Books I read in September 2020

I was musing today about how a lot of people say that since the pandemic struck they’ve found it much harder to concentrate on reading. Since I read 13 books this month, I certainly can’t say the same. I think it’s long-form television I’m finding less satisfying, especially since, the way I watch it, I’m only a tab away from looking at something else. Cutting myself off from the world for some dedicated reading or listening time is still something I find easy to do. It’s just coming back that’s hard.

Fire and Blood, by George RR Martin

This book is to A Song of Earth and Fire what The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s infamous codex of the founding myths of Middle Earth, is to Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien’s focus was myth, however, Martin’s is history, and the book takes us through the Targaryen dynasty of Dragon Kings from the first conquest of Westeros to the reign of the seventh King, Aegon III; a 130-year span. Written in the character of an Archmaester of Westeros, this should be one for geeks only, so why I decided to spend my time reading a 700-page history of an imaginary country is as much of a mystery as why I devoured it so furiously, in 100-page-at-a-time sessions. As with his novels, GRRM has an uncanny ability to make the pages fly past, and I found myself thoroughly invested in the fate of the dynasty, as well as spellbound by the slow motion car crash effect of the passages where the realm descends into civil war.

Gimson’s Presidents, by Andrew Gimson

An enormously diverting compendium of brief biographical essays on the 44 presidents of the United States (first fun fact: Trump is only 45 because Grover Cleveland gets counts twice. Cleveland was also the only president ever to serve as public executioner). You need to go elsewhere for details of policy and diplomacy, but it’s a rich source of anecdote and character detail. As it approaches the present day, it gets less satisfactory: I thought the account of Regan was too rose-tinted, and the entry on Obama manages the more unusual feat of being dull. Otherwise, well worth wasting an hour on.

Henry VI Part III, by William Shakespeare

Every so often I feel in need of a bit of blank-verse bombast and go browse the early histories and tragedies. There’s no way to understand what’s going on at the start of this play without having seen Part II, which shows impressive faith in the Elizabethan audience. That aside, it’s a runaround, as a series of pasteboard characters fight, capture and betray one another, with occasional spikes in formal quality and character depth hinting that Shakespeare polished up certain scenes and left others to a less talented collaborator. Henry VI fades into the background of his trilogy in a way that no other monarch in Shakespeare does, but his scenes here have a genuine pathos that’s the most moving thing in the play.

The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

An ideal comfort read. A lot of Discworld fan debate centres on whether you should start here, and if not, where. For my money, it’s impossible to read the first page without being aware that you’re in the presence of the most gifted comic stylist since Douglas Adams. The passage of 35 years has somewhat dimmed the book’s field of reference, obscuring the then-current fantasy tropes that Pratchett’s poking fun at, but the sheer silliness and scope of invention makes the book breathe and live.

Gimson’s Prime Ministers, by Andrew Gimson

Again, enormously diverting, filled with anecdotes and quotations from our 55 Prime Ministers. The eighteenth-century fellows are well enough, but the book really picks up with Lord Melbourne, the first PM to be psychologically interesting. Thereafter we bound along, with Gimson’s gift for terse summary and illuminating anecdote making vivid sketches even of minor figures like Andrew Bonar Law and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Even on familiar ground, there are one or two revelations: who knew that Gordon Brown once dated a Romanian princess? Or that Boris Johnson’s blond mop is a relic of his Turkish ancestry?

Asylum, by Peter Darvill-Evans

A soothing sort of Doctor-Who-meets-Cadfael medieval who-dunnit. The mystery doesn’t work, because the reader tends to know more than Tom Baker’s Doctor, and the deductions lose their force. Since it was published in 2001, it’s also funny reading it now, after the show’s come back, and seeing how it totally fails to predict the format of the celebrity historical. Roger Bacon is the only famous historical figure we meet, and yet seems unaware he should be played by a celebrity guest actor, or that the whole story should hinge on his genius–amusingly, the Doctor writes him off as a minor figure in the history of science. And that’s how the book feels–entertaining but minor. Part of me would have preferred the invasion of Friar Bacon’s brazen heads!

The Sandman Vol. 1, by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Mags

A graphic novel adapted for audio is so unusual a project as to be virtually unique, but excellent voice acting, narration and sound design manage the transition from visual to audio with aplomb. Adapting the first three trade editions, it keeps the divide between the original comic book issues, interspersing the long arcs of Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House with the single issue stories of Dream Country, leading to an agreeable variety and the segmented feel of a radio series or podcast. Occasional stories lose something given Gaiman was writing to the particular strengths of artists in a visual medium, but the whole thing holds up astonishingly well.

The Claw of the Conciliator, by Gene Wolfe, read by Jonathan Davis

The second volume in the Book of the New Sun is even stranger than the first–baggier and less well-structured, I would say, but with haunting images and sequences of terrific power. Severian’s battle with the man-apes underground, early in the book, is an object lesson in combining pulp thrills with literary style. I know I’ve trod this road before, and have some notion of the waymarks ahead, but many mysteries and obscurities remain.

Boris Godunov and other dramatic works, by Alexander Pushkin

As with Pushkin’s other verse and prose, these dramas are miracles of concision. Even Boris Godunov, the only full-length play, feels like a Shakespearan history trilogy in a condensed from. The Little Tragedies, as the name implies, are even more bite-size. Pushkin is probably at his most serious in this mode, but his gift for finding the heart of the drama remains.

Watchmen, by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons

I don’t usually put my comic-book reading on here, but this practically invented the graphic novel and stands complete in itself as one of the defining example of what superhero fiction can do. Formally inventive and psychologically compelling, it’s also a very relevant look at the onrush to armageddon and the terrible cost of averting it. Probably my most pandemic relevant read in a while.

The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexander Dumas

The surprise for me with this book is that the famous part, where King Louis of France is kidnapped and replaced by his secret twin brother Philippe, occupies only four or five chapters in the middle. Good interesting chapters, but there’s a long suspenseful build-up followed by a sense of total anticlimax. The whole plan fails because Aramis revealed it to the Prime Minister of France, who then proceeds to do exactly what a suicidally loyal and honourable character would do. Whenever I sat down to a few chapters, I still enjoyed it–the death of Porthos is beautifully written–but the narrative interest and impetus dies around p.300.

Earthworld, by Jacqueline Rayner

Another old Doctor Who novel from 2001, and a fun little runaround. Rayner’s great on character and dialogue — seeing the standard Doctor Who setpieces from the point of view of Anji, an investment banker, really helps — but she struggles to build a world and make a scene feel lived in. Even as an Olde Earth theme park, Earthworld feels like a sketchy location.

Spain, by Jan Morris

This is an engaging introduction to Spain, working on two levels. On the first, it’s a knowledgeable and readable tour of history, geography, architecture and personalities, accessible to the general reader and diplomatic enough never to rouse me to the growling resentment I feel for most acclaimed travel writers. The second level is that the book itself, written in 1964 and revised in 1979, is a kind of historical document of Spain as she emerges from Franco’s dictatorship and re-engages with Europe. Notwithstanding Morris’s gloomy predictions that the nation is fated by temperament and climate to lapse back into autocracy, there’s an affectionate elegy for the old Spain passing as the new European Spain comes into being that makes me want to go see how much things have changed. If only I could.