Recent reading: the good, the great, the bloody dreadful

The Maid of Buttermere, the first of Melvyn Bragg’s novels I’ve read, begins as a fascinating pastoral – part Hardy, part riff on Sublime tourism (with which I’m a little obsessed) but then turns, quite consciously, into a kind of pseudo contemporary reportage. The concluding sections are not nearly as compelling as a result, and … you know when you get that feeling that you can sense the author at work?

Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson’s homage to Britain. It’s not as hilarious as some of his work but I realised why I like him in spite of his many frustrating habits – he never talks to anyone. He travels all over Britain – well, bits, anyway – without any of that extrovert travel writer pallsy chat in the pub bollocks that makes the writer feel they truly understand a place in which they have just arrived and therefore able to convey its deepest secrets to the rest of us. I hate that. The other option of course is the Theroux misanthropic interaction with fellow travellers in order to describe them in scathing terms in a travel book. So Bryon’s rare brushes with unavoidable conversationalists are refreshing, and it’s actually quite a relief to travel around in his head and not pretend otherwise.

Sybil’s Cave, Catherine Padmore’s assured and evocative debut novel, set on the Hawkesbury, Fascist Italy and in post-war London, with all three places expressively and convincingly conveyed with a minimum of fuss and good strong characterisation. I look forward to her next.

Tales From A Broad. I list this only to warn you. It’s by Fran Lebowitz. No, not that one, as it turns out. As I found out too late. Dreadful. Didn’t even finish it. The kind of writer WHO HAS TO USE CAPITALS TO TELL YOU WHEN TO GET READY FOR SOMETHING FUNNY. How these things get printed is beyond me.

Elvin’s Mottoes Revised. What a gem. Hours of endless entertainment. I’ve decided I need a motto. Who wouldn’t, when you could use:
Mone sale (Advise with wit)
Optima revelatio stella (A star is the best revelation)
In utroque paratus (Prepared in either case)
And my favourite – picture the knight trembling behind his visor – Comitae quam viribus (By mildness rather than force)
Or even Bibe si sapis (Drink if you are wise).

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