Doomsday Book by ConnieWillis
Ebook on my iPad
Time travel is a very hackneyed concept in science fiction. After all it was done first, and arguably best, by H.G.Wells in The Time Machine, more than a century ago. But Connie Willis has managed to grab hold of the idea and make it interesting again.
In Willis’ near-term future (2054 AD), time travel has been invented and is in the hands of academics at Oxford University. Doomsday Book details a research trip to the early 1300s to investigate mediaeval life and settle academic questions about the way the English language was spoken.
But things go horribly wrong and the time-traveller, a young woman called Kivrin, ends up arriving at a time right when the Black Death hits England. Co-incidentally, an epidemic of severe flu afflicts 21st century Britain, throwing all into confusion at both ends of the time travel voyage.
Willis seems to effortlessly combine comedy and tragedy in this book, no mean feat. We certainly feel the tragedy of the Black Death, because Kivrin, and ourselves as readers, come to know the people whom it affects, and feel their suffering. Contrast this with the almost dismissive treatment of the same plague by Ken Follett in World Without End in which the only people to die are characters we don’t much care about.
I really enjoyed this book.
Grasshopper by Barbara Vine
Audiobook on my iPhone
“Barbara Vine” is a pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, used when she is writing outside of the mystery genre.
Grasshopper is, to my mind, one of Rendell’s best books, which is saying a great deal.
It is in some ways a charming book, with a genuine romance in it, and even a (fairly) happy ending – not things one normally associates with this writer.
Having said that, though, there is tragedy a-plenty as well. It tells the story of Clodagh (pron “Clo-da”), in her late teens, who leaves her rural home to study in London. Clodagh has survived a terrible accident in which her slightly-younger boyfriend was killed, and for which Clodagh is bitterly blamed. There is a sense of her being banished to London, where she is to live in a flat owned by a distant relative.
The slow evolving of what happens to her in London, and the development of Clodagh’s character, is beautifully and convincingly done.
Without giving away too much of the plot, she falls in with a group of people of similar age, who are living together in a flat at the top of a house in Maida Vale. Their passion is climbing over the roofs of the terrace houses. In doing this, they discover a secret which will eventually bring them all undone, and lead to another tragedy. The book is cast as a retrospective memoir by a grown-up Clodagh, and is full of backwards and forward references which help to build the tension.
“They have sent me here because of what happened on the pylon” is the first sentence of the book, but it takes a long while before we discover what happened in the first tragedy of her life. The later tragedy is foreshadowed repeatedly, but because the narrator is telling this story from a time in her life when we know she is settled and happy, we know that all turns out well in the end.
This is the second time I have listened to this book (beautifully narrated by Emilia Fox), and I thoroughly enjoyed it both times.
All Flesh is Grass by Clifford D Simak
I re-read this because I am going through all my paperbacks, trying to dispose of most of them.
Entertaining-enough 1960s science fiction, written in Simak’s inimitable style. An unusual first-contact story in which a small American town finds itself enclosed by an impenetrable bubble. It turns out that the alien species which has done this is… well, a bunch of flowers. Nevertheless, Simak makes this convincing and memorable.
My only gripe is that the book ended rather suddenly and limply.
Guardians of Time by Poul Anderson
Ebook on my iPad
Four novellas based on Anderson’s Time Patrol. Enjoyable if light-weight time-travel SF with plenty of fun with paradoxes.
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Ebook on my iPad
This is the first of Kate Atkinson’s books which I have read, and the first to feature the private detective Jackson Brodie. The book seems to start strangely, and you wonder what is going on: you are presented with three quite distressing ‘case histories’ – a young girl goes missing without trace; a young woman dies in an apparently senseless attack at a solicitor’s office; a new mother murders her husband with an axe. None of these stories seem related, but when the book proper starts, all of these tales are explored and are seen to intertwine. Enjoyable and well-written, with really interesting characterisation. On the strength of this I went out and bought the other books in the Jackson Brodie series, all as ebooks, at a great price from Kobo Books.
The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
Hardcover, my own collection
This book deals, as the title indicates, with vision and its disturbance by problems in the brain (or as in Sack’s own case when he is affected by cancer, how a physical problem with the eyes impacts on the mind).
Everything that Oliver Sacks writes is fascinating and enjoyable, and this book is no exception.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
Audibook on my iPhone
For some reason I seem to find myself re-reading Sayer’s series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, in reverse order.
This book starts out, though, focusing entirely on Harriet Vane, the detective writer (clearly based heavily on Sayers herself), who is on a trip back to Oxford University for a reunion which her old classmates. There’s a lot going on here about women’s education (still a fairly new thing in the 1930s when Sayers was writing), the academic life, and the celibate life.
I did find myself wondering how the average reader of detective stories would cope with all of this if they were to come upon the book without having read any of the preceding novels in the series. Personally, I found it very interesting for the light it sheds on the thinking of the time. Harriet Vane also agonizes endlessly about her non-relationship with Peter Wimsey and why she can’t contemplate marrying him, as he regularly proposes. Naturally, however, by the end of the book, Sayers finds a way to rationalize a change of heart on Harriet’s part…
The mystery this time, if there is one, is very much subordinate to all of the above, but is still intriguing enough to hold the reader’s interest – poison pen letters are being sent to staff and students of Harriet’s old college, and acts of vandalism occurring. Who is doing this and why, are the core mysteries to be uncovered.
Gaudy Night is certainly not your average detective story, but very enjoyable nevertheless.
The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt
Ebook on my iPad
It was a bit of a struggle to get into this long book. One of the problems is that there are a very large number of characters, most introduced quite quickly during the course of a party, and keeping them all straight is a challenge. But once I got over that hurdle (greatly assisted by the Search function in iBooks – who was that character again?), I started to become gripped by the story.
Basically the book follows the lives of a group of disparate children growing up in the late 1890s and early 1900s in southern England. They are linked by an artistic community of writers, poets, artists, sculptors and general free-thinkers associated with the Fabian Society and the Arts and Crafts movement. Indeed, the Victoria and Albert Museum is almost a character in its own right in the book.
A key figure is the mother of several of the children, Olive Wellwood, an author of childrens’ stories who clearly seems to be based on Edith Nesbit, in real life one of the founders of the Fabian Society, and whose marriage, like Olive’s, was strained by infidelities of both partners. Olive’s stories, however, are definitely darker and more disturbing than Nesbit’s real tales, drawing their inspiration more from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson (whose unexpurgerated tales would terrify most children).
Each of the children in the book is an interesting individual, and their fates are not easily predictable – except that it is not hard to work out from the timing that their adult lives will be profoundly affected by the Great War of 1914-18, and so it proves. Byatt has created a wonderful picture of the rich artistic culture and society which existed before that cataclysm, and a group of people riven by personal and sexual tensions as they try to work out how to live differently than previous generations. And of the children of these people, trying to come to terms with it all.
Bad Boy by Peter Robinson
Ebook on my iPad
I was profoundly disappointed by Robinson’s previous book in his Detective Inspector Banks series. It was full of silly shenanigans to do with MI5, a gay man driven to murder by a whispering campaign, and ended with Banks acting stupidly and against character.
However, this latest volume at least partly redeems the situation, by returning to a more believable scenario, this time involving Banks’ daughter. Banks himself (as though ashamed of his previous appearance) is off-stage for most of the first half of the book and the action is carried by Annie Cabbott.
A good page-turner; I hope Robinson sticks to this form.
Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
Hardcover, my own collection
Disappointing, I am afraid. A rather confusing plot and some very confusing scenes. The book needed a strong editor, particularly as it was apparently dictated by Pratchett rather than typed by the author himself (Pratchett, alas, has been diagnosed with early Altzheimer’s disease). But it didn’t get it.
Atlantic by Simon Winchester
The Link by Colin Tudge