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.

Thin Air (Shetland Island, #6) by Ann Cleeves

Cover of Thin Air (Shetland Island, #6)

I’m still a bit dubious about this extension of a quartet of mysteries that I really enjoyed but probably shouldn’t be any more. This was really good and apart from the fact that there really can’t be that many murders in the Shetlands – something that’s always true of many other mystery series set in non-metropolis places – I have no complaints. I found the characters involved in the mystery here, chiefly three women who met at an English university and came to Shetland to celebrate one of them marrying an islander very believable. There’s a good plot with a good ghost (tiny spoiler: [spoilers removed]). I need to read the rest of this series before I forget what’s going on with the ongoing characters again.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Rope (Anna Pigeon, #17) by Nevada Barr

Cover of The Rope (Anna Pigeon, #17)

I had some audiobook credits that needed spending in a hurry and this was one of the books I picked out. This is book 17 in the series and it looks like the last one I read in this series was book 10, which was an alarming 16 years ago. I was a bit cheesed off with the series at that point and thought it was going downhill but it felt like it was about time I caught up with Anna and an audiobook seemed like a good way to do that.

Well, it took me an alarmingly long time to work out that what I was listening to was a prequel to the series. For a while I thought that I must have been mistaken about how old Anna was and wondering why she was pretending to be a rookie park ranger in this book. Eventually it all clicked and I enjoyed the story. There’s an awful lot of Anna-in-certain-death-peril here but the escapes weren’t too deus ex machina and it was entertaining.

I guess I still need to catch up with Anna properly some time!

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson

Cover of A Death at Fountains Abbey

Darren’s library book that I borrowed because he told me it was good. We’ve visited Fountains Abbey and walked around the water gardens in the past and it’s fun to read books that are set in places you know. It’s 1728 (I think) in the book which makes it interesting to look at the map and figure out when the characters are wandering into what will eventually become the National Trust tea rooms. Third in a series, but works perfectly well as a standalone, though I suspect it rather spoils the earlier books. A good read anyhow.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Nine Lessons (Josephine Tey #7) by Nicola Upson

Cover of Nine Lessons (Josephine Tey #7)

I saw that there was a new book in this series out and was surprised it was up to eight books already. Then I realised I’d managed to miss a book being released so I got hold of this one pronto, and lo it was good. This is turning out to be one of my favourite series. In the beginning I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t see much of Josephine Tey, although I like her Scotland Yard friend Archie perfectly well he’s not the character with his name on the cover. She came more into the foreground as the book advanced. Archie’s investigation of the horrific murder of a man who was buried alive brings him to Cambridge, which is where Josephine’s now living and the women of the city are being terrorised by a rapist. I was really impressed by the portrayal of lots of the background characters, there are lots of good women in here, they get sympathetic treatment and the author did a good job of bringing the 1930s to life in, what seemed to me at least, to be a realistic way. Now I can go and read the new book too!

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

Cover of Death in the East

Definitely a candidate for my book of the year. A fabulous tale that entwines Sam Wyndham’s backstory as a young constable in London (that’s 1905) with his present day (that’s 1922) life as a policeman in India. This book takes us away from Calcutta as Sam’s trying to shake off his opium addiction by retreating to a monastary in the hills for treatment (I think it’s basically enforced cold turkey). I could get hung up on what might be a slightly excessive amount of coincidence in the plot but perhaps I missed something, and I’d rather remember the great amount of character development there is here. I was especially pleased with the delayed, but wonderful, appearance of his sergeant Surendranath Bannerjee. All in all it’s an excellent book, by far the best in a series that I’d already thought was pretty good, and what will stay with me is the feeling of optimism it invokes about the world then (1922) and, maybe, now (2019).

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid

Cover of Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

I bought this ages ago and forgot about it until recently. Val McDermid’s an excellent writer and though I prefer her early work to her current output she’s always been great at grounding her books in what seems to me to be real world police work. I feel this book is where she’s decided that all the research she’s done for her fiction might as well make a book of it’s own.

McDermid leads us in an orderly manner through all kinds of crime scene investigation techniques, from things like fingerprints that we’re all aware of, to topics such as forensic archaeology and psychology, and the crawling insects that appear on the cover and peppered over the pages have their part to play as well. She pulls in dozens of true crime cases to illustrate where the techniques have been used successfully, and also includes examples where they’ve failed or been wrongly applied. I’m not really a true crime reader but this was an excellent layperson’s guide to the science of forensic investigations. Easy to read if not always easy to stomach. Suffice to say I won’t be trying to dispose of any bodies after reading this!

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Cover of My Sister, the Serial Killer

I enjoyed this. A different take on a mystery as we move to Lagos and meet the narrator, a nurse called Korede, who is helping her fashion designer sister, Ayoola, dispose of her boyfriend’s body. Gradually, as is given away in the title, we see that this isn’t the first time that Ayoola has been in this situation and we start to doubt her motivation for this murder. The background to the sister’s lives is revealed slowly. The story is full of detail about a city that’s completely alien to me, but peopled with a cast whose actions and motivations are familiar the world over. A good read that’s quick and light, but with a heavy dark heart.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Cover of The Dark Flood Rises

I need to read more Margaret Drabble. This was thoroughly excellent. A kind of ramble about ageing that stretches out from Fran Stubbs, a seventy-something year old retiree-refusenik who works in something to do with care homes. The story takes in her recently bereaved son, an elderly gay couple in the Canary Islands, a friend who lives in a retirement community set up as a mock university college, her housebound ex-husband who she provides with home cooked meals, and numerous other related characters. I want to say they are larger-than-life, but really they aren’t. I can quite believe in all of them and the relationships between them. The characters are all approaching death in different manners, and there’s a theme, from the title, of flood waters rising around them that plays out sometimes in literal as well as metaphorical terms. A thought provoking and enjoyable read, and it probably sounds as if a book about getting inexorably closer to death ought to be depressing but it definitely wasn’t.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.