Another episode in an occasional series in which I grumble about books I have not enjoyed. Links to earlier episodes are at the end.
Runemarks by Joanne Harris
I bought this on the strength of her The Book of Loki, which I really enjoyed. But Runemarks is dull, and so perfunctorily written, I’m boggled as to how it got published. It’s a story of a girl called Maddy who lives in a medieval period after Ragnarok has happened, who gets groomed by Odin and entangled with Loki, and descends to World Below to rescue a thing to bring about either a new war to end all wars or an overturning of a current state of affairs by other means. I’m not sure. I may have got bored by that point because there was so little in the storytelling to interest me. When Loki appears as a character things perk up, slightly. But there is too much lazy writing (or rushed writing?), and reading this became a chore not a delight, which it should have been? Had I been the editor, I’d’ve sent it back for rewriting, for cliché-demolition, for extraction of the telling and a darn sight lot more showing. This is a novel written at half-cock by an excellent author who is so much better than this. Avoid. Buy The Book of Loki instead.
Felix Holt: The Radical, by George Eliot
At the beginning, I was enjoying this a lot. A solid state of the nation novel about early Victorian politics, which began so well. The matriarch of a newly impoverished stately home is waiting for her son to come home after fifteen years abroad making money, and she despises her husband who clearly has advanced dementia and is frightened of her. Her son arrives, he is dutiful, but she no longer knows him and realises that she won’t be able to have her way any longer. This is very promising: I was hoping for a great deal more of Mrs Transome. Instead, we get idealistic Harold Transome and his bizarre misogynistic ideas, and his plans to stand as a Radical in the election rather than stay with the Tories his family have always supported. Then we get Mr Lyon the Dissenting minister and his mysterious dead wife and their beautiful elegant daughter Esther. Then we meet the eponymous Felix Holt, who ought to have a much bigger role in the plot given that the novel has his name, but too many other characters keep getting in the way. There’s a family inheritance plot, a political plot, a dastardly legal plot, and all this would be fine if it weren’t for the maddening sweeping away of the illusion to proudly display the machinery of the plot, again, and again, and again. Eliot seemed to be in such eagerness to show us her beautifully worked-out schemes that she is continually telling us the things that ought to be revealed through characters’ actions, or unfolding plot developments. It’s like someone telling you the punchline of a joke before the joke itself has even ended. Once or twice is acceptable, but to make this a feature of the storytelling is just wrong. And I couldn’t muster the interest to finish the story since she made it so blindingly obvious what was going to happen.
The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamund Young
I wonder now what on earth I was thinking when I bought this. It’s about cows, so perhaps that was the reason: I’ve been scared of cows for most of my life. I don’t dislike them, they’re just big and unpredictable, so perhaps I thought this might help me understand them better. It’s also by a farmer, so perhaps I was hoping for a bovine shepherding book, the likes of which have been so popular in the past few years (but I haven’t actually read any, another contra-indication). The cover is not great, either a bad photo or a bad Photoshop job. The splattering of plaudits on the cover comes from organs I would never normally read: the FT, the Mail, the Sunday Telegraph, Country Life, the Sunday Times. So many bad signals …. This is a book of anecdotes about how cows behave by a farmer who has been observing and working with cows for decades. Why would I not believe her? The names put me off, not that I object to naming animals, but the sheer quantity of them is simply bewildering. Their variety is fascinating, I’d much rather hear more about the naming of cows than stories about how a bull escaped and went for another bull and they had to be kept apart. Why? What is it about bulls that make them angry about each others’ existence? A cow gets angry that her daughter is ignoring her, and goes off in a huff. How do you know? I don’t object to cow stories: I object to the gaping gaps in my knowledge about how animals normally behave, which are not being filled by this book of anecdotes. This is a book for readers who already know about farm animals and what they do. It’s not bad, it’s just not any good for those of us who don’t even know the basics.