Tuesday 31 January 2023

Review: Leafy Greens: An A-to-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus More Than 120 Delicious Recipes

Leafy Greens: An A-to-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus More Than 120 Delicious Recipes Leafy Greens: An A-to-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus More Than 120 Delicious Recipes by Mark Bittman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've known for a long time that I ought to be eating more leafy greens, but the ones I get from the fruit shop go off quickly, they're often bitter, and I didn't really know how to cook them for best results. Now that I've started a small garden, I can grow my own, and this thorough and informative book has encouraged me to plant more greens - since I now have more ideas on what to do with them, and more information about their nutritional properties.

Looking forward to trying some of the recipes with my own fresh produce (though you could certainly buy greens and cook them with the guidance in this book).

View all my reviews

Review: Emma’s Dragon: London and Pemberley

Emma’s Dragon: London and Pemberley Emma’s Dragon: London and Pemberley by M. Verant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first book in this series, a Pride and Prejudice AU fanfic with OOC Mary Bennet (as the author says in his afterword to this book, she's basically Mary Shelley, although I don't think Mary Shelley was a lesbian). This one doesn't attempt to base itself at all closely on Emma (the book), though Emma (the character) is the same kind of sometimes-oblivious meddler. Both her friend Harriet and her eventual love interest Mr. Knightley are of African descent in this version, which allows the introduction of an overt political note that was much subtler in Austen's novels.

The politics, in fact, are not at all subtle - when you've said that the main antagonist is a right-wing populist, you've conveyed essentially everything the author conveys about him, his followers, his agenda and his attitudes; and all of the main characters on the "good" side, even real people (like Lord Wellington) who were notoriously conservative, have some degree of modern liberal sensibility. Early on in my reading, in fact, I was composing a rant to include in this review about how, these days, the only virtue is orthodoxy and the only sin is heresy, so regardless of when and where your book is set, you have to give your characters the exact views that Western progressives hold this week if you want them to seem like good people... but as I read on, and got caught up in what is actually a well-written, well-told story with some characters that take only some of their depth from their models in Austen, I calmed down a bit, and when I read the author's afterword (which mentions the progressive views held by some historical people in 1812) I calmed down a bit more. I still think the politics tend to the anachronistic side, and less would have been more, but I no longer feel that they spoil the book for me.

The spec-fic element is the presence of "draca" (dragons and related creatures), apparently now only in Britain for some reason yet to be revealed - or maybe I misunderstood, and it's just that it's only in Britain that women (of a certain social status and degree of virtue, and of course that's a plot point) "bind" to draca when they marry. Some of the history of draca comes out in the course of the book, and it's fascinating stuff and makes me want to know more.

Similarly to another dragon-featuring series set in the Napoleonic Wars (I'm referring to Naomi Novik's Temeraire), despite the fact that dragons exist in this world, everything up to the point the story started follows exactly our history, including the existence of Napoleon and Lord Wellington and Mad King George and the Prince Regent; and then almost as soon as the story begins it starts to diverge. It's not fatal to my suspension of disbelief, but it does put a strain on it.

But this is quibbling. Overall, the story worked for me, there's plenty of suspense and drama, it's Austeny but also an adventure story with dragons, and as Regency fantasies go, this went well. The issues I've laid out above keep it out of the Gold tier of my Best of the Year list, but not by a lot; it's solid, enjoyable work.

View all my reviews

Tuesday 24 January 2023

Review: Jeeves in the Offing

Jeeves in the Offing Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I own a second-hand paperback of this, which I have presumably read before, though I don't remember it. Maybe I picked it up to read and never actually got to it?

In any case, a classic Jeeves and Wooster, for all it was published in 1960. It pulls together elements from previously in the canon, not only the Brinkley Court setting and Bertie's beloved Aunt Dahlia, but the headmaster of Bertie's prep school (who is the stepfather of Dahlia's goddaughter, and invited himself along when she invited the goddaughter to stay); the red-haired menace Bobbie Wickham, given to ill-advised action on a whim with disastrous consequences both to Bertie and his old friend/her fiancé, Kipper Herring; and Sir Roderick Glossop, the prominent loony doctor/nerve specialist, undercover as the butler, Swordfish, to observe the goddaughter's prospective fiancé for signs of mental instability. This fellow is the son of a man Dahlia's husband Tom is trying to close a business deal with, so she can't show open hostility to him.

Cue stratagems, pickles, mistaken identity, broken engagements leading to Bertie being next in line despite quailing from the prospect, and all the usual Wodehouse shenanigans.

It sticks to the formula, for sure, but it's a formula that works, the language sparkles as ever, the reader is caught up in what, objectively speaking, are very small stakes as if they were of world-shattering importance (because, to the characters, they are), and Jeeves brings the whole thing to a satisfactory conclusion, though rather at Bertie's expense as usual. This time, there isn't a tiff between them over some fad of Bertie's that Jeeves disapproves of, which is a departure from the usual formula.

The further on the series goes, the more Jeeves fades into the background and becomes an occasional deus ex machina for extracting Bertie and everyone else from the soup, in which he has been thrashing about in the foreground for most of the book, getting deeper and deeper (though occasionally pulling off a successful scheme). I think Wodehouse realised early on that if Jeeves just solves everything there's no tension, so he keeps him out of the action altogether or has him baffled in order to let the hijinks play out, occasionally throwing another disaster in just when the characters think they're doing well. It works.

View all my reviews

Monday 23 January 2023

Review: Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Classic Wodehouse hilarity. I think the Brinkley Court stories may be my favourites, probably because of the fondly disrespectful banter that goes on between Bertie and his beloved Aunt Dahlia (and the character of Aunt Dahlia herself, a hearty fox-hunting countrywoman who's also something of a schemer).

Here, the point of tension between Bertie and Jeeves (there always seems to be one) is that Bertie has grown a moustache, but Jeeves, displaying the feudal spirit of the title, doesn't let it hinder him from helping in the inevitable complications that accompany Bertie wherever he goes. He's once again engaged to Lady Florence Craye, who he very much does not want to marry (but he can't tell her that; one must be civil). Her previous fiancé, Stilton Cheesewright (previously featured in The Mating Season ) is cutting up rough about this and threatening bodily violence to Bertie; Aunt Dahlia has pawned her pearls to pay for a prominent author to do a serial in her magazine, Milady's Boudoir, so that she can sell it to Mr Trotter of Liverpool, who is under his wife's thumb; Trotter's stepson is in love with Florence Craye; Roderick Spode, previously seen in The Code of the Woosters , appears likely to expose Dahlia's schemes to her husband; and in general it's as tangled a plot as any in Wodehouse, the kind that only Jeeves can sort out (after Bertie has had plenty of alarums and excursions).

(view spoiler)

Fun plot, Wodehouse's language skills in full flower, and in general a classic. The only thing that might have improved it would have been a scene or two with the volatile French chef Anatole and his quaint grasp of English idiom, but he remains, sadly, offstage.

View all my reviews

Review: Thank You, Jeeves

Thank You, Jeeves Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Classic Jeeves-Wooster shenanigans, but not just previous books played over again, not least because this is the earliest novel-length story featuring the characters. There are a couple of new factors here:

1. The banjolele. This instrument is so objectionable (at least when Bertie plays it) that not only is he asked to vacate his flat because the neighbours are objecting, but Jeeves resigns rather than continue to listen to it in the country cottage Bertie then rents from his old friend Chuffy (Lord Chuffnell). Jeeves is still on the scene, though, going to work for Lord Chuffnell instead - quite probably out of a loyal desire to stay near Bertie in case of trouble, which inevitably ensues. Yes, this is very similar to other causes of conflict between Bertie and Jeeves (the purple socks, the Old Etonian spats, the white mess jacket), but it's not something that would normally come within Jeeves' remit as a valet, and he actually goes so far as to resign over it and remain outside Bertie's employment for almost the whole book.

2. The homicidal arsonist Meadowes, who Bertie hires to replace Jeeves, and who drives a good amount of the plot with his drunken antics. (view spoiler)

There's also Pauline Stoker, the American heiress and menace to navigation, who, wanting to marry Lord Chuffnell, involves Bertie in a way that inevitably causes him to face multiple trials and tribulations, including being (for official purposes) engaged to her himself for reasons which seem good at the time. She's very like Bobbie Wickham in her madcap and careless scheming that always causes other people (mostly Bertie) to end up in the soup. It's notable that when Bertie finds her in his bed wearing his pajamas (having escaped virtual imprisonment on her father's yacht by swimming ashore to see Lord Chuffnell, defying her father's explicit ban), his immediate reaction is that he'll have to sleep somewhere else, even if it's in his two-seater car or on the floor of the potting shed. It's made abundantly clear that his code of honour excludes any extramarital hanky-panky of any description, which given the number of women he's engaged to over his career is just as well.

Pauline's father, J. Washburn Stoker, is a robber baron of the old school, several times compared to a pirate by Bertie, and very used to having his own way and not being called out on his high-handedness. And there's the usual awful aunt (Lord Chuffnell's, in this case) with a bratty child (Seabury, who tries to extort "protection" money from all and sundry).

Then there's Sir Roderick Glossop, the eminent "nerve specialist" (his term) or "loony doctor" (Bertie's), who has been an antagonist in previous stories and ended up convinced of Bertie's insanity thanks to shenanigans perpetrated, in fact, by Bertie's cousins (but since it got Bertie out of marrying his daughter, it wasn't politic to correct him at the time). He and Bertie share some trials and come to a new understanding and appreciation of each other as fellow human beings, which sets things up nicely for future encounters between the two.

Content note: Both Bertie and Sir Roderick spend an appreciable portion of the book in blackface, a practice which was not, at the time, thought of in the way it is today, and there's extensive use of a term now considered a slur (modifying "minstrel", which means it's actually being applied to white performers in blackface who are presenting an exaggerated parody of black people). Again, at the time this wasn't considered objectionable, at least not by white people, but today it very much is. If this is going to be a problem for you, skip this book. There's also a bit of corporal punishment of young Seabury.

Otherwise, there are plenty of hilarious moments, and the usual sparkling language, and while Wodehouse would go on to write better Jeeves and Wooster novels, this is certainly a good one.

View all my reviews

Monday 16 January 2023

Review: The Red House Mystery

The Red House Mystery The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable cosy mystery by an author much better known for his children's books (though he started out as a playwright). It's a pity he didn't go on to turn this into a series, because it's a cleverly constructed puzzle and the characters are fun.

It's very much in the vein of other mysteries of the time (1922), set in an English country house with several stock characters - several of whom are moved offstage early on: the gruff retired army officer and the widow and her pretty daughter play essentially no role in the plot, and the overly dramatic actress very little, and that in flashback. It opens with the viewpoint of the servants, somewhat unusually, but they are stereotypically limited in their perspective and soon drop out of the narrative almost entirely.

What we're left with is a young man, Bill Beverley, of more or less the Wodehouse type, who appears to have no occupation apart from visiting country houses; his friend Tony Gillingham, who happens to turn up immediately after the murder to see Bill, and becomes the amateur detective more or less on a lark; Cayley, the cousin of the owner of the house, who acts as his general factotum; and a characterless police inspector who comes across as competent but limited, though he can hardly be blamed for not having Gillingham's opportunities to observe from inside the house.

The house's owner, Mark, has disappeared, following the appearance and almost immediate murder of his brother Robert from Australia, and the prevailing theory is that he killed Robert (perhaps accidentally) and fled, probably with Cayley's collusion. But as Gillingham's suspicions stack up, and he pokes around with the help of his loyal Watson, Bill, it turns out something more bizarre has taken place.

I did guess the main reveal before it happened, but I didn't figure out how it could have been achieved, so from that aspect it's a satisfying mystery. It's told in a capable and often amusing voice, and if there were more like it I would happily read them. The characters have little depth, but that was the style of mysteries at the time, and the plot is clever and makes sense.

View all my reviews

Thursday 12 January 2023

Review: Joy in the Morning

Joy in the Morning Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this one in the BBC full-cast audio adaptation featuring Richard Briers (Tom in The Good Life) as Bertie, and Michael Hordern (who I know best from his King Lear and for playing Gandalf in the BBC Lord of the Rings full-cast audio series) as Jeeves. Although they, and the rest of the cast, did an excellent job, I still want to read the text version, since it alternates between dialogue and narration, and typically in Wodehouse's dialog sequences, there's a good deal of amusing description and commentary on people's expressions, stage business and the like, which is dropped here because of the format.

I hadn't previously read this Jeeves and Wooster, even though I thought I had, and while not my favourite (that would probably be either Right Ho, Jeeves or The Code of the Woosters ), it's a strong entry. The spectre of Bertie's Aunt Agatha looms constantly offstage, his difficult uncle-by-marriage drives a lot of the plot with his attempts to have a secret business meeting, Bertie's bad-tempered old school friend Stilton Cheesewright is constantly threatening him with awful consequences if he should interfere in Cheesewright's romance with Florence Craye, a woman to whom Bertie had once been engaged and escaped only with Jeeves' help, and the possibility that Florence will resume her engagement to Bertie is itself an awful consequence barely to be thought of.

Where it's a little weak is that Jeeves isn't very prominent in the plot or even onstage much, and spends a lot of the book professing himself "baffled" and not providing his usual level of help. I did wonder whether he was trying to let Bertie handle things for himself using Jeeves' methods, which he's had plenty of exposure to by this time, but maybe Jeeves just wanted to have a fishing holiday. It's still a lot of fun, regardless.

View all my reviews

Review: Heavy Weather

Heavy Weather Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An old favourite for me; I have a paperback copy that I've read several times over the years. It's a typical Blandings Castle farce, carrying straight on from the previous book in the series (Summer Lightning), with further threats to the planned union of Ronnie Fish and Sue Brown, more scheming around the manuscript of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood's Reminiscences, further underhand work by the repellant private inquiry agent Percy Pilbeam, and more vagueness (and paranoia about pig-nobbling) from Lord Emsworth. There's a new element, too, in the form of Monty Bodkin, replacing Hugo Carmody as Lord Emsworth's secretary; he has plenty of private money, but wants to marry the daughter of a businessman who requires him to hold a job for a year to prove he's worthy to do so. His idiotic scheming in service of this goal (and his long-ago engagement to Sue, which they attempt, from the best motives, to conceal from the jealous Ronnie) causes many of the complications in the plot.

I still don't see what Sue sees in Ronnie; we learn that he's short, pink, given to jealousy, and a fathead, and none of that accounts for her love for him, especially given that she (pretty, petite, sensible and personable) could do far better. This is a weakness in both books, and, along with the fact that it reiterates a lot of the plot of the previous volume, drags the rating down to the Bronze tier of my Best of the Year list. It's still a recommendation.

Whoever typeset the Penguin edition was a very C3 performer who introduced multiple basic punctuation errors and several typos. It shows every sign of having been rushed out quickly and cheaply, which given how much money Penguin must have made from it over the years (my edition is the fifth printing, in the 1980s, and I'm sure it's had multiple printings since) is frankly scandalous.

View all my reviews

Review: The Mating Season

The Mating Season The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read in the Ulverscroft large print edition, which has a few typesetting errors.

Not one, not two, but four romances have to be prevented from crashing and burning in this entry to the Jeeves and Wooster series, including, once again, the Gussie Fink-Nottle/Madelyn Basset romance - which, if it fails, will leave Bertie obligated to marry the Basset, a fate he quails from.

Written after World War II, it has a subtly different feel from the earlier books. Wodehouse had been living in France at the time of the Nazi invasion, and had been interned by the Germans. He endured some discomfort in the process, and made several (apolitical) broadcasts over German radio to the US, which caused a lot of controversy at the time. He was criticized for this error of judgement by, among others, his friend A.A. Milne, whose Christopher Robin poems are gently mocked in this book.

The language is also stronger than in earlier books, both "bitch" and "bastard" appearing as descriptors for different characters. Most notably, Jeeves is largely absent from the narrative, and when present is less subtle and more hard-boiled. (view spoiler)

Wodehouse was notoriously afflicted with aunts, several of his twenty aunts and fifteen uncles having part of the task of raising him in England since his parents were stationed in Hong Kong, where his father was a magistrate. The aunts in this book are, apparently, a close reflection of some of his actual aunts, and the way they're scored off in the denouement must have been a satisfying piece of wish-fulfillment for him.

All in all, it's not the best in the series. On the one hand, it largely follows the established formula without too much that's fresh, but on the other, when it does depart from the formula it does so in a way that veers, for Wodehouse, a little dark. I did have several chuckles, though, and the mastery of language and the convoluted, farcical plot are both still there to enjoy.

View all my reviews

Tuesday 10 January 2023

Top Books for 2022

This is my ninth annual roundup of the books I read in a year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 31 books for 2021, my top 32 books for 2020, my top 20 books for 2019, my top 19 books for 2018my top 17 books for 2017,  my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014. I now have a summary page that links to all the roundups.

Note that these are books I read in those years, not books published in those years - though these days I am reading a lot from Netgalley, which are often advance copies of books that haven't yet been published, so a higher proportion of my reading is books published in the year I read them (or, occasionally, even the following year).

This year I added the highest number yet to the list: 52, so an average of one a week. The previous record was 32 in 2020, but up until 2017 I arbitrarily tied the number to the last digits of the year. If a book is good enough for me to recommend, even with caveats, it goes into the Best-Of list. Five-star books automatically go on the list, and it also includes a selection of four-star books that I think are worthy of mention. If you like to think of it in video-game tiers, five-star books are S tier (I refer to them below as "Platinum"); books in my Gold tier are A, Silver are B, Bronze are C, and a book that gets four stars but doesn't get on the list is D tier. There are 14 books this year that get four stars but no place on the list, out of 59 four-star books in total.

I've felt at various times this year that I wasn't getting many good books, which is surprising in light of the numbers given above. The resolution to the apparent paradox is that, lacking good new books, I started reading classics, and they feature heavily on my Best of the Year list.

Overall Statistics

I read, reviewed and rated 82 books in total in 2022, down from 90 in the previous year. I started and abandoned a few books that aren't reflected in the total, as usual. I also re-read the whole of my own five-book Auckland Allies series, in order to share authors' notes about them on Goodreads, which I don't count because I don't rate or review my own books. (I always think it's a bit of cheek for an author to give their own book a rating, especially since it's always 5 stars.)

Here are my figures in a table:

5 star4 star3 star2 starTotal

The 5-star book number is lower than average, and brings the average down slightly, whereas the opposite is true of the 2-star numbers. The 4-star number is about the same as last year and almost exactly the average.


Where did I get these books? This year, only 25 came from Netgalley, substantially fewer than last year's 41: two of the six five-star (platinum-tier) books, and of the 59 four-star books two gold-tier books, six silver-tier, eight bronze-tier, and one four-star that didn't make the list, for a total of 17; four of the 13 three-star books, and two of the four two-star books. An increasing number of books on Netgalley look like inferior clones of popular books that may or may not themselves have been good, and of the ones that don't, some are fresh gems by authors previously unknown to me, and some are inept executions of a good premise, and I usually can't tell the difference without reading them.

Another 25 books came from Project Gutenberg, including two Platinum, one Gold, six Silver, four Bronze, seven four-star but not Best Of (for 18 four-star books in total), four three-star and one two-star (The Crock of Gold, which, for me, had far too high a proportion of crock to gold).

Ten came from BookBub: no five-star, five four-star Bronze tier, two four-stars that didn't make the list, two three-stars and a two-star. All of the ten BookBub titles went on my Needs Editing shelf, and two of them on my Seriously Needs Editing shelf, which is a notably poor performance and a lot worse than last year's crop. (I don't usually mark the state of editing on the Netgalley books because they are often pre-publication, meaning they will probably receive more copy editing before release. Honestly, a lot of them need a lot of work.)

Four came from my Await Ebook Price Drop wish list on Amazon, where I park the books I hear about from various sources (mostly Fantasy Faction, Fantasy Literature, my Goodreads friends, and occasionally Tor.com) and want to read, but that are (for me) overpriced. The New Zealand dollar is especially weak against the USD at the moment, and I only read most books once, so I'm willing to wait until they're on sale. Of these four, one was 5-star, two were 4-star and Gold tier, and one was 3-star.

Four books I picked up because I know the authors on the Codex writers' forum. All four were Silver tier.

One, a five-star, came from the library as a physical book, and three via the library in e-audio (a four-star Bronze, a four-star not on the Best-Of list, and a three-star).

I didn't buy any books from Amazon's algorithm this year. The remainder were mostly continuations of series I'd read previously or books I already owned and was re-reading.

Top-Rated Books

So, here is my list, ranked again in tiers, but this time not ranked within the tiers (with 52 books, that's just too difficult, plus it was always a bit arbitrary). They're just in the (random, I think) order that Goodreads presents them to me in. Your taste may well vary, of course.

Links are, as usual, to my Goodreads reviews.

First, the bronze tier: books that had notable flaws (or sometimes just weren't quite in the centre of my taste), but managed to entertain or impress me enough to earn a spot on the list despite this. Honestly, these are recommendations with a big asterix, but there is enough good in them that I give them an honourable mention.

Something New (Blandings Castle, #1) by Wodehouse, P.G.: Not up to the best Wodehouse, but fun.
Ought to be Dead by Warren, Scott: Terrible editing lets down an enjoyable story of well-intentioned necromancy.
The Knave of Secrets by Livingston, Alex: An overly convoluted plot and excessive plot armour on the characters, but good worldbuilding in this fantasy heist.
Silverlock by Myers, John: Too clever by half and a very old-fashioned adventure story, but with strengths mixed in with the weaknesses.
The Extractionist by Unger, Kimberly: Lots of mechanical issues, but a compelling cyberpunk story.
Sam in the Suburbs by Wodehouse, P.G.: The main flaw in this amusing story is the reliance on coincidence to drive the plot.
The Grief of Stones (The Cemeteries of Amalo, #2) by Addison, Katherine: I disagree with the author's choices of what in-world terms should and shouldn't be translated (and how), but it's a quietly moving story with a compassionate protagonist.
Manners and Monsters Collection, #1-3 by Wallace, Tilly: Appealing and well-drawn characters, scruffy editing and research in this Regency fantasy.
Nine Tenths by Macfee, Jeff: More hard-boiled noir than I prefer, but well executed.
Joseph Andrews Vol 1 by Fielding, Henry: Satire, though in what's now a very old-fashioned style.
Beneath the Canyons (Daughter of the Wildings, #1) by Halland, Kyra: I'm not a fan of some of the tropes here (including the threat of gang rape of the heroine through most of the book), but it's well executed.
Knife Children (The Sharing Knife #4.5) by Bujold, Lois McMaster: Good for a recent Bujold, most of which have been a bit insipid.
Observer by Lanza, Robert and Kress, Nancy: Nancy Kress takes a very unpromising and unlikely premise that really makes no sense and manages to write a strong character-driven book anyway.
Fool's Game by Dorn, R.M.: Scruffy execution and tell-don't-show characterization let down an otherwise entertaining and original fantasy.
The Frith Chronicles: ARC I (The Frith Chronicles Collection Book 1) by Stovall, Shami: Scruffy execution again, characters that don't really grow or change, but a compelling story with an appealing cast.
Magic Dark, Magic Divine (Warrior of the Divine Sword, #1) by Locke, A.J.: Sound emotional beats, but the worldbuilding doesn't make sense.
Magical Artifacts Institute: The Complete Series by Medina, Isa: A light, fluffy and amusing urban fantasy in a notably underpopulated world (there seem to be no background characters anywhere), with mediocre copy editing.
Greenmantle (Richard Hannay Book 2) by Buchan, John: A rousing adventure story marred by a plot driven by coincidence and very old-fashioned racist and colonialist attitudes.
Psmith in the City (Psmith, #2) by Wodehouse, P.G.: Clever and fun, based on Wodehouse's experiences working for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank before he succeeded as a writer, but not yet at the heights of his mature work.
Over the Moon by Anderson, S.E.: My trouble here was mostly suspension of disbelief, but it's a decent attempt at rewriting The Wizard of Oz as a space opera.
The Art of Prophecy (The War Arts Saga, #1) by Chu, Wesley: Well executed, but too close to grimdark for me; none of the struggles of the characters, or the many collateral-damage deaths, end up mattering much in a wuxia world where everything is set up to cause inevitable tragedy.

Now, the silver tier books. These are solid work with no significant flaws (for my taste, at least), that don't rise to the heights of Gold or Platinum; or, in at least one case (Middlemarch), they do rise to those heights but have a flaw that knocks them back down again.

Carry On, Jeeves by Wodehouse, P.G.: You either love Wodehouse or you don't. I do, and this is good Wodehouse, though once he went from writing linked shorts to writing full novels (in which the farce could be complicated much more), they became even better.
The Inimitable Jeeves by Wodehouse, P.G.
Very Good, Jeeves! by Wodehouse, P.G.
Summer Lightning (Blandings Castle, #4) by Wodehouse, P.G.: Classic Blandings (pig theft, imposters, hapless keen young men, the Earl being vague, romance being thwarted by officious aunts); let down a little by bland central characters in the romance subplots.
The Little Nugget by Wodehouse, P.G.: A repellent child, a reluctant schoolmaster, and kidnappers.
Prison of Sleep (Journals of Zaxony Delatree, #2) by Pratt, Tim: The first book got five stars from me in 2020, and while this isn't (for me) as good, it's still a sound bit of writing, with interdimensional travel, a cosmic threat (escalated from the previous book), and True Love.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Sterne, Laurence: Tristram Shandy hilariously fails to write his autobiography, being distracted by... everything.
Drunk on All Your Strange New Words by Robson, Eddie: A translator for aliens investigates the apparent murder of her boss in a twisty plot with an original premise.
The Middling Affliction (Conradverse Chronicles #1) by Shvartsman, Alex: Urban fantasy, but not just from box mix, and featuring magical underdogs.
Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove by Mehrotra, Rati: Based on classic Indian myth, a fresh fantasy with lots of good conflict.
The Greater Trumps: A Novel by Williams, Charles: Strange, visionary, beautiful, mystical, honouring ordinary people; there's nothing like a Charles Williams book.
A Coup of Tea (Tea Princess Chronicles, #1) by Blair, Casey: A cosy fantasy in which the stakes do gradually escalate for a princess who's given up princessing to become a tea master.
Middlemarch by Eliot, George: A fine story, brilliantly written, with a central character who pulls off a magnificent and generous maneuver; dragged down the rankings because I found the omniscient narrator so much in my face that I wished she'd back off a little and let me see the characters directly, without her as a filter.
Bitter Medicine by Tsai, Mia: Fresh Asian-American fantasy that would have ranked higher if the century-old main character hadn't seemed so very young.
The Thirty-Nine Steps by Buchan, John: A prototypical thriller, over-reliant on coincidence, certainly, but exciting throughout in varied ways. Not much like any of the films as regards the plot.
Mary Quirk and the Reborn Realm (Dark Lessons Book 3) by St. Vincent, Anna: I enjoy these solidly written magic-school stories about sensible, brave, non-angsty teens stepping up for believable reasons.
Mary Quirk and the Language of Curses (Dark Lessons Book 4) by St. Vincent, Anna
Hyvilma (The Kitra Saga #3) by Marcus, Gideon: The previous books in the series made the list in 2020 and 2021, and this is just as good, with a determined, courageous, resourceful crew of young people having adventures together.

The gold tier books are not just solid work, but have something about them that lifts them above the ordinary run, while not making it all the way to five stars and the platinum tier.

Spark the Fire (Dragons of Mother Stone, #1) by McShane, Melissa: Melissa McShane has featured on this list multiple times before (in fact, this year, for the first time, I read a book by her that didn't make the list), and this is well up to her standard. A fresh premise (POV of a dragon who seeks peace and understanding with the humans) and her usual strong execution.
Paladin's Grace (The Saint of Steel, #1) by Kingfisher, T.: A grieving paladin of a dead god and a perfumer who has escaped an abusive relationship team up to investigate why people are getting decapitated, but mainly what they do is fall in love. A few editing imperfections kept it out of the Platinum tier.
Swordheart by Kingfisher, T.: Superficially similar to Paladin's Grace, but different enough that they're not just the same book written twice; this time the romance is between a cursed soldier bound to protect the owner of a sword and its new owner, a widow mistreated by her late husband's family.
Leave It to Psmith (Psmith, #4) by Wodehouse, P.G.: Wodehouse brings together two series, the Psmith series (which has been good, but not great, up to this point) and the Blandings Castle series (of which this is only the second entry), and the combination is more than the sum of its parts. This feels like classic Wodehouse has finally arrived, between deceptions, impersonations, romances which need their paths smoothed, and hard-bitten antagonists to be thwarted.
The Hollow Boys (The Dream Rider Saga, #1) by Smith, Douglas: I haven't seen much superhero fiction lately, and what I have seen is often poorly executed, but this raises the standard by a lot. Two determined, courageous, intelligent and equal protagonists, both of whom step beyond their archetypes and tropes and take effective action in a dire situation, despite their limitations.
The Voice In All by Auden, Audrey: Thought-provoking and fresh, this one has about six genres (fantasy, YA, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, cyberpunk and cosmic), which is probably a couple too many and kept it out of the platinum tier. It's well executed, though, and makes a few points with some depth.

Finally, the platinum tier, AKA the five-star books. No big surprise that half of them are classics, I suppose, but there are plenty of classics in the lower tiers, too.

The Code of the Woosters (Jeeves, #7) by Wodehouse, P.G.: A novel-length Jeeves and Wooster story, which gives the author space to really complicate matters into the kind of apparently hopeless tangle that's very satisfying to see resolved at the end. Two MacGuffins, two romances, and many scrapes for Bertie before Jeeves comes through with the win.
A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, Charles: Not my usual read (arguably a dystopian), but so excellently done that I couldn't leave it out of the top tier. Pulls off the Glorious Ending (where an act of love and generosity by one of the characters averts a tragedy).
Right Ho, Jeeves (Jeeves, #6) by Wodehouse, P.G.: Another novel-length Jeeves and Wooster adventure, which pulls off the difficult feat of making really quite unimportant matters seem like life or death, and also delivers one of the greatest set-pieces in English-language comedy in the form of Gussie Fink-Nottle's drunken address to the school prizegiving.
The Bands of Mourning (Mistborn, #6) by Sanderson, Brandon: Every volume of the Mistborn series has received five stars from me, because they're not only meticulously executed, they also manage to walk the difficult line of being both funny and profound. They're exciting and full of worldbuilding and full of excellent character work, avert or play with tropes whenever possible, and, of course, they're fantasy superhero heists, which are three things I love in one wonderful package.
Locklands (The Founders Trilogy, #3) by Bennett, Robert Jackson: Another fantasy series that's very out of the ordinary, almost science-fictional in its development of the magic system, and full of drama, excitement and, at the same time, deep character work. Takes a high-concept premise and doesn't disappoint with the execution.
The Tangled Stars by Willett, Edward: Space opera heist, though that's not the main focus, featuring a strong noir voice, a pacy plot with an excellent throughline that still takes the time to develop the characters, and multiple suspenseful moments.

Author Gender Breakdown

I started compiling figures for author gender (based on what's on their Goodreads profiles) for my top list in 2018. Without operating a quota system of any kind, I've been slowly moving from about 50/50 male and female authors towards a skew to female authors, but this year reversed that (probably because I was reading a lot of older books); by my count, across the 82 books I read in 2022, the authors totalled 48 male, 34 female and 0 nonbinary. I count the same author multiple times if I read multiple books by that author, though where I had an omnibus edition with several books in one, I've only counted that as one book and one author. The numbers in my top lists also usually skew female recently (more so than the total list), but again, not so much this year.


Protagonist gender is also skewed towards female, which is a conscious choice (I just find women more interesting protagonists), but with 52 books this year, I haven't taken the time to figure out the exact numbers.

Summing Up

I had a very mixed reading year this year; some classics, some brand-new books, some in between. I put more of them on my Best of the Year list than ever before, yet still felt I'd had trouble finding good books to read. Clearly, looking at my platinum tier, what I want is comedy AND a heist AND a speculative element AND a twisty, pacy plot AND development of characters who aren't just archetypes AND are good-hearted AND a bit of insight into human nature AND a distinctive voice I can immerse in because the whole thing is expertly executed. I mean, that's not asking for much, right?
As at 2019 I'd put exactly 100 books on my Best of the Year lists in six years. Three years later, having removed the constraint on numbers that I operated with in the first few years, I've more than doubled that number of recommendations to 205, out of 780 books that I've reviewed in the past nine years. I hope you can find something you enjoy among them all.

Monday 9 January 2023

Review: The Code of the Woosters

The Code of the Woosters The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My last read of 2022 was one of the best, a classic Jeeves and Wooster story.

I don't own a copy, and found myself both surprised and delighted to discover as I read it that I either hadn't read it before (and just remembered the outline of the incidents from the excellent Wodehouse Playhouse TV version) or had read it maybe once or at the most twice, and a long time ago.

This is the classic story of the Cow Creamer, a thundering MacGuffin (one of two; there's also a notebook) that drives a wonderfully farcical plot. It's a silver cream-jug in the shape of a cow that has been obtained by dubious means by a rival collector, Sir Watkyn Basset, at the expense of Bertie Wooster's Uncle Tom Travers, and Bertie's beloved Aunt Dahlia blackmails him into stealing it from the rival's country house. Meanwhile, he must keep the shaky romance between Gussie Fink-Nottle and Sir Watkyn's daughter Madeline Bassett in good repair, so that Madeline doesn't revert to him as a backup fiancé (being under the misapprehension that he loves her, when in fact he can't stand her at any price), and also attempts, from a mixture of friendship and blackmail on the part of the ruthless and madcap Stephanie "Stiffy" Byng, to fix up her romance with the local curate and obtain the blessing of her uncle, the same Sir Watkyn. Sir Watkyn is himself engaged, to the sister of the objectionable Roderick Spode, a literal Fascist who has ambitions to be a dictator (you could still joke about that in the years between the world wars), and only the resourceful Jeeves is able to stymie this Spode and deliver a happy ending for all concerned, not without considerable inconvenience to Bertie.

It's a strong cast, filled with memorable characters who all have their own clashing agendas, and that, without any necessity to rely on the fortunate coincidence that was Wodehouse's abiding fault in his early novels, naturally drives a satisfyingly convoluted plot.

The Code of the Woosters of the title is that you always help out a friend in need, and also that you can't explain to a woman who is under the false impression that you love her that it's all a mistake. I suspect that the generosity of spirit shown by the first part is one reason that Jeeves sticks around and helps his inept employer out of so many scrapes; it's certainly one reason I enjoy Bertie as a protagonist. He's constantly getting into hot water in pursuit of one or other of these values, along with his desire to continue to enjoy the cooking of Anatole, Aunt Dahlia's exceptional French chef.

Misunderstandings, subterfuges and manipulation abound, and while it would not at all be true to say that a good time is had by all, a wonderful time was certainly had by me.

View all my reviews

Review: Summer Lightning

Summer Lightning Summer Lightning by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A re-read for me; I have the old Penguin paperback (not the exact one shown above this review), and have read it several times. I don't love the Blandings stories quite as much as the Jeeves stories, partly because their third-person narration isn't as deep into voice, but I do enjoy this one a lot.

The Blandings stories often feature someone masquerading as someone else, and here it's Sue Brown, a chorus girl who's engaged to Lord Emsworth's nephew Ronnie. Sue is pretending to be a Miss Myra Schoonmaker, who Ronnie's mother Lady Julia Fish is encouraging him to marry. The book is brim-full of memorable characters: the vague and benevolent pig-obsessed Lord Emsworth; his sister and hostess the redoubtable Lady Constance Keeble; the repellent and unethical detective Percy Pilbeam; the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, Lord Emsworth's disreputable brother, who has written a book of Reminiscences of his exploits in the Naughty Nineties that the companions of his youth, now solid and respectable, do not want published under any circumstances; the Efficient Baxter, Lord Emsworth's hapless former secretary, who keeps being placed in circumstances that make him look unhinged; and Beach, the dignified butler, who can nevertheless be prevailed upon by the younger members of the family to aid and abet shenanigans against his better judgement.

Unfortunately, three of the main characters, whose romances drive much of the plot, aren't as memorable as many of the minor characters, being Wodehouse types taken pretty much from stock and without distinct personalities of their own. The three I refer to are Ronnie Fish, a short, pink, jealous member of the Drones Club who doesn't have any discernable qualities other than the ones I have just listed, and yet has inexplicably won the level-headed and likeable Sue Brown's devotion; and the would-be couple Millicent Threepwood and Hugo Carmody. I sometimes had difficulty telling Hugo and Ronnie apart, honestly, they are so undifferentiated, and Millicent is also colourless, just an interchangeable Wodehouse young woman.

Still, the plot is farcical, the language is Wodehousian, and overall it's a good time, even if three of the lovers do put the bland in Blandings.

View all my reviews

Review: Right Ho, Jeeves

Right Ho, Jeeves Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Depending on your reading order, this is the first novel-length Jeeves and Wooster, and the extra space really gives the author scope to complicate matters hilariously.

It features Bertie's one likeable aunt, Aunt Dahlia, who seems by her introduction in this book to be an aunt by marriage, but later on is portrayed consistently as a blood relative. Bertie is also very fond of her daughter (his cousin) Angela, and spends a lot of the book trying to repair the tiff between her and his old school chum Tuppy Glossop. Much more importantly, though, he's trying to get his other old school chum Gussie Fink-Nottle to get up the ginger to propose to the wet, droopy Madeline Bassett, not least because, while pleading Gussie's case to her, he accidentally leads her to the conclusion that he (Bertie) loves her himself, and if she doesn't marry Gussie there's a risk she'll fall back on Bertie. He regards this fate with horror, but his chivalric code prevents him from clearing up the misunderstanding; he'd rather end up married to a woman who he can't stand and who has made it clear to him that she loves someone else than insult her by letting her know that she's not at all his type.

From this unpromising and, on the face of it, unconvincing premise, not only one but several hilarious books unfold (I'm behind on my reviews, and I'm currently reading The Mating Season , in which Bertie is once again straining every nerve to prevent the Gussie/Madeline romance from busting up and leaving him next in line).

I think of this as peak Wodehouse, full of farcical incidents, misunderstandings, deceptions, stratagems, and looming disaster of the broken-engagement or unparallelled-French-chef-resigning level of seriousness - yet they somehow feel like matters of life and death, as if I'm reading a (completely hilarious) thriller in which the fate of nations hangs in the balance.

The incident in which Gussie, who normally only drinks orange juice, gets thoroughly drunk before going to give the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School is one of the best things Wodehouse ever wrote, which makes it one of the funniest passages in the English language. Not only what happens, but how it's described, is just one long riot from beginning to end. And Jeeves' schemes to resolve the complicated situation are things of beauty in themselves.

Very highly recommended, and it makes the Platinum tier of my Best of the Year for 2022.

View all my reviews

Review: Very Good, Jeeves!

Very Good, Jeeves! Very Good, Jeeves! by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Third in a series of fix-up novels that are really collections of connected shorts. Some of the incidents from these stories are referenced again later in the series, such as the occasion when Bertie is finagled into addressing a girls' school (with predictably disastrous results). Several of them involve Tuppy Glossop, who in the next volume will be the recipient of Bertie's help, but here is mostly an antagonist.

There's a good deal of the usual knockabout shenanigans, impersonations, deceptions successful and otherwise, disapproving members of the older generation, and the course of true love not running smooth and having to be helped over the bumpy bits by Jeeves (providing the reliable plan) and Wooster (providing the unreliable execution).

By this point, Wodehouse had spent a good deal of time with these characters and had their voice and their business down to a science, to the point that he embarked on a novel-length treatment next time around which, for me, is one of the high points of his whole large output and of English literature in general. The more broken-up short story form can't rise to quite the same heights as a really sustained farce, but this collection is still full of varied hilarity and, if you like this sort of thing at all, you will probably enjoy it considerably.

View all my reviews

Review: Carry On, Jeeves

Carry On, Jeeves Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like The Inimitable Jeeves , this is a fix-up of connected short stories, rather than a novel as such, which does reduce the momentum of it somewhat; it's a series of scrapes rather than one long, complicated scrape. Each one is individually fun, though, and for variety, most of them are set in New York, where Bertie is escaping the consequences of disappointing his Aunt Agatha.

Especially of note is the character of Rockmeteller (Rocky) Todd, a free-verse poet who writes exhortations to young men to live a life of action and, by selling them to magazines, funds his preferred lifestyle of almost complete idleness in the wilds of Long Island. When his aunt, who provides him with an allowance, comes to New York and insists on enjoying the night life in his company, he is put through the wringer until Jeeves comes through with the rescue.

As always, Bertie is ever ready to help out a pal in need, and undergoes tribulations in the service of that goal. For me, that's a big part of why I like reading about him: yes, he's an idiot; yes, he's the very definition of the Idle Rich; but he will strain every sinew and take any risk to help a friend who's in trouble. Not, of course, without complaining about it bitterly to us, the readers, but usually with good grace towards the person concerned.

These early stories are often written to a formula, which involves a coolness between Bertie and Jeeves over some ill-advised purchase of an item of clothing or an accessory that Jeeves doesn't think is appropriate. When Jeeves gets Bertie (or a friend) out of a scrape, part of his reward is that the offending article is disposed of. Later on - I'm behind on my reviews, so I've read several more books after this one - that formula is less prominent, perhaps because, while it functions well in a short-story plot, at novel length the persistence of coolness between the two would derail things a bit.

View all my reviews

Review: The Inimitable Jeeves

The Inimitable Jeeves The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Embarking on a Jeeves reread in order (I later discovered that there were books I hadn't read at all, which is a wonderful discovery). The first couple of outings are what were later known as "fix-ups," a series of short stories with continuity between them, loosely pulled together into something resembling a novel; so they don't get as much opportunity to build up a really tangled mess for Jeeves to extract Bertie from, but they contain the seeds of the later greatness.

Bertie's sense of noblesse oblige requires him to help old school friends like the very susceptible Bingo Little out of their romantic scrapes, and here he repeatedly does so, always ably supported (though sometimes used as a cat's paw) by the brilliant Jeeves. Along the way, we encounter other memorable characters like Bertie's formidable Aunt Agatha, Bingo's blustering uncle, and the many unsuitable love interests Bingo falls for.

It interested me to note that the older characters in Wodehouse speak in the formal periods of Victorian literature, which suggests that the answer to the question I've long considered, about whether Victorian literature in some way represents the way people actually talked at the time, may be "yes".

View all my reviews

Review: The Thin Man

The Thin Man The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm a fan of the 1934 film version of this novel, starring Myrna Loy (playing against type as a playful, rather naïve heiress rather than a vamp) and William Powell. I'm also a fan of the strong, spare noir style. Turns out, though, that I'm not much of a fan of this book.

The film follows the book's plot reasonably closely for a film adaptation, and the characters are largely similar - except for Nick Charles, the detective, who narrates the book. Powell's movie Charles is lighthearted and hilarious; the book Charles is grim, hard-boiled and serious. Both versions have a drinking problem, but the movie plays it for laughs.

There's also such a thing, for me anyway, as a noir style being too spare and unornamented. A lot of the narration is bare and literal, just saying what people did and said, and there's clearly subtext going on, but we're given few clues to what anyone thinks or feels and are left to interpret as best we can. All of the characters, definitely including Charles, possibly excepting his wife Nora, are reprehensible to some degree, and the family at the heart of the mystery are thoroughly dysfunctional, not in the amusing way of the film but in a despair-of-human-nature way.

Despite the style usually not wasting a single word, there's an extended quotation partway through from a book about an incident of cannibalism, given as a response to the ghoulish teenage son's inquiry to Charles about the phenomenon; it doesn't really add anything, certainly not enough to justify the word count that's devoted to it.

However, this is definitely a master of his craft creating a work of enduring significance, and my three-star rating reflects its mismatch with my taste, not its quality.

View all my reviews

Review: Mr. Standfast

Mr. Standfast Mr. Standfast by John Buchan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Considered as an action novel, this is pretty good, despite the author's usual fault of getting his hero out of trouble using lucky coincidence. I was also genuinely moved at the end.

The problem is with all the bits that aren't an action novel. Both Buchan and his hero Hannay are narrow-minded, party-line-hewing early-20th-century British bigots for the most part, and given to pontificating predictably, though there's a positive presentation of a conscientious objector. There's a cursory gesture towards a romance plot, in which the love interest, we're told, is clever and courageous and resourceful, but it's a decal; we never see her do anything to justify this, and in a crisis she's completely passive, with no plan, and has to be rescued.

The idea that a major-general, who seems to have genuine military ability despite not being a career soldier, might be pulled out of the war at a critical stage in order to perform espionage, even though most of his previous success in that field appears to have been more by good luck than good management, is also difficult to swallow. Yes, despite his protestations that he's not courageous, he clearly is, and he does perform some effective feats of bravery and physical endurance, but he's not actually the best man for the job, especially since he's known to the opposition.

A mixed bag overall. Decent at being a thriller, but otherwise not so hot.

View all my reviews