Posts Tagged ‘british’

I heard about this book when Shannon originally signed her seven-book deal (!!), and it was all over the publishing news. The fantasy nerd in me got very excited, and now the first book has landed. This was the book I took on the plane to New York with me; I was convinced it would be perfect plane reading.

I was half right. The premise is intriguing; Paige Mahoney is a dreamwalker, a mental ‘hacker of sorts’ who can read the ‘dreamscapes’ of non-clairvoyants – here called amaurotics. She lives in the London of 2067, which is governed by an anti-clairvoyant institution called Scion. Scion seeks and captures clairvoyants – or ‘voyants’ – like Paige just as a police force does criminals, and puts them to work against other voyants, or disappears them. Ironically, the only way Paige can feel like she belongs in this oppressive society is as part of London’s underground voyant crime syndicate. By day, she tells her Scion-employed father she works at an oxygen bar, but after hours she surveils voyants in her precinct for a crime lord. Soon, though, she discovers that Scion is just one layer of a deeper, more nefarious plan.

Broadly speaking, this book is structurally sound. There is plenty of tension and action to keep the reader turning the pages, and some sympathetic characters to root for along the way. The narrative retains integrity even though not far into the book Paige’s circumstances, and her understanding of the world around her, changes dramatically. I know this has irritated some readers, but in principle I had no issue with this; it is rather a dizzying turn of events that gives you the tight-chested ‘what on earth is she going to do?’ feeling.

But my main issue with this book is that it felt undercooked. The finer details of the world-building, in particular, needed more attention. For example, Shannon has created an extremely granular and complex taxonomy of voyants, given as a family-tree-style chart at the beginning of the book. It’s an overwhelming introduction, so it’s puzzling that many of these divisions are inconsequential, story-wise. In fact – and I admit I was reading this in holiday mode, so I may have just missed it – there are some terms that I can’t even remember being used. (I also realise this is a seven-book series, so there’s an argument for including everything, but I’m not sure it works here.)

This may seem like a minor quibble but, on the flipside, weirdly, there’s some vagueness around what Paige’s dreamwalker abilities are. To some extent, there are plot reasons for this, but if a protagonist’s powers are so desirable and fascinating to everyone around her that she forms a kind of centrifugal plot force, as Paige does in The Bone Season, they should be as plain as could be for the reader. Similarly, two races that are introduced later in the book could have been handled more confidently; their clairvoyant qualities are not that well elucidated, and this makes the ending feel rushed and sloppy.

All this is not to be discouraging or horrid. I’m really talking about finessing and general tightening rather than integral problems. I did, though, feel that there were enough elements requiring polishing or rethinking that I came out of the reading experience a bit confused and not quite satisfied. Yet the pacing and action kept me going. So for the purposes of being distracted on a long trip, The Bone Season worked. I didn’t even write any notes as I was having a nice old time with it. But reading a book that isn’t quite ready for publication really makes it clear what kind of genius writers like Tolkien and Martin have (or perhaps reflects the time they’ve spent with their manuscripts, or the time allowed by a less pressure-cooker publishing process): absolute control over and knowledge of their worlds; and the understanding of what parts of it the reader needs to know about, and when.

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I have been getting right into the library over the past couple of months. We might be moving house in a while so I’ve been trying not to accumulate more books for the moment. Honestly, I think my boyfriend might break up with me if I buy any more before we move. Plus, have you been to the library lately? As my friend Maddie would say, you can get like THIRTY BOOKS FOR FREE. I am a pro at using the library. I get some good stuff there. It is a truly amazing institution.

So I’ll just briefly chat about the titles I have to return soon.

The Diving Pool / Yoko Ogawa

If you’re anything like me, you feel a little heartsick when looking at the spines of your Murakami and Yoshimoto books, remembering how much you loved contemporary Japanese literature and then read so much that you kind of had a brain hernia in response and now get hives whenever looking at book covers that feature brushstroke fonts on white backgrounds. It’s evident to me that I have avoided reading new Japanese writing for this not very good reason, which is totally dumb because The Diving Pool is really good. It comprises three stories that all exhibit Ogawa’s deceptively understated prose, which often gently depicts strange, repellent but morally opaque acts. In ‘The Diving Pool’, the only biological daughter of serial orphan-adopting parents hurries to the pool the same day each week to watch her foster brother, Jun, diving. This hidden obsession is a rare bright spot in her life: she thinks that her blood relationship with her parents ‘disfigures’ her family, and her relationship with its members is by turns callous and derisory.

‘Pregnancy Diary’ tracks the changing moods and diet of a pregnant woman through the eyes of her sister, who makes grapefruit jam to assuage her cravings. But this seeming act of sisterly affection takes on a grotesque malevolence through repetition. A disturbingly slanted take on familial care and the venerated ideal of a gravid woman.

The final story, ‘Dormitory’, sees a young woman revisit the dormitory where she lived while at university. Food is an integral part of each of Ogawa’s stories. This woman takes small cakes and other gifts to the dormitory’s caretaker as a way of showing respect and care, but also as an excuse to be there – or perhaps to excuse her being there, as her visits become more numerous. But food also rots and harbours malignancies; it decays, as do bodies and buildings. This book is more powerful for not pathologising the harms it describes; for its quiet, polite voices that utter terror.

A Single Man / Christopher Isherwood

I have to confess that the 1960s are not my strongest decade. I don’t have anywhere near enough knowledge about the historical context or adjacent literature to make the most of anything I read from that time. But I still enjoyed reading A Single Man, set over the course of one day in the life of George Falconer, an British expat teaching literature in Los Angeles. In some ways it’s a regular day; George wakes up, talks to his friend Charley, thinks about his neighbours, drives over the bridge and to work. But it’s also a day defined by a loss that George has recently suffered – that of his partner, Jim. Moving not only as an intimate portrait of a man psychologically reconstructing himself in response to his surroundings, but also in its frank treatment of aging and sexuality, this novella deals in gear-changes, masks and behaviours. Enjoyable, too, are the academic-novel scenes, in which colleagues bicker and gossip about each others’ wives. And much is changing in LA: a diversifying body of students represent a newish type of America, while Charley reminisces – in a plummy RP that leaps off the page into the ear – about the old country.

Gone Girl / Gillian Flynn

AAAARRRRGGGHHHHHHHHH. Okay, so I shot myself in the foot with this one. For some reason I’d got it into my head that this was a super literary thriller. I’d read about it all over the place and everyone was raving about it, so I thought I was reading a very different book than what I was. When it finally dawned on me that Gone Girl is essentially a grown-up Christopher Pike-ish type thing, I was already sore from having my ear chewed off by two of the most irritating narrators I have encountered in a long time. So please don’t take this as an unbiased opinion.

You probably already know enough about Gone Girl‘s plot or premise, so I don’t need to go into that too much. Perfect wife Amy Dunne goes missing on her and husband Nick’s fifth wedding anniversary, yada. They alternate chapters as narrators. There’s a big twist. Yes, it’s an extremely tight thriller, quite astonishing. I marvel at the structure of this book, and my imagination is not capable of coming up with this kind of story (though there are some stretch-the-imagination bits). I’m actually afraid of Gillian Flynn now. Don’t cross that lady. But I think the horrors here are almost purely structural – or even theoretical – rather than emotional. I felt absolutely nothing when I reached the huge twist (okay, that’s a lie – my attention had been flagging, and it whipped back into place once I reached the twist). And I think many readers would be able to guess what the twist is (though not the specifics, which are mindboggling) – there are enough clues. But Amy Dunne’s voice is so cloying (I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I understand that there’s of course a good reason for this) and Nick’s so lackadaisical that I really couldn’t have cared less what happened to either of them. Plus, he’s the kind of narrator (an ex-writer!!!) who feels the need to tell you all this stuff he knows about grammar and story structure. Cue zombie-style rolling of my eyeballs. Nothing makes me more annoyed. ARGHGH, etc.

When I got to what Peter Craven called a ‘sick-making’ ending in The Age, I was pretty unmoved. I felt more upset in Grade 4 when my frenemy stole my story about a fruit bowl, copied it and handed it in as her own. Okay, that’s a pretty dog act, but still. In conclusion: I admired this thriller. It is surprising and fairly well paced. I read it expecting it to be something else, so that’s just my bad. But I was disappointed and pretty annoyed. Kind of reminded me of Double Indemnity (amazing movie, okay, just wait) in that the suspense kept me going, but the emotional side of the character development was lacking, which made for little emotional punch. (Though Double Indemnity has much better dialogue. Uhhh, I regret bringing this up.) And that’s a genre thing, and that’s okay. Just letting you know how my experience was.

The Lover’s Dictionary / David Levithan

Oh my god, it’s like someone gave me a shot of vodka. I feel so much more calm thinking of this book. This is seriously like a pear and Sauternes sorbet after a main course of rotted monkey brains in terms how comfortable I feel. Ahhhhhh. Okay, here is a book that has heart as well as a creative structure. I’ll just be quick now. The Lover’s Dictionary takes the form of a dictionary: words like ‘caveat’ and ‘flux’ are presented, not with definitions, but memories and wonderings that make up a love story. It’s non-linear, so each ‘definition’ is like a piece of a puzzle that the reader puts together over the course of the book. This concept might be too cutesy for some, but Levithan’s pared-back prose ensures the end result isn’t too saccharine. A nice idea, well executed.

Please note I resisted the urge to call this post ‘Bring Up the Motherf***ing Bodies, Bitch’ (though said urge was merely displaced by the urge to put it in a prefatory explanatory note).

Just did a speedy little review for Readings of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. People often ask me if they should read Wolf Hall, and I always say ‘Yes, you should, really’. It’s incredible – Mantel is capable of the most comprehensive and vivid characterisation, and creates action stations out of what we often think of as dead Year 8–level History. Bring Up the Bodies is almost as good; nothing can really match the breathtaking confidence and inventiveness of the first Cromwell novel, but its successor is a worthy one. Review reposted below.

P.S. Very relieved to have a copy with the incredible British cover, rather than the insipid US cover. The whole point of this book is that it creates new portraits and ways of seeing these historical characters, duh.

***

There’s a story in the historical character of Thomas Cromwell, or several. But one only needs to read the Wikipedia version, eyes glazing over with boredom, to grasp what a significant achievement Hilary Mantel has wrought with her gripping, complex Cromwell novels: first Wolf Hall, and now its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.

Of course, we know what history has to say about Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who made his way into the service of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall, however, was a hugely successful exercise in garnering sympathy for a man whom history has often painted as a villain.

Bring Up the Bodies begins where Wolf Hall left off. It is the summer of 1535. Henry VIII has not long been married to Anne Boleyn, but his gaze has already strayed to quiet, unassuming Jane Seymour; he wishes to have his marriage to Anne annulled. Anne, changeable and increasingly wary, is plotting, threatening Cromwell’s life and also England’s tenuous peace – for the royals are losing standing with the nobility and the English public, and there are others who want to rule.

It is a delight to return to Mantel’s Cromwell, whose quick mind and giant intellect are wonderfully framed by the novel’s present-tense narration. As Secretary to the king, Cromwell is hardworking and incisively strategic, but he can also estimate a man’s wealth by looking at his clothing and he’s good with his fists. His assessments of others are always sharp and illuminating: through his eyes we see a childlike and increasingly deluded Henry, and multiple dissolute courtiers who trade insults and secrets.

There are no tedious attempts to recreate the language of the era: instead, the fresh, direct prose Mantel used to such effect in Wolf Hall again carries the action here. Dialogue is pointed and often surprisingly funny, and its content is always the basis for some new stratagem (‘I am not a man with whom you can have inconsequential conversations,’ says Cromwell at one point). Thanks to this masterful treatment of language, the characters are so vital it seems their actions could alter history, that the march towards Cromwell’s fall from Henry’s favour (to be chronicled by Mantel in a future novel) could possibly be diverted by these versions of themselves.

Despite the short timeframe covered in the novel – just nine months – Bring Up the Bodies does drag in its middle section. And although she is never opaque about Cromwell’s more brutal decisions and actions, Mantel’s overtly sympathetic portrayal of her subject occasionally feels overstretched, particularly when set against his extreme political pragmatism.

Still, this is likely to be one of the most accomplished novels you read this year. Mantel has said of writing these books: ‘I felt such a burst of energy being lent to me by the character.’ Like Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is patently enlivened by the author’s passion for Cromwell. As a result, he will be remembered not only as one of the great political figures of England’s history, but also one of the great fictional characters of this decade.

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That sound you can hear is the rusty gate of this blog creaking open. Is that a mixed metaphor? I don’t even know anymore. Where am I? Who are you? Who am I?

Just kidding, you guys. My brain is totally intact and I can construct sentences (well, we’ll see). I have also been reading books, contrary to what my silence here might indicate. I have been pretty busy, what with everything – and let’s be honest, no one’s life has been in danger due to my non-updates – but there’s been a development in my life that made me keen to come back here and get to documentin’.

Late last year I got an iPad 2. Since then, I’d estimate that I’ve had a conversation about it with 70% of the people I know. That’s a big percentage. And despite the fact that this is the first post in a series about said device, I’m not really an Extoller of the Pleasures of the Tablet or anything; people are just very interested in them and the future of the book and what have you. Usually other people ask me whether I have an e-reader yet and whether I like it, and why I chose the iPad over other e-readers, etc.

Briefly, I decided on the iPad because I wanted to be able to test all the major reading platforms. I wanted to be able to read on the Kindle, Kobo, Booki.sh and Google Books platforms, to see what they were like. I also wanted the best opportunity to get any book I wanted as an e-book, so I wanted to be able to access e-books in just about any format.

Also, it was an aesthetic thing. I don’t like the look of a lot of the ink readers, even though my initial wish was to get an ink technology reader. They’re just too plasticky and the screens are too small. And finally, I’ve been burnt by non-Apple computer products before. Samsung, I hate you. Sony, I do not like you (mostly, actually, due to this ad). Asus, I really just do not like you very much. My MacBook has lasted six years, which is longer than any other computer I have ever had. I love it, and I trust it. I did not buy the Steve Jobs biography, but I would buy his products.

I have the wi-fi model, not the 3G. I am almost superstitiously weird about not wanting to have internet access at all times. I don’t have a smartphone, either. I bought this tablet pretty much for reading only, so I won’t be commenting on the iPad qua secondary computer or life-organiser or anything like that. (Yes, I realise this is somewhat akin to, I don’t know, buying a ladder so I can sit on the third rung when I’m out of chairs, but I don’t mind.) It’ll pretty much be just about whether I liked reading the book in the X app or on the Y platform. Sorry if this bores you.

Since I acquired my new friend, about 50% of the books I’ve read have been e-books, which has surprised me. I suspect the figure would be higher still if I hadn’t been reading so many review copies that are print books. It’s been an interesting and net positive experience so far. I’m interested to see if my print/electronic book ratio rises much or steadies around the 50% mark.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Since I’ve had it for a few months now, I’ll just do a quick rundown of the beginning of our beautiful relationship.

***

Zero hour: WOW! I love this box. I love Apple. Even with the gorillas and the … everything. I’m not proud of this. But it’s so shiny. I love it. I just want to get, like, ten iPads and rub them all together. They’re so nice. Look at it all pretty when I turn it on. Ooooooh.

Hour one: What do you mean I need to create a new account for every reading platform I want to use? What do you mean I need to come up with new passwords for all of them? What do you mean the passwords need to include upper case letters, lower case letters, numerals and punctuation marks. Are you kidding me? I can’t even remember my own name sometimes. This sucks. I hate this. Okay, my password is going to be Ih8uiPad:(.

Hour two: Okay, I have passwords. I have apps. I have fingers. I have a credit card. I want to buy a book. Kindle app, you get to go first. What do I want to read…oh, you can get so many free books! Pride and Prejudice! Who cares if I already own three copies? I guess I know how that happened because I’m going to download it onto my iPad right now, I’m going to have four copies, I’m so excited!!! Yayayayayayayayayayay!! Jane Austen is the best!!! I love her so much! Northanger Abbey! That’s the only one I haven’t read. Yayayayayayayayayayay!!! I’m going to read it tonight! I’m going to read it now! Yayayay! Downloading… this is so great. I’m going to get it straight away. What an ugly cover. Oh well, it’s not going on my shelf, who cares.

Hour three: Okay, all downloaded, I’m so excited, I’m going to read this book so bad. Wait…where is it? I just bought it at Amazon and it said it had been sent to my iPad, so where is it? Go back to Amazon and check what it says to do. Yep, I downloaded it. Should be available on my iPad. Back to the Kindle app. Not there. Where is it? This is so annoying. Where is it? Can you refresh this thing? What the hell. What the hell?? I hate this. This doesn’t happen with REAL books. WTF. Where is it. Go back to Amazon. Check what it says to do. Yes, I definitely downloaded it. I hate this iPad. Maybe if I turn it off. That always works. Okay, turn it off. Turn it on. Is it there? … I HATE IPADS.

What? You think I should reinstall the Kindle app? Maybe. Okay.

Hour four: Yayayayayayayay!!! I am going to read Northanger Abbey so bad. Oooooo, changing the fonts is fun. Ooooooo, look at all the ways you can change the page-turning visualisation. Oooooo. Oooo. I love this. I am going to read it in white text on black.

Hour three point five: Ow, my eyes. Change it back to the normal way.

Two days later: I love Jane Austen! I love romantic comedies! I hate Isabella Thorpe! You could just tell she was bad from the beginning! And her brother! I love my iPad! I love Henry Tilney! I love farms! I love my iPad!! I really love my iPad!!!!!

FIN

I was having a chat with some nice people the other day, and one of them said, ‘There is nothing so sad as a moribund blog’. I’m not quoting exactly, but that’s basically the gist of it. As he said this, my heart swelled beyond typical size and I thought bleakly of my poor little blog sitting here, all alone, by itself.

But I have been doing other things, if not blogging, and two of them can be read by you, if you so choose. I interviewed Sydney fashion label Song for the Mute for new fashion magazine Collection. Song for the Mute have just won the 2011 L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival Designer Award, against some stiff competition. Collection is pretty gorgeous – it’s a hardcover magazine printed on lovely stock, and every page is perforated at the spine, so you can tear out any page with impunity.

The other thing keeping me busy of late has, of course, been Kill Your Darlings. For the new issue, available for pre-order this week, I interviewed Geoff Dyer, famed writer of many stripes. Dyer is a wonderfully interesting writer and also a charming raconteur. If you’ve read any of his twelve books (the subjects range from photography to jazz to military history, and he’s also an acclaimed essayist and fiction writer), you’ll know what I mean.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are three of my favourite books in the world. The books, if you haven’t read them, follow the adventures of a young girl called Lyra, who lives in a parallel world to ours, where humans’ souls exist outside their bodies and take animal forms. The sheer imagination that suffuses the novels is wondrous, and is underpinned by Pullman’s powers of characterisation; Lyra and her companion, Will, who’s from our world, are no mere products of ink on paper, but are as present as living, breathing flesh; as are their animal souls.

One of the most striking preoccupations of the books, and a common target for commentary since their publication, is the strength and corruption of its fictional church, called the Magisterium. In Northern Lights, the first of the books, the Magisterium has built a laboratory to perform dreadful experiments on children in the name of trying to eradicate Dust, which they believe is a physical manifestation of sin. The books are peppered with zealots of all kinds, from the lethal Mrs Coulter, a power-hungry associate of the Magisterium, to fanatics willing to flagellate themselves in advance punishment for crimes. Pullman’s fictional assailment upon wealthy, corporate churches was echoed in his personal statements, with his famous quote ‘My books are about killing God’ earning him plenty of ire from Christians all around the world.

His new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which I reviewed recently for The Big Issue, tackles similar ground in a more radical fashion. In fact, it might be seen as the thematic prequel to the His Dark Materials books: it sets up the structures and mythology that Pullman had Lyra tear down. Pullman reimagines the original Christian birth as a double: Mary is the mother of twins, Jesus and Christ. Christ is the early forerunner in the story, a child who performs miracles and often assists his more compulsive brother, Jesus, out of trouble. As the brothers age, the differences intensify – Jesus becomes a charismatic religious teacher devoted to God, who repels with disgust Christ’s attempts to persuade him to capitalise on his influence and assemble a structured church, ‘all answering to the authority of one supreme director’.

Christ is asked by a mysterious stranger to make a record of Jesus’ doings, and he does so – at first as accurately as he can, but then with some revisions and editing. So we learn that the stories we now know from the Bible were entirely different in the doing; we see the tension of myth and history. For instance, the paralysed man whom Jesus exhorts to take up his mat and walk was not cured, but ’so strengthened and inspired by the atmosphere Jesus had created that he found himself able to move’. And, at a wedding in Cana where the wine has run out, Jesus has a few words with a steward and more wine appears, but it’s not certain exactly how; it’s possible that Jesus has simply asked for more to be brought out.

There is a lot to admire in the book, but there are also disappointments. I have not read anything so beautiful this year as The Good Man Jesus’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is served well by Pullman’s easy yet arresting prose. His way with characterisation and dialogue (assisted, of course, by the source material) provides us with a Jesus who is resolute and lion-like in ferocity. But there’s close to no subtlety in Jesus’s diatribe in Gethsemane. In Mark’s gospel, this is a moment of enduring and bottomless faith. But in The Good Man Jesus, Jesus has lost his faith completely, and is using his last moments not for reconciliation but catharsis: ‘Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in our name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love.’ It’s rather too ‘The Church’s Worst Crimes throughout the Ages’, and not strongly foreshadowed in the book; as Rowan Williams said in his Guardian review, ‘nothing in the narrative has prepared us for this; the Jesus of earlier chapters has a robust conviction of the unconditional love of God’.

The Christian story is one that clearly has a powerful hold on Pullman. In fact, such is its power over him that my thoughts upon reading The Good Man Jesus were of a similar tenor to James Bradley’s conclusion in May 5th’s Australian Literary Review (though nowhere near as finely worded) that The Good Man Jesus ‘is a book so bound up in its argument with religion that it is … essentially a religious text, unable to transcend the terms of its creation’. The dilemma faced by Christ – how to represent Jesus’s story and ensure its longevity – is one that accepts the power and grace of that originary story. But while Pullman may have an argument with religion, he certainly doesn’t have anything against the power of story, the sole element of religion that emerges from the book unscathed.

Read the transcript of a conversation between Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (whose intelligence and engagement with non-Christian viewpoints make me furious about being in the poisonous vicinity of George Pell), here.

We hear a lot about the death of language. Whether it’s the death of the author, the novel, the letter – every literary item imaginable has, it seems, been eulogised. Michael Quinion’s Gallimaufry is a delightful book that trawls through the obituaries of the many such fallen soldiers: words that have sailed off into the ether.

A word-nut will have lots of fun with this book. Quinion is an engaged guide, and uses a light writing style, which is a blessing when he navigates the linguistic and historical origins of the words he studies. The title word, gallimaufry, which now means a ‘hodgepodge’, comes from old French. It originally meant a stew or sauce, and it’s still used today, though perhaps only in very enlightened (or pretentious) corners of the English-speaking world. Quinion has divided his enquiry into five thematic parts. The first deals with food and drink, and is of course my favourite; the second with health and medicine; the third, entertainment and leisure; the fourth, transport and fashion; and the fifth, names, employment and communications. Those of you with refined palates will relish the knowledge that the word bottarga (or cured fish roe) – as we know it in Australia – came from the Arabic butarkha originally. There are lots of wonderful little slices through history like this that make you feel like you’re lifting up a magic curtain into the past.

Wonderfully, the thematic division of the book allows you to discover English-speaking habits and cultures that are long fallen by the wayside. Quinion fossicks around in the verbal dirt for things I now kind of regret finding out. Harry Potter fans will know that a bezoar is a ‘concretion of hair or vegetable fibre that forms naturally in the stomachs of ruminant animals’, used once upon a time as an antidote to poison. Men awaiting the barber’s attention used to enjoy the music of a cittern. Also, find out what Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts were about wearing a wig! However, I just couldn’t be enthralled by discovering that the zingerilla and the bransle were fancy lady-and-gentleman dances. Perhaps my fellow Jane Austen readers would beg to disagree.

Despite the subject matter of Gallimaufry being predominantly old and now obscure words, Quinion is certainly no obscurant. There are lots of treasures to be had here for readers of British historical fiction, and even those who once pondered why the Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Dolly Varden’ cake was termed as such. (The Dolly Varden was a rakishly side-slung hat. Though what connection a hat has to a cake with a doll stuck in it, I’ll never have the capacity to fathom.) If you like odd language trivia and showing off your vocabularistic prowess, you will like this book, as it will enable you to say things like: ‘Did you know that “fig” used to mean “banana” in the West Indies at one stage?’ NO, I DIDN’T. And now I do.

NB. I work at Oxford University Press.

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