recreational reading

I find that if reading has become heavy and difficult for me there are a few ways I can kickstart it: old favourites; new books from old favourite authors; fantasy; mystery; horse books. Things have been sticky enough that I have just had to read all of the above.

The old favourite was National Velvet, and if you are rolling your eyes and thinking of that appalling film with Liz Taylor and Mickey Rooney, you don’t know what you’re missing. Enid Bagnold’s original is every bit as much a crazy forgotten classic as I Capture The Castle. Such dialog! And the single most convincing toddler in all fiction. And the bedrock heroine of the piece is a fat mother of five. Come on, people!

I managed a small theme by reading some Dick Francis and KM Peyton; lots of National Hunt racing and two more attempts on the Grand National. Francis lost his wife Mary a few years ago and retired from writing. His son Felix persuaded him to revisit everyone’s favourite Dick Francis character, the one-handed ex-jockey Sid Halley. Heartbreakingly it seems Mary really was the brains of the outfit. Either Sid has become eighty percent less smart then he used to be, or I have become a much more critical reader –

Oh. Anyway the Peyton books were better; Blind Beauty was rollicking fun. Free Rein completes the Jonathan Meredith trilogy that I read the first two of in real time, back in the eighties. It’s actually great. Not sure why I didn’t read it then. It has everything I ever loved about Peyton – wholly convincing horse, complicated and believable people and plot. There’s a whole nother blogpost about 20thC British horse lit and how profoundly it influenced my view of the world, and how shamingly recently – like, on this Cambridge trip – it was that I figured out English riding traces its heritage, inevitably, to foxhunting. And what that means about the intersection of horses and teen girl sexuality and class, and money. How these books propagated those memes through the Anglosphere. Pony Club as, like Scouts, a vector of Empire and privilege.

But this isn’t that blogpost. Relieved are you? Or disappointed? The horsy theme came to a crunching halt with Sarah Gruen’s Riding Lessons. What really pissed me off about this book is that Gruen can actually write; her sentences are reasonably fluent, her eye isn’t bad, she has a sense of humour. Why then oh why? Gods, why is her protagonist so painfully, unbearably stupid? Why is she so selfish and self-absorbed? Why does she treat her mother and father and husband and child and ex-boyfriend with such cavalier disregard? WHY? Am I actually supposed to relate to this woman and wish her well because she has blonde hair or something?


I think I am not the demographic. Also, the plot was dire, relying on (at a minimum) Contrived Coincidence, Abovementioned Idiotic Protagonist, A Stupid Plan, A Still More Stupid Backup Plan, Mother And Daughter Failing To Exchange Necessary Information (two pairs)… wibble. Let us never speak of it again. Next! Tithe, which I picked up because author Holly Black just got a gig on my beloved Shadow Unit. It was okay. Next!

I read Tamora Pierce on the recommendation of Liz’s Milo. The Protector of the Small quartet was great. It has a likeable and unusual protagonist – a thickset, not very articulate girl. Nice thing is the stories show, don’t tell, how this kid gets to be remarkable. We go through her training regime. We see her learn lessons and then apply them! There’s a rather unfortunate digression into Prophecy and Chosen Oneness towards the end, but our heroine Keladry is refreshingly dismissive about it. “I’d never have called myself anything so silly,” she snorts at the title “Protector of the Small”.

There’s one brilliant scene in, I think, the third book, where Kel violently objects to a piece of injustice and takes her case to the King. The King is frankly sympathetic, agrees to take up her cause and explains rapidly the compromises that will have to be reached in order to accomplish the change of legislation in the context of larger reforms. Kel walks out reeling, realizing that even well-meaning grownups can’t fix the world by fiat. It’s an unexpected and quite lovely moment. I described this series to Jeremy as “Harry Potter done right.” Imagine my disappointment at reaching back to Pierce’s first book and finding that the Keladry quartet is essentially her effort to rewrite those 25yo originals.

Well, times change. It was very odd reading Melusine between and around the Pierce books. They share a lot of stock European fantasy tropes and themes, and there’s even some overlap in the namespace. Where Keladry’s values are basically decent and wholesome, though, the narrators of Melusine are a clever but socially inferior thief and a psychotic wizard. There is teh gaysex and it is all very dark. My opinion of Felix remained low throughout the (long) novel, but I did come to love Mildmay the thief.

Pick of the bunch, though, was Naomi Novik’s Victory of Eagles. Temeraire POV! Lawrence angst! Subversive dragon independence movements! Transportation! ALL SO VERY GOOD.

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