It is downright depressing to find so many books from my TBR shelf turning out to be duds. The only upside is that I have contributed several to the charity shop, and I might have learned a bit more about how not to write.
F Tennyson Jesse, The Lacquer Lady (1929)
I’ve long had Jesse on my absent-minded list of Virago Authors I Must Try, but was a little surprised to find, when I really thought about it, that in forty-five years of adult critical reading I had not actually chosen one to read. The Lacquer Lady is historical, about the kingdom of Burma / Myanmar in the late nineteenth century, and the Virago blurb from 1979 promised hints of Kipling and Buchan who are two of my go-to authors when all else fails. The Kipling comparison is definitely a good one: The Lacquer Lady has clear similarities with his The Naulahka, with the Anglican missionaries and British Resident stuck on the outskirts of a fabulously rich and devious Eastern court.
Jesse wrote this novel to illustrate a little-known aspect of Burmese history, changing names and bringing the reader into the complex political twists through the real-life character of Fanny, part-British, part-Italian, part-Burmese, who is wholly self-absorbed but knows the value of her unique access to the court by being a maid of honour. If Jesse had stuck to writing a novel, or a historical account, both would have been more satisfactory than this hybrid, which drags the reader across the historical terrain when they might rather be overhearing personal conversations, or vice versa. It tries for too much and the effect is patchy.
Roderick Floud, An Economic History of the English Garden
I don’t know what I was thinking of, buying a book with ‘economic history’ in the title. My first degree at university began as an economic history degree but rapidly changed to English when I failed all the other exams. The lure of ‘history’ and ‘English garden’ overcame the warning shrieks about ‘economics’ which will forever be incomprehensible to me. So, to complain that there are way too many numbers in this hefty, close-printed book might seem perverse, But surely there is a way to present comparative expenditure and value without packing a page with digits? Floud uses a sensible way of conveying the scale by saying that, eg, Lord X spent a vast amount on his geraniums at £40,000 (£3/6), where the italicised number in brackets is what the lord paid and the other number is the equivalent in today’s values. I got very lost in his calculations, but the overall intent of the book was achieved: that gigantic sums have been spent on British gardens for centuries, far more than have been guessed at before. I would have liked to have read more about why, but that’s history, not economic history, and Floud wasn’t writing in that direction. There is barely anything on women gardeners, apparently because the records don’t exist, but I really do question that. I don’t think Floud was looking in the right places.
Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World
As when I read the first novel in Game of Thrones, this represents several hours of my life I want back. I was intrigued by the publicity about the current TV series based on Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and puzzled that I had never heard of the series before. Critics who I respect were on podcasts saying they’d reread the series to get ready for the new adaptation. But I was also cautious, because an audit of the Jordans available in local charity shops showed me shelves of Vols 5, 6, 7, 8 etc, but none of the early ones. So I borrowed vol 1 from a friend who was equally puzzled that I actually wanted to read it (Ben: why do you still keep these books if you think they’re duds?), and dear lord was it terrible. Utterly, utterly derivative, from Tolkien and probably from Stephen Donaldson as well. Exposition dumping all the way to chapter 6 when I gave up reading. Boring, clumsy, and inelegant writing. A dull feudal pre-industrial setting parked somewhere near the Shire on a map that is basically Tolkien’s Middle-Earth with some new names. Even the mountain ranges are in the same place. The placenames and personal names could have been pulled from the drawer marked High Fantasy Names, Random Selection. Impossibly grandiose prologue with extremes of emotion, scale and stakes to set such a high bar for the rest of the novel that there seems no point in going on. When I did, I found so little connection to the high stakes etc prologue that I seriously began to wonder if those pages had been inserted in error at the binders. The monsters are meaningless. The only thing that can be said in favour of this novel is that women characters are in equal positions of power to men, but for a novel first published in 1992 it would be odd if they were not.
Meriel Buxton, The High-Flying Duchess
I tracked this biography down through the London Library because I wanted to know more about the extraordinary life of Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford, who disappeared at the age of 72 when flying solo over the North Sea in the 1930s. She was the daughter of an archdeacon, married a younger ducal son who inherited the title unexpectedly, and was separated from her only child at his birth by her overbearing parents-in-law. Her husband was a military martinet who applied bureaucracy to all aspects of running his vast estates, which meant Mary had nothing to do in that department either. So she had fabulous wealth and nothing to do with her life except excel at one activity after another, which included training as a nurse and radiographer in the First World War. She took up flying possibly because it relieved her tinnitus and made her deafness irrelevant. This is an extraordinary story of a wholly remarkable woman, but the biography is a clunking, repetitive hagiography, presumably bankrolled by the Bedford family because the edition I read had been lavishly printed. It relies on family papers – again, a valuable resource, used as intelligently as was possible – but with no critical or secondary material to balance opinions out a little. It’s a biography written by a family hanger-on, not by a historian, and is painfully lacking in so many areas. Such a shame: Mary Russell deserves much better than this.
Beverley Nichols, Self (1922)
I was curious about Nichols as a novelist, and had come across a sneering reference to this novel from the 1930s, so I borrowed a copy to see how bad it could be. Yes, it was bad. An excruciating melodrama, based on an insistence on drink, drugs and dancing being the inevitable prologue to the life of a Bad Girl Gone Worse, via philandering after marriage and then straight to the gutter. It is a fascinating example of what was considered an exciting new novel in 1922: and what was expected to shock. I don’t think Nicholls was being experimental or daring, he was then a jobbing gossip columnist making money as quickly as he could with a novel that he would have liked to have been scandalous but he didn’t have the writing skills in that direction to make a serious go of it. It’s a pastiche, not a very good one, and has almost no connection with the golden comedy and gardening pleasure of his later memoirs, except some residual bitterness.
Alastair Moffat, The Faded Map
‘You mean to say you’ve never heard of Alastair Moffat? Well I am surprised.’ This amazed condescension was from someone who gave Moffat’s credentials as the man who invented the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That is certainly an achievement, but being a TV and event producer doesn’t make you a historian, and this book – bought cautiously, again, from a charity shop, because I did not wholly trust the recommendation – is a most egregious con if you’re interested in Scottish history. I might have been more forgiving had Moffat actually given the sources for his outrageous assertions, but the scant half-page list of books at the back was not reassuring. The Faded Map purports to be a history of the kingdoms of Scotland that once existed but have been lost, which is interesting. But, unlike the dense and analytical research done in archives and on the ground by, eg, Graham Robb in his The Debateable Land, a study of the area between Gretna and Peebles, Moffat seems only to have read a few books and repeated the bits he could remember, joined up with baseless imaginary gambits. It is hopelessly vague and maddeningly uncorroborated. I had to give up when Moffat asserted that the king of Orkney signed a treaty with the Emperor Claudius in AD43, in person, somewhere near Kent. Let’s not even start on the absence of evidence on what ‘king’ and ‘Orkney’ meant at that period: after decades of reading about and occasionally working on Romano-British history I have never heard that one before. I would seriously like to know where Moffat got it from. Moffat’s sweeping assumptions are enraging, and the background drone of unrelated Scottish exceptionalism is just annoying.
For other intolerant posts about books that have annoyed me, please see: My Gifts to the Oxfam Bookshop, Raging Aggravations, To the Recycling!, From Merely Annoying to Utter Tosh, A Small Pile of Duds, I Vent My Spleen on Duds, A Run of Bad Reading Luck, Three Small Duds, Seven Duds for Seven Dustbins, Sorrow and Anger: Books I Couldn’t Finish Or Wished I Hadn’t Started, Do Not Read These At Home, It’s Not You, It’s Me: More Reading Disappointments, and Three Disappointments for the Dud Pile.