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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
The Valley of Bones (A Dance to the Music of Time - 07) - Anthony Powell I thought of this book when I was reading New Moon last week. In Stephenie Meyer's novel, the heroine is abandoned by her boyfriend, whom she believes to be the love of her life, and goes into a black depression. Meyer completely chickens out of describing what this is like. The early parts of the book are arranged as a diary; she just presents four months as empty, with no entries at all. Well, given the general level of her writing skills, she no doubt made a good pragmatic decision, but it is in fact possible to do better than this.

So, let's look at The Valley of Bones, Volume 7 of Powells's utterly brilliant Dance to the Music of Time. The first six books are full of incident. Nick has some memorable adventures at school, gets invited to classy and decadent parties, has a brush with the spirit world, and meets a variety of extraordinary people. Incidentally, it just occurs to me that he's also been recently abandoned by the love of his life. Give me warm, living, treacherous Jean any day in preference to cold, dead, faithful Edward. The scene where she opens the door to him naked is generally agreed to be the focal point of the entire series, and it's no accident that the BBC adaptation started here.

In Volume 7, World War II has broken out, and Nick, who's really too old to serve but feels he has to anyway, has pulled strings to get himself into the Army. The choices were limited, and he's been assigned to a Welsh regiment, stuck in Northern Ireland and doing, basically, nothing very much. Instead of his usual cohort of glittering artists, socialites and eccentric peers, he's surrounded by dull-as-ditchwater miners and clerks, most of whom are ten to twenty years younger than him, and who view him with a mixture of suspicion and contempt.

Stephenie Meyer would probably have given us four or five empty chapters. Powell describes it all, in perfect and understated detail. I remember reading this for the first time (I've since re-read it twice), and thinking how boring it was. About 50 pages in, I suddenly got the point. Of course it's boring. That's what Nick's existence is like. Boredom is also a part of life, and knowing how to deal with it is extremely important. And after a while, he sees, and you do too, that his life isn't nearly as boring as he'd imagined. There are some surprising dramas going on among these, at first sight, incredibly dull people. And the next two books, which have rather more happening, wouldn't be as realistic without the low-key introduction.

But it's true, Powell is probably never going to outsell Meyer, so from that point of view she got it right. Though I still prefer Powell's treatment. As usual in Dance, the moral is that you get what you pay for.