My Bookshelf – Spring 2016

Makers by Cory Doctorow
I’m becoming a bit of a Doctorow fan girl as you can see since there are two of his books in this list. This was an interesting though lengthy novel about two guys who make stuff (the “makers”) starting a bit of a work revolution with 3-D printers and other technology and the journalist who documents this. It’s not all ‘let’s take over the world!’ rather it charts the story over the decades and what happens when your dreams go sour. Worth a read purely for the ever interesting ideas that Doctorow comes up with.

Information Shouldn’t be Free by Cory Doctorow
Highly recommend this short book on copyright, intellectual property and digital technology aimed at your average Joe in the creative industries. Doctorow takes a dull, complex topic and explains it clearly with fascinating insights and examples. His key aim is working out how indies and the majors can successfully co-exist. Thankfully it’s not a work of imagination; concrete ideas are in abundance. If you want to make a living from your art, read this book.

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl
I picked this up because I’d read the excellent crime novel, The Dante Club by the same author. Sadly it didn’t live up to my expectations. The premise is a fan and contemporary of Edgar Allan Poe investigates his untimely death with the help of the real life inspiration for a Poe detective character. The first half of the novel is mainly spent sitting around in libraries reading newspapers (I’m only exaggerating slightly). It does pick up at the end, but the characters are not very well sketched and the first-person, plummy Victorian voice starts to grate.

A Conspiracy of Violence by Susanna Gregory
The tagline hooked me in on this one (darn those marketers!): ‘Decadence and deceit in Restoration London.’ My musicology dissertation was on this period, and I’m a sucker for any related material. Everyone is a bit confused about whether this is the first in the Thomas Chaloner series or not. Nonetheless it still made sense. Read on holiday, the gripping plot, interesting characters and spot on historicity kept the pages turning.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Tartt, an award winning author, comes recommended by many. She’s also a Mississippi native and many of her novels are set in the South so that was of interest to me. The Little Friend chronicles the fall out from the unsolved killing of a young boy in rural Mississippi. To her credit, Tartt brilliantly paints the Southern small town and her characters are vivid…but it’s all very dark. She uses themes of unintended consequences, chaos/order and characters’ fruitless pursuit of meaning, justification and redemption. At over 500 pages it’s long too (she publishes about a book a decade so they tend to be door stoppers). So by all means read her work but don’t expect a sunny day out.

The Martian by Andy Weir
I absolutely loved this book! I am a bit of space geek but this was so much fun and much better than the movie. Set during a future manned Mars mission where one astronaut gets stranded and has to figure out how to survive using his wits, mechanical engineer/botantist skills and a lot of duct tape. Very funny and apparently fairly accurate on the space science, highly recommend this one.

No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 by Graham Bowley
This was some emergency reading material picked up on our recent trip to the States and it was definitely good travel reading. Bowley, a NY Times journalist, chronicles (using extensive research) the disastrous August 2008 climbing season when 11 climbers died on K2 the second highest mountain on Earth.

The Lent Factor by Graham James
The premise of this book is a series 40 pen portraits of people who had influenced the author. It was interesting but I found the whole concept a bit pompous (writing about 40 people with you at the center…), especially when he writes about people I’d never heard of as if only hermits did not know these names.

My Bookshelf – Early Summer 2015

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Highly recommended. The setting is World War II Germany and the narrator is Death, an unusual setup but it made for a great read. In particular, reading about civilian life in Germany during this period (the main characters are reluctant conformers) was really interesting since most of what I’ve read/watched is from the Allied perspective.

Homeland by Cory Doctorow

I’d heard of Doctorow from his library advocacy, and so was interested to read one his novels. Homeland is about a group of hackers/techies in California, one of whom gets entrusted with a cache of secret government documents. The prose style was refreshingly down to earth and the themes are up to date addressing issues such as government surveillance, privacy and the impact of technologies on society. Some might think the material alarmist, but I found it a good opportunity to learn and form my own opinions. It was also very funny!

The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc

I was rationing books before a recent holiday (save the short, lighter ones for the beach!) and randomly picked this up from my local library to fill the gap, based on the fact that I’d heard of one of the authors who had a blurb on the front. It turned out to be a lovely novel which one of the blurbs perfectly described as ‘meditative’. I don’t know if this is because it’s been translated from Spanish, but the style was sparse, simple and elegant. Set in a fictional land where an old prophecy about foreigners arriving from across the sea is looming. The catch is that the council gathered to prepare for this doesn’t know whether the foreigners are good or evil. It rather struck me as an allegory of the New World and European explorers.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Collins was a contemporary and friend of Dickens, and this novel is considered the forerunner of the mystery/crime novel. Much more readable than Dickens, I really enjoyed this and was very surprised by the ending!

Night’s Masque series by Anne Lyle

I’ve read the first two books in this series, The Alchemist of Souls and The Merchant of Dreams. The hook that got me in was the interesting genre mashup of historical fiction (it’s set in Elizabethan England) and sci-fi (features a magical alien race from the New World called skraylings). There’s a lot of swashbuckling and some romance, and it also is set within an alternative timeline where Elizabeth I marries Robert Dudley and has children. Despite valid critiques of weak characters and a heavy-handed focus on sexual politics/norms, it is an enjoyable if lighter read.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (pen name of J.K. Rowling)

After a bruising experience with J.K. Rowling’s previous fiction for grown-ups (The Casual Vacancy), I was more than a little hesitant to pick up any others. However I did and it was well worth it. This is a brilliant, gripping crime novel where the protagonist, Cormoran Strike, has a juicy back story that gradually unfolds over the course of the work. It’s also a nice portrayal of life in modern London.

Giordano Bruno series by S.J. Parris

I’ve read two of these so far, Heresy and Sacrilege, after avoiding them for awhile because I thought the cover art ripped off the excellent C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. Indeed they even have similar premises: both are set in Tudor England (Shardlake during Henry VIII’s reign and Bruno during Elizabeth’s); both protagonists are outcasts (Shardlake is a hunchback and Bruno an Italian ex-Catholic) and scholars (Shardlake is a lawyer and Bruno a philosopher); and both get caught up in plots involving the greatest personages in the land. Parris’ characterisation is not as developed as Sansom’s, but these are still worth a read. I also discovered that Bruno is based on a historical figure, and a theory that he was in fact a spy for Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s intelligencer.

My Bookshelf 12 Nov 2014

Dominion, C.J. Sansom

Another masterpiece from Sansom, whose Shardlake series I’ve also recommended. This is a weighty tome, at just over 700 pages. While reading it propped up on various pillows and small tables, I starting seriously considering the benefits of e-readers. Dominion is a historian’s “what if…?” tale set in 1952 London. The backdrop is that Britain followed an appeasement policy in World War II resulting in Pearl Harbour never occurring, America never entering the war and subsequent Nazi Germany domination of Europe. It is truly disturbing as you can imagine but also a compelling story of ordinary people standing up for freedom.

Time Dancers, Steve Cash

Second book in The Meq series about a race of ageless children (they stop physically ageing at age 12) with magic powers and their search around the world and through history for ultimate meaning. All I can say is, it’s mesmerising. And the second book has improved on the first.

Book fountain IMG_3587. CC-BY-NC 2.0.

Neat book-related image: Cincinnati Public Library ‘Book fountain IMG_3587’ by OZinOH, Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0.

Sepulchre, Kate Mosse

I picked this up for 40p at a charity shop and man, was it worth it. A well-crafted novel that jumps between present day and late nineteenth-century France. I couldn’t put it down. Also for my music friends, Debussy and his circle crop up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

I was recommended Gaiman by a school book seller. She said something along the lines of, “Other schools automatically buy any new title by Neil Gaiman, without bothering about what it is. He’s that good.” So I got this from my local library. It is a whimsical, charming and truly fantastic story written from the perspective of a young boy but aimed at adult readers. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh

I recently saw this listed in a newspapers’ list of Best Books Ever Written (or something similar) list though I’m not entirely sure why. I read it recently as someone recommended it to me. Set in the early twentieth century, it was very funny, in a P.G. Wodehouse style of humour. The difference being where Wodehouse is all lighthearted and carefree, Waugh had elements of the bizarre and repeatedly underlined the depressing randomness of modern life.

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

A beautiful, sad and sweeping novel of Mexico and rural America set in a vague time in the mid-twentieth century. The language is as spare and barren as the landscape. Recommended by my local librarian, and well worth a read.