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This is going to be a tiny wee review of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life which I read because (a) I heard it was really good and (b) I was going to see the movie this weekend based solely on a mixture of stuff I’d picked up from the internet and stuff I’d seen in movie magazines and had a sudden panic that I should probably try to find out a little bit more before I parted with my hard-earned cash.

So loving comic books, all things Canadian and pretending that I am at least 25 years younger than I actually am, this was just up my street being a comic book set in Toronto about a 22 year-old who has to fight the evil exes of the girl he’s fallen in love with.

And it’s really good, and even though I have now seen the movie I expect I will get the rest of the comic book series because I can be a bit of a completist if I don’t watch myself. Not that that’s a bad thing.

So I really did mean to take part properly in Jenny’s Diana Wynne Jones Week, but due to work and other personal (not nice) stuff I didn’t really get the chance, although reading The Tough Guide to Fantasyland certainly cheered me up no end during what turned out to be not a great couple of days

So, to the book, and it does what it says on the cover: provides budding participants in the Tour through Fantasyland with everything they will need to know to navigate their way through the whole Quest thing.

Because on a quest is what they will surely be (and that is so ungrammatical, but I don’t care).

It is also extremely funny. You can probably enjoy this if you’ve read little fantasy, but it is so much more fun if you’ve read a lot, and gosh I seem to have done that over the years.

So all the familiar stuff is here – there is a Map (wouldn’t be fantasy without a Map), the details about your companions on the quest, whole chunks explaining magic, and the important topic of catering, which basically comes down to eating a lot of stew.

And also why there are no longer many vampires in fantasy; they’ve been enticed away to the Horror Tour where they get better pay and conditions.

One of my favourite entries was the description of a fairly regular companion-type, the Female Mercenary, who has been inspired by her unpleasant past to become a mercenary and is good in a fight. She conforms to a certain physical type (tall, thin, wiry, silent) and is neurotic. And for the detail:

You can rely on her absolutely in a fight. She can usually kill two people at once while guarding your back in between. The rest of the time she will irritate you with lots of punctilious weapons cleaning and a perpetual insistence that a proper watch be kept. […] You will end up grudgingly admiring her.

Made me laugh out loud anyway. And the rest of the book is just like this.

I may never be able to read fantasy in the same way again, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The God of the Hive is the long-awaited (by me at least) sequel to The Language of Bees which I reviewed here last year. Having to wait 12 months to find out what happens next has been a tiny wee bit frustrating. But it has been worth the wait.

Again it’s difficult to talk about the plot of this novel because it runs on immediately from the events of its predecessor, and by that I mean within minutes of the end rather than weeks or months afterwards. And I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice to say that Sherlock and Russell are separated for much of the book, on the run, hiding from the powerful and menacing group who have killed several people already, trying to get to the bottom of what was going on.

So all I can say is that it’s pacy and exciting and all the great characters appear and some new ones are introduced and all the disguises and skulking about and action is all included, so thoroughly enjoyable and devoured in a couple of days. The only downside was that the Book God had read this first and kept on offering to give me pointers to the way the plot would develop in an annoying fashion which has been noted in the future. He won’t get the chance to do that to me next time.

So if you are already a fan of the Russell novels you will find a lot to enjoy here, but you really need to read The Language of Bees first as otherwise it just won’t make sense.

Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness is the second book in my planned summer of re-reading.

First read in November 1985 (which is incredibly scary) this is my fourth time of reading it and the second of the two copies I have. It’s another firm favourite and has been a great pleasure to revisit. Why so good? Well….

Polly Demarest is a happily married mother of two from what in anyone’s book would be a very privileged and wealthy Jewish family in New York. Her father is a lawyer, as is one of her brothers and her husband. She is the only daughter and there are expectations on her to be sensible, practical, reliable and basically the rock of her family. But Polly has something missing from her life that she didn’t realise until she met, fell in love and embarked on a relationship with an artist, Lincoln Bennett. If the novel is about anything then it’s Polly’s self-growth.

And writing that down I wonder why I ever picked this up as superficially it’s not something that would attract me (although I suppose I do have bit of a thing for family sagas). But pick it up I did and I fell in love with it, because:

  • it’s just so beautifully written – there is a real lightness of touch which makes it a joy to read
  • I adore Polly, I think she’s a wonderfully complex character, trying to be a good person and slowly realising that her family just takes advantage of her without really seeing her as an individual
  • her relationships with her husband, Henry, and with Lincoln are believable and complicated; she clearly loves them both but in different ways
  • her family are gloriously eccentric but not monsters – I enjoyed Paul and Beate particularly (but would definitely not want to be related to them)
  • it shows that nice people can get in a pickle too

I don’t normally quote from the books I read, especially novels, but there are a couple of passages that I love:

Family life is deflective: it gives everybody something to do. It absorbs sadness and sops up loneliness. It provides work, company, and entertainment. It makes tasks for idle hands and allows an anxious spirit to hide in its capacious bosom.

and

It was surely not right to feel this happy, but it was also undeniable. the air outside was smoky with spring rain. The street was gray. The warehouses across the street were wet. Polly put down her cup. The pure feelings one had in adult life were complicated and mitigated, and they were dearly paid for, but worth everything they cost.

This was the first Laurie Colwin novel that I read, and I quickly sought out the others as well as her short story collections and the two books she wrote on cooking. Sadly she died in 1992 so there are no new works to discover, but what she did produce in her career is in my mind absolutely wonderful, and worth seeking out.

The second volume of Michael Palin’s diaries to be published (see what I thought about volume 1 here) Halfway to Hollywood covers the bulk of the 1980s, when Monty Python made their last film together as a group, when Palin himself made several films of note (including one of my favourites, Brazil) and ends with him embarking on the series which would see him become a household name in a very different way from before, when he started the trip that would become Around the World in Eighty Days.

I’m a sucker for reading other people’s diaries and letters not just for the insight it gives into their careers (and there’s a lot here for anyone interested in Python history and in the UK and US film industries at the time) but also to wonder what’s been left out. Because clearly there has to inevitably have been some heavy editing, and though he is quite candid about his feelings over his sister’s suicide in some of the entries you wonder what wasn’t said, or was recorded but not included. And no matter how hard any diarist tries to be honest, anyone who keeps a journal knows that it’s all about how you feel at the time you write a particular entry, that sometimes you don’t record some of the difficult stuff at all (unless you are very disciplined) and that you can’t help but try to present yourself at your best, because someone is going to read it after you’re gone, even if it’s only your very nearest and dearest.

But perhaps that’s just me.

Anyway, Michael Palin has always been one of my absolute favourites so I enjoyed reading his thoughts very much, and look forward to a third volume at some point (fingers  crossed).

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second novel in Larsson’s much-praised Millennium trilogy, and pick Lisbeth Salander’s story up some months after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I talked about here).

It’s always difficult to talk about the plot of a book which is part of a series and I suppose theoretically could be read as a standalone but does really need some knowledge of its predecessor to really make sense. 

Suffice to say that Blomkvist is now a major celebrity and Lisbeth is no longer in touch with him. Because of stuff that happened in the previous story some nasty people are out to get Lisbeth, and this leads to her being suspected of murdering three people. So the bulk of the story covers her on the run while trying to find out what’s going on.

Separately, Blomkvist is trying to clear Lisbeth’s name; two of the victims were friends/colleagues of his and he doesn’t belive Lisbeth committed the crime (though interestingly enough not because she isn’t capable of doing so). It’s her capacity for wreaking revenge on those who have treated her badly or offended her very personal moral code that makes her such a compelling character.

It’s all very grim, with strong violence particularly (but not solely) against women – the original journalistic investigation which kicks all of this off is about sex trafficking, continuing the theme of the exploitation of women as a hidden facet of Swedish society which characterised the first book.

In the end, how you react to this will depend on your stomach for the subject matter and whether you warm to the character of Lisbeth. I thought this was a very powerful story with some quite appalling events and revelations at the end of the book which mean that I will definitely be picking up the final volume in the series.

Jane Smiley’s Duplicate Keys is part of my summer of re-visiting previous reads.

I first picked this up and read it in March 1997 (astonishingly) and this is my third time of reading. I absolutely love this novel with a passion and will be hard-pushed to explain why but am going to have a pretty good stab at it.

Firs a quick trot through the basic story. Alice is part of a group who moved to New York in the late 1960s/early 1970s following their friends Craig and Denny hoping to make it in the music business and although things hadn’t turned out as planned they have settled there. We are now in the early 1980s and Alice visits the apartment of her friend Susan (away on a trip) to water the plants and make sure all is OK, and finds the two musicians shot dead. The novel tells the story of the impact of the murder on the group and, of course, is all about finding who the killer is.

So much so traditional thriller, but this really clicked with me:

  • I absolutely fell in love with the cover (I can be funny that way)
  • I really, really like Alice – she is ordinary but actually rather brave in her own way (I’ve tried to think over the years who might best play her in a  movie version of this but can’t think of anyone) – she is one of my absolutely favourite female characters
  • the initial impact of the murder on Alice is seen at a slight distance – we aren’t with her when she finds the bodies of her two friends but pick the story up as she talks to the investigating detective, and I liked that detachment at the start
  • the novel says a lot about the mindset of a certain 60’s type – trusting people who seemed like themselves to the extent of giving out keys to their apartment – to the point that Susan has trouble telling the police who might have been able to get in

This works really well as a thriller but is also a fascinating study of friendship and how it changes over time. The 80’s setting seems slightly historical now but of course this was a contemporary thriller and I wished I’d read it when it came out (it was published in 1984, the year I got married the first time).

This really is one of my favourite books.

I always find it difficult to review a biography; I think if you are really going to do it justice you must have some understanding of the subject at hand, and by that I mean the substance of the person’s life. In this case we are talking about Duncan Grant, Bloomsbury figure and a major artist of the 20th century. And this is where I have to declare that although I know quite a lot about Bloomsbury (a mild obsession since picking up my first Virginia Woolf novel when I was a student) but not very much at all about the art world, which is what made this such a fascinating read.

So because of the reading I had done before I knew roughly where Grant fitted in terms of time and style, and his life does cover a period of significant change n the art world – as it says in the blurb, we are talking about a life that spanned Alma-Tadema to Gilbert & George. What I don’t know anything about are the technical aspects of painting, and although I’m sure I missed a great deal of the significance of the technical discussions I certainly didn’t feel horribly left behind, or indeed talked-down to.

Of course when it comes to a member of Bloomsbury then the private life is bound to be absolutely fascinating and that is very much the case here as you would expect. Again I knew a lot about Grant up to the point of Vanessa Bell’s death but afterwards was a bit murky, and the biography was very revealing about his family life and wider circle, his passions and friendships.

So, all in all a very worthwhile and absorbing read, with a great deal of information being passed on but never feeling that the reader is being talked at.

This was my first read for the Art History Reading Challenge.

So this is a recommendation from Silvery Dude for which he does need to receive full credit as it was a really good read; bought last year and dragged all the way to Scotland and back during my annual holiday so that I could totally fail to read it as part of last year’s RIP IV challenge, but definitely worth waiting for.

And I say this as someone who has a bit of a love/hate relationship with Peter Ackroyd, though to be fair it’s currently waited heavily on the love side, if only for his masterful biography of London.

Anyway, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is exactly what it says on the tin; it’s Frankenstein’s own version of his experiments and their outcome with particular emphasis on those close to him. So much so normal revised version of old story, but this has a couple of interesting aspects to it which made it more than just another retelling of something familiar.

There is the standard mix of fact and fiction, so we get to meet Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and Dr Polidori. But most of the experiments take place in and around London’s East End rather than on the continent. We have resurrectionists bringing whole corpses rather than the body parts sewn together thing so beloved of old movies. We have stuff about doppelgängers, split personalities, cutting-edge scientific experimentation taken to its limits all explained by someone who can at best be described as an unreliable narrator.

It has a wonderfully creepy and unsettling atmosphere which wasn’t lost on me despite the fact that I read it mostly in balzing hot sunshine rather than howling autumnal wind and rain which might have suited it slightly better.

I will say that I was slightly thrown by the end which, though it makes sense  when you look back at the novel seemed to happen very suddenly. But that shouldn’t take away from what was a really good story well told.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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