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 – Winter 2015

New this post: I’ve made a Pinterest board of my bookshelf for all you visual people out there!

Follow Megan’s board My Bookshelf – Winter 2015 on Pinterest.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

This novel is the first in the Mary Russell series and came highly recommended from my sister. In fan-fiction mode, King reimagines Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic characters (Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson etc) but sets the novel in Edwardian England when Holmes is semi-retired. Mary Russell is a young woman who becomes Holmes’ apprentice and then partner/assistant in crime solving. I really enjoyed this, both for the exciting plot and the plummy idiom in which King writes.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Highly recommend this. Set in modern-day-ish rural Mississippi, the novel explores race, prejudice, identity and how people’s perceptions of events can change them. Franklin brilliantly crafts voices that are at first racially ambiguous (at least to me they were), all the while keeping race as a central theme.

Rags and Bones, edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt

Book of sci-fi short stories where the authors take various fairy tales/stories as inspiration. Weird, wonderful and sometimes very challenging. One that particularly struck me was a futuristic, nihilisitc love story by Rick Yancey where an elite has conquered death by means of downloading your personality into a new body (Dollhouse anyone?), whilst the rest of humanity live and die and serve the rich folks. Neil Gaiman’s reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty was also quite good.

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

This was an interesting book that went mental from the middle point onward. Referencing Jules Verne’s classic work, Roberts sets up the story on a top secret French nuclear submarine’s maiden voyage. The first dive is begun but then somehow the sub keeps descending for, you guessed it, trillions of leagues into an implied other dimension/world. Highly fantastical, the crew encounter all sorts of crazy things both outside the sub and within themselves.

The Portable Door by Tom Holt

Picked this up randomly from my local library, based on the blurb which said Holt was similar to Terry Pratchett or some such. Started oddly but then turned into a very quirky and funny novel about magic and awkward Brits!

The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland

Another random pick from my library based on the plot blurb (circus acts in Victorian London). Interesting characters including *spoiler* an amnesiac man who cannot be hurt or seemingly ever die who, it’s implied at the end, is a fallen angel. The novel was a bit sex-obsessed, not in terms of racy scenes but what the characters were concerned with / valued. Interesting concept but a bit tiresome and angst-ridden!

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

I don’t read much non-fiction but this was excellent. A diary cum memoir about life as a shepherd in the Lake District. Fascinating reading about such a different way of life and how Rebanks reconciles their ancient customs with the modern world.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Finally got round to reading this best seller set in a city I used to live in, Jackson, MS. Brilliant story about race and friendship amongst women in the 1960s when things were still really bad in Jackson (a period still within living memory). Well worth your time.

My Bookshelf – Late Summer 2015

I read a fair amount of non-fiction over the summer so for the first time have divided up my bookshelf post into fiction and non-fiction sections.

FICTION

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow

Another tech-head, conspiracy theory thriller in the vein of Homeland which I wrote about in my last bookshelf post. I enjoyed this one and again it offered a chance to think about different issues around emerging technologies such as privacy. This was all wrapped up in an interesting, not-too-distant-future scenario with Doctorow’s sharp, hip dialogue.

Treachery by S.J. Parris

Well I read another one in the Giordano Bruno series despite giving these a mediocre review in a previous blog. Why? Well they’re entertaining and pretty interesting to read if you’re a history nerd like me. This one centres on Portsmouth, the Spanish naval threat in 1585 and a rival English expedition to the New World to get some of those Spanish riches. Bruno and Sir Phillip Sidney get wrapped up in a murder and ensuing complicated plot which threatens to derail the expedition.

The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

I picked this up from the library after reading the blurb. It is set in Prohibition era New Orleans and is based on a real life serial killer nicknamed the Axeman because, you guessed it, he killed with an axe. The novel explores race, poverty and class as we follow a mixed race teenage girl and Italian-American ex-cop who are both unofficially investigating the murders (a young Louis Armstrong also makes a semi-convincing appearance). Celestin’s style is very good and he paints a vivid if grim picture of a gritty, vibrant city.

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

After seeing the BBC series of this recently I decided to give the book another go. I’d been recommended Mantel before and leafed through this in the library but found the modern sounding dialogue a bit jarring coming from the mouth of Henry VIII. Well I really enjoyed it upon a full reading. Wolf Hall follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell from blacksmith’s son to Archbishop Wolsey’s fixer to Henry’s privy council. Mantel creates a contemplative atmosphere that still manages to be warm. I can’t quite put my finger on it, something to do with her use of first, that’s not quite first, person… Anyway, go and read.

NON-FICTION

Single, Married, Separated and Life After Divorce by Dr. Myles Munroe

Another recommendation that I read to support a family member going through a divorce. Munro talks a lot of sense and debunks many myths about relationships from our culture (you’re not complete if you’re single, marriage will solve all your problems). Probably the most radical concept was that you need to be single no matter what your relationship status. Go read it to find out more.

Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung

I was recommended this book and the following one in preparation for a seminar session I was doing for the Christian youth summer camp that we volunteer at in Wales. I’d read DeYoung’s Just Do Something which was excellent and I still reference it when people are dilly-dallying about decisions! Taking God at His Word is an evangelical exposition about the Bible and why we should believe and obey it. He goes into the theology and Christian doctrines about the Bible, but all in readable English. Highly recommend it.

Can I Really Trust the Bible? by Barry Cooper

Short, pocket-sized evangelical book that addresses the question of the title. Topics such as the manuscript evidence for the Bible, textual criticism, eyewitness evidence and how the Biblical canon we have was established are covered. Again a highly readable book that has the benefit of being very short and to the point.

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Wow, what a powerful story. This is a memoir/autobiography telling the story of Malala Yousafzai, the girl’s education campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner (and also the life of a teenage girl in Pakistan). She weaves in the history of Pakistan and her native Swat Valley and gives an account of what life was like under the Taliban. Both depressing – because of the seeming political impotence against terrorism – and inspiring, I highly recommend this.

UK Libraries, visited more than cinemas? Yes!

I often get asked when I tell people what I do something along the lines of, “Do we still need libraries? Isn’t it all online nowadays?” I have yet to come up with a correspondingly short answer to that (it’s normally something along the lines of what about lack of access / skills / literacy / money?!) but I read today some compelling evidence that public libraries in the UK, despite declining visitor numbers year on year, get vastly more visits than other places that at first glance you’d think would run away with the figures. And this is all in the context of city council budget cuts and lay-offs of staff. So here is a “re-blog” of that information from the ever-informative Ned Potter’s blog.

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If libraries aren’t relevant in the digital age anymore, than neither are cinemas, museums, galleries, theaters, churches or professional football matches because libraries were visited much more than any of those last year. Was that what you expected?

Check out the slideshows Ned has put together with all of this information and the sources:

Sway: https://sway.com/zs95B67Qe9I30cS4

Slideshare: http://t.co/yXlEhrNrnZ

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.