Thursday, 31 March 2011


So, March has been very much a month of guilty pleasure reading. Though, I say that, but really, the idea that reading has to be “improving” really should have gone out with the Victorians who invented it. So some of the stuff that I read (ok, most of it) isn’t especially “literary” and I do have a habit of re-reading books that I like, but is that really a problem? Isn’t reading something one does to relax and be entertained?

And why has genre fiction got such a bad rep? Take, for example, my reading of this month. There has been a considerable amount from the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie. And I’ve got to say, I’m a big fan. It started off with picking up a book at a train station WH Smiths – I think it was Death on the Nile – but it went on from there to the point where I’ve read almost all the Poirot and most of the Marple novels, and I’m now at the point of exploring some of her less well known works, just to get my Christie fix.

Sure, they’re fairly short, with a limited character base, and the plot follows the same rough arc, but you know that when you pick one up. You don’t read Christie for originality of plot. She spent a lot of time creating her niche in this genre, re-inventing the murder-mystery, and it may be clich├ęd now, but that’s because of her. Do you really expect her to revolutionise the genre twice? No, if you read Christie, you read it for the subtleties. For the brain-teaser of trying to find out whodunit before Poirot or Miss Marple (or the detective of the month) does. And you have to admire the crafting of the novels; she gives you all the clues, and works them in so subtly you miss them if you’re not looking carefully. She doesn’t do the annoying thing that some detectives do of withholding a vital piece of evidence until the last minute, or making leaps of logic that are just not justified by the evidence in front of you *coughHolmescough*, her stories are eminently solvable by the reader. And that’s half the fun of reading them. What? Some people do Sudoku...

So this month, I’ve been tucking into:

Sparkling Cyanide – two murders take place at two dinner-parties on the same day a year apart from each other. All the same guests were there... and someone slipped cyanide into the champagne...

Towards Zero – An elderly lady is bludgeoned with a golf club. All evidence points to her ward Neville, who has managed to invite both his current and his ex wife to stay at the same time. Did he really do it, or is it a clumsy attempt to frame him?

The Hollow – A classic Poirot. A house party, and a man is found shot by the side of the pool, his wife standing over him, gun in hand...

The 13 Problems – Miss Marple’s nephew, an eminent crime writer, invites some friends round for a Tuesday night mystery club, but his aunt proves more adept at solving the puzzles posed than any of his guests...

And am nearly finished with Ordeal By Innocence, which may have to tail into April’s list.

But it’s not just been Christie this month, I’ve also been re-visiting the Girl Genius series – or at least the 9 volumes which are out so far. It’s billed as a “Gaslamp Fantasy”, but it’s what I would call steampunk. It’s all up online here, and it’s well worth checking out. Brain-child of Phil and Kaja Foglio (don’t you wish you had a name like that?) it tells the story of mad scientist (or “spark”) Agatha Heterodyne, her companions, the Jagermonsters and two would-be suitors as they try and reclaim her place as last heir of the Heterodyne family, not get used as a pawn in the games of Baron Wulfenbach, The Storm King or The Other, battle Pirate Queens, slaver wasps, Geisterdamen and rogue “Clanks” (robots... sort of), evade the clutches of Othar Tryggvassen; gentleman adventurer, and potentially even find the lost kingdom of Skiffander. You can’t talk about this without sounding Epic!

It is hilarious, overwhelmingly Bechedel compliant, containing of some nudity and utterly brilliant.

In between all of that, I’ve also managed to read Luke Kennard’s Planet-Shaped Horse, which was awesome, but since I’m intending to review that for Sabotage in the near future, I’m going to hold off a while on that here.

See you in April!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


After the monumental slog of Wolf Hall, I decided to tuck into a bit of comfort reading.

The Other Boleyn Girl, by Phillipa Gregory is another re-read for me, and, since I have already (and most likely will do again) extolled the virtues of Gregory's prose - she is, after all, one of my favourite authors - I shall merely say: Great book, will read again, recommend, and pass round to all and sundry as a Christmas present. Don't watch the film though - it's awful. (Unless you can find the BBC version with Jodhi May and Natascha McElhone, which is still too short, but captures the spirit of the book a lot better.)

Half way through that, I took a break, and picked up a copy of Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine. It's a fascinating - if slightly saddening at times - book about how, what we often think of as biological diferences between the genders are actually socially conditioned, and how these, so-thought-of "Biological differences" are actually making it far more difficult for women to succeed; narrowing their choices, until often they aren't choices at all.
This theme of biologically based sexism is becoming far more prevalent these days - and is often hailed as someone speaking the unpalatable truth in the face of political correctness - and I believe that it's going to be one of the next major battles that women are going to have to win.
It is similar to Natasha Walters' Living Dolls (which I strongly recommend), the second part of which also deals with this phenomenon - though Fine, having devoted an entire book to it, manages to cover more, and with a touch more insight and cohesion.

I seem to have been reading a lot of science (and pop science) lately - as evidenced by another book that I picked up, entitled Elephants on Acid, by Alex Boese, detailing some of the wierd things that people have done in the name of science. It's a bit sensationalist and silly, but there's one or two interesting factoids in there. The only problem I can see with it is that it just doesn't provide enough depth or detail. It's light and fluffy - and I'd actually like to know more about some of the things that Boese just touches on, because it feels like the science has been dumbed down too far.

Back to fiction then, and to an offering from the wonderful Gregory Maguire: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. It's a brilliant read, taking the classic Cinderella story and setting it in 17th century Holland. Maguire - who is probably better known as the author of Wicked; The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West - has a real talent for making the traditional antagonists of a story sympathetic, complex characters with understandable motivations, rather than flat figures of unfathomnable malevolence. So even though you know the story, you don't, and you find by the end that it makes better sense this way, and you probably even prefer Maguire's version.

My final book of February is Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger. It's a chilling ghost story, by another favourite author, set in post-war rural Warwickshire. The book is posessed of a creeping kind of horror - I stayed up till about 3AM reading it: not a good idea if you want to sleep ever again - but it's a powerfuly evocative book in other ways as well. I do have a vague familiarity with the county, but I didn't need it for the place to come alive on the pages. The descriptions in particular of the old country house, Hundreds, will put you right at the scene - though whether that's where you want to be as the book goes on...