January Reviews

One month down. A long month, and many books read. *cracks knuckles* This’ll be a long one, folks; let’s get stuck in.

Black and British by David Olusoga [5/5 stars]

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I am extremely biased. While book reviews tend to favour fairness over strict objectivity, I have to say that my ability to be objective is likely compromised. This book’s title is me. This history is me. My ancestors, the nation I belong to, the reason I am sat where I am today is contained within. It is a fragment of my reality that is distilled in 600 pages. It’s hard to convey the significance of such a thing but this is definitely the kind of book I’ve always wanted. So what is it?

Withhold your judgements and take a journey through time detailing Britain’s relationship with black people across the course of history. This isn’t just about slavery or Windrush although the two feature in the story—and how could they not?—especially the former, it’s about the large tapestry that begins in the Roman Empire, continues across many decades, merchants, nobles, royals, slaves, workers all. This isn’t just my history though. This is history for us all—particularly us Brits. Jarring, heartbreaking, fascinating, quietly impassioned, this is recommended reading for anyone.

One quibble: Olusoga rarely quotes figures, instead favouring them in words (forty-thousand five hundred and thirteen instead of 40,513, for example) which can be cumbersome and resists the eye. I’ve no idea if this is a history academic thing but it’s not enjoyable and is especially annoying in the latter parts of the books where complex figure do appear. I imagine the size of the book meant that figures were a later addition and there was not enough time to revise the earlier manuscript. I don’t know the exact reason but I need to state it.

Slade House by David Mitchell [3.5/5 stars]

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Come one, come all to Slade House. Who knows what wonders await will await you? A new love, a great party, new friends, perhaps?

As much as it probably stands fairly well alone, I would call this a companion book to The Bone Clocks which was published a year before this book as it has some of the same motifs and plot elements as it. I maintain that to get the full richness of Slade House is to have read The Bone Clocks before but it could stand easily on its own … until the end. I think this feels like an expanded “deleted scenes” and those who have read both will know what I mean.

One of my biggest criticisms of The Bone Clocks was the overuse of Fantasy Terminology in turgid monologues. The smaller real estate of this volume means that this is mostly gone and what we have is a much more streamlined piece.

There’s a lot to like but it can’t reach its heights because in some ways it makes you wish that a.) you are reading The Bone Clocks or b.) it was longer overall. But oh well, still a nice bit of fun. Mitchell still has got a great use of voice and as usual is full of interesting ideas. It makes me wonder about his next literary venture which I am eagerly anticipating. Moving on!

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan [4/5 stars]

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OH YEAH, GOTTA READ THE WHEEL OF TIME, BABY!

I’m convinced that this series will be the death of me. It’s equal parts great and laughably bad. I say this with endearment (look to the rating): a sizeable increase of presence and characterisation of the female characters 90%+ of whom are in love with Rand al’Thor; a deepening of the world in fascinating, creepy, and exciting ways … slowed by awkward pacing and poor chapter construction (reams of Rand, one of Nynaeve, MORE RAND, one Really Late chapter starring Perrin for events that happened through Rand’s eyes one hundred pages before). I could go on but you get the picture. The annoyances are profound. Jordan has the ideas and some of the execution but some crucial aspects like the skill of his prose and characterisation is genuinely lacking. But damn is it really good when it’s good. It’s a huge improvement from the more overall clumsy first volume, especially since its length is smaller, too.

One of the hilarious things is the amateurish nature of the descriptions across the book: he loves to beat you over the head with physical descriptions of characters we’ve been following the entire book. “The gaunt man who was gaunt looked out with his eyes that popped out of his gaunt face … Did I mention that he was gaunt? I think I forgot that bit.” No Robert you got it. We get it: Perrin is large but gentle so feels uncomfortable with his muscles. Show us in his movements—let him hunch his shoulders more, avert his eyes, be non-confrontational. These are aspects his character delivers but is cheapened by the constant description of his Immense Musculature™. The prose that has genuine flourishes—“[speak] without embroidery” was a personal fave because it had me muttering “Ooh that’s good. I like that.”—of quality becomes much more laboured as a result.

Of Sand and Malice by Bradley Beaulieu [4/5 stars]

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A brisk and exciting story to whet the appetite between books in the Shattered Sands series. I bought this to show support for an author I respect and damn am I glad I did: it serves as a sort of prologue to the second book (which I am set to finish very soon). While I don’t think it’s a necessary read, it does add a lot of depth to a story going ahead, even though it’s set some years before even the first in the series.

For the main books, Beaulieu likes to intersperse the present with significant events in the past and something tells me this is built out of some of those scenes. What we get is a great little book. I think you could read this before any of the core books but I would especially recommend you’d read it between books one and two.

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner [3/5 stars]

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Our final book for January.

The premise can be referred to in shorthand as “unconventional wisdom”: challenging prevailing ideas and revealing new ways of perceiving the world. It’s a light and pretty fascinating book but not without fault. An example of one of my major issues is with the positing of IQ. Now it’s not a focused topic, rather built in to their discussion of another, but considering their aim is challenging conventions that are misrepresented and taken for granted, the overall dubiousness and non-holistic nature of IQ should be held with a greater deal of scepticism since it measures specific types of intelligence, which in turn feeds perceptions of what intelligence is/looks like. That, strikes as quite hypocritical. I’m willing to posit that it’s human error but that’s pretty sloppy.

I do owe the Steves a bit of a debt though—they helped me rationalise my goals with their awesome podcast—which is why I was quite entertained throughout, but it’s not without its flaws. A perfunctory glance at Goodreads reveals it’s quite polarising. Go in with an open mind and make your own decision. Good book overall, though.

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December Reviews

I predicted wrong; I only managed two books last month. Sometimes things take longer to read than you realise.

The final books of 2017 were as follows:

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan [3/5 stars]

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What am I doing reading The Wheel of Time (TWoT)? I’ve been curious for years but now here I am. Sweet Mother Goddess, here—I—am. Whenever thinking about or discussing it, I’m reminded of my brother’s friend who says “Gotta read The Wheel of Time, baby” and it makes it more fun.

So what did I actually think? It was good but could stand to lose a few hundred pages because there are genuine flourishes of the brilliance I was promised from this series scattered throughout but not enough of it together. In my Goodreads review I described it as the “pilot” of TWoT replete with Tolkien pastiche, awkward names, clumsy writing both in the prose and dialogue department, and an uneven pace. I stand by that characterisation. It’s not always the case, though, which is kind of annoying: there are some bits of this that are actually engaging (Shadar Logoth, some bits on the road, the ENDING) but a lot of it is slow and meandering, giving me flashbacks to my own drafts. That hits to the heart of it: in parts it reads like a draft (which again feels like a pilot of a show, in that in needs to hit certain parts to establish the world and characters so that it’ll get picked up, and this book is all of the world, some of the characters. Man this is gonna be a long haul).

But there’s something to be said of the world which is the big selling point of the series: it’s interesting if awkwardly told. The history is fascinating, cool things like Ogier exist, and magic is pretty cool (there are two sides—essentially the two sexes of magic—with the male side being corrupted so any man who uses magic will eventually go mad unless he has his ability blocked-off—or “gentled”. This means only women who are magi have access to the power untainted and they pull a lot of strings in the world, the scope of which is still being unveiled). I liked the cast, if not of all them were developed enough. The three main boys were given a fair bit of room (except maybe Mat) to develop while we didn’t get much from the women, barring Moiraine (who, alongside Lan, her sort of sworn swordsman I adore). So in sum: a good, not great beginning to a *sighs* 14 volume epic. It’s annoying looking back on this because its sequel is almost twice the book it is but more on that next month. It’s awkward and slow, but fuck I enjoyed it.

The final book of 2017 is:

Civil War: written by Mark Millar, with art by Steve McNiven, inks by Dexter Vines, and colours by Morry Hollowell [4/5 stars]

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You know the film, now read the comic that it was based. The two are distinct enough properties that you needn’t consume one before another.

This comic a serious but not too deep stories exploring the potential cost of being a superhero. Some dark material within with some good character beats (there are clearer arcs over the House of M which had glimpses), fights, and some good art. With a sprawling cast, I’d be surprised if anyone that wasn’t a super fan knew everyone involved, but more surprised if you didn’t know the main players (Iron Man and Captain America, for one). Good stuff. I personally wouldn’t recommend it as your first foray into superheroes but it can be a pretty good intro, definitely a good continuation of the various stories involved.

November Review

It seems that my book amount has steadily decreased to one. I hope this isn’t a trend but I think these past couple of months have been outliers because of NaNoWriMo (which I won!) coupled with big books that I’m reading right now have slowed me down. I’m aiming to top the year off with three books and currently on track for that.

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo [4/5 stars]

 

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Another month, another job for the Dregs in the conclusion to the Crooked Kingdom duology. And what an end: heists, heartbreak, and heroics (?) are aplenty this time around in a crystallisation of the strengths of Bardugo and her Grishaverse.

The flashbacks are still here, though! They’re good bits of character depth but they’re overlong and distracting. Not as bad Six of Crows‘ mind, but still noticeable. Characters—new and from the past trilogy—rub shoulders, shining alongside the ever-expanding world.

When you’re having so much fun it’s hard not to feel sad to be parting with them all. Hopefully they’ll be back in time, in some form or another. If not in their own story, perhaps someone else’s. At the very least, more books in this universe as the world is slowly building in interesting ways that I’d love more follow-up on. Bardugo continues to grow as a writer and we’re the richer for it. Recommended.

 

October Reviews

Autumn deepens but stays warm and busy, bringing this month’s readership down to only two. But that is not a problem! I also have to apologise for the lateness of the post: I’ve been busy doing NaNoWriMo and that swallows more time than you give it credit for. I did win again though, so there’s that. But I’ll talk about that in another update.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [4/5 stars]

This was a fun, yet flawed adventure playing on a nostalgia that I don’t possess for a decade I never lived in. I’m a bit younger than the intended fanbase—I didn’t grow up in the 80’s—but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment too much.

2044. The world has gone to shit and the only pleasure that people worldwide can enjoy is an immersive MMO (massive multiplayer online) game, accessed through VR headsets. The book follows Wade Watts in his hunt for the Easter egg that the game’s creator left, which will allow the winner access to his fortune of a significant amount of billions of dollars. (The creator had a love for the 80’s since they grew up then, and part of the hunt is understanding his obscure interests so 80’s fever has swept the world.)

The world is quite detailed in the beginning so the book does suffer a bit in its pacing. It’s not too much of a problem because in general it adds a certain enjoyable richness.

Also, I’m not sure if it was intended to be so easy. I was talking to my brother about this and he raised a good point: it felt very objective-led, like a game. Fascinating, that. What I mean is that everything Wade wants, he gets. Without spoiling it, it could be argued that Cline is structuring the book like a game, which are designed to be able to be completed [*waves hands* “Me~eta~a”] but convincing book it does not make. If I step back and allow it to be “a bit of fun” it holds up, except that too is unsatisfactory when some other spoilery world-grounding elements are introduced, which remind you actually this shit is not a game. So the objective-led aspects undermine the more serious parts to some extent.

That being said, look at the rating! It’s fun, and geeky in all the right ways. The prose is simple and smooth and the general pace is pretty good, especially towards the middle and end. But I don’t think it has a lot of revisit value. Maybe I’m too young to really love it and I think that’s partly to do with the fact that the 80’s was not my childhood. Ah well, if you like video games and anime and are looking for a good read, you’d could do much, much worse.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari [3/5 stars]

 

Don’t be alarmed by the three stars. I had a lot of fun reading this: it’s smart and funny, just like Aziz Ansari, who’s turning into a bit of a cultural virtuoso: actor, writer, screenwriter (of some incredible TV), comedian … I dig someone who wears a lot of hats. Makes other generalists like myself feel at ease that one can find success in multiple things. But back to the aims of the book!

Unfortunately, it was not quite the sort of book for me. Not that I wasn’t showing up for a distillation of modern romance; no, that’s what I got this book. It’s more that the sum of its parts equalled everything I already knew about dating in the modern age, barring perhaps information about places like France and Japan, which were fascinating and the most enlightening to me. I recommend anyway but if you only read those bits, it’s worth it.

Basically, it’s well-researched, well-written, very funny, but if you already have a few intuitions—or better yet, direct experience—about dating in the present day in comparison to before smartphones and such, you’ll have already known about 70-80% of the book’s material. It’s not a bad thing if you genuinely don’t know but my appetite is only whetted by the end of this book, not sated. For non-fiction I really want to mostly learn more vs. what I already know and this sadly didn’t deliver.

September Reviews

Summer has wound to an end and autumn opens its arms, nestling us in its embrace. Leaves blush in the growing cold, and the season of jumpers and pumpkin spiced—blahblahblah cozy descriptors (I do genuinely love autumn tho it’s very Branded™ now). Adventure, mystery, and robots awaited me in September, that glorious young autumn month.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo [4/5 stars]

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My relationship with this book has come full-circle after nearly two years: I went away and read the Grisha trilogy, took a break, and have returned. I have to say it was not disappointing.

Six teens are put to an impossible task: a prison break from the most secure place in the region. Six of Crows is a brisk and wonderful book with a fun and interesting cast, set in an intriguing world. We’ve moved away from the palaces, courts, and Good vs. Evil to the much more morally grey criminal world. Set in the same world as the Grisha trilogy (two years after book 3, I believe), but in a different country, one most certainly does not to read the Shadow & Bone trilogy to read this duology. There are polite Easter eggs for those who have but it won’t detract from your experience because extra-textual references are kept to a minimum: this is a story with a different cast, although we do get some added depth to the world, perfect for someone who likes links between texts.

Despite it’s many successes, it does suffer a bit from the length of the backstories. They’re illuminative enough to give depth and motivation to the characters, but they are quite long in a fair number of cases which makes the forward motion of the plot judder a bit. Not too disjointing, but significant enough*.

Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Collection, Book 1, written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by many [4/5 stars]

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Picture this: Spider-Man is your favourite superhero, rubbing shoulders with Wonder Woman and Batman. Since 2002 there have been 6 Spider-Man live-action films with three different actors. You know this story all too well. And yet, you still get emotional over Uncle Ben and Peter’s story.

Brian Michael Bendis is the guy who’s everywhere in comics. Most of my brother’s comic collection has his name printed on it. He’s responsible for some of the most iconic “event” Marvel comics like Secret Invasion, House of M, as well as a shitload of other Marvel superheroes. He’s also the co-creator of Jessica Jones. There’s a reason for this: he can write. Bendis, alongside the artists, have managed to make teenage Peter Parker’s tale still feel fresh and emotional, despite it being so familiar. One advantage of the comics over the films is that it can take its time building character relationships which, again, it does well.

Art: the art for me was interestingly exaggerated which made action scenes punchier. Two gripes, however: 1.) The sexualisation of Mary Jane was uncomfortable reading, considering she’s a child (they’re fifteen when this begins). A fairly sedentary teenager with an athlete’s body read almost more like parody than problematic but still, not super cool with that. 2.) The inks are bit heavy for my taste.

Other than that, this was great reading. Comic collections like this are really good to build reading confidence in a slump. I’ll be sure to move along through Spidey’s Ultimate Collections.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov [3/5 stars]

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Last but not least: The Caves of Steel. 

I must admit, I was fairly disappointed by my first foray into Asimov. I became interested in this because I was to use it as research for a project I’m working on. From an entertainment standpoint it was … fine?

The set-up: a futuristic Earth where there are tensions between humans and extra-planetary Spacers are rife. The two communities are separated: humans cloistered in their caves of steel, large networks of urbanised area inside and homogeneous instead of how we know them; the Spacers meanwhile are in their own domed communities free from the disease-carrying humans. A robot Spacer is teamed with a human police officer to investigate the death of a (fleshy) Spacer.

Sound good so far? Unfortunately, despite the real and clear animosity the humans have for robots, as well as the philosophical discussions of the nature of reality and the relationship between humans and androids, it was kind of boring. That’s a shame, considering the towering influence that Asmiov possesses. Perhaps I started in the wrong place. The philosophy makes it worthwhile enough but that can’t mask a fairly by-the-numbers detective story, which might be fine if that’s what you want.

A personal note:

I met Leigh Bardugo at a signing a couple of years ago. She was touring the UK alongside Brandon Sanderson and Bradley Beaulieu (I recommend Twelve Kings by him). I was there for Sanderson but I had chance to talk to all three in turn and I found Bardugo to be immensely charming and friendly. The conversation was enjoyable despite having lost my voice. Hearing her read and speaking to her had me sold: I bought the book that night and got her to sign it. Because of the amount of people in the queue for signing you had to pre-plan what would inscribed within, but I manage to finagle a different inscription per author. Here’s what she decided on:

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I can’t remember if I said to her that I wanted to be an author, but this has always been polysemic to me: I’d lost my voice when we met and would undoubtedly get it back; more poignantly, though, I would find my literary voice and become an author. This is an Important Inscription so take note, everyone, because I will keep talking about it.

 

August Reviews

A wild graphic novel appears! I had every intention of reading graphic novels again (my friend very kindly bought me a collection of Watchmen) but I was always intimidated by the size of the universes that comics have built. Especially Marvel, which has a continuous universe since inception. But my brother and I got digging and we found a list for where newbs can get stuck in.

I had a stint where I collected Japanese comics so now I’m turning my attention back to superheroes. Soon I want to look into non-superhero comics (got my eyes on you Saga.)

Okay, without further ado, August:

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole [3.5/5 stars]

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Huh. I put this as four stars but in retrospect it just misses it. Why? There’s no plot or characterisation to speak of. What we get instead is essentially an observers brief foray into Nigeria, in particular Lagos which is interesting as it is shocking. The prose is spare with a gently burning passion. It read more as journalistic writing than fiction, which is pertinent because some people have stated that it reads as a thinly-veiled “fictionalisation” of Cole’s own story: a man who left Nigeria for America as a youth and is revisiting it later in life. I don’t mind too much, especially with the short chapters interspersed with some of Cole’s photos.

So overall, good writing and subjects, no real sense of character—I barely remembered the narrator’s family, for example. That’s a bit of a deal breaker for me, sadly.

House of M: Written by Brian Michael Bendis [4/5 stars] (Full credits through THIS link.)

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Like superheroes? Like crossovers of various Marvel properties? Want a good plot and art? This is the book for you. I’m going to have to withhold a more detailed analysis/breakdown for when I’ve read more comics to compare the style to: obviously the rules are going to differ to novels, with obvious visual advantages but some storytelling deficits.

This is a collection of the eight stories that make up this arc in the Marvel Universe. For a newbs first foray into Marvel after about 15 years, I enjoyed myself quite a bit and did make me want to see what’s after this. Have a peek.

The Silver Tide by Jen Williams [4/5 stars]

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And so comes to an end a story of friendship and adventure. This book demonstrated Williams’ growth as writer which keeps rewarding readers with more fun, being the vision of what a final book should be, and what I imagine she hoped her first book to be. This one deals with time but in a way that keeps the concept surprisingly fresh.

So long, Black Feather Three. A touching and wholly “right” ending to a solid series. I’ll be definitely sure to check out Williams’ next trilogy (starting with The Ninth Rain, the book that put Williams on my map). Probably starting when book two drops next year.

July Book Reviews

No theme for July but definitely weighted towards more non-fiction, which is good news for me; bad for you. With every bit of knowledge earned, I grow more powerful!

In seriousness though, I recommend all of these books, but some more than others.

Doing Good Better by William MacAskill [3/5 stars]

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Interesting thesis with a supposed “counter-intuitive” element to it. To me, it was logical and plausible, especially considering his clear explanations. Perhaps because I went in wanting to be convinced. Rather than aimlessly trying to be altruistic, the purpose of the book is to get people to be more thoughtful and deliberate with their actions without disadvantaging one too much.

His desire to skirt past assumptions about being utilitarian were amusing but didn’t do so well to me. To me, it still reads as a (admittedly modified) form of utilitarianism. This was especially with the amount of people who get left out by the decision-making process. Read it and see for yourself. At the very least, though, this book will aim to make us take charity very seriously by help us make decisions that affect us directly like moving city or getting a new job. Whether you believe in effective altruism is up to you. I recommend that you read it and make up your own mind. Even if you’re not convinced, there’s some worthwhile knowledge there about the nature of charity work.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro [3/5 stars]

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This book has been on my to-read shelf for a number of years so I was pleased to see that I could get it from my library. I must say, though, it was quite disappointing. The book’s topic was interesting but it wasn’t told very well at all. What should have been moving only elicited a shrug from me and an idle wondering of “what next?”

It’s a shame because there are some really good parts but was mired by too many dull, reflexive recollections of more mundane aspects of school life.

Self by Barry Dainton [4/5 stars]

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We round this month of with some philosophy! As a philosophy grad I’m surprised at how little philosophy I’ve read, so a slim book such as this should be a nice way to re-enter a scene I put aside for other subject areas.

Dainton states arguments in metaphysics and philosophy of mind in lucid, unpretentious prose. As I understand it, it’s part of a series of philosophy books for breezy explorations of topics of interest. If the aim of the book was to examine some aspects of philosophy of mind and metaphysics such as existence over time, as well as the problems of consciousness, then it succeeds. It’s no textbook and doesn’t pretend to be but it also isn’t very nuanced. It does cover a lot but not deeply which is a shame given what I thought I would be getting. I suppose it’s my thinking that’s at fault.

Ah well, Dainton’s own theory of C-continuity for his additions to the problem of consciousness was interesting to follow.

What this reminds me of is that I need to start thinking about my future philosophical reading: this was aimed at someone with less philosophical knowledge which, again, is fine but not what I’m after.

That’ll do. This month I’ve begun to read comic books—sorry, graphic novels— in earnest. You’ll have to see what they are but I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner. More on that next month.

June Book Reviews

I’ve found very gentle themes that have drifted across my reading habits. This is purely accidental but I find it amusing. June’s reading has taken me away from the more sprawling studies into more intimate settings. I lead with a new found favourite.

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong [5/5 stars]

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Reading a five star book for me has been a bit like a four leaf clover. I also have a weird paradox: I want to find favourites pretty readily but also their scarcity makes them precious, a book class of their own.

I Contain Multitudes in short: the world as we know it is dependant on in a large part to that which we cannot even see. Our health, behaviour, and the ability to do anything is down to a healthy relationship with the trillions of microbes that live within us.

In the book we get a look at microbes in nature, like in a bobtail squid there are certain microbes which allow them to glow and protect them from predators.

Eye-opening is an underwhelming adjective to describe this book. It’ll have to do, unfortunately. I left this book with a new perspective of the complexity and wonder of the world. Highly recommended!

Parade by Shuichi Yoshida [4/5 stars]

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Ever read a book at the perfect time in your life? Like the stars aligned and produced a bit of content that fitted your exact mood? This is what Parade was for me. Again, I was gripped by the melancholia of post-graduation, a long shadow of uncertainty stretching far into the distance.

It follows five Japanese under 30s in various states of discomfort, stuck in unfavourable situations and uncertain how to go forwards. Basically: same. If I were to describe this book, I would say it’s about nothing, not even growing up per se which might sound like a not very interesting overview. For me, though, it’s part of its appeal: it feels like we’re taking a slice out of these characters’ lives, bearing temporary witness to a space of time that they all occupy until the final point.

Anger and violence are sleeper themes in this also. I read it in a day so it felt a bit more intense that it might have been if I paced myself. Good reading.

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu #1) [4/5 stars]

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I did it! I have finished volume one of Proust’s epic. Like the sun that crests an autumn horizon, gently bathing that once frigid landscape with its pale light that unfurls like the banners of your country’s army, near those frozen fields by old Combray that are awakened to the prospect of a new dawn, the story unfolds in a gorgeous, but slow manner, such as in the case of that old gentleman Swann, that storied champion with whom we spend an excellent period exploring the tragedies of love and jealousy, those visceral emotions that can make a man as much as they destroy him, a consuming battalion of emotions not unlike the effects of illness, taking us completely whole without chance of rebellion or clarity, which in our fevered grip we hold onto some notion of self as it has changed from memory of a time we have lost, namely such as a time when mind and body were not overwhelmed with illness, not racked or distorted but completely whole.

Reading this book you will find yourself reading a lot of sentences like this. While isolated it might even be quite endearing, but it made  for slow reading, especially to begin with; more than once I wrestled with the notion of abandoning it. But I didn’t. And, being on the other side, I did enjoy it but I must say “overwritten” is a word that comes to mind. Especially when it comes to simpler ideas. In exploring the nuances of emotions, Proust has no rival, and he writes a mean description too. But it poses a problem when you lose the point of the sentence after the 20th comma. I wonder how much is down to the translator. I may never know. What you do have though is something with real flourishes, a piece of literature deserving of its esteem. I’ll check back in but not too quickly.

May Reviews

Let’s have a look at the books I read in May, shall we?

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon [3.5/5 stars]

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Ah, the misadventures of youth! Fresh out of university and so full of energy, optimism and passion.

I couldn’t help but see some of myself in Art Bechstein, the narrator of Mysteries. Just out of university with the promise of a whole world out there crammed with love, sex, adventure. It’s so 80s. But in a good way (it was published in the 80s so it’s earnest in its energy). I need more optimism in my life. The optimism isn’t naïve, but it is an identifiable young sort.

The book explores sexuality and love in very honest, often sensitive, ways. Chabon also has a heck of an ear for dialogue, which made the conversations a breeze to follow. The characters carried with them the scent of uncertainty and identity-formation that I see with me and my social groups—people in their twenties still trying to figure it all out. I read this at the perfect time.

This being said, I wish Chabon would slow down a little. It’s pacy and that’s a boon, but some of the more ponderous and emotional moments weren’t treated with a carefulness they deserved before we’re racing off to the next thing.

That being said, this is still an accessible and fun read with good writing, characters, and grounded feeling to it. Would’ve made a good film (not the 2009 one–we’ll quietly ignore that).

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert [4/5 stars]

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For a book with such a gloomy title, this read was a far more pleasant than it could have been.

Before we get into it, though, I should explain: in the history of animals, there have been five extinction events where all life was nearly wiped out. With the way certain flora and fauna are dying out, we may be heading to our next one. This time a man-made extinction, the first animals have had an active role in such an event.

Sound heavy? Well good because IT’S ALL OUR FAULT … except, it is and it isn’t. Global warming, sure. For example, there are fungi-related deaths because spores from one country travel across the ocean to other countries because they’ve dispersed onto boats and planes and the like, with the new country’s fauna poorly adapted to fight what is ostensibly new for them. While you could point the finger at us, some of the fallout of wildlife is also accidental.

Where a book on such a topic could have been sombre, judgemental, even heartbreaking, it reads with a passion for understanding and curiosity. Kolbert writes in serious but fluid prose and never once is boring. You can tell she’s a reporter first. And that interest carries forward the main thrust of the book. It also offers an insight of a possible world where we no longer exist—something of a comfort to me, not a fear. I’m talking many, many years from now.

Read this book! I guarantee you’ll walk out of the experience having learned something interesting about the world.

April Reviews

This month was a good one. I liked April’s book a lot.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami [4/5 stars]

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From the opening lines, I am struck at the readability of this book. The prose guides the reader through with careful fluidity. We as the audience are addressed as an observer as if we’re watching a film. In fact, the way he describes scenes is through the lens of an imagined camera as it moves through the spaces in the book. It’s like we’re being watched while watching. It’s very self-aware and less jarring than it sounds. It works by giving the book a very cinematic feel. I often felt as though I was watching a translation of a film onto the page, the various scenes para-real, film-like.

Set in Tokyo, the book focuses on a cast of characters over the course of one night as the title indicates: after dark. They all have their own problems and backstories that develop as time moves on. What’s made clear are the divisions of reality that come to the fore in the night, inner darkness—violence, ill intent—that can hide in the pureness of day but is exposed at night. Like occupying a different world. There are some surreal elements as well which I enjoyed.

What I loved as well is the idea of people as both individuals but part of a whole, like cells in a body of the city. Very enjoyable stuff.

Also, of course we have Murakamisms in abundance: the quiet, unassuming protagonist, characters with serious/mysterious backstories, jazz, etc. No talking animals or weird sex scenes though.

The Iron Ghost by Jen Williams [4/5 stars]

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This was plain and simple an improvement of the first book in the sequence of the Copper Cat: it tightens the focus of the book to one setting and the consequences that develop over the course of it. A surprising amount of stuff is covered over the course of this second volume which I’m uncertain if I liked or not. I experienced a bit of a lull in the middle but it was for the most part fun and inventive in just the right amount. I do wish that the antagonist was a.) not spoiled in the blurb (!!!!!!) and b.) a bit more fleshed out. Their defeat was fairly underwhelming, I have to admit. Otherwise, though, I was very pleased with how much better it was. Williams clearly knows how to build a world and make you care about the cast.

Also, I love how things fit together without relying too much of the previous book. It definitely deepens the experience by starting from the first book but I could easily see a new reader starting here with little difficulty.

 

Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger [4/5 stars]

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A short story and novella concerning the Glass family focusing on the eponymous characters, respectively. I said in a earlier review of this but I felt like I was reading a play or the script for a film (that makes two books this time around!). This for me is more a treatise arguing for authenticity in life and spirit. The way the ideas develop mostly through prose, conversations between speakers that are out of sync with one another. The methods of communication was very naturalistic to me (although the use of italics felt overused in a lot of cases—also what’s up with Zooey’s rudeness to his mom? Man. Learn some respect, haha), characters sorting through problems in a believable way (and pace), hence why I thought film/play. The translation could be pretty easy, I think.

I don’t think it’s for everyone but man did I learn a thing or two from it, both as a writer and as a person. For a lot of people, Salinger might seem to didactic, in your face with the Lesson of the book but I genuinely felt a hardened of my spirit when I was done. I think I want to re-read Catcher now.

I’m also pleased to learn that the Glass family is a saga so I’ll jump into that next story when I can.

(Interestingly I caught the influence Salinger had on David Foster Wallace with the Glass family. It’s interesting to see the links between authors I think.)