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.

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.