Bookspotting: Inside The Victorian House

Having cheerfully chewed my way through The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, I wondered what else the author – Judith Flanders – had done in the same vein. And so I promptly borrowed The Victorian House: Domestic Life From Childbirth to Deathbed.

The Victorian House focuses on the life of the middle class, which makes a refreshing change from the usual focus of either the extremely rich or dirt poor (I’m looking at you, Mr. Mayhew) and besides, one is far more likely to identify with the middle class than any other.

Ms. Flanders packs a lot of information into her writing, without getting too dry or running a topic into the ground. She frequently cites literature of the period to help provide context on certain subjects – such as the social minefield that was decorating the drawing room – but not so much that you’re left at sea if you haven’t read extensively of the period (as I haven’t).

I’ve not quite finished the book but I’m already profoundly grateful to be living when and where I am. There’s nothing like reading about the risks to health and safety that was gas lighting to make one quit grumbling about having to change a light bulb. And, whoa, life was filthy. I mean, I figured all that coal dust and the London “fogs” made everything a bit grimy by default but, no, even indoors dust and grime was horribly omnipresent – which is why some households didn’t consider an improvement in lighting all that much of a blessing!

Anyways, both books are definitely must-reads for anyone interested in middle and late 19th century in Britain, especially if you’re contemplating any living history activity.


Bookspotting: The Man With The Golden Typewriter

The Man With the Golden Typewriter is a collection of Ian Fleming’s correspondence relating to the Bond novels. It’s a hefty tome, but well-organized and an interesting peek into the state of the fiction publishing industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as Fleming’s personality.

Fleming was a likeable old sod, despite his flaws, and with a charming habit of thanking various helpers by naming related characters after them. His correspondence with the real-life version of Major Boothroyd (Bond’s armourer, introduced in Dr. No and only later called “Q”)  was particularly memorable. The flesh-and-blood version was a gun enthusiast in Scotland who wrote an articulate and impassioned letter to Fleming deploring Bond’s choice of sidearm in the early books, complete with facts and figures about muzzle velocity and whatnot. Fleming, v. appreciative of the advice, entered into a long-time correspondence with Boothroyd on that subject and, eventually, Boothroyd was hired on by Cubby Broccoli as a consultant to the Bond films on the same subject.

It’s not a book to read in a couple of binge sessions, but best kept by the bed (or in your commute bag) and enjoyed over an extended period of time, lest everything blur together and lose coherence.

If you’re a fan of the Bond novels and want to learn more about the man who wrote them, this one’s a must-read.

Bookspotting: Ongoing Series Reads

Still chewing my way through the Mary Russell series and the Dresden files.

I’ve just started book four of the former – O, Jerusalem – and as the title suggests, it looks like the author will be putting her significant theological knowledge to the test. I found it a little wearisome in A Monstrous Regiment of Women (and fortunately absent from the following book, The Moor) but I like Mary and I like the setting, so we’ll see how it goes. The Moor was, I thought, a bit of a dud. The narrative lacked any sense of urgency almost throughout, and so it seemed to drag, even if the actual progression of matters was reasonably prompt. But the supporting characters were intriguing enough to keep me engaged – especially Holmes’ godfather.

There was an amusing hiccup with the Dresden files. I accidentally borrowed the fourth book – Summer Knight – instead of the third – Grave Peril – and had the ending for Grave Peril thoroughly spoiled for me before I realized the mistake. I can see what my friends who are fans meant about the overall quality of writing picking up as the series progressed. I hope Grave Peril holds up in the aftermath of my goof.


To return to some previously-mentioned topics, I’m now current with the Rivers of London series (book 5, Foxglove Summer), halfway through the third book of the Mary Russell series (A Monstrous Regiment of Women) and about to start the third in the Harry Dresden ditto – Grave Peril.

The Rivers of London series is awesome and I want an RPG set within that ‘verse right now, dammit. I’d try writing one myself, but I don’t have anywhere near the extensive historical knowledge to properly pull it off. That said, my lack of knowledge might not stop me from writing a one-off LARP, as those are much more focused than an entire RPG supplement.

The second Mary Russell book was occasionally a bit of a slog. Only afterward did I think to find a complete bio for the author online and confirm my suspicions that she’s studied theology – a lot. The third book also has serious theological themes and such things rarely interest me, but I’m willing to keep going because it’s only an occasional slog and I like the character enough to stick with her.

Dresden is proving  difficult to love. I’ve been assured by folks that it all picks up at book three (I’m currently awaiting a copy at the library) and all I can say is that it had damn well better.

Reading two urban fantasy series simultaneously means that comparisons are inevitable. The tone of the Dresden books is flat compared to Rivers of London, and I find the lead character of the latter more enjoyable. Although Peter Grant is, it must be said, mightily detached from everything around him and that had better break soon (it does, a tiny bit, in Foxglove Summer (the fifth book), but for less than a page. But I’m enjoying the fund\amental premises (?) in both – the world-setting works for me. So I’ll continue giving Harry Dresden a chance, reassured by my friends that, eventually, much of the chauvinism gets beaten out of him.


Book Review: The Demon Under the Microscope

Penicillin gets all the love from historians but sulphanilomide was the first antibiotic on the scene. The Demon Under The Microscope describes sulpha’s history and does a hell of a good job getting across how fraught life was in the pre-antibiotic era. (Got a blister? You might be dead in a week.)

The story begins simply enough – a chemical factory running a line in coal-tar derived medicines seeks a new best-seller – but it gets complicated pretty fast (Third Reich meddling was only one of several obstacles). Extremely informative but never dry, this one’s a must for anyone with an interest in medical history.


Book Review: Midnight Riot (Rivers of London Book 1)

Midnight Riot (aka Peter Grant series, Book 1)

A friend suggested this book and I recognized the author from Doctor Who,  so I gave it a shot. I’m glad I did. The story is urban fantasy set in contemporary London – police and magic and river spirits is all I can fit in here. There’s a broad streak of humor throughout, but it doesn’t hesitate to go into the dark places when appropriate. It’s the first title I’ve wanted to read past bedtime in quite a while, so I’m definitely putting the rest of the series on hold at the library.

Update: in the week since I wrote and cued up this entry, I’ve chewed through two more books. Yow!


Book Review: The Beekeepers’ Apprentice

Sherlock Holmes is a guilty pleasure of mine, so borrowing The Beekeeper’s Apprentice from my library was a no-brainer.

At first, I had difficulty buying into the extraordinary talents of Mary Russell, the narrator of the story and protégé to Holmes, but I got over it. After all, anyone who keeps up with Holmes would have to be extraordinary.

Unlike some readers, I enjoyed the extended prelude to the main mystery. However, that enjoyment was tempered by disappointment at the simplicity of that main mystery. I’m usually the last person to solve these things, so a bit of a misstep, there.

Despite that, I’d recommend it to Holmes fans, and to give the rest of the series a chance, too – as I am.