Tag Archives: 1990s

Reading Iceland

Reading Iceland

House of Evidence by Viktor Arnar Inglfósson
An Icelandic crime drama translated into English, I picked up House of Evidence because it was free, but really enjoyed it. Published in 1998 but set in 1973, the novel centres on the murder of a father and son. The murders are almost identical – but 30 years apart. As the book dives backwards into the father’s life, it covers the growth of Reykjavik from about 1900 to 1973. The history is pertinent, not intrusive. For a foreigner it’s ideal. The story moves along at a good clip. It’s a police procedural and not too gory. Being set in the ’70s, it talks about the early days of forensics and the limits the police are facing in their work, which is also interesting.

Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss
A lecturer in 19th century English literature, Sarah Moss moved to Iceland to take a post at Haskoli Islands, the main university in Iceland. In Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland she combines the story of her year, the troubles and joys she, her husband and two young sons faces, with the deeper things she learned about Iceland. I found it fascinating. As a foreigner, Moss struggles with and is interested in the things that baffle and interest other visitors. The book gave me lots of insights, and K has probably ‘read’ most of it now, either through looking over my shoulder at key points or from me quoting it en route. ‘The book says…’ is probably my most repeated phrase from Iceland. Moss accepted her job as the 2008 financial collapse unfurled. Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that her year there was a particularly strange one for Iceland, so if you read the book before you go, ignore her bleak descriptions of the supermarkets – we found everything we wanted, from avocados to chocolate cereal.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
I thought Cold Earth was set in Iceland when I started it, but it’s not: it’s set in Greenland. However, the landscape and chill of summer really rang true with what I saw in Iceland, and it was well worth a read, so I’m including it anyway. A group of young archaeologists head off to spend the summer digging at a remote settlement in Iceland. Their sporadic contact with home indicates that a pandemic is developing. Has the world ended while they’ve been away? And if so, will they ever get home?

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson

At #117 Bad Girls is the 13th Jacqueline Wilson novel I’ve read for this challenge, and I think it’s too many. They’re all starting to blur together, and the tears and traumas in this one just felt too familiar.

Mandy is the opposite of a bad girl. Small and dressed in frilly frocks, she looks closer to 7 than her actual age of 10. Since her best friend joined Kim’s clique, Mandy has been the target of all their taunts. She’s lonely until she meets Tanya. At 14, in foster care and separated from her younger siblings, Tanya is happy to have someone to care for. But bad habits are hard to break.

Have I read this book before?
Wilson’s strength is the natural way that she combines issues (foster care, absent parents, shop lifting, bullying) with a plot that children can relate to. Bad Girls is, objectively, a good book. It isn’t preachy, and shows that there can be complicated responses to issues. It never labels the ‘bad girls’ of the title, and juxtaposes two different sorts of ‘badness’ in a way that might make people think, or perhaps be unconsciously less judgmental. So it’s good, and I recommend it.

I did like the emphasis on creativity, particularly drawing and writing, in the story. The rainbow theme helped me notice how much time Wilson’s characters spend making stuff. It’s not just in this novel. Her characters are constantly making things, drawing pictures, dreaming and living in their imagination. It makes drawing, writing, art, dance and similar seem really accessible and achievable. I think it would be encouraging and inspiring, if I were 10.

Have I read this book before?
That said, I feel like I’ve read this book before. The chapters have a gimicky theme (colours of the rainbow this time), the characters all feel familiar. Tanya and the foster family she’s staying with are even in Dustbin Baby, so it’s more than a generic likeness. I struggled to work up any enthusiasm for the novel, and feel like I can’t give a clear review.

Broadly, I think this is a good book for kids age about 10. As with all Wilson’s books, there are challenging issues addressed, so some parents might want to read through it ahead of time. It only took me an hour, so that shouldn’t be much of a chore.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

This is the space where a Big Read update should go, but there isn’t one. I haven’t picked up a Big Read book at all this week, despite putting ‘finish Sons and Lovers‘ on my to-do list at least twice. I’ve got to that point where I’ve by-passed all the books I have available so often that even the ones I know will be good seem dull. Have you noticed this effect? The more often I look at a book and then read something else, the less likely I am to ever read it, even if I love it or its a book I’ve been waiting to come out.

I’m back in the UK now, which has switched up my TBR pile, but I’m not making any promises. Instead, here are three books I’ve read this week:

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (1998)
I totally love Diana Wynne Jones, so I was thrilled when the price on The Dark Lord of Derkholm dropped to £1.99. It’s well worth two quid. It’s a really fun read on several levels. It’s a fantasy novel for children, with magic and fun. It’s set in a world which is being destroyed by a rapacious tourist industry, so the wizards of the realm decide to take action. Gamers (RPG or computer) will appreciate the world, as the tourists are on trips which look rather like a gaming quest. It’s as if the NPCs finally got a chance to talk… Having been recently reading Tolkien, I particularly appreciate the fact that the novel has, oh, female wizards, and women at all. People of different races act like people, not like walking stereotypes, talking animals are people, and you can have different kinds of people in one family. It’s not that it’s an ‘issues’ book, it’s just good world building.


The Amazing Thing About the Way It Goes 
by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (2014)
The Yarn Harlot‘s newest book, The Amazing Thing has surprisingly little knitting in it. Really, there’s not much yarn at all, so don’t buy it for that. It’s got the same mix of uncommon common sense, humour and minor disasters as the previous books, but without the yarn. There’s parenting advice, but no advice on what not to knit for your kids. As a result, it’s still a good book, but disappointing. I really like reading about knitting, and I don’t have any teenagers that need wrangling. On the plus side, the book should appeal to a much wider audience, and I’m all in favour of knitters who make me laugh having a bigger yarn budget.

Demon Hunter and Baby by Anna Elliott (2012)
I have to say that I got Demon Hunter and Baby when it was free, and I don’t think it’s well edited enough to be worth the £3+ that it’s currently selling for. However, I really like the concept. I enjoy urban fantasy, and part of the reason I like it is that there are lots of physically, mentally and magically strong female characters in the genre. Unfortunately, few of them ever get to settle down, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one have a baby. Demon Hunter and Baby is a good example of the genre, with a neat twist (the baby, I mean. The plot is a bit more predictable). The mythology feels a bit disjointed at times, and at times I felt like there was too much going on. It reads a bit like book 2 in a trilogy, but it’s a stand alone novel, and I feel like a good editor would have made the book rather better.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I enjoyed rereading #142 Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson was one of my favourite authors when I was at uni, and Behind the Scenes is set in York, where I studied. I haven’t picked up her books much in the last few years, but now I’ve read both this and Life After Life n the last couple of months; both were good.

The story starts at conception, and the narrator, Ruby, tells the story of her life from that point on. With flashbacks to earlier generations, Ruby builds up a clear picture of an ordinary family living through extraordinary times.

 Voyeuristic 
Ruby’s narrative gives the reader insight into her family. She shares the details of their lives, of their loves and losses, dreams and depressions. The book answers the sort of question you can’t ask your neighbours: who fathered the baby? what did you really think of your parents? why did so-and-so get married? Atkinson goes into a useful level of detail, without getting bogged down so the book moves along at a good clip.

The novel has the plot of the family saga about it, but uses literary motifs and techniques which elevate it from the fast-paced gossipy style to something more contemplative. It’s a clever book. As an example, it quickly becomes clear that Ruby isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator, giving the story extra levels. As well as trying to puzzle out what she’s hiding, I also wondered about what she was reporting. Was Ruby, the character, making it all up, just as Atkinson, the novelist was?

A good book, but no longer popular
If the Big Read survey was redone today, I don’t think Behind the Scenes would make the cut. That’s not because I don’t like the book or think it’s not worthy, I just feel its wider appeal was fleeting. I think people would now choose Life After Life, or something else entirely.

I suspect that Behind the Scenes will last though, be passed around second hand, and recommended by word-of-mouth through the decades. It’s a good mix of literary and readable, plus the historical setting makes it date less and be more nostalgic. So I think it has a good chance of being in print in 50 years (particularly as it has already been transformed into an e-book), although I don’t think it’ll ever be more popular than when it was the big new thing.

I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it. I don’t have any detailed content notes, all though I will say that the story spans three or four generations, and a period where infant mortality was higher.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Green Mile by Stephen King

The Green Mile by Stephen King

I’d seen the film of #146 The Green Mile by Stephen King before I’d even heard of the book, which rather ruins it, I think. The novel is intended to be suspenseful and unpredictable. In fact, it was published in installments over several months, so its original readers would have had to wait a significant chunk of time before finding out what happened next. It’s nonetheless quite gripping, but I had no particular joy in travelling this story again and don’t think I’ll reread it.

The Green Mile is set in the USA, in the South, in the 1930s. The narrator, Paul Edgecombe, is chief guard in a prison block. His block only handles inmates condemned to death. In 1932, his block gets two new guests: Wild Bill, a white kid of 19, and John Coffey, an enormous black man charged with the death of two little white girls.

It’s Stephen King, but is it horror?
King usually writes horror with a supernatural element, but I’d say this isn’t horror. It’s got a supernatural element, true, and plenty of suspense, but it’s missing something. Perhaps the sense of immediate peril, as half the characters are locked up already, or perhaps its the human scale of the problems. Typically, in King’s horror stories the villain is supported by the supernatural and monstrously strong (physically or mentally). In The Green Mile, the characters are human, and the responses and solutions are human.

Another reason I’d hesitate to class The Green Mile as horror is the relative lack of gore. The last King novel I read was Under the Dome, which I did not enjoy at all. It’s 886 pages long, and most of it is as grim as the news on a really bad day. It’s a good example of how gory King can be when he wants. In The Green Mile, bad things don’t happen – several of the characters are on death row, and not without cause – but King doesn’t dwell on the gore.

Truth, justice and the electric chair
I couldn’t help comparing The Green Mile to To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re both set in the same period and culture, in similar geographical locations and both focus on black men accused of crimes by whites. Despite their similarities, To Kill a Mockingbird is far and away the better book. It’s better in every respect I can think of – tighter, better written, a more interesting story, a more interesting narrator, a more effective social commentary. It’s interesting to see where books I find similar place on the list. In this case, I’d say Mockingbird deserves its top-ten spot (#6) and The Green Mile is better off below the fold.

That said, The Green Mile isn’t a bad book. It’s not a brilliant book, but it’s not dreadful, either. I feel that it doesn’t do enough of any one thing to stand out. As an example, King mentions in the introduction that he didn’t do much research into the period and the place. It shows, sort of. The back story of the book is like a set dressing. It’s convincing enough for the purpose, but I really didn’t feel like I learned anything or could get in there and live.

The book has a supernatural element, which one of my friends argues has religious overtones. I didn’t really see it. Or rather, I saw it, but again, it wasn’t intense enough to matter, like a splash of apple juice in a glass of orange. Actually, that’s a reasonable analogy. I felt that the book was like a fruit juice cocktail. It was totally palatable and went down smoothly, but nothing really stuck out and I doubt I’ll remember much more now I’ve read the book than I did when I’d just seen the film.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Man and Boy by Tony Parsons

Man and Boy by Tony Parsons

I read #192 Man and Boy by Tony Parsons a couple weeks ago, and my shortest review has to be: like High Fidelity, if he had a kid. As you may remember, I didn’t love High Fidelity and didn’t much care for Man and Boy either, although it was easy reading.

Harry Silver is turning 30, and seems to have the perfect life, the one he always aimed for. He’s successful at work, married to a lovely woman (who has given up her dreams in favour of supporting his career and raising their child), has a lovely boy, a house with a shrinking mortgage and enough money to spend some on daft things, like a 2-seater car when he is part of a 3-person family. Naturally he has to screw up, ruin it all and spend the rest of the novel looking for a new normal that’s half as good as the old one.

On turning 30
I’ve just done this myself,  Big round numbers, like New Year’s Day, are a good opportunity to take stock, and I’d be surprised if there was anyone, anywhere who did that every decade and had nothing left to strive for, no one to miss, nothing done or undone to regret. I do like this quote, from the first chapter:

That’s what thirty should be – grown-up without being disappointed, settled without being complacent, worldly wise, but not so worldly wise you feel like chucking yourself under a train. The time of your life.

Harry is looking back at his life, and is disappointed. He doesn’t feel grown-up enough, exciting enough, rich enough. He definitely doesn’t feel like he’s man enough, and spends most of the novel comparing himself to his father, who fought in WWII and is, in Harry’s eyes, perfect. Harry, who is a first-person narrator, and his father are the best developed characters in the novel. His mother is definitely background, as is Harry’s own wife. His son is a source of joy or a problem, but doesn’t seem to have a second characteristic. (He does like Star Wars though. A lot.)

Not impressed
I didn’t have much sympathy for Harry. Parsons has written an engaging, easy to read book with a good flow, but I thought Harry was self-delusional to the point where his rude awakening was long overdue. I also didn’t quite believe the timeline – I thought he was too young at 30 to be where he’s described as being, if you see what I mean. Unless, that is, being a TV producer on a made-for-cable show pays phenomenally well, which I can’t imagine it does, or house prices have tripled since 1999. 
Most of my contemporaries are working on one of the major life projects he’s got all settled (dazzling career, mortgage, family) with or without a partner, and I certainly haven’t got it all figured out. Harry, incidentally, must have been on track in his career and married by about 25, which is just 2-3 years out of uni, as he has a 4-year old at 30 and met his wife at work.

So Harry has something rather good going on, and then it all collapses, as he does the one thing his wife cannot forgive. Now, despite the laundry list of perfection, I don’t get the impression that either Harry or Gina (his wife) were very happy. Gina, particularly, has given up her dreams of travel and an exciting career (she was trained as a Japanese translator) in favour of staying home and looking after their son full-time. As she’s not happy, I can see Gina’s looking for a shake up, having just turned 30 herself. However, both Harry and Gina seem hasty with the eject button on their relationship. For Gina, there seems to be no middle ground between ‘no work outside the home’ and ‘living in Japan’. I’m pretty sure there are, in real life and even in London, less extreme options. Harry, likewise, when he’s looking after his son full-time declares himself unable to combine childcare with any work. It’s bizarre. I’m in favour of increased levels of state-sponsored childcare anyway, but as free childcare for the preschool set would have allowed each parent in turn to work part-time, and thus prevented the novel entirely, I’m doubly committed to the cause. And in real life, when the money starts to run out, you step away from your dream job and get a bit of work on the side. Or sell the ridiculous, expensive car. Or rent out the London house and move somewhere cheaper for a bit. Or…

I wanted to like this book, as I think it’s a great that there’s chicklit with male main characters. That the book turns on emotional fulfillment in a very ordinary setting, yet is a favourite, is a good sign. Ultimately though, I thought it was all too convenient and the characters and scenarios were unconvincing.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

 I’ve just waded through a very blokey book, #143 High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, and I didn’t enjoy it. I seem to be working through a string of very male-centred books on the list. It’s not a surprising streak as male authors and main characters seem to outnumber females by about 4:1, but it’s tiresome.

High Fidelity is about Rob, a 35 year-old Londoner. When the story opens, Rob has just been dumped by Laura, his partner of some years. She’s moved out and moved on, leaving Rob wondering what went wrong, why it went wrong, and whether he should try to fix it. Rob owns and runs a record store called Championship Vinyl. He knows his top 5 songs to play when you’re sad, his top 5 worst break ups of all time (and Laura’s split hasn’t made the cut) and believes that anyone with less than 500 records isn’t a serious person.

That guy
I don’t identify with any of the ‘universal truths’ Rob keeps spouting and I think he’s a self-indulgent wanker. Viewed from the inside of his own head, he is so self-involved that I wanted to warn even his friends off him. By the end of the book, I was starting to think Laura was a figment of his imagination – she certainly puts up with things I never would, having had some similar experiences.

In High Fidelity, as in most books and films, the characters aren’t presented neutrally. Instead, it’s like meeting a friend-of-a-friend. The author (your friend in this analogy) preps you, giving you a guide to how they think you should feel about a character, rather than letting you make up your own mind. I find it very hard to enjoy a book or film where I disagree with the author’s assessment of a character. I don’t tend to watch action films, because I think the ‘heroes’ actions often paint them as violent criminals who are a danger to society, not the good guys the narrative suggests. Likewise, I don’t think Rob is a good guy, and yet Hornby wants me to spend a couple hundred pages inside his head, sympathising, presumably, with his (largely self-inflicted) troubles and rejoicing in his successes. Well, I didn’t follow on. I think all his exes are better off without him, and he needs to spend some time alone and grow up.

A dose of the pop
I’m not serious about music. I don’t have more than 500 records; I don’t own a single record, in fact, and would have no way to play vinyl or wax if I did. I barely had tapes, as by the time I graduated high school it was all file sharing and burning CDs. Also, I am a terrible fan – I like the music I like and I really don’t give a toss who’s in the band or even what they’re called.

I tried mentally replacing ‘records’ with ‘books’ throughout, and still didn’t get very far. There were a couple of moments I liked, one shortly after the break up where Rob gets really into his record collection, taking control of it as a way of taking control of his life.

Tuesday night I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional stress. There are some people who would find this a pretty dull way to spend an evening, but I’m not one of them. This is my life, and it’s nice to be able to wade in it, immerse your arms in it, touch it.

That I recognize. I’ve done that with books throughout my life. I’ve had them by title, switched to spine colour, changed it to genre, then author surname, or even just clumped ones I feel go well together. And when something is that important to you, is a significant part of how you spend your day, then it is nice (more than nice) to be able to revel in it, to physically dwell in a mess of your favourite things, and finish up feeling like you’ve put the world to rights.

Dated
High Fidelity is packed with pop-culture references, and has dated very rapidly as a result. It’s not just that Rob throws around obscure band names, some of which I assume are entirely made up, but even the mainstream references haven’t lasted, sapping the book of a lot of its power. For example, Rob compares most of the people he encounters to a film or TV star, which would be great if I’d ever heard of any of them. More than that, the focus on records and cassette tapes makes the book seem even older than it is (first published 1995). And yes, perhaps there is something special about vinyl, but High Fidelity doesn’t explain what – it doesn’t even recognize that the CD has been invented.

I appreciated Hornby’s writing in this, actually. The film star comparisons, although they left a gaping, empty hole in my images of the characters, were totally in character for Rob and an apt way to explore how he felt about and saw people without actually talking about feelings. Also, the top five list that opens the book (top five worst break ups) is a very neat way to introduce the main character, his attitudes to life and his emotional history.

Overall, I don’t recommend the book. It’s like reading through a time warp, an anachronism both in terms of setting and attitude, like the ’80s romances where the young secretary becomes the millionaire’s mistress, where both the fur coats and the sense of sin horrify more modern readers.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Goosebumps: The Night of the Living Dummy by RL Stine

Goosebumps: The Night of the Living Dummy by RL Stine

I’m behind! I meant to get this review up for last Friday, as usual, but haven’t had any internet access. Apologies to anyone who was waiting for it.

Sometimes, it’s really not clear what the Big Read list is referring to, and #188 Goosebumps by RL Stine is a case in point. Goosebumps is, in fact, the name of a series of gentle horror books for kids. There were 62 books in the original series, so Wikipedia tells me, and probably at least 40 more written by the time the Big Read list voting happened in 2003. There’s no way I’m adding a hundred extra books to this challenge, even if I liked the genre, which I don’t.

I did a bit of research and selected Classic Goosebumps #1: Night of the Living Dummy as probably being the original book in the series – it now seems like I was wrong about that, but that’s what I read, and I’m counting it.

Night of the Living Dummy is a mild horror story aimed at young teenagers, I would guess. It tells the story of twins, Lindy and Kris. Lindy finds a ventriloquist’s dummy in a skip, and Kris, jealous, demands one of her own. When spooky, mean things start happening, could their family be in danger – and could the dummies be to blame?

Night of the living boredom
Horror is not my favourite genre, which is perhaps why I found the book somewhat creepy but mostly a drag. I didn’t enjoy Night of the Living Dummy and I don’t recommend it. It’s predictable, trope-bound mild horror and doesn’t do anything exciting. Ventriloquist’s dummies seem to be almost universally regarded as creepy, so the story isn’t even unusual. I suspect that its success is down to being junior horror – when you’ve only read one book with ghosts / vampires / evil living dummies in, then you’re likely to have lower standards than when you’re a jaded reader like me, who has seen it all a dozen times.

How scary is junior horror?
There are quite a lot of deliberately scary books for kids out there. I remember the Goosebumps series from when I was a kid and also an imprint called Point Horror, although I didn’t read many of them. Horror stories are likely to give a pleasant chill when the reader believes that the characters are in trouble – but the trouble is purely fictional – and nightmares when you think the trouble might spill over into your world. I believe that junior horror needs to be even more clear than adult horror that the fiction is, well, fictional, as convictions are things one grows into, and they’re hard to hold onto in the middle of the night. I remember watching an all too plausible vampire film at university and waking up in the night, after a nightmarish rehashing of the plot with myself in the victim’s role, unable to fully convince myself that vampires couldn’t possibly exist.

People will react differently to different plots, but on the whole I thought Night of the Living Dummy wasn’t too scary for a kid. A benefit is that the horror elements are largely impersonal – the problems are outside of the family. I think the [insert monster here] type are far less creepy than the possessed parents want to eat your brains type.

However, like most horror novels, it does have a fairly high amount of conflict between the characters, and no one believes that the terrible things are happening, not great messages on either count, although perhaps accurate.

Nightmare-free horror also depends on the villain being thoroughly vanquished at the end of the book, and the Goosebumps series are terrible at this. The bad guys just keep on coming back, and there’s basically nothing you can do about it but switch to another series.

All in all, I don’t think I’d object to a child of mine reading these books – as long as they were reading other books, too, balanced diet and all that – but I would keep an eye out for disturbed sleep. And perhaps pass on my top tip, from my own childhood, which is this: if you’re reading horror before bed, and want a good night’s sleep, read a couple of chapters of the drippiest Enid Blyton novel you own before you go to sleep. It’s pretty much impossible to have a nightmare in her uber-saccharine world.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

I chose #151 Soul Music by Terry Pratchett as my next Big Read book because it’s festival season, and this book is about rock and roll.

Soul Music is a Discworld novel, and while it features several recurring characters, it works pretty well as an entry to the series. In an Ankh-Morpork back street, a young man picks up a guitar, strums a chord, and a wild new music sneaks onto the Disc. Rock and roll is here, with its dancing beats and its rebellious anthems. It is the time to live fast – but can he avoid dying young?

Rock and roll is here to stay
Pratchett has written a whole string of books where a modern technology hits the Discworld. They’re usually stand-alone books and provide a good entry to the series. Soul Music is all about rock and roll. It was written in 1994, which is about when my personal music memory starts, so I was relying on a fondness for rock and roll from the 1950s and ’60s as well as music my parents played. I felt like quite a few of the references went right over my head but I still enjoyed the book.

That said, I do feel like this type of Discworld book, about the sudden introduction of a Roundworld phenomenon, chafe a little at the seams. Some new inventions get absorbed into Discworld well – like the movable type printing press from The Truth – while others, like the Moving Pictures are clearly destined to fade away. Soul Music is much like Moving Pictures. It’s lovely, and fans of rock and roll will probably appreciate seeing it done Discworld style, but ultimately you could read the Discworld series and miss this one out without missing much. It feels like a thought experiment, Pratchett writing out what would happen if rock and roll hit the Disc, and then tidying away his toys neatly at the end of play.

The girl with kaleidoscope eyes
Soul Music is the origin story for Susan, who is awesome and shows up repeatedly, she is Death’s granddaughter, and is thoroughly, strongly practical. I do love a hero who can wear a bit of lace and save the world with common sense.

Like many of Pratchett’s other main characters, Susan changes dramatically between books. In her case, she literally grows up. Like Captain Carrot, she changes enough between books that it doesn’t matter if you miss her beginnings – and you may get a little shock discovering them if you’ve seen her later, more evolved character.

I enjoyed rereading Soul Music. As you’ll have noticed, I rate Pratchett highly – he’s one of the authors who never write a book I hate. The worst possible outcome is that I fail to fall madly in love with his new book, like with Dodger, and go back to the merry-go-round of previous glories. Pratchett writes comic fantasy, with dragons and magic and wizards, but he writes with a strong pragmatic realism, with people who react in believable ways even to fantastic situations. The Discworld is a brilliant place to linger for a while, and Soul Music is it’s summer festival. Take it to the park, listen to a band, and dip into rock and roll and magic between sets.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans

I’m not sure if I’ve read #195 The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans before or not. It was made into a film starring Robert Redford, Kirstin Scott Thomas and a young Scarlett Johansson in 1998 and I’m sure I’ve seen that. The horses, the Montana landscape – the whole world of the film is alien to me, and the book (if I read it) was easily overwritten by the film. I do believe that films can be better than books – and where I can’t picture the world easily, a film shows me everything, so I’m less puzzled as I go along.

The book opens with a horrific accident leaves both Grace MacLean and her horse, Pilgrim, severely injured. Determined to repair the physical and mental trauma, Grace’s mother, Annie Graves, refuses to allow the vet to euthanize Pilgrim. Annie hears of an expert working with damaged horses and drags both Grace and Pilgrim to Montana, in a desperate hope that the horse whisperer can help.

Easy to read, hard to stomach
Evans writes well and fluidly – the book is easy to read and positively glides by. The content, however, can be upsetting and hard to deal with. The opening, with the accident, is written kindly and carefully but it’s still not a fun read. The rest of the novel is dealing with two severely injured and damaged creatures, Grace and Pilgrim. The people around them are suffering as well, both because of the accident and for other reasons – you get the feeling that no one in the book is entirely whole, which is probably not unrealistic.

After the status quo is upset by the accident and re-established, the novel does have a hopeful atmosphere and, as I said, is easy to read. To get to the gentler middle, you have to go past the really rough beginning, and it’s not a short section. If you find descriptions of accidents upsetting, if you don’t want to read about people or animals being severely injured or killed, do not read this book.

No spoilers, but…
The ending pissed me off. Not enough to throw the book across the room (even though it was a paperback!) but I did think it was a cop out, with miracle sauce. As a result, I wouldn’t recommend the book. I have a feeling that the film had a more satisfying ending, so perhaps try that instead, particularly if you fancy either Robert Redford or Kirstin Scott Thomas.

On the plus side, the book is largely an homage to the strength and determination of Annie, not only in her role as Grace’s mother but also, independently, as a successful professional. It’s good to have strong, female characters successfully combining work and motherhood, and it was particularly interesting to me, as a remote worker and freelance writer, to get a snapshot of remote working in the early 1990s. But I still didn’t love the book and I don’t particularly recommend it.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.