The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

Sunday, 22 June 2014

One of the things about crime fiction is there is always a new detective series to get caught up with. When I was younger, I worked my way through golden era detectives (courtesy of the now refurbished Exeter Central Library). My most recent series was Rebus, but I’m all caught up there. So I’ve been casting about for a new detective to follow*.

My latest investigation was into Susan Hills Simon Serrailler series, with The Betrayal of Trust.
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Serrailler is in classic “middle class, middle aged” detective model. He has a complex family: in this case a widowed sister with three children, and an emotionally frozen father. He’s rebelled by going into detective work: the. Rest of the family are medical doctors. He has to deal with chippy colleagues. He has an artistic hobby: he paints.

This “posh DI” model is a procedural offshoot of the golden era’s “gentleman detective”. It essentially wonders what would happen if Wimsey or Campion had joined the police. There is something classist about it: the posh DI is always going against the family wishes, and is mildly distrusted by their colleagues.

None of that makes them bad – in this case, it was a really enjoyable read – but they never become series I become addicted to.

I enjoyed this for its interweaving of social justice and welfare with a cold case, but I mostly wanted to follow Cat Dearbon – the widowed sister – rather than Simon. I felt the constraints of the “posh DI procedural” genre kept pulling me away from a potentially more interesting story.

*I am obviously excluding Endeavour, as a) it’s a TV. Series and b) he’s not technically a new detective – just a younger version.

Lady Oracle, by Margaret Atwood

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

There is a strong sense of déjà vu with Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood.

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I realised, a chapter in, that I had in fact read it before. So I’ve no idea why it was on the ‘to be read’ shelves. But the sense of echo was increased as I read on: this is a early version of The Blind Assassin, with a Canadian woman writing in secret, books within books and blurring identities.

Joan, the highly unreliable narrator, seeks constantly to escape her lives. At first through mentally escaping, then physically (through both transformation and literally running away). The problems really come when all her lives, both internal and external, start to collide: she can’t be a famous literary feminist poet and a writer of historical romances. She can’t be a loveable but dim wife and a revolutionary. And she running out of ways to flee…

I’m still not sure where I stand with this book. Is the final chapter one by a woman accepting her responsibilities, or already looking for another identity? Are we meant to empathise with Joan, or not? Towards the end, Joan says she might take up writing science fiction which, if you are aware of Atwood’s oscillating embrace of the genre, makes you laugh quite a lot.

I do think Joan is a great fictional fantasist. Some of the teenage sections are heart-breaking, but her subsequent choices make her either utterly selfish or utterly self-delusional. Is Atwood attempting to defend the historical romance genre, or saying it’s ultimately unfulfilling as an escape?

I may not have decided what I think of this still, but at least I’ll shelve it on the read shelves this time.

Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett

Sunday, 23 March 2014

I’m not going to review Raising Steam in any great depth. If you like Pratchett and Discworld then it’s another one. If you don’t then, well, I’m not going to change your mind.

Instead, I’m going to talk about how one of the themes accidentally aligned with how I read the book. For yes, dear reader, I’m an eBook reader.

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One of the themes of the book is learning to accept technological progress, and the pace of it. I have been won over by ebooks. In part because it means I can pack some reading and music and writing tools in my overnight bag simply by chucking my iPad in it. I still prefer a paper book, in part because I wear reading glasses now, and it feels far less fuddy-duddy to put them on to read off a page. Vanity…

It seemed appropriate to cover this with a Pratchett book because his books are the ones that have taken me through all the major changes in publishing since the early 1980s.

In the mid-80s I took a punt on a Corgi paperback of The Colour of Magic. The Exmouth WHSmiths had put a end display of comedy SFF on, with Pratchett next to Douglas Adams, Harry Harrison and Robert Rankin. The Colour of Magic had a quote from Adams on the cover. In the pre-internet days, a quote like that was a beacon. It was a mass-market paperback, and I stuck with that format, waiting patiently for a year after the hardback release.

In the 90s, trade paperbacks started to be more common in bookshops rather than just being advance copies of the hardback used in the review trade. I switched to trades for contemporary, translated and classic fiction but stuck to mass market for crime and SF.

Pratchett was the first living SF author I bought trade paperbacks of. (The SF classic series’ reprints of Philip K Dick being the first SFF trades I bought). Suddenly, my bookshelf had a run of mass markets followed by a run of trades in the same series*.

So it’s inevitable that Pratchett is the first author where I happily switch to the ebook format whilst reading a series. In some way, I think it’s a legacy of that early connection in my mind between Adams and Pratchett. It ought to have been a new Adams novel. I’d been hoping for a new Hitchhikers book that day in WHSmiths. I still shelve Pratchett and Adams together, even though they are very different. Pratchett isn’t a substitute, but he is – in some small way – continuing Adams’ legacy.


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*Conversely, I’ve stopped buying Rebus novels entirely, due to the publisher’s refusal to release Exit Music in mass market format. Every other book up until “the last Rebus” was in hardback, trade, paperback. I had a whole run in matching mass market format. And they didn’t release the “final” book to match. Yes, it’s no longer the final Rebus but it still rankles enough that these days I borrow the hardbacks from the library instead. Sorry, Ian.

Confessions of an Advertising Man, by David Ogilvy

Monday, 3 February 2014

What’s most startling about reading this 1963 book on advertising is how much of the advice is still valid.

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There are some elements of Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy that have aged, such as a comment that women should should leave the workplace to care for their babies. There’s also reams of name-dropping, and a cosy Old Tie Club element to sections of it which sits uncomfortably with modern propriety.

The chapter on writing copy, however, could be used word-for-word for explaining succinct writing now. Most of Ogilvy’s rules on copywriting are the same as the rules on writing in plain English. This book actually made me think on how to use it the next time I’m told plain English is some modern fad…

There are even elements that apply for writing online link bait now. Ogilvy loved a numbered list more than buzzfeed does, and he knew you had to get your keywords into the headline.

The cover of the edition I got cheekily steals its design from Mad Men, the TV series that stole its entire character from this book to start with. So here’s a bonus video.

Walk the Lines, by Mark Mason

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Tube map is one of the greatest works of fiction in the world. It takes the messy reality of a scattered city and turns it into measured beats, clusters of connections and something that makes sense. Also, the map (technically a schematic) doesn’t actually show real distances between what’s above ground. I love it.
Walk the Lines cover

Mark Mason decided to follow the map above ground, walking every mile as closely as possible. Walk the Lines is the result, his travelogue of each suburb and interchange.

Initially I dove into this book with enthusiasm, much like Mason as he prepared his project and walked the first line. Then, as the lines progressed and common themes emerged (countryside, suburbia, industrial, inner city and reverse) I started to want something more than I was getting, and by the end I was dawdling along with decreasing energy.

Some stations were skipped over: perhaps something that makes sense in some of the Metroland areas but there was no Russell Square. There’s both recent and old history there. I’ve been incapable of going through it without thinking of the 2005 bomb, just as I always think of the 1987 fire when I see the stopped clock in Kings Cross tube. But go back further and walking as the pigeon flies from Russell Square to King’s Cross you go through Coram Fields and past the Foundling Hospital – one of the most heart-breaking museums in London and well worth a note in a book about London’s more obscure corners.

There’s also a couple of points where the tone shifts into a kind of moroseness, almost a “bah humbug, youth of today” element which changed Mason from the kind of person you’d like to walk the length of the Picc with and into a grumpy bloke you’d try to avoid chatting to on a bus. That may have been a consequence of his own tiredness, or my own threshold for “…and all this used to be fields” talk.

There are some wonderful sections within the book though: the chat with a cabbie-to-be on learning the knowledge includes some laugh out loud moments, and the interview with Bill Drummond about his cake circle is a joy.

There’s also some good musings on the personal maps we create of a city. I can rat run around Soho, Fitzrovia and the South Bank but even last week I was filled with a mild terror as I was going to the Barbican. I explained when I got there and found my friend that I had last visited as a sixteen year old, got lost and never dared venture back in until now.

Overall, I’d recommend this for people who like maps and That London, but do prepare yourself with some Kendal Mint Cake for some of the later sections.

Bonus recommendation: watch out for repeats of Metroland on BBC Four. The DVD goes for outrageous amounts these days…

The Victorian Detective, by Alan Moss and Keith Skinner

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Another off the Christmas book pile, this time diving into non-fiction for a look at the Victorian Detective.

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No, not that one.

Instead The Victorian Detective is a slim non-fiction volume looking at the rise of the police detective in Victorian Britain. There’s no doubt Alan Moss and Keith Skinner’s book is well-researched and fully sourced. The problem comes in if you’ve already read The Suspicion of Mr Whicher, which covers the same ground through the prism of a single case.

In attempting to avoid the grisly “true crime” style, this book skims over the cases themselves in favour of, well, HR updates on which station a detective is based in. Overall, it felt rather too dry.


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