, but within that simplicity is a hell of an idea to have to wrestle with.
It’s that time again! Check out Taking On A World Of Words to chat with everyone else who has posted what they’re reading right now!
What are you currently reading?
I have a couple of things that I’m partway through, but not much directly on the go. I did recently start Beneath the World, a Sea by Chris Beckett, which starts off satisfyingly weird with the main character coming back to consciousness after his time in an area of the world where no matter how long you stay or what you do there, you won’t ever remember what happened.
It’s feeling a bit less fresh now the main character, a policeman, is supposed to be investigating the deaths of creatures called “duendes”, which weirdly break down human inhibitions and make them think dark and awful thoughts. It’s feeling a bit like Vandermeer’s Southern Reach books for me. Which is not a bad thing, per se, and it really depends on where it goes with all these ideas. I’m not that far into it yet.
What have you recently finished yesterday?
I just finished reading How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. I need to digest it a little, I think. It’s definitely a memoir, rather than a handbook: there’s a lot of personal reflection in there. There’s a lot that’s in direct opposition to the kind of discourse I’ve heard online; he doesn’t believe that racism is a question of power, for instance: he’s adamant that Black people can be racist against white people, and that that’s as much of a problem as any other kind of racism. I think it’s important to remember that all these books people are offering up in reading lists still come from just one perspective; you can’t just read one and be done.
What will you be reading next?
I’m pretty sure I’m going to read Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. It’s nice and short (~200 pages), and it’s YA, so it should be a quick read. I think I’ve mentioned before that that’s the kind of thing I’m really enjoying at the moment, and it feels like leaning into it is making me feel more enthused about reading in general.
I’m also going to start Afua Hirsh’s Brit(ish), though. It doesn’t look like there’s anyone currently waiting for it at the library after me, but I was in a bit of a queue to get it, so I’d like to get it back on their virtual shelves sooner rather than later.
What are you reading?Looking forward to anything new?
I knew what I was getting into with a K.J. Charles story, of course. Men being stupid at each other, probably a bodycount, good snark and a handful of sex scenes. That makes it sound formulaic, but it really isn’t — with each new story you’re meeting new and distinct characters, with their own reasons for taking their time or falling right into bed. In this book, we meet Archie Curtis and Daniel da Silva: one an ex-military man, still healing from wounds from a terrible accident, and the other an effete poet.
Both of them have been invited to a country house, and they each have ulterior motives for being there. Despite early tension between them, Curtis finds himself learning to appreciate Daniel better — and of course, their tension morphs into something else. I found myself going from wanting to throw things at Daniel to totally appreciating the developing relationship and wanting Curtis to be better at all this! That said, it isn’t really fair: Curtis is always decent, and though he might have some stupid stereotypes in his mind, he’s also open to learning better. I do wish we got a little more of Daniel’s point of view and how he sees Curtis, though…
There are also some very fun side characters, and I’m excited to meet them in Proper English. So glad I have it on my shelf… but on the other hand, I might save it for when I need a pick-me-up! K.J. Charles’ books are always perfect for my fidgety moods when I’m not sure what I want to read: fun stories, interesting characters, and yes, sparks always fly — and the chemistry is always great.
Greetings folks! I’m all caught up with my backlog of comments and so on and excited to get back to visiting more blogs. This week’s Top Ten Tuesday theme is books on your summer TBR… and while I’m really bad at picking out what I’m actually going to read, I love lists and planning what I’m going to read so I can ignore it, so… here goes! Links go to the GR page so you can read the summaries.
Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch. I’ve been wanting to read more books focused on the experience of being a person of colour in Britain; so much of the discussion on racism focuses on the situation in the US, and my feeling is that while there are commonalities, there are bound to be differences as well. I’d like to get a better feel for that (though Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book was a good starting point).
Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I loved The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo — or at least, I tore right through it, even if I had some more ambiguous feelings at the end. I have actually started Daisy Jones, but it hasn’t really hooked me yet.
Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi. I’m super curious about this one, based on the blurb, so I picked it up recently. It’s a relatively short read, too, which is quite attractive for my easily distracted brain right now. There’s just so much that sounds awesome, though reviews from people I know have been a bit mixed. Still, a world where badness has been defeated… I’m really fascinated to see how the book deals with that.
Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston. It sounds like so much fun and so cute. And like a world I want to be in right now, to be honest, where the biggest problem in US politics is apparently that the female President’s son falls in love with a fictional British prince.
Catherine House, by Elisabeth Thomas. This sounds creepy-weird! It was actually a rec in a Twitter thread and I kind of just went for it, so it’ll be interesting to see what I make of it.
Boyfriend Material, by Alexis Hall. I have an ARC, and I really need to dig into it. It sounds so fun — fake dating is a great trope to play with. I’ve been eager for this since I first heard about it.
Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, by Aliette de Bodard. I really need to reread the first two books of the Dominion of the Fallen so I can read the third, but this stands alone and should be a lot of fun. I loved Asmodeus and Thuan, even is Asmodeus is… well, he’s Asmodeus; you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read The House of Binding Thorns. I have an ARC, and it’s probably close to the top of my TBR right now.
So that’s one version of what I might be reading this summer. How about you?