September 2nd, 2011

pic#ortelius

September Books 1) Pirate Queen: the Life of Grace O'Malley, by Judith Cook

I read Anne Chambers' book on the same subject last month; Cook is a clunkier writer than Chambers, but actually has a much better political grasp of what was going on in Irish, English and to an extent Scottish politics at the time and casts her net fairly wide. Essentially this turns into a study of the micro-politics of County Mayo in the last third of the sixteenth century, and gives a deep context to the story of the glamorous protagonist. I started by not really liking it because of the style but came around fairly quickly.
pointless, repression

September Books 2) Stalin Ate My Homework, by Alexei Sayle

I don't think I'd read anything by Sayle before; I remember him from the 1980s as the landlord in The Young Ones and also memorably playing a radio disc-jockey in a funeral home which turns out to be run by Daleks, but I'm not sure I was even all that familiar with his standup routines. In this book he recounts the story of his childhood and adolescence as the sole offspring of two Communist Party activists in Liverpool, the standard stories of growing up as a smart kid in a tough-ish neighbourhood interspersed with trips to Hungary and Czechoslovakia where they were feted by cabinet ministers. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, but mostly it is a wryly affectionate account, vividly depicting the strengths and weaknesses of each of the family members.

Of course, for those in their 20s and below, the idea of people actually dedicating themselves to a revolution to bring about Communism and rule from Moscow in Liverpool must seem vanishingly farfetched. (Sayle as a dissident teenager later attached himself to the followers of Mao and Enver Hoxha.) It's a fascinating reminder of a part of the political landscape which has been utterly (and, to be honest, rightly) buried by history.
earthsea

September Books 3) Ha'Penny, by Jo Walton

It is over three years since I read Farthing, the first of the Small Change trilogy, which is really too long an interval. Although Ha'Penny works extremely well as a standalone book, I was aware that for the characters the events of Farthing were only a couple of weeks ago, so much fresher for them than for me. But even so, I was riveted by this tale of an assassination plot against Hitler and the British prime minister, in an alternate 1949 eight years after the war ended in a sordid compromise. Walton's two protagonists are the gay policeman from the previous book and an aristocratic actress whose family are closely modelled on the Mitford sisters (with the further development that one of them has actually married Himmler), neither of them completely believing in their own role in the story. While I loved almost all the detail (especially spotting the parallels between the Larkins and the Mitfords), I boggled a bit at an Ulster baronet and landed gent who is also an IRA agent, but I suppose the little-known case of Eric "Chink" Dorman-Smith is not that dissimilar. Anyway, this is very very highly recommended, and I will not leave it so long until I read Half a Crown.