Accidents in the Home by Tessa Hadley

Cover of Accidents in the Home

This all fell a bit flat for me. It’s the first book by an author whose later books I’ve loved. I think it was a case of the problem being me rather than the book though. It’s a novel in the form of a series of short stories, all about members of the same extended family, and though this is a format I have loved in other books I never really got deeply engrossed with the characters here. Usually I like it when you think a character’s an idiot seen through one set of eyes, but then an alternative viewpoint makes you think differently. Here I just felt that people were acting nonsensically a lot of the time. But also I’ve picked the book up and put it down over a period of three months rather than giving it a good read, and the world is rather distracting right now, so my lacklustre reaction probably says more about me than the book!


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The Acceptance World (A Dance to the Music of Time #3) by Anthony Powell

Cover of The Acceptance World (A Dance to the Music of Time #3)

I’m losing faith with my commitment to read this series. For the most part this one bored the pants off me. Our hero has finally committed to a girl (I think), and perhaps that might turn out to be an interesting relationship. In the previous two books I’ve thought that some of the background characters were more interesting than the ones in the foreground. Here though, one of the more interesting background characters stepped into the spotlight and proved himself deathly dull as well, so I don’t hold out much hope for an interesting relationship with the girl. If she gets upgraded to wife I expect she’ll never be mentioned again. It noted that the characters said they were “nearing thirty” at some point and I was amazed, in my head I still had them down as just out of college. I’m not sure whether to carry on since I’m finding the characters more rather than less juvenile over time! Still kind of curious though.


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Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford

Cover of Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

I’d thought that this book might be a rehash of many stories I’d read elsewhere but was surprised by the amount of tales I’d never heard of that I found here. A couple of the stories that have stuck in my head are the one about how the Irish economy survived a six month bank strike in 1970 by using cheques and IOUs as a makeshift system of tradable debt, and how one of Selfridge’s novel visions for his department store was adding ladies loos so that women would stay and shop for longer. Even if you know these stories and others, there are many more than fifty interesting things in this book, each chapter has numerous examples and the book flows swiftly and interestingly by. It’s important to note that there’s no definite article in the title; these are fifty things that can definitely be shown to have made our world what it is today, but there’s no claim that they are the only ones or even the top fifty. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was a sequel to this with another fifty things at some point.


More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

A Buyer\’s Market (A Dance to the Music of Time #2) by Anthony Powell

Cover of A Buyer's Market (A Dance to the Music of Time #2)

Second in the dodecology. It didn’t make me rant as much as the first one, but it wasn’t as interesting either. Since it was basically three, possibly more, parties, a wedding and a funeral, I was trying to amuse myself by figuring out which character was Hugh Grant. But I haven’t come to a conclusion yet, I’m probably going to read the next one soon so it’s certainly an angle to bear in mind. There were certainly more roles for Charlotte Coleman here too, which can only be a good thing. In this book women get to throw sugar shakers over men and have hushed abortions which is considerably more animation than they had in the first, though they are still made of cardboard and the abortion is only imagined to be a disaster for the male half of the couple. There might have been a hint of homosexuality, I identified this by two of the characters popping into three dimensions for about a page. I thought the narrator was going to find himself a wife for a minute but not yet. I’d say he’s still too vapid for that yet but I don’t feel like he’s going to find any more substance in the series.

There are good lines here though and I did really like the closing paragraph where the narrator notices that “there are specific occasions when events begin to take on a significance previously unsuspected, so that, before we know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last”.


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The Turning Point by Freya North

Cover of The Turning Point

Chick lit has never really been a big hit with me, I don’t like the name much for a start, but I picked up some of Freya North’s early books sometime back in the 90s and have been keeping up with her, more or less, ever since. The characters have grown up with me. When I started reading the books were about twenty-somethings looking for love, now we have forty-somethings with more complicated lives, they are still open to love, perhaps not actually looking for it, there are provisos and it’s a different beast than it was back then.

This is an intercontinental romance between Frankie, single mum on the Norfolk coast, and Scott, single dad from the mountains of British Columbia. There are aspects of it that I could tear to pieces if I wanted to be snide, and I’m sure other people have, but I don’t want to. It was an enjoyable story to me, I enjoyed sharing the highs with the characters and got very upset over their lows. But I like it when fiction fills me with emotions.


More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute

Cover of The Chequer Board

An author I read as a teenager, I thought I’d read most of his books but have gradually come across more of them over the years, and a quick glance at a list shows me there are several more I haven’t read. I certainly found them dated when I first read them, but entertaining, I expected to find this even more dated now, but I’m not sure I did really.

When I first read Shute I was young enough to wonder if the use of words like “mucking” and “mugger” rather than more explicit swear words was general usage at the time they were set; I know better these days but what dated this was having those replacements side by side with n*gger (which I can’t bring myself to type in a non-grawlixed manner in 2020). For a bit I worried that the central character, who similar to those in the other books, seemed to be a very British sort of nice guy were going to be revealed as horrible racists, and if so why was my library still stocking this book. I’m pleased to say that nothing like that came to pass, the book is very much against racism, which should probably have been clear from the title and that it’s still in circulation. There’s a thread of the story about an influx of black American soldiers who endear themselves to a Cornish village much better than their white counterparts do; and another about a mixed marriage in post-war Burma. There certainly are dated elements in those threads and elsewhere in the book though. Minor spoiler so I’ll hide it in tags: [spoilers removed]

Overall it was a good read despite bits of sexism and imperialism, it’s interesting these days from a historical perspective as well as an entertainment one. I like how the main character is no angel and I have a weird nostalgia for the bizarre framing device I’ve seen Shute use before where the main characters are introduced by another character who then plays next to no role in the story.


More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney

Cover of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World

A completely brilliant mix of science and history exploring the causes and effects of the Spanish Flu epidemic that followed in the wake of the First World War in 1919. Spoiler (not much of one): the Spanish had nothing to do with it, they were just the west’s chosen fall guy of the time. Not everyone blamed Spain, other places picked whoever they fancied maligning at the time: “In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo-flu’.”.

This was excellent information filled writing – I was waiting for that chapter you often get in non-fiction books where the author gives up on the story and dumps their research straight onto you but happily it never arrived – the book stays thoroughly well written and entertaining all the way through.

It feels apposite to have just finished reading this as the world worries about the spread of coronavirus from Wuhan but the book makes you realise that there will always be another epidemic waiting in the wings to have its day. A brief mention of how a pandemic of bubonic plague in the sixth century CE led to global cooling really had my brain going off on some rather sobering trains of thought. It might be a history book but it’s definitely not just about the past.


More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Benefit of Hindsight (Simon Serrailler, #10) by Susan Hill

Cover of The Benefit of Hindsight (Simon Serrailler, #10)

As I closed the book after reading the final pages Darren glanced over and asked if I’d figured out whodunnit. I had to think for a moment but my answer was that it wasn’t really that sort of mystery. There was no cast of suspects to corral into a room together for a big denouement. On a bit further thought I couldn’t really come up with a mystery at all. I can’t remember all the details of the earlier episodes in the series but by this point (the tenth book) it’s definitely in family saga territory. One of the family happens to be a policeman and you get to see a lot of his police detective work. That’s just fine by me. I like all the details of the supporting characters that Hill puts in, not just Simon’s family, but the characters who only pop up in one book, perhaps to perpetrate a crime, perhaps to have one perpetrated upon them, perhaps just to add flavouring to the plots, they always seem very real. In some books that kind of character is a distraction from the main characters, the people you really care about, but that’s never the case here.


More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

A Question of Upbringing (A Dance to the Music of Time #1) by Anthony Powell

Cover of A Question of Upbringing (A Dance to the Music of Time #1)

Where to start? I’ve known about this series for a long time, it’s pretty famous and the overall title “A Dance to the Music of Time” is entrancing. I’m sure I’ve tried to read it before and found it either impenetrable or boring, but I didn’t find it either of those things this time so I wonder if I’m confusing it with something else I’ve tried to read. Even if I was pretty young when I tried to read before, it starts with what’s basically a school story so I’m surprised I would ever have given up on that, I was quite a fan of school stories as a child and still tend to enjoy them, now perhaps for the nostalgia value of having enjoyed them before than for themselves.

What puts me off this story now, and might have done in the past, is how very male the story is. Even girl’s school stories are peppered with more males than there are women here. I started to keep track of every time a woman was mentioned. A mother here, a great aunt there, then, rather alarmingly, a prostitute is mentioned. Up until that I thought I was reading about boys of twelve or thirteen, but had to revise the estimate upwards. It turns out that they must have been seventeen or eighteen year olds, approaching the end of their school days. There are four parts to this story, starting at school and ending at university, with a hiatus in between where the narrator stays with his school friends and then at a lodging house in France. I’m glad to report that a few more women turn up in the in between parts, but very few of them get actual personalities.

The lack of personality of the women is totally down to the narrator not allowing them any, though he doesn’t have much himself anyway. I’m feeling that there was supposed to be a “slow sexual awakening” going on here, but it’s so sleepy that the narrator barely notices it himself. My guess would be that this series is at least vaguely autobiographical. If I’ve picked up the clues correctly it’s set in the years after the first world war and I’d guess the series goes on to follow the same characters throughout their lives.

I know I’m sounding pretty flippant about it but I did enjoy the book. It’s definitely just an introduction and not really a story in itself, it’s got many things that wind me up, it’s hard to tell how straight the characters were intended to be played. A character described as something like “having not yet made up his mind whether to be Prime Minister or a great poet” made me laugh, and I’m pretty certain the author was playing up the satire at that point, but other bits made me not so sure, it’s certainly not Wodehouse. (And wouldn’t it be lovely if some of our present crop of public school educated politicians had taken the “great poet” route instead, not that I’m sure poetry ought to be so maligned really.) I’m not sure what the question of upbringing in the title is supposed to be, other than the boys are made out to be slightly different shades of posh, different in the way that the 47 different shades of magnolia on a paint shade card are all faintly different side by side but very few people would have a clue which you painted your room in once the empty paint pot is thrown away. There was one character who was less posh in the university section of the book, at one point he was said to be from the Midlands, then he had a “North Country accent”, and he had a conversation with the narrator about money which made the author realise that there were bigger money problems than not being able to afford the vintages of wine you desired. Though that character also pointed out that public schools ‘couldn’t be less “public”‘ making me give the author the benefit of the doubt and maybe this book was actually more satirical than I was taking it as.

It’s funny how I can love books, rate them at five stars and have nothing to say about them other than I loved them. Whereas something like this is definitely not a five star in my opinion, but I find plenty to ramble on about it, and I quite want to read more just for the experience. The book felt more like historical documentation than I was expecting, often what I enjoy about old books is that the people in them aren’t really very different to people today, this gave me the opposite sort of a feeling, even though I know full well that the world hasn’t changed enough that the kind of characters in the book, with their backgrounds, wouldn’t still, on the whole, get on perfectly well.


More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner

Cover of Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It

I found this in the library and thought it looked worth a read. I’ve learnt, or tried to learn, German, French, Italian and Dutch over the years, all with a reasonable degree of success, as well as tinkering in some other languages with less success, but I wouldn’t call myself anywhere near fluent in anything other than English. I’ve read books in French but fall over as soon as I need to understand a native French speaker and that’s something that really annoys me that I’ve never managed to get over that hill. A lot of the advice the author gives here concurs with what I’ve figured out with my own learning style for the reading and writing of languages, which are the bits I find I’m good at, and I’m going to try his ideas for the speaking and listening bits I think, though I worry the problem might end up being that I just don’t actually like speaking at all!


More information about this book can be found on goodreads.