Hello, welcome to another Friday and the latest in my new batch of Series I Love posts. Today I’m talking about Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City Series, which I think it pretty perfect reading for the moment – as it’s episodic and starts back in the 1970s.
So this is an iconic series, that started as a newspaper serial, about the lives (and loves) of a group of housemates in San Francisco. Starting in 1976, we meet Mary-Ann Singleton, who has just moved to the city from Cleveland and starts to discover a whole new world. She moves into a boarding house run by the eccentric Anna Madrigal (she names the marijuana plants she grows in the garden) and soon her life is tangled up with the other residents of the building – Michael Tolliver, known as Mouse; Mona, hippy and bi-sexual; Brian, a horny lothario and Norman, the mysterious tenant of the shack on the roof. It’s fun, it’s incredibly readible – and it’s soapy in the best way aka increasingly ridiculous and far-fetched but you go with it anyway. Across the series (nine books, I still need to buy a copy of The Days of Anna Madrigal, although I have read it!) you’ll laugh and you’ll cry as you cover 40 years in their lives. There are real life people (and events) who feature across the series, with varying levels of disguise.
I love these books so much, and their episodic nature (well except for Michael Tolliver Lives) means they are great for when you’re having trouble concentrating on a book – the bitesized nature means you can pick it up and down, but their newspaper origins means there are constant cliffhangers and teases to keep your interest. Tales of the City has a lot of heavy lifting to do to set everything up, although it’s done so well you don’t really realise it until you read More Tales of the City and see the difference! When I first read them I tore through the first seven books in four months – slowed down only by a Lent book-buying ban which meant I couldn’t buy book 3 for a month! The early books are also a great portrait of 1970s San Francisco – and the LGTB culture in the city before the Aids epidemic hit, and then the impact of Aids on the community. Because they were published in a newspaper soon after being written, current events feature and they’re also a great cultural history document to show how things were seen and what people wer doing at the time. I know I missed a lot of the references first time around, but as my knowledge of LGTBQIA+ history has grown, I’ve spotted more things. Revisiting them to write this book after reading Legendary Children I spotted even more!
So if you’re looking for some escapist reading, this might be the thing for you. Plus you get to You should be able to order the Tales of the City easily from your book vendor of choice – most bookshops I have been into carry them. And as a bonus for the ereaders, the first book is £2.99 on Kindle and Kobo at time of writing. And if you like them, the books have also been turned into two TV series so you can do a compare and contrast. The first was in the early 1990s for Channel 4 in the UK- which is available for free on All 4 and then in 2019 Netflix did a mini-series with a modern update. Both series feature Laura Linney as Mary-Ann and Olympia Dukakis as Anna. I’ve watched most of the first series, and some of the second. I keep meaning to go back and watch more, and writing this post has given me another nudge, but I’ve got a lot of Drag Race stacked up on the box at the moment and Him Indoors is getting annoyed at the space it’s taking up so I should really watch that first…
Another one sparked by writing the Escapist reading post, except that this isn’t really a single series but a book universe, spread across three series. I’ve written about various bits of the series a few times but as I finished the last book in the Custard Protocol series the other week, now seems like as good a time as any to do a proper post about the whole world. I should say that this post has been quite tricky to write without giving out some fairly major spoilers for all of the series, so if my plot descriptions seem a little less than fulsome, that would be why.
Anyway, the Parasolverse is a steam-punk and supernatural alternative Victorian-era world across three main series and three novella strands. In chronological order the series are Finishing School , Parasol Protectorate and Custard Protocol, but in publication order the Parasol Protectorate books came first. If you look at the chronology on Gail Carriger’s website, she suggests reading them in chronological order, but says her fans suggest reading in the order that they were written. I read them in basically the order that they were written with a minor blip and for reasons that I will explain later, I am inclined to endorse the latter approach – especially if you are not normally someone who reads Young Adult or school story series.
The four books of the Finishing School series cover the school career of Sophronia Temminnick in the 1850s. It’s a Young Adult series – which the other parts of the universe are… not. At the start of the first book, Etiquette and Espionage, she is the bane of her mother’s existence and is sent off to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality to learn how to be a proper lady. Except that she isn’t there long before she realises that the school isn’t so much about manners and polite society as it is about spying and other slightly deadlier pursuits. Over the course of the series Sophronia learns all the skills to embark on a life of espionage and gets tangled up with vampires, werewolves and Evil Geniuses. The Finishing school world has mechanicals and all sorts of clockwork devices that aren’t present in the Parasol Protectorate and part of the fun of the series to me when I first read them was trying to work out what on earth was going to happen to turn a world that had clockwork butlers on tracks into one that very definitely didn’t. Sophronia is the main character, but there are other characters here who you will encounter in the rest of the series or in their own novellas. I read the first two books in this series via NetGalley around the time the third one came out and liked them so much I went off and bought myself Soulless and my obsession took off from there. My review of Ettiquette and Espionage says that it took me a little while to get into because it dumps you straight into the steampunk world without a lot of explanation, and that’s the reason why I suggest that readers start with the Parasol Protectorate series first – unless they are young adults. And I think they do need to be Young Adults for this, because if they are anything like I was when I was little they’ll want to go on and read the other books set in the universe, which are somewhat more adult than a Middle Grade Reader would cope with – even if they’ve made it to the end of the Harry Potter series.
Starting with Soulless, the Parasol Protectorate are the adventures of Alexia Tarabotti, the titular Soulless preternatural. For in the world of Vampires and Werewolves – who have an excess of soul which allows them to become immortal – there are also people who have no soul, and whose touch can render the supernatural set mortal again. Alexia is a rare female preternatural. These are set in the 1870s in a world that is recognisable but different from the world of Finishing School. In Soulless Alexia sets out to investigate a number of deaths among the supernatural set, much to the disgust of Conall, Lord Maccon, the werewolf sent to investigate by Queen Victoria. The subsequent books see Alexia dealing with werewolf pack dynamics, the homicidal attentions of London’s vampires, the Knights Templar and the very peculiar situation in Egypt. Alexia is a feisty, forthright heroine who says what she thinks and often leaves a trail of destruction in her wake – in the nicest possible way of course. I think this is the best starting place for the series as it is the clearest introduction into how the Parasolverse works, probably because it was written first so all the world-building is there. I love Alexia and Conalln so much, and as I mentioned in my review of Imprudence, I delayed reading that book because I was so worried about what the blurb of that book meant for them. And you definitely need to read this before you read The Custard Protocol otherwise you’ll be missing out on so very many references.
The Custard Protocol
Set in the 1890s, the Custard Protocol is the adventures of the crew of the Spotted Custard, an airship captained by Prudence Akeldama – known as Rue. I don’t think it’s too much to say that she’s the daughter of Alexia and Conall, because it’s right there in the blurb for it, but even that is a little bit of a spoiler for the previous series. But over the four books, Rue and her motley crew traverse the world trying to fix the British Empire. The Custard Protocol is examining the evolution of the supernatural throughout the Parasolverse, picking up on some hints and suggestions spotted in Timeless at the end of the Parasol Protectorate. And if you’ve read the rest of the series, there are call backs to the other books everywhere. Various members of the crew are linked to characters from both the other series, and by the time you reach the end of the final book, Reticence, the callbacks and references will make your head spin. If the events of Imprudence had me sniffling, Reticence had me in happy tears a few times as everything unravelled. And having finished the series – and it does feel quite final even if Gail Carriger has said she’s not done with the world, I want to go back and read all three series in order again so that I can enjoy the cleverness and interconnectedness of it all all over again.
The Novella series
There are three of them (so far – Supernatural Society, Delightfully Deadly and Claw and Courtship – and this is where Carriger has continued to add to the world. Since the publication of Reticence, there has been another novella added to the collection, and I’m hoping it won’t be the last one, as Carriger has mentioned plans for another in her newsletter. The novellas tell the stories of some of the secondary characters that you want to know what happens to them next, but whose stories don’t fit into the main novels. So far they have covered several of Sophronia’s school friends (Delightfully Deadly), members of the werewolf pack (Claw and Courtship) and popular queer characters from across the series (Supernatural Society). I’ve enjoyed them all – because I love the world and always want to know what happened next or how my favourites got their happily ever afters – but they are not the place to start the series – they are not the way into the world, they’re an extension of it for people who already know and love it.
If you want to read some of my other posts about the Parasolverse, there are Book of the Week posts for Timeless, Prudence, Imprudence and Manners and Mutiny, as well as mentions for the series in 2014 Discoveries, YA Roundup and 2015 favourites as well. In terms of getting your hands on them, they’re all available on ebook and my library’s e collection holds all of the Parasol Protectorate, three of the Custard Protocol and a couple of the novellas as ebooks and more of them as audiobooks. I don’t know what joy you’ll have getting the novels from bookshops, and they’re all shut at the moment anyway so the best I can do is say that Foyles has pretty much all of them available to order. There are Manga editions of the first three Parasol Books (which are very pretty) but they seem harder to get. And the audiobooks are available from audible – some of them exclusively there. And as I own a fair few of them too I can vouch for them being good as audiobooks too, even if the first one does have a mispronunciation that really grates…
Anyway, Happy Reading!
As a bonus, here is the complete Carriger shelf – you may have noticed not all of them match *exactly* and it drives me mad. One day I will sort it. If it is sortable. Ditto the differences in the covers of the Finishing school books in the collage – my ebook set was already a mix of proofs and UK versions, but the UK version of the first one has her head cut off and it looked weirder to be missing a head than to have the bottoms not right! Anyway, it seemed in keeping because look at this:
As I mentioned in the Escapist reading post, coming up with a list of books for that made me realise how many series I love but haven’t yet written about. So I’m taking the opportunity to change, starting last week with the Rivers of London series, and now, continuing the fantasy and alternative reality theme, the Thursday Next series, which I’ve loved since well before this blog started and have unaccountably not written about before. Well may be not unaccountably – I think I was probably waiting for the next one to appear, but it’s been a long wait.
So Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next is really quite hard to describe. It is alternative history meets fantasy meets books about books. The Eyre Affair starts in 1985, where the Crimean War never ended (and Thursday is a veteran), time travel exists (and her dad is in the time travel police), cloning is a reality (and her pet is a dodo called Pickwick) and literature is taken very seriously. So seriously in fact that Thursday is a literary detective for the government. She says it’s mostly copyright and fraud, but then she’s called in to investigate when characters start going missing from books. As in one day people open the books and a character – and their plot strand – who used to be there is gone, from every copy. Soon she’s been seconded to a special unit where she’s chasing down the world’s most wanted criminal, who is holding Jayne Eyre hostage. I told you it was hard to explain. Here’s the blurb from the back of my edition, in case that helps at all:
There is another 1985, where London’s criminal gangs have moved into the lucrative literary market, and Thursday Next is on the trail of the new crime wave’s MR Big.
Acheron Hades has been kidnapping certain characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Jane Eyre is gone. Missing.
Thursday sets out to find a way into the book to repair the damage. But solving crimes against literature isn’t easy when you also have to find time to halt the Crimean War, persuade the man you love to marry you, and figure out who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
Perhaps today just isn’t going to be Thursday’s day. Join her on a truly breathtaking adventure, and find out for yourself. Fiction will never be the same again …
Did that help? I hope it did. Anyway, I’m forever recommending this to people who love books – because there is so much love for literature in here. I mean what’s not to love about a world where the three most visited tourist attractions are Anne Hathaway’s cottage, the Bronte’s Parsonage and Dickens’ house? And even if you don’t usually read fantasy, if you like books (and books about books) then you should still give this a go. And if you do read fantasy, and like people like Terry Pratchett and Connie Willis, then you should read this (in fact, why haven’t you already?) It’s funny and clever and so well realised that the weird alternative world feels real within a couple of pages. Also they have the best puntastic titles in the business. There are seven books in the series – and we’ve been waiting for an eighth for some considerable time now – as in eight years. Maybe this year is the year? But anyway, if you like the first book there is plenty to keep you going. And as well as the Thursday books there are two books in the related (but in a sideways manner that may only make sense if you’ve read the Thursday books) Nursery Crime series (which you can see here too) so once you’ve read all the Thursday books you can go on and read those. If you’ve read Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s series, you should totally try these too.
I’ve written a bit about Jasper Fforde before – his latest standalone book Early Riser was a BotW pick last year – and all of his adult books share some similar DNA, without being in the same world – so if you like one book or series, it’s worth trying the others. But whatever you do start at the beginning – so that’s The Eyre Affair (Kindle/Kobo) for Thursday – or get the omnibus of the first three for a pound more (Kindle/Kobo), The Big Over Easy for Nursery Crime (Kindle/Kobo) and The Last Dragonslayer for his middle grade series (Kindle/Kobo). I’ve found that most good bookshops will have a couple of Fforde’s in stock, but it does vary which ones.
So while I was writing about nice escapist reading from the ‘rona, I realised that even though I’ve talked about it a lot, I haven’t written a Series I Love post about one of my favourites: Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant/Rivers of London series. Back in the early days of the blog, I wrote about the first book, Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot if you’re in the US) but sticking to my rule about not recommending later books in series, even though there’s a lot of five star ratings on my Goodreads for them, I haven’t revisited the series properly. Even though my bonus picture for one of the last weeks before the lockdown was me at a Ben Aaronovitch event for the new book – and I enjoyed it so much I had a ticket for another one which got cancelled because of said lockdown. Anyway, now I’ve read that latest instalment in the series, here goes:
We meet Peter Grant in the first book as a rookie police officer in the Met, about to get assigned to a dead end department until he sees a ghost. Yes that’s right, a ghost. That leads him into a hidden world of magic and encounters The Folly – or the magic department. This means the series is what I have described as Grown Up Hogwarts but in the Police. Over the course of the subsequent eight books (so far), two novellas, an audiobook exclusive and a line of graphic novels, he and the gang have investigated in Soho, in the Underground, in a brutalist estate, in Herefordshire and in Mayfair and so much more as he’s learned about the world of magic, River Gods and so much more.
I don’t want to go into too much of the plots, because really that spoils everything, but I will say that you do need to read these in order – there is an overarching story that weaves in around the cases of the week (so to speak), which builds over time to a crescendo that puts everything else into second place. Peter doesn’t know that magic exists until he sees the ghost in the first book – but once he’s involved and has met Inspector Nightingale (the last wizard in England) things are slowly revealed to him. Ben Aaronovitch used to write for Dr Who and I think it really shows in his skill at building a complete and fully formed world – even if he insists he didn’t have all the rules sorted out when he first started writing the series.
Now, some of you might be reading this and thinking that you don’t really do books like this, but please don’t be so hasty or so judgemental.* If you’ve read Harry Potter, then this is nothing more “hard” fantasy than that is really. Ditto if you’ve read Terry Pratchett – this is closer to “real life” than he is. If you read police procedurals as your main thing (and hello, lovely to see you if you do, but not sure how you got here) then this is really one step small away from reality – the jargon of the police force is there – down to the brand name of their walkie talkies. So go on, give it a go. I honestly don’t think anyone who I’ve recommended them to and who actually read one has told me they didn’t like them.
As I said, start at the beginning with Rivers of London. These have sold a tonne of copies, so if you’re somewhere where you can get to a bookshop, then I would be surprised if they don’t have a copy in stock. And if they’re not open, then call your local and see if they have a copy they can send you. I’m sure Big Green Books will oblige if he can too. Equally your local library (and their digital collection) should carry them – mine does. They’re also on Kindle and Kobo. The audiobook versions are read by the silky-voiced Kobna Holdbrook-Smith** and I own most of those as well. The eagle-eyed may have noticed in the photo of my shelf that I’m missing one of the novellas and that’s because before that event at Foyles, I waited for them to come out in paperback. I’ve broken that duck now, so who knows what will happen – They’ve already changed the paperback style so that furthest station and Lies Sleeping don’t quite match the previous ones, so all bets are off. Will I mix it up? Will I buy another copy of False Value when it comes out in paperback so they match?
Anyway, go forth and enjoy and when London’s reopened after all this, hopefully you’l have enjoyed the series so much that you’ll be planning a walking tour of all the various locations.
*If you’re a romance reader who is fed up of people being rude about your genre of choice, then stop now and have a good hard think about what you’re saying and how much you hate it when people do that about romance. And if you need more persuading: Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches has mentioned (more than once) on her podcast how much she enjoys them.
**The observant of voice may recognise him from Paddington 2 where he plays the warder, but he’s been all over various bits of TV for years – and also won an Olivier award for playing Ike Turner in the original cast of Tina! (Which I’m still annoyed that I didn’t manage to see)
It’s been a while since I wrote a series I love post – and as we’re all in the market for some binge-reading at the moment, I thought I would offer a suggestion for Easter at the same time. I have written about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s series in roundupposts before, but it’s been a few years and now seems like the time to have a proper moment for them.
So the series tells the stories of the Cazalet family from the last years before World War Two until the 1950s. A the start of the series in The Light Years, you meet the characters in 1937 as they gather at Home Place – where The Brig and Duchy live. They have four grown-up children, sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert – who all work in the family firm – and a daughter, Rachel, who lives at home. Their lives look perfect on the surface, but underneath they all have problems. Hugh is still struggling after the Great War, Edward is chronically unfaithful to his wife, Rupert has a younger, demanding wife and Rachel is putting her loyalty to the family above any chance of personal happiness. All three of the sons have children and we see their lives too, complete with rivalries, alliances and fears. As the series goes on, you see them all age and mature (and in some cases die) until by the final book of the series even the youngest of the children from the first book are adults.
The narrative moves from character to character, so they all have their own stories that add up to a bigger picture that only the reader is fully aware of. I have been known to go through the series just reading the bits about my favourite characters. I don’t know how Elizabeth Jane Howard does it, but she juggles a huge cast of characters while making them all seem different and distinct, and by the end you have sympathy even for the people who you found the most unlikable at the start *cough* Edward *cough* Villy *cough* and have seen promising children turn into horrors. It’s not quite a Rich People Problems book, because although they are well off upper class types (not aristocracy though) the war is a genuine real problem with genuine consequences, but it’s not far off.
I first read the original quartet while raiding my mum’s bookshelves in my teens and my sister read them not long after. I actually own then as actual books and as ebooks and they are one of the few series that we all own our own copies of. Well, at least we all own the first four books. I think I’m the only one with a copy of the fifth. All Change came out in 2013 nearly 20 years after Casting Off – which had finished the series off perfectly – to my mind at least. Looking back at my goodreads review from the time, I found it true to the series and not contrived, but it is telling that I haven’t been back to re-read it since then. It’s quite melancholy and sad in places – more than the others are because it doesn’t have the same payoffs at the end. It was inevitable – and well signposted in the earlier books – that the war was going to change the lives and lifestyles of the family, but All Change really leans into the reality of that and it makes me a bit sad and means you end the series on a bit less of a satisfying high than you do if you finish at Casting Off. I don’t think it spoils the whole series (which was my big fear before it came out) but I prefer to think of them all as they were at the end of Casting Off – heading out into their futures with all sorts of possibilities unexplored and ahead of them.
The weather is just starting to turn properly nice here at the moment – with flowers blooming in the garden and the sun shining – which makes it an ideal time to start reading about the last golden summers before the Second World War. At 400 pages each, they’ll also keep you going over the long Easter weekend and beyond if you want them to. I originally read these not long after I had read Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Hold the Dream series and was looking for something similar – telling the stories of a family over years and years. Once I’d read the Cazalets, I was spoiled forever for the genre. Lots of people have tried to tell stories like this, but very few have done it as well as Elizabeth Jane Howard did. The original books came out in the early 90s, so it’s very possible that some of you reading this haven’t come across her before – so if you like authors like Harriet Evans, Dinah Jeffries or have enjoyed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books, you should totally try these. And if anyone has any recommendations for other series that I could read that do the same sort of thing – then drop them in the comments. Also: if you like this and haven’t read The Camomile Lawn, then you should totally read that too.
As the bookshops are closed, and these aren’t new releases, I suspect you’ll have to buy them as ebooks. The Kindle and Kobo editions of the Light Years are £3.99 at the moment, which isn’t too bad. After that the prices go up for books two and three and Casting Off is a bargainous 99p (Kindle/Kobo)- but whatever you do, don’t start there, it won’t work for you anywhere near as well.
Another week, another Recommendsday post to start off the new year. Long term readers will know that I love middle grade stories – I’ve written before about my love of the Wells and Wong series as well as older books that I read when I was the “right” age. I discovered Karina Yan Glaser’s series at the end of last year – but ran into Christmas posts before I could write about it.
So the Vanderbeekers live in part of a brownstone in Brooklyn. There’s five children and it’s maybe not quite big enough but they’ve always lived there, their dad is the building superintendent and the building is like part of the family. All three books in the series so far are basically a modern take on the classic “children go on a quest” trope. In the first book their landlord is trying to evict them and they have to try and stop it. In the second, they’re trying to start a secret garden and in the third they’re trying to save their mother’s business after accidentally putting it at risk.
I really, really loved these books. The characters are great, the relationships between the family are just wonderful and they’re quirky and fun without being annoying. There’s all the classic characters in the gang – the dreamy one, the adventurous one, the problem solver – but they’re also people you recognise and would like to be friends with. There are inventions, there are pets, there’s special food – just like in the Enid Blyton stories you remember but the plots deal with issues like gentrification and the gig economy – which are very twenty-first century but also, when you think about it probably the modern successors of the Enid Blyton quest stories of old.
They’re also more diverse. The family is biracial, the neighbourhood is multicultural and so you can give it to children when you want them to get all the feels you got from your childhood favourite adventures but without everyone being white and a bit posh or the risks of language that can be out of date at best and racist at worse.
I’ve already bought the first one for the nieces (as a Christmas book) – that’s how much I liked them. My copies came from the library, but they’re available in Kindle and Kobo editions as well as in paperback and hardback from all the usual sources – although they’re probably a special order job (Foyles have two of the three available to order at the moment)
As regular readers to this blog are aware, I’m a serial book glommer. If I find a series I like and circumstances allow, I will absolutely read them one after another and my annual Big Obsessions posts are proof of it – with Steph Plum, Kinsey Milhone, Charles Paris among a list to which we can now add Beverly Jenkins’s Blessings series which I read in a month, including four of them pretty much back to back in the run up to Easter.
The first in the series, Bring on the Blessings, was BotW pick at the start of April, but here’s the series set up: Bernadine Brown is a very wealthy divorcée. After discovering her husband was cheating on her on her 52nd birthday, she took him for half his fortune and starts to think about what she can do with her life now. It turns out that what she can do is buy the town of Henry Adams in Kansas – a historic black township founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, but now struggling and in decline. It’s for sale on ebay as the town’s mayor tries to stop it being absorbed by a neighbouring town. Her plan: to revitalise the town and to use it as a place to give troubled kids a second chance at life by setting them up into good foster homes. Not everyone is onboard with the plan – some of the Henry Adams residents are sceptical and some of the kids would really rather be elsewhere, but over the course of the nine (so far) books we see Bernadine’s plan grow and develop.
As well as watching the town develop you get a romantic element in each book – whether its a couple getting together, or reconnecting. They are a Christian Inspirational series – but not in a overly moralising way, so I don’t think you’ll find them too much if you’re not really interested in that – they’re not out to convert you. And the characters aren’t all perfect people living perfect Christian lives. They’re sometimes messy, all make mistakes or do the wrong thing at times – and learn from it. And because there’s such a lovely big cast, who all have running storylines, even if a novel is focused on someone who isn’t one of your favourites, there’s still plenty from the rest of town to keep you happy. Don’t expect gritty realism here – this is pure escapism and some of the coincidences are totally farfetched – but that’s a romance genre staple. There’s nothing here that hasn’t happened at least once in a small town romance – and we all know that I find them totally glommable.
I was trying to think which was my favourite storyline, but it was actually easier to come up with my favourite character – Amari the reformed underage car thief. He gets the best lines, he’s got a handle on who he is and what he’s up to and he feels like a real boy.
I borrowed the whole series from the library, run after another, but you should be able to get hold of these fairly easily on Kindle – although the paperbacks may prove harder in the UK as they look like a special order from the US.
The long-awaited Amazon/BBC Good Omens adaptation goes live on Amazon Prime today, and I’ve had a couple of conversations with people about where to start with Terry Pratchett. So I thought this was a good time to do a quick bonus post about one of my favourite authors because the answer is not simple. But first, here’s the Good Omens trailer:
So obviously, if you enjoy Good Omens, then read that first. There are snazzy tie in editions and a script book and all sorts to coincide with the TV event, you should even be able to pick them up in the supermarket I could have thoughts. But obviously Good Omens is co-written with Neil Gaiman and is in an alternative version of the real world. So where next? Well, that depends what you like to read the rest of the time. And this is one (rare) occasion where I wouldn’t suggest starting at the very beginning. Why? Well unless you’re already a fantasy reader (and if you are why haven’t you read him already?) then these are the furthest away from what you’re used to and they might scare you off. They’re not the most accessible and (imho) they’re not his best. The series improves as Pratchett develops the world and its many characters and leans into the satire of our real world.. Luckily there are series within the series and other ways in.
This is a very non traditional choice, but I actually think The Truth is actually a really good place to start. It’s sort of stand alone but it’s also the first of the Industrial Revolution books and is centred on the invention of the printing press and what happened next. It’s got the later Pratchett social satire, but it also has some of the key features of other series: it’s set in Ankh Morpork, the City Watch appear, the Patrician features and there’s a sprinkling of the supernatural- vampires, werewolves and magic. And if you like it, depending on what your favourite bits are, it’ll give you a clue about where to read next.
Now, if you like what you see of the Watch in The Truth, then try Guards! Guards! You’re jumping back in time, but it’s the first book in the Watch cycle. If you like police or crime-y type stories usually, this might also be your best place to start. There’s a nice new* edition at the moment with an introduction from Ben Aaronovitch – so if you like his Rivers of London series (and lord knows I do) then this is your best jumping in point. This has a rag tag team of misfits who are the night watch and their reluctant leader Sam Vimes trying to figure out who is trying to take over the city – and stop them. I love it. Vimes is a wonderful creation – but then Pratchett is full of wonderful creations. Wikipedia describes him as “somewhere between an Inspector Morse-type ‘old-school’ British policeman, and a film-noir-esque grizzled, jaded detective” and I think that’s pretty much right. He doesn’t want to care, he definitely doesn’t want to be The Hero, and yet it just seems to keep happening. There are eight novels about the Watch – and there’s a TV series that’s been in development since before Sir Terry died, but which seems to be inching closer to being a reality. I’ve got everything crossed that it will materialise eventually.
If you like the magic-y type stuff, then go and read Wyrd Sisters. This was actually my first Discworld book, recommended by a wise librarian when I was at the bottom end of secondary school**. Wyrd Sisters is twisted Macbeth but with witches running the show. It’s also the first really big appearance*** of the most beloved characters in the series – as the blurb says witches “don’t have leaders. Granny Weatherwax was the most highly-regarded of the leaders they didn’t have.” I love Granny and her gang and they’re a great jumping off point for the series in a very different part of the Disc. And once you’ve read them, maybe come back for the wizards.
If you’re still unsure where to go next then try Mort. Mort is a young country lad who ends up apprenticed to Death himself, and it really isn’t what he expected. Mort was the top rated Pratchett book in the BBC’s Big Read list back in 2003 – coming in at number 65, three places in front of Good Omens and one of five Pratchetts in the top 100 (with 15 in the top 200!). Mort and Death are an excellent double act, Binky the horse is brilliant and if you like this strand then Soul Music is one of the best take offs of popular music you could hope for. Death appears in pretty much every book in the series as well as in Good Omens – so Mort is also an excellent place to start if you read Good Omens and want more of him. It’s also the fourth book in the series and is the earliest of alternative starting points.
As well as having read the books, I also own a lot of the audiobooks – the early series are mostly done by Nigel Planer (or Tony Robinson for abridged versions) and the sound quality on audible is described as “vintage” (it’s awful for some of them – I actually returned at least one!) but Stephen Briggs takes over at book 24 and I love his narration My most listened to are the Moist Von Lipwig books. They’re the next stage of the industrial revolution series that starts with The Truth (or Moving Pictures depending on how you’re reckoning it) and I think Going Postal is my favourite of the entire series, and not just because I was a stamp collector as a child. For me, they’re the culmination of everything that has been going on in the background through the other books with Vetinari’s vision for the city and Pratchett’s satire on modern life. I know some don’t like Raising Steam and get a bit touchy about the latter books in general, but my only really problem with it is that Adora Belle has the wrong accent in the audiobook and that’s Stephen Briggs’s fault not Sir Terry’s.
Usually I would suggest the middle grade part of the series much earlier than this. But although I love Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegles are brilliant, as an adult, if you’re going to read these you need to have read the Witches’ books first so you get the full impact of The Thing That Happens in the final book in the series, The Shepherd’s Crown. But once you have read the Witches – or if you have a middle grader – The Wee Free Men is the place to start. One of the other middle grade books, Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, is on offer at the moment but it’s the only Discworld that I haven’t read so I can’t tell you where to fit it in at the moment – but I’ve bought it and I’m gong to fix that!
And finally there’s Rincewind. He’s the first running character and he comes with the Luggage (I want a Luggage), but he is in at the very start in the highest fantasy the series has. Go discover him once you’re already in love with the series. It’ll work best for you if you’re not a fantasy regular. Start with the first book – The Colour of Magic – and go from there. This was one of the ones that Sky turned into a mini series along with Hogfather and my beloved Going Postal (which has early Clare Foy as Adora Belle!) and is actually worth a look. I liked it as a version of the first two books, and they do make them rattle along. There are nine Rincewind novels – the longest of the strands through the series.
There’s so much more I’ve barely touched on here, but so I don’t turn into any more of a boring fangirl, I’ll leave it here, except for saying that with 80 million book sales around the world you really should give it a try. If you’re a Pratchett fan, let me know your favourites in the comments and tell me where your recommended starting point for newbies is. I’ve put a nice graphic in below – but that doesn’t even reckon The Truth is a starting point, so you can see how many different options and opinions there are. I’m off to read Maurice and watch Good Omens (not at the same time).
*these new editions have proved… controversial with some of the Pratchett fans – because they don’t look like Pratchetts – but that’s precisely the point. They don’t look like fantasy because there are a lot of people who don’t read books with the sort of illustrated covers that these have previously had. Think of it as the equivalent of the adult cover Harry Potter books.
**I can remember Jingo coming out (but i’m not sure if it was the paperback or hardback) and being excited about it, which dates the start of my Pratchett reading to 1997ish.
Now you may have noticed from the Week in Reading posts, but I’ve been tearing through Simon Brett’s Charles Paris murder mystery series. The first book was a BotW back in November (in the heady days of my American odyssey!) and I finished the latest one the other week – after reading all 20 in just under three months. I’ve loved reading them (and listening to some of them) and though I really ought to tell you more about it.
Our sleuth is a middle-aged, struggling actor. He’s got a fairly useless agent and drinks too much whiskey and it’s sometimes hard to work out which one of these is holding his career back more. He’s also got an estranged wife, Frances, who he still holds a bit of a torch for (although not enough to manage to stay out of other women’s beds or stay off the bottle) and a grown-up daughter Juliet who is married and has children of her own. Across the course of the series we follow Charles from job to job, where bodies and mysteries invariably turn up and he tries to work out what is going on – with varying degrees of success.
The first Paris novel was published in 1975 and the latest in 2018 and time has moved on in the series – at the start Charles is living in a bed sitter with a shared payphone in the hall, these days he’s living in a studio flat and has a smart phone (although he doesn’t do anything with it beyond texting and calling). He hasn’t aged along with the 40 years (or he’d be in his 90s!) but unless you read them all back to back (like me) you probably won’t notice! Charles is one of those characters who you really don’t want to like – he’s drunk, he’s unfaithful, he’s more than a bit disreputable at times – but somehow you really do. Sometime he’ll make you scream with rage as he messes up an opportunity or backslides in his promises, but you always hope that next time he’ll do better.
Over the course of the series Charles works in pretty much every branch of the acting profession which means that there’s plenty of variety and helps stop the series feeling same-y. Simon Brett was a radio and television producer before he became a fulltime writer in the late 70s and – particularly in those early novels – his experience of the industry shines through. Regular readers will know that I’m a journalist in my day job and worked in radio before moving behind the scenes in TV and online video and I really got a kick out of comparing how things used to be to how things are now. There’s a lot less drinking than there used to be – but I did recognise a few gripes that I still hear around the industry today.
A couple of the novels have also been adapted for radio – some back when they first came out, but more recently with Bill Nighy playing Charles – which is totally inspired casting. I think I’ve listened to all of them – and Jeremy Front, who adapts them for radio, has tweeted that a new series has been completed and will be coming up soon, which is going to be a total treat. I am waiting with bated breath.
The new series of Charles Paris is in the can! Starring the regular cast: Bill Nighy, @suzysalt Suzanne Burden and Jon Glover with guest appearances to be announced. Directed by the excellent @marypeate and produced by the indomitable @salavens. More to come. #Charlesparis
I really enjoyed reading these – as you can tell by the pace that I went through them – and am hoping there’ll be another one or two yet. The good news for me though is that Simon Brett has written more than a hundred books so there are several more series from him for me to try out yet. If you want to try some Charles Paris, you may need to check your local library because the early ones are out of print physically, but they are all available as ebooks or you can try secondhand. Here’s a link to the search results on Amazon to help you on your way.
Happy reading – and I’ll try and remind you all when the new radio plays are due to go out on Radio Four!
Now I’ve written about Albert Campion as well as Peter Wimsey, it would be remiss of me not to write about Ngaio Marsh’s brilliant creation, not least because I spend as much time re-reading or re-listening to the Roderick Alleyn mysteries and watching the BBC TV versions while I iron as I do revisiting Wimsey or watching Miss Marple. And as I have now finished reading the series, having treated myself to the last omnibus in the January sales, this is an even better time to write about them!
In some ways, Roderick Alleyn is another of the gentlemen detectives so popular in Golden Age detective fiction – he’s a well-educated younger son of a baronet, born in the 1890s and who served in the First World War – but with one major difference: Alleyn is actually a police officer. At the start of the series, in A Man Lay Dead he’s a Detective Chief Inspector, by the end he is a Chief Superintendent. A Man Lay Dead was published in 1934, the final novel came out in 1982 and the setting of the series moves with the time period – although Alleyn’s age… doesn’t really. At the start of the series Alleyn is single, but later marries artist Agatha Troy, who he first met during the course of the case in the sixth book. Troy, and later their son Ricky, pop up in several more cases, but by no means all of them -his regular companions are Inspector Fox and xxx Bailey.
Most of the books are set in and around London and the south of England, but there are several novels set in Marsh’s native New Zealand. Marsh was passionate about the theatre and the arts and several of the novels are feature actors as well as the Unicorn Theatre in London and artists and artistic circles. This means there’s a really nice variety of settings, and combined with the fact that Alleyn is a police detective, helps avoid the series seeming repetitive of like bodies are following Roderick around. Alleyn is also a more peripheral figure in some of the novels than many of the other Golden Age detectives are. In A Man Lay Dead, most of the story is mostly told from the perspective of Nigel Bathgate, friend of Alleyn and a guest at the party where a man has been really killed during a game of Murder, A Surfeit of Lampreys is seen through the eyes of Roberta Grey, visiting a family of penniless and eccentric aristocrats when their uncle is killed in a lift and there are more.
As I mentioned at the start, I’ve read all the books now, but I’ve watched the early 90s TV adaptation so many times that I’ve had to go back and do some actual re-reading of the novels as the TV versions are colouring my memories of the novels slightly. There are eight TV Alleyns – and there are a few differences from the book. The most obvious is probably that Troy is in almost all of them, with the relationship between the two their relationship builds over the course of the series. The second is the condensing and moving of the timeline – while the series starts before the Second World War and continues in the post-war period, the TV series specifically sets the first case in 1948 and moves on from there.
There are also fairly major alterations to the plots – some have less victims than their book equivalent, others have characters removed and replaced, others have extra subplots added in and others taken out. The other obvious difference for the viewer is that two different actors play Alleyn – Simon Williams in Artists in Crime, the pilot episode and the story where Alleyn meets Troy, and Patrick Malahide in all the others. Williams’ Alleyn is also a slightly different character – he’s said to have had a difficult war and is seen having some emotional difficulty with the resonpsibilty of the job – generally more Wimsey-ish than when Malahide plays him in the subsequent episodes. I have reminder set on my TiVo box to record The Alleyn Mysteries and generally have two or three saved at a time for watching while ironing. My favourites are – bizarrely – the aforementioned pilot and Dead Water In fact if you fancy it, Alibi are showing two Alleyn’s this weekend and another two the week after. They all have the added bonus that if you’ve watched any other murder mysteries (or costume dramas to be honest) of the same sort of vintage, you can spot the same people popping up all over the place – particularly the Joan Hickson Miss Marples: Emily Pride in Dead Water is played by Margaret Tyzack who plays Clotilde Bradbury Scott in Nemesis; in Artists in Crime, Rory’s mother Lady Alleyn is played by Ursula Howells who is Miss Blacklock in A Murder Is Announced. They are not the only ones, but they’re probably the most obvious*. There’s also cross over with Campion and Poirot as well as the BBC TV Narnia adaptations…
Several of the Alleyn mysteries are on fairly heavy rotation in my audiobook library. I think I’ve mentioned before that I am Very Bad With Silence and often listen to audiobooks to go to sleep to while I’m away from home. And the audiobook fan is particularly lucky with this series – there’s abridged and unabridged versions of many of the novels with a variety of different narrators. Benedict Cumberbatch has done shortened versions of three of them – Artists in Crime, Scales of Justice and Death in a White Tie – but I also like Anton Lesser (who is particularly good at accents). And if you want something even shorter there are also a few radio plays available on Audible. My favourites on audiobook are probably the Cumberbatch Scales of Justice and then Lesser’s Opening Night and James Saxon’s unabridged Final Curtain.
If you fancy trying some Inspector Alleyn, you should be able to get hold of them fairly easily – they are available as ebooks, or as the three novel omnibuses that I have and they’re often in secondhand bookshops (although not usually charity shops, the most recent editions are a bit too old). I started at the beginning and worked my way through (over the course of just under five years) but I don’t think you need to read them in order to enjoy them. There is also an unfinished Alleyn, recently finished by Stella Duffy, which is out in paperback next month and which I have on my to read pile to get to sooner rather than later now that I’ve finished the series proper. If you’re an Alleyn fan, let me know which your favourites are in the comments – and if you’ve read the “new” one let me know what you thought!
*Keen Marple readers/viewers will spot what those two characters have in common, which is why they sprung to mind!