The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

I’ll be honest. I picked up Natasha Pulley’s Watchmaker of Filigree Street because of the gold etchings on the cover and the green edges to the pages. I suspect it counts as Steam Punk, which isn’t really a genre I’ve really read before.

In 1883, with Whitehall on high alert because of a bomb threat from Irish republicans, Nathaniel Steepleton, the Home Office telegraphist who picked up the threat, is mysteriously left an expensive gold watch. It doesn’t appear to work, but he carries it around anyway. And then it saves his life from the blast which destroys Scotland Yard, and he goes in search of its maker.

I really enjoyed The Watchmaker. There is a lovely cast of characters – my favourite probably being the clockwork octopus Katsu – and the plot is detailed and beautifully woven together.

It ran like clockwork…

Going Postal

I like snail mail. I like opening envelopes to find out what’s inside. Even the post at work. I’m nosy like that.

I watched Going Postal several years ago – I think it was a TV movie, possibly by ITV, like the adaptation of The Hogfather. I’ve been trying to work my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series ever since. Slowly, though. As I find them in charity shops or the library. And find the moment to read them.

This week, finally, I found the time to read Going Postal, which concerns a con-man’s attempts to resurrect the state mail service in Ankh-Morpork alongside the much faster, almost mafia-controlled clacks (think telegrams).

Come hell or high water, the mail must get through. And there’s a lot of hell for Moist von Lipwig, the new Postmaster. It wasn’t his first choice of career, but Lord Vetinari made it clear: Postmaster (with a golem for a probation officer), or be hanged for his various con-man crimes.

I remember greatly enjoying the film back then, and now I greatly enjoyed the book. It is, I feel, one of the better Discworld novels of the half dozen or so which I’ve read.

The Lighthouse – P.D.James

Having begun the year with Poe, I have come to the conclusion that he is best appreciated in small doses, and inbetween other reads.

This is partly because, while I was doing the mini-spring-clean which has provided me with an office, I picked a book off the shelf, as you do when you’re cleaning (or is that just me?), and that was the end of the cleaning. I was supposed to be doing the rest of the flat. I only did the office…

The book, well, that was The Lighthouse by P.D.James. I have no idea how I came by it, but apparently I did, and it was the book which leapt out at me.

Now, I like murder mysteries, but I have a hard time these days finding the sort I want to read: I’m not so keen on the fast-paced, conspiracy-theory-heavy thrillers, or those that provide every possible detail to prove the writer knows his/her police procedure; but I like Commander Adam Dalgliesh, and I like James’ writing. It is evident, but not in-your-face that she knows her stuff (and given her working life before writing, she probably ought to).

The Lighthouse is set on a fictional island off the Cornish coast. The sort of mystery with a limited suspect-pool and the murderer can’t get away, but everyone’s cooped up with him/her, so s/he’s likely to get desperate as the detective gets closer to the answer. This particular island is run as a very exclusive get-away for the over-stressed professionals, and they pay for the island’s privacy. And then one dies.

Dalgliesh is a sensible, robust sort of detective. If he lacks the eccentric flair I normally like in my detectives, there is a comforting solidity about him. Having found a much earlier James, from the ’70s, I’ve come to the conclusion that Dalgliesh must be a sort of Peter Pan character, since The Lighthouse is from 2005, but then, I haven’t read all the others to know what happens in his life between then and now, and nor do I know even his approximate age in either novel.

It is my intention to begin a P.D.James collection, and no higher praise can I give to an author.

Expecting Someone Taller? – Tom Holt

My favourite of the Norse myths is the Saga of the Volsungs, Odin’s descendants including Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer. It’s a saga which was well-known throughout the mediaeval Germanic world, being vaguely historical (one of the characters is Attila the Hun) and turned into the German poem Nibelungenlied.

It’s the story which Richard Wagner used as the basis of his epic four-part Ring Cycle opera, Der Ring Des Nibelungen.

And the opera is the basis for Tom Holt’s Expecting Someone Taller?, which is the story of one Malcolm Fisher, who runs over a badger in a dark, Somerset lane. This badger is no ordinary badger, but the Giant Ingolf, who managed to swipe the Ring and the Tarnhelm (another dwarf-made magical object) at the end of Der Ring Des Nibelungen when everyone and everything else went up in the flames of Siegfried and Brunnhilde’s funeral pyre.

And because Malcolm Fisher has run over and killed Ingolf, the Ring and Tarnhelm are passed to him, making him the ruler of the world. Fortunately Ingolf doesn’t die until after he’s explained the most important bits to the disbelieving Malcolm, who is nothing like what Ingolf remembers Siegfried being like (ie – heroic in a traditional Germanic/Norse fashion).

Expecting Someone Taller? is an entertaining take on the old myths, although it does have to be stressed that it is based on Wagner’s opera, not the saga or poem. And Wagner changed the saga and poem to fit his plans for his epic. So it’s an adaptation of an adaptation. So if you know and love the original, try not to get too cross: it’s still worth a read (Holt also adapted Beowulf).

And it’s amusing to think of the Rhine-gold being hidden in Somerset for a thousand years. Especially if you know Somerset.

Pied Piper – Nevil Shute

Sometimes, when an author or book is recommended, one thinks I’m sure it’s good, but not today, thanks. Sometimes, you need to be in the right mood or frame of mind.

Ever since I first started moving way from Enid Blyton, and onto more grown-up books aged about 9 or 10, my mum has been trying to get me to read Nevil Shute, especially his novel entitled A Town Like Alice. I don’t know what it was, but for some reason I resisted. Maybe it was simply because it was being recommended. So I never read A Town Like Alice, or any other of the many Shute novels my mother owns.

And then, about a month ago, as I was waiting for Mark by a bookcase of charity books in his place of work, I happened upon a Nevil Shute which I picked up as something to read while I waited. It was the only vaguely interesting book on the shelves.

Pied Piper is the story of a retired Englishman’s journey through France from the Alps, with two children in tow, in the summer of 1940. By the time Mark was done, I was a chapter in, and hooked.

Our gentleman, one John Howard, with an absence of anything to do in this war and with faith in the Maginot line, decides to go on a fishing trip to the Jura in April 1940, intending to spend the summer there. By the end of May, with news of the Dunkirk evacuation filtering to his mountain-top inn, he changes his plans, considering his place in war to be in his home-country.

He is persuaded by fellow-visitors to the inn to escort a little boy and girl, whose father works for the League of Nations in Geneva, back to England. They set off in the first week of June 1940, expecting to be travelling for little more than two days. But life, never that simple, is complicated by the little girl contracting some fever on the first leg of the journey, and requiring bed-rest for a few days when they reach Dijon.

Those few days spent in Dijon were enough, in mid-June 1940, to completely disrupt the ordered passage through France to the Channel and thence to England. Further hindrances come in the form of several other waifs and strays, and with the German regulations put in force, throughout France in general and along the coast in particular.

Pied Piper, for all the simplicity of the plot, is a beautifully written story; a reminder that a good tale need not be complicated. And a reminder that even in times of war, good people still exist, even if they are fictional. Pied Piper, according to my 1960s edition, was first published in 1942, when WWII was still going on. Perhaps it was propaganda for morale, perhaps it was a story Shute heard (Wikipedia throws no light on the matter), but still, it is a story in which the patience and goodness of one old man fights his way through enemy territory to save unrelated children.

It is a heartwarming story, something which is quite hard to find in these days of post-apocalyptic, gritty fantasy, and psychological thrillers. I regret not reading the Shute books when I lived at home, although this does mean that I have another author to collect, and I do, heartily, recommend Pied Piper.