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]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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.