Janu­ary and Febru­ary Read­ing

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The Prom­ise of Iceland- Kári Gíslason

I’d read one of Kári Gíslason’s previ­ous books, about Iceland­ic history and liter­at­ure, and he mentioned his own back­ground in them, and I wanted to know more. His moth­er grew up between the UK and Australia, and got a job in Iceland in the 70s. She star­ted a rela­tion­ship with an Iceland­ic man, but when she became preg­nant, he admit­ted that he was actu­ally already married with kids. As a young child in Reyk­javík, Kári was his father’s dirty secret, and after his moth­er left for first the UK (with a stint as matron of a grim If type board­ing school with Kári in tow as a schol­ar­ship boy) and then finally Bris­bane, he lost touch with his dad.

As an adult, he returned to Iceland, and with his fath­er dying, made contact with his siblings and his father’s wife, and was taken into the family. Later, he and his Australi­an wife return to take jobs at a remote school in the north of Iceland.

It’s a very thought­ful, inter­est­ing auto­bi­o­graphy, reflect­ing on Iceland­ic and Australi­an culture, and his complic­ated and chan­ging feel­ings towards his bio fath­er and his differ­ent home coun­tries. Well worth a read.

The Serpent: The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj – Richard Neville, Julie Clarke

The factu­al book that the recent BBC/​Netflix tv show The Serpent was based on. Charles Sobhraj was a French-Viet­namese play­boy who killed a string of back­pack­ers in Bangkok in the 70s, and who was only caught after a bureau­crat from the Dutch embassy and his girl­friend made a dogged invest­ig­a­tion against the wishes of his embassy boss. The tv show is excel­lent, the book is ok. The same events are made grip­ping in the show by the extens­ive use of flash­backs and cliff-hangers, where­as the book narrates them in simple chro­no­lo­gic­al order which makes them feel flat­ter. Watch the tv show instead, you won’t regret it.

A Song for a New Day – Sarah Pinsker

A post-pandem­ic dysto­pia from 2018 that received a high­er profile with the current situ­ation, that just falls flat. The premise is that after a pandem­ic, people have retreated into the home, served by wall-to-wall VR corpor­ate enter­tain­ment, and lost their interest or will­ing­ness to go back into soci­ety. All live music is by VR exper­i­ence, and the naive farm-girl prot­ag­on­ist gets a job as a talent scout look­ing for acts for the shows in the last remain­ing shreds of live music scenes. The whole thing just falls flat though, and the dialogue and music scenes are cheesy as hell.

The Pembroke­shire Murders – Steve Wilkins

This was anoth­er book used as the basis for a recent true crime show. A series of unsolved murders and rapes in an idyll­ic part of rural Wales in the early 90s stayed unsolved (but with suspi­cions of who the culprit was that couldn’t be proved), until a cold case invest­ig­a­tion using new DNA and forensic tech­no­logy helped to solve them.

Again, the tv show is very good, and the book is meh. I hadn’t real­ised until I read it that it was writ­ten by the actu­al detect­ive who managed the case. He is defin­itely not one of nature’s writers.

Deity (Six Stor­ies #5) – Matt Weso­lowski

You know what you’re getting with these- a qual­ity detect­ive story presen­ted as audio tran­scripts from a fiction­al true crime podcast, set in a remote part of the UK, often in the north, with an eerie atmo­sphere and lots of twists and turns. This one centres on a Bowie-meets-Björk sing­er from the 90s who has become a strange recluse, and dies in a house­fire at his remote High­lands mansion after some dark alleg­a­tions about him come to light. Unlike the others in the series, it isn’t a completely stan­dalone story, it’s best to have read the previ­ous books as a char­ac­ter returns in a new context.


Mother­well: A Girl­hood – Deborah Orr

An auto­bi­o­graphy by the journ­al­ist of grow­ing up in small town post-war Scot­land, with loving, but intensely controlling and narrow-minded parents, and reflec­tions on how that leads to marry­ing an egoma­ni­ac like Will Self (whose small cameos make him come across as even more appalling than I already knew him to be). A beau­ti­fully writ­ten book, unfor­tu­nately released posthum­ously after the writer died of cancer.

The Safe Place – Anna Downes

99p e-book thrill­er, well done. A strug­gling actress goes to work as an au pair for the wife of a wealthy finan­ci­er in the French coun­tryside, but all is not as it seems. Noth­ing ground break­ing, but an enjoy­able mind­less read. If like me, you like cheap trashy thrillers which are completely unmem­or­able.

Memory of Water – Emmi Itäranta

I really loved this book however. Set in future Chinese-occu­pied Lapland, in a post-Glob­al Warm­ing soci­ety where access to fresh water is limited and controlled by the milit­ary, with punish­ments for “water crimes”. After the protagonist’s tea master fath­er dies, she must carry on his trade, protect­ing the hidden spring they use for water, and trying to navig­ate the local petty corrup­tion. A really reflect­ive atmo­spher­ic book rather than one with a lot of action. For fans of Ursula le Guin.

The Rig – Roger Levy

I stopped read­ing this about half-way through, because it was a mess and pretty boring. Set in a far future where people with termin­al diseases are put in suspen­ded anim­a­tion with their chance of treat­ment based on votes on real­ity tv, it altern­ated between a narrat­ive thread follow­ing a journ­al­ist and anoth­er follow­ing a crime family. Neither one kept my atten­tion. The first chapter would have made an excel­lent short story, but the rest of the book felt like a first draft that needed some brutal edit­ing.

Every Heart a Door­way- Seanan McGuire
Down Among the Sticks and Bones – Seanan McGuire
Beneath the Sugar Sky – Seanan McGuire
In an Absent Dream – Seanan McGuire
Juice Like Wounds – Seanan McGuire
Come Tumbling Down – Seanan McGuire
Across the Green Grass Fields – Seanan McGuire

I had very mixed feel­ings about this series (although as you can see I read all seven instal­ments because they’re basic­ally junk food books!). The basic concept is that there is a thera­peut­ic centre for chil­dren and teen­agers who have been on the kinds of adven­tures in magic lands that feature in many children’s books, who have failed to adjust after­wards. However the series is all over the place. Is it a soph­ist­ic­ated adult take on the theme? Is it aimed at middle school kids? It can never quite decide. Some­times it comes togeth­er in a weird jumble in some books, where the char­ac­ters will make crude (and kind of awkward) remarks about sex, but then the actu­al rela­tion­ships are portrayed in a very chaste suit­able-for-11-year-olds way. Then Across Green Grass Fields is just a (nicely done) straight up middle-school adven­ture story for horse girls. It was pretty disor­i­ent­ing.

There was a really nice attempt at repres­ent­a­tion in the main char­ac­ters- there is a trans boy, a latino boy, an asian girl, a lesbi­an mad scient­ist, a fat girl who is a cham­pi­on swim­mer, an inter­sex girl etc. However it often came across as really shal­low and tick-boxy, with poorly developed char­ac­ters. Espe­cially the fat girl, her only person­al­ity char­ac­ter­ist­ic seemed to be worry­ing that other people would mock her weight.

It was also notice­able that the author would constantly tell you things rather than show via subtext, kind of pre-provid­ing all the inter­pret­a­tion and nuance for you. This along with the aver­age length of 100 pages is why I called them junk-food books. Seanan McGuire has a really exhaust­ing number of books, like Enid Blyton level, but I guess that’s how she keeps churn­ing them out.

“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”

However the fourth book, In An Absent Dream was excel­lent, prob­ably because it’s based on Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market, to give it more depth. It follows a teen­age girl in the 1960s going back and forth between the real world and the Goblin Market, which is a magic­al-liber­tari­an fairy capit­al­ist fever dream. Every­one must provide “fair value” to pay their way, with even chil­dren expec­ted to support them­selves in this way. Accru­ing too many “debts” (both via trad­ing goods or asking for too much help or inform­a­tion) causes you to start slowly magic­ally turn­ing into a bird. It’s not rushed or shal­low like some of the other books in the series, and has some inter­est­ing thoughts about soci­ety, what is fair, reci­pro­city etc. So I’d say just read that one- it’s pretty much stan­dalone.

Juice Like Wounds is a free short story that follows on from the novel- the chil­dren go on a quest to fight a “monstrous wasp”, which explores anoth­er aspect of the story

“You’re a child,” countered the wasp. “You shouldn’t be work­ing to earn anything. Your needs should be met. Even fair bargains are unfair when enforced against someone who has no choice in the matter.”

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