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. 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. 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, this book will aim to make us take charity very seriously like decisions that affect us directly like moving city or getting a new job. Whether you believe in effective altruism is up to. I recommend that you read it and make up your own mind. Even if you’re not convinced, there’s some worthwhile knowledge there.

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, and 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—more than the amount of stars in the galaxy!

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 certain moments 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 in the 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.)

 

March Reviews

Last month was a slower month than February despite the fact it was longer? I suppose it happens. Here’s what I’ve been reading!

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams [3/5 stars]

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Don’t let that star rating deter you. This book is a lot of fun. So much so, that I borrowed its sequel from the library long before I’d even finished this one. So why didn’t it get top marks?

Let’s go back a bit: The Copper Promise was initially a short story about a group of individuals on an adventure into an ancient citadel and it … shows. Well, the book works kind of fine, but it doesn’t hang together as well as you might hope. The through-line of a continuous story across the four parts (or novellas) was nice for a sense of some continuity but some threads were more tenuously connected than others. Because of that, some things didn’t need to happen whatsoever.

Also, sadly the focus on adventure meant they flitted across the book’s world meant that I couldn’t soak into much of its locales in depth, or appreciate certain events that happened, which is a shame because there are flourishes of some really cool stuff that would have been heavy-hitting had there been more careful build up. The focus is more of the world’s history which is well-drawn. Place needn’t be your number one, especially if you don’t have a fixed one in place, but I wish there was more anchoring. They seemed to be in one place for only a tiny amount of time, which was a shame. What I’m saying is that having more development of the places they were going would have made it better.

Also, there are a surprising amount of unnecessary POVs (one-time characters who had zero bearing on the plot, for example).

But—and this a big but—the other aspects are an utter delight. Even when the story was slowing down to weird side streets and avenues, the writing was breezy and unobtrusive. Details were pared down and chapters were short, which made it quick to get through, although I did feel its size towards the end. And Bezcavar. And the griffins. Wydrin, and having one of the main cast be gay (and it not define who they were!)—all really cool!

Overall, it was a fun ride and I’m currently reading its sequel which structure-wise is so far improved upon the major gripes I had with its predecessor. You’ll hear about it soon enough.

Economics by James Forder (Beginners Guides) [3/5 stars]

I’ll confess my disappointment.

What I thought I was getting: an accessible introduction to economics for the uninitiated. What I got: was a strikingly obscure one in places. This is not to say that there weren’t lucid moments—quite the opposite. But Forder had a habit of running away with a long train of abstraction that didn’t do well for my understanding. Difficult subjects can be explained well and points of this book were not. It definitely could have benefited from more practical examples to illustrate points more clearly, for that is when I could understand Forder’s presentation of ideas.

Despite that, I did learn a few things about economics and what it can and can’t do. Also, a huge amount of respect for his critique of economic and, to a larger extent, academic “priesthood” (or elitism). It had me grinning. I do feel slightly more confident in exploring economics but sadly not as much as the sweet, sweet promise that the book offered.

Review Roundup: February

It’s World Book Day! What better way to celebrate it than to review the ones I’ve read recently. Here’s what I read in February.

The Power by Naomi Alderman [3/5 stars]32763477

So the concept of this book was an interesting one to me. In short, a role reversal: what if women had the power instead of men? Power being quite literal. Imagine a parallel earth in the present day, but there’s been a latent mutation that starts to manifest in young women in the form of electricity that can be shot from their hands. Older women can’t generate it naturally but can use it if a young woman awakens it in them. This is our setting.

What happens is the unravelling of one social order and the rise of women’s rebellion across the globe, them taking the power. Are you seeing it? It’s allegory. There are four main (and a couple of others off the top of my head) perspectives that act as the observers of the world. Beyond that, though, there’s not much to say about them. They exist on linear axes without any clearly definable character development. This is disappointing and so the book misses out on some of its potential emotive beats: I didn’t massively care for them a great deal.

What we do have, however is some very taught writing and an interesting concept. There’s also a lot of violence (unsurprising) and hoo boy quite a bit of rape as well. When you remove the electrical powers and invert the genders, you’re looking into the mirror of our world which makes it that much more bone-chilling. The allegory is cleverly told but it has, sad to say, not amazing characters. Overall, a good, but not great, book.

On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti [3/5 stars]

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I should not be bored by the discussion of basic civil liberties. I repeat: I should not be bored by the discussion of basic civil liberties. And yet, in 140 pages, I was. What? In this book we get some pretty surprising revelations about surveillance in relation to the 9/11 attacks. This is stuff that directly affects our civil liberties (and is part of a pantheon of material I’m using as research for my book) and yet it was a bitingly dull read. I’m sorry to say those words but the purpose of the book genuinely suffered from the writing. Dry, lawyer-like writing, peppered with some personal stories that tie in with her points. This should have taken me a sitting to read, but it took days instead.

The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku [3.75/5 stars]

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I imagine Michio Kaku is fun at parties. He strikes me as a warm paternal figure with lots of knowledge of cool things and a way of telling good stories about big ideas that are a lot of fun. This is what this book is, in short. For the most part, it’s a lot of speculation. Pills that make you smarter? Merging with machines? An emotional internet … eh maybe. This is heart of a the book: a long series of “this could happen with the development of neuroscience … but not yet”, but that’s alright, that’s what I was kind of looking for.

There’s some light science here that acts as sort of crash course for the layperson—moi—so it’s perfect for the average reader to follow along, learn a thing or two. What sets it apart from being “merely” light and fun is the interweaving of philosophical and scientific pondering that left me with stuff to chew on. It’s not a massively deep book that richly explores concepts, but rather lots of ideas in accessible broad brushstrokes. Also, I was generally surprised and dismayed at how lenient he was towards the MKUltra project. I suppose it’s not the right place to moralise but he spoke about them as if they were near-harmless experiments.

Overall, though, it’s a fun book for someone who wants to go on a speculative and informative journey.

Neuromancer by William Gibson [4/5 stars]

 

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“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Who can top one of the slickest, vaguest writer in literary history? Very few. Pop culture of the last thirty or so years owes a great debt to Gibson. Just look at The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell. We might not have them were it not for Neuromancer. Both of those form a significant portion of our culture, not just in sci-fi society rooms underneath university buildings.

What Gibson lacks in terms of character depth, and clarity, he makes up for sheer originality, which means I’m often torn. I want to like the characters and the plot but half the time I can’t even understand what’s happening. A girl with implanted sunglasses and retractable nails? Using headsets to jack into the internet? Intelligent AIs? Sure, sign me up.

The plot progression barely registered for me so I felt a bit dim, but in general it was written like someone on a drug high, with shades of clarity and obscurity in alternating parts. This feels deliberate as it follows only our main character Case, who is a drug addict, from a limited third-person perspective. Unfortunately, that’s what makes it kind of suffer as well. There is a great deal of complexity about human motivation as well as the integration of technology and consciousness but the depth is missed with the prose. I had to read up on it so I was absolutely clear what I had just read. I imagine it’s one of those reads that becomes greatly improved with repeat visits (like Ancillary Justice) but boy, for such a short book it makes you really work for it. Super Cool (note the capital C) world and ideas. Not so sure about the style.

An extra star for being way, way ahead of its time.

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta [4/5 stars]

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Another month, another Dana Spiotta book.

I don’t know if this is a problem that all of her books face—I have read exactly 50% of them now—but the beginning of this is cluttered. Packed thickly with details of the world we’re to explore, parentheses and seeming tangents, it’s almost off-putting. But then things calm down. The narrative presses on, alternating between first- and third-person, as well as in a form of a sort of metafiction. This is less gimmicky and off-putting than it sounds. Put simply, there are three layers to how the narrative unfolds: the third-person perspective of Denise, our protagonist; her first-person retelling (and remembering of the events of her recent past) which occupies the bulk of the book; and The Chronicles of her brother, Nik, a fictional telling of his life.

Each of the narratives fulfil a specific purpose. The book is about mortality and ponders its many associations like the passage of time, memory, and permanence. There are a sometimes very haunting moments in the book that explore what happens to us when we age, especially through the lens of memory and its disappearance; Denise trying to remember an actress’ name cut a bit too close to my life. It’s a scary thing, forgetting, like a piece of you is disappearing that seemed so crucial, never before to shift. Of course, mortality is described across three crucial points: old age, youth, and the middle ages through Denise, in her 40s, her 20-something daughter, and her ailing mother. The parts on memory are some of the best writing I’ve ever read. It’s very powerful stuff.

On top of that there are musings on how realities can be presented—and distorted—and how we normalise them. Spiotta chooses television cycles. Denise obsessively consumes news and tragedies, and she records her strange and visceral reactions to it.

Almost in direct contrast to this her brother Nik who is a down-on-his-luck, but prolific, musician. He never really had a professional career but continues to produce music for the benefit of a tiny few, mostly family.

So you see there’s a lot to unpack here. The book is barely over 200 pages long and the deceptively simple prose and small size would lead you to believe that it’s a light read. It’s anything but. It’s very astute and unique, empathetic without being showy: the characters feel less charactery—although Nik kind of absorbs that vibe single-handedly—and more like people. It has a lot of interesting things to say in relationship to time and age.

I will say, however, that I’m not sure I understand some of the motivations of Denise, especially in the last third. Not only that, but I wish there was more on the relationship between Denise and her daughter. There was some but I wish there was something a bit more.

Busy month! Currently I’m reading Infinite Jest and a book on economics.

Review Round-up: January(ish)

I read books in fairly quick succession towards the end of January so rather than bombard you with a post per review, I’ll do it by month. This trend seems to be continuing this month so this is probably how I’ll do reviews in the future.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein [4/5 stars]

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This book in a broad sense: Naomi Klein vs. Milton Friedman in a rigorously researched, brutal, oftentimes scary, critique of Friedmanite economics and how willing individuals, including governments, are in order to put them into place.

More specifically it’s a critique of the eponymous idea of the “Shock Doctrine”, or disaster capitalism. This is basically the main thesis of Milton Friedman and friends from the Chicago School of Economics: that the best thing is free-market economics—what Klein sums up with three core aims of “deregulation, privatisation, deep cuts to social spending”. The problem? People aren’t super hot about it, so they won’t vote for it. The solution? Shock and awe.

If a country is in the midst of a tragedy, quick implementation of Chicago School economics is the way forward; while the people are reeling, change the entirety of the country’s system. By the time things calm down, everything is different and no-one can protest. The first of these happened in Chile, which was basically a lab to test the efficacy of such a thesis. This was done through the assistance of a coup to instate the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973, before moving on the other countries in that region. If you want to read more about the coup, go ahead. A lot of death there. Though, what a surprise for a dictator.

From this point, Klein goes through the decades and talks about how various people have taken the Friedmanite approach to economics and fucked people over across the globe, in the midst of economic depressions, wars, and natural disasters.

That’s the real bare bones of the purpose and focus of scrutiny Ms. Klein employs across the book. Now as a book, I was genuinely informed and learned a lot of new, very horrible things that governments have done in order to service quite frankly narrow interests (the aftermath of the Sri-Lankan tsunami, Latin America, as well as the Middle East were among the most striking, though all of the book is upsetting in basically equal parts). And while indeed it was meticulously researched, it lacked a certain degree of intellectual rigour.

For example, it lacked a detailed exploration of  free-market principles which were kind of necessary to make the case, I felt. My understanding is that it’s been tacitly stated that it’s not a defensible position at all, mostly because of what people have done in its name. That’s a dangerous conflation. I think, for example, that lemonade is a good thing. Very plausibly I could be motivated to do bad things in order to persuade more people to consume lemonade. But my actions in the name of lemonade are entirely divisible from the perceived qualities of it.

What I think Klein wants to argue is that what people have done in the name of free-market ideals is reprehensible, but it reads more to the effect that free-market economics as an idea itself is necessarily wrong which I disagree with. Not because I believe in that type of economics, but because I think the presentation of it is incorrect.

It’s a very interesting book that has taught me a lot about aspects of the world I either knew nothing or very little about.

Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta [4/5 stars]

904478Eat the Document is my first exposure to Dana Spiotta. She’s not a very well-known author here so tracking her books down was its own little quest. But the internet provides.

This is a brief book that takes a look into activist culture from the 1970s all the way to the new millennium. Now that doesn’t tell you much because not much happens. Not in a bad way but really the  main focus of the book is more to do with the relationships between the characters and exploration of the idea of rebellion, its functions, and people’s attitudes towards it.

What I loved were the digs at the more post-modern aspects of the activists, most notably the book’s criticism of irony over more meaningful forms of protest: irony essentially being self-defeating. I also really enjoyed the richly detailed interiors. Spiotta really makes you feel present in the scenes, with a clear understanding of personal spaces and people, with sharp details and good dialogue. What was also interesting was the juxtaposition of people and artifice—the not-quite activists, artificial materials, even fake identities—which seems to be a through-line. There is, in a way, a dedication to the need for truth and honesty in some capacity to lead a meaningful life.

My main criticism is that it skipped along a bit too easily. It’s a rare occasion where I ask a writer to write more not less, but so it goes. Very enjoyable and a quick read. A very understated writer!

Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar [3/5 stars]

29776922The “ish” in the post’s title is because of this book,  which I technically finished on the 1st of Feb but it’s just a day out and leaves this month a little less burdened (I estimate maybe five books being read this short month).

Someone in another review said it’s kind of like an extended think piece of a newspaper, which is about right: it’s nice, considering it was written by a journalist in lucid prose about a fascinating topic. However, that’s also where it doesn’t quite live up to what I thought it’d be.

So the premise of the book is this: there’re people who are charitable, and there are do-gooders, people who basically go above and beyond the call of duty. These people go to extreme levels of privation in order to service the greater good. There are alternating chapters of do-gooders and philosophical discussions relating to ethics. But that’s all it is. I thought it would be an integrated analysis of what kind of things we can extrapolate from people who go to extremes, but it doesn’t really quite get there.

So in one chapter, one person is so committed to helping to reduce suffering that he lives on an annual budget of just under $10,000 dollars for subsistence. The rest of his money, time, and resources are wholly dedicated to helping to reduce suffering. What I thought would happen would be a balanced evaluation of the do-gooder’s actions. What I got instead was a grouping of stories with some interesting and well-researched bits between them. It ultimately left open-ended questions such as: is it absurd to be so committed to helping people? What can we learn from these people? Are we, the non do-gooders, doing enough?

I assume Ms. MacFarquhar wants us to decide on our own. Overall, I think you should check it out in a similar way I might be tempted to share a thought-provoking article. It’s interesting journalism, but not enough stitching together of the ideas to make it a very good book.

It’s not a bad month for books, all things considered. I’m also doing well for my goal to read more non-fiction as well. I’ve got quite a few lined up for the coming weeks too.

Review: Twelve Kings by Bradley Beaulieu [3.75/5 stars]

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Twelve Kings is a carefully constructed book that follows the exploits of a young woman, Çeda (CHAY-dah), whose mother was brutally murdered by the Twelve Kings that rule over the ancient and sprawling city of Sharakhai, the Amber Jewel of the desert. Because of this, Çeda has vowed to have her revenge against the Kings, beings who have been said to have lived for hundreds of years.The story unfolds slowly at first before expanding upon the mysteries that surround the ancient city, and how it came to be ruled by the Kings. This here is part of the  many strengths of the book: the world building. Beaulieu has crafted a convincing and rich world, based in the city of Sharakhai, which has a bloody and intriguing history.

The setting’s not the traditional fantasy vaguely-medieval Europe, instead favouring a more Middle-Eastern flavour. There were lots of cool bits to the world, like the ships that sail the sands, Çeda sandboarding, the asirim and Blade Maidens, as well as in little details like the very cosmopolitan values with respect to gender. The city lives and breathes and I liked the interconnectedness of it all: the sense of community that Çeda and Emre had with each other, as well as the other people in the city made it feel lived-in, intimate.

Other elements, as I said before, are revealed over the course of the book, such as the magic. This book lacks a central magic system but there are quite a few magical elements within it such a drug-like bloom that enhances physical prowess, as well as other things. I won’t ruin them all. There’s a lot to come, clearly.

The story’s told through four alternating perspectives, with Çeda and her childhood friend Emre on centre stage. It’s a fairly big book so I appreciated that there was a strong focus of the perspectives. Often, similar-sized books will throw at least twice the amount at you and that can be interesting, though a little jarring. It really centred the story so the characters had some real depth. Çeda is a very good protagonist—strong, yet stubborn, smart and wilful—so following her tale was an enjoyable experience. The chapters in the present are alternated with flashback chapters every now and then of Çeda as a youth, and follows her relationship with her mother before she was killed as well as some time after that point, like on the streets with her fellow “gutter wrens” Emre and crew. For the most part, they added welcome depth to the story, but sometimes when they were set between chapters of action it was a little grating. Flashbacks are always a tricky battle and I enjoyed them so it’s not a huge criticism.

Despite my praise of the perspectives, I would have liked to have seen more of one, who has about two or three chapters across the course of the book. We rarely see much of them, and what we do seems to be setting up events for future books, which is fine since this will be series. I just wish that we saw more of them in terms of the present. There’s a lot of mystery so I hope I learn more soon, which is fitting since book two is out in a few weeks!

My major criticism is levelled at the pacing: I’m partial to flashbacks because their utility is pretty high, especially if you don’t want to weigh down the present text. That being said the story takes a little while to kick start. Once it gets going, it moves along with a controlled speed and is exciting and interesting. The intricacies of the world were very enjoyable, such as the culture and the mysteries. It’s just that first hump, which, again, I understand considering how much needs to be established for the benefit of the long term.

So in short: good characters, good writing, good plot, excellent world. Sign me up for book two.

Endnote:

I’ve actually had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Beaulieu, all the way back in the autumn of 2015 (has it really been so long?!). The day before this encounter, however, I lost my voice so our conversation was a little stilted, almost if we were both trying to communicate in a language we barely understood. He has an awesome signature. And, as it turns out, a really good book as well.

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Review:The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell [4/5 stars]

 

“Normal’s just what we take for granted.”

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So what are we dealing with here? David Mitchell at his finest … and his worst.

Back on the “globe-trotting”* train, after his lauded books—debut Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas—Mitchell tells a story that starts with a young Holly Sykes in the ’80s and ends in the 2040s.

As the book progresses, it chronicles a war between two types of immortals, but it’s about so much more. I liked this quite a lot: not the climax, but the motifs like the labyrinth, the bare-bones of it, the strangeness and their ubiquity as well as the exploration of a variety of perspectives. I thought the presentation of immortality was well-drawn. What I also enjoyed was that it didn’t end the book, but was another component. A lesser writer would have finished with the fifth of the six parts (or “novellas” as Mitchell himself calls them) but the War (capital “w” because that’s how it’s written in the book) is not the focal point. The people surrounding them are.

The Good: Lots of viewpoints and interesting stories that had me quite engaged the whole way through. I liked the general kind of fear or dread that lurks underneath every story, where you anticipate the thread of commonality the binds them all.

Mitchell has an incredible knack for idiosyncratic prose (“the thirsty sky”, “Human cruelty can be infinite. Human generosity can be boundless”) and a fairly banal but noteworthy addition—“Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose. Halve your adverbs and your prose pumps twice as well.”—are the reasons why I keep coming back for more. It has a certain vitality that is very appealing to me.

The history of Horology was pretty fun to me. Learning about was a really good read. That, and the labyrinth scene. You’ll know it when you get it.

I love when all the dots connect and become relevant. Most (not all) of the things mentioned are re-used and made relevant at a later point, whether it be a saying, characters (both in this book and Mitchell’s other books, though previous knowledge of them isn’t 100% necessary, but might add a depth of interaction with his so-called über-novel), or an image. It really adds three-dimensionality to the experience and knowing that something that might seem off-hand to the viewpoint have very real effects later down the line made me really focus in on the details.

It’s also creepy. But in a good way.

The final part “Sheep’s Head” was great stuff that properly legitimised every major event in the book and still managed to do more. The end was very, very moving and so … Right for the novel.

The Bad: Crispin Hershey. I didn’t understand the need for its length. Honestly. The purpose of the stories was their unity to an over-arching plot and more specifically how the viewpoint characters relate to one Holly Sykes. His has a lot of preamble before the intersection that could have easily been cut down and it would have had the same, if not better, impact. I had the least fun with his viewpoint. I could say a lot more about this but I’ve said enough to convey my grievances.

The Use of Capitals when Discussing the Important Fantasy Elements. There’s a lot of subject-specific terminology when it comes to the more fantastical elements of the novel, to mixed effect. I liked that in some aspects that it’s fairly easy to intuit from the use of the word and how they’re used in practice what’s meant by something, but it seemed too much of a red flag of these capitalised letters being Very Important, Pay Attention to these. I might be being unfair but it did bother me a tiny amount. The next point is linked to this.

Mitchell’s maximalism. This extends across both the structure of the viewpoints, but also very technically specific things that happens early on the novel. The supernatural things need explaining, but when they’re vomited out in a monologue, it makes the engagement with the stuff very difficult. A little bit of mystery would go a long way.

Okay, think of a conversation between two people, with the intention of learning. One knows a lot about one particular subject—metaphysics. The knowledgeable person is not going to start throwing in concepts like “Genuine modal realism” without explaining its significance. If they do, they’re a bad teacher. A break-in point will benefit both of the speakers: starting with smaller, digestible bits of data and building up as you go, acquiring technical terminology along the way. Granted, the exchange I’m thinking of is between the protagonist and an antagonist but still, someone who has lots of information about something and is asking someone who knows nothing about it something relating to this subject is not going to attack the person with Very Specific Technically Precise Words. It did not seem at all realistic. Part of what was really solid about the more fantastical aspects was how grounded and internally consistent it was. It’s kind of broken by this weird breach of conversational etiquette, especially since 1.) The dialogue’s usually pretty good across the rest of the book and 2.) The technically specific stuff gets explained much, MUCH better later on.

Going back to the maximalism point about the structure of the stories, I appreciate the need to establish who the character is and why we should care about them, but complete backstories felt a little to unnecessary. I don’t have qualms with length because I’m an avid fantasy fan (and boy do they get big: this is more in the “upper-average” range in terms of size—more The Name of the Wind than Words of Radiance) but it has to be justified. I didn’t feel like it always was. I get a little annoyed when a brilliant 500-page book hides in a lesser 600+ page book because when it’s good, it’s really good. And, while the details add a certain degree of texture, they made the reading experience a little wearying, which is a shame.

The Message being kind of forcefully told. I have mixed feelings about raising this as a criticism, partly because I agree to a large extent with one of the Core Messages—that our current time of abundance is brought about, at least in part, to a significant amount of negligence—but it seems heavy-handed. See what I mean when I say I have mixed feelings? So, as a writer (and a person more broadly) you don’t want to be the Didactic One, who spews things that are ostensibly true/you agree with but attacks you with them. In a book with a Message (although arguable every book has a Message to some extent), it’s hard to not be didactic. People want you to be subtler with your Message but being too subtle might make it too obscure. Too overt and it’s preachy. Writing your Message can be a hard balance to strike so my mixed feelings should become apparent: it’s a very demanding thing that’s being asked of people and yet I’m still buying into that culture just like everyone else. So what could be done about the Message? Maybe have less of the foreshadowing in the way people speak? People do speak like that in real life though and if it’s going to be featuring pretty heavily in the future of the book then why not talk about it? At this point, I think I’ve tied myself up into a big enough knot that my point has become moot and I could ostensibly write more words trying to piece this out but that’s for something that’s not about reviewing this book (it might be a good topic to write an essay on).

I mean when you look at the length of the criticisms versus the actual star-rating you might be a bit puzzled. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely had a blast reading this. I thought it was very relevant, exciting, and moving, but you can’t avoid also talking about the missteps as well. Mitchell is still showing me why he’s one of my favourites, despite some of my stronger hang-ups. For what’s brilliant: I think this book’s ending will stay with me for a long time.

*This is Review Speak that I have very ambivalent feelings towards. Acknowledging that I’m not sure how I feel about it is a little strange considering I literally just used it but unfortunately it’s a quick way of capturing “events happen all over the world” which I guess is why people use it but when you read enough books (particularly Mr. Mitchell’s work) and see the term crop up again and again, it’s a little annoying. Pedantic footnote over.