Random Thoughts: Libraries gave us power, we should use it effectively

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I’ve read a couple of things about the need to protect and fund libraries properly this morning. The first thing was Nikesh Shukla’s column in The Observer. The second was a Twitter thread by Stephen McGann, brought to my attention by Cathy of Cathy Reads Books. Continue reading

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White Houses

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Read 24/07/2018-29/07/2018

Rating: 5 stars

I don’t recall who brought Amy Bloom’s White Houses to my attention, but I’m grateful. Since my first degree I have had a history crush on FDR. It was later that I developed a separate history crush on Eleanor.

Bloom’s book is an imagining of Lorena Hickok’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt. The prologue got me thinking about being in thrall to love. Or maybe the feeling of falling in love. Continue reading

Last Rituals

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Read 15/07/2028-24/07/2018

Rating: 2 stars

The first in Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series of crime novels, Last Rituals is an exploration of modern witchcraft set in Iceland. I’ve wanted to start this series for a while, but held off because I have so many other books to read. The Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge gave me the opportunity, as I skipped from Scotland to Iceland, to borrow Last Rituals from the library.

The story begins on 31 October 2005. Hallowe’en. Or, as it’s also known in our house, my birthday. It also begins with a bit of thinly veiled anti-immigration bigotry from the head caretaker of an Icelandic university who likens his workplace to Bangkok. That’s not the kind of thing I want to read about on my virtual past birthday. There’s more than enough of that in the news at present.

I’d picked up on Yrsa Sigurdardóttir as an Icelandic crime writer after I completed the Detective Erlandur series by Arnaldur Indridason. Bernard Scudder, who translated the fourth Detective Erlandur novel, Silence of the Grave, also translated Last Rituals. This made me think that I’d enjoy the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir books.

Shame, then, that Sigurdardóttir writes almost exclusively in clichés. I don’t mind a cliché here and there, crime as a genre is built on clichés after all, but when they are unhelpful clichés then I get annoyed. Sigurdardóttir, as well as the anti-immigration bigotry which doesn’t take long to look at itself honestly in the mirror and accept that it’s racism, also likes to define women by their appearance. Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is a lawyer. She doesn’t wear makeup, just moisturiser and mascara, apart from those times when she needed to feel confident. Then she puts on lipstick. She doesn’t like to judge people on their appearance, because character is what matters, and yet her inner monologue fat shames her secretary and she prides herself on always keeping herself slim.

Internally she endlessly cursed their secretarial problems. They had doubtless cost their firm business. Thóra could not think of any customer who had not complained about the girl. She was not only rude but also exceptionally unattractive. It was not being in the super-heavyweight bracket that was the big issue, but her general carelessness about her appearance.

It made me feel tired. And this was after less than twenty pages. I ploughed on regardless.

In terms of the story, about a group of university friends who form an interest in occult ritual (hello, The Secret History), it got better. There was a decent plot that unfolded gradually, keeping me engaged if not exactly guessing. The writing, though, continued to be mediocre. I don’t know any Icelandic people, so maybe they do speak the way Sigurdardóttir suggests, with lots of frost and a bleak kind of joy, but her dialogue wasn’t convincing nor the characters sympathetic. I read all of the Erlandur series and felt the humanity of the characters and didn’t notice anything stilted about their communication. One thing in particular irritated me about the dialogue in this book, and that was the way Sigurdardóttir used conversation to fill in backstory. I have never begun a conversation with someone by reminding them of a previous encounter first, because I don’t feel the need to provide people with their own backstory. Sigurdardóttir’s characters do.

Another thing that irritated me was the Mills and Boon style romantic undercurrent. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good Mills and Boon romance. I just don’t like it when a crime thriller tries to turn into a romantic pot boiler.

There were moments that could have been funny. Sigurdardóttir demonstrates flashes of dark wit. Unfortunately, that wit gets drowned out by the clunkiness of her writing.

The subject matter interested me. Ancient folklore and the clash of superstition with the rapidly modernising world of the 16th and 17th centuries are fascinating subjects. I’d hazard that a fair amount of research went into the plot and its historical details. There were glimpses of a much better book if Sigurdardóttir had found the courage to cut away the dross. I like most things set on a university campus that involves ancient manuscripts and researchers who get a bit carried away with their topic, and Last Rituals could have risen to a similar standard to Inspector Morse (I’ve only seen the TV adaptations, haven’t read any of the books yet). It’s a shame that it didn’t quite make it.

The Letters of Ivor Punch

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Read 10/07/2018-15/07/2018

Rating: 3 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge

Colin MacIntyre records and performs as Mull Historical Society. He’s one of my favourite musicians. He’s also an author. The Letters of Ivor Punch is his first novel and it won the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award in 2015.

Set on an unnamed island that is easily identified as Mull, the story begins with Jake Punch visiting the sports ground where his late father broke the island’s long jump record. He’s there because his uncle Ivor Punch has died and Jake, who has been distributing letters written by his uncle, has one last letter to deliver. Except he can’t deliver it because it’s a letter to his dad and his dad was killed by Pan Am flight 103, the aeroplane brought down over Lockerbie by a Libyan terrorist.

Instead Jake reads the letter and discovers that his curmudgeonly old uncle missed his brother, Jake’s dad, in ways similar to Jake. The letter triggers memories for Jake, centred on his uncle and the letters he wrote to the great and the good. Continue reading

Animal

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Read 16/06/2018-27/06/2018

Rating: 5 stars

I love Sara Pascoe. I think she’s one of the funniest people working in comedy. I follow her on Twitter. I love her on QI and Frankie Boyle’s New World Order. I’m going to see her live for the first time in October.

I borrowed her book Animal from the library after I saw a quote from it Tweeted by Pascoe, which I’ll talk about later. I thought it was going to be a straightforward memoir of Pascoe’s life and adventures as a funny feminist woman in the male centric world of British comedy. It is, in a way, but it’s also so much more than that. Continue reading

The Idiot (Elif Batuman)

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Read 04/06/2018-16/06/2018

Rating: 5 stars

The Idiot was my last book from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. I didn’t manage to finish reading it before the winner was announced. In fact, it’s a book that I took my time over. I liked its style. The way Elif Batuman writes reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut and Haruki Murakami in the surreal episodes that reveal the oddness of human nature. At times I was reminded of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. It also made me think a little of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, because it’s about a young woman trying to work out what is expected of her and how to behave around others while maintaining her integrity. Continue reading