Well, my attempts to form good habits related to my specific 2012 resolutions – plus my ongoing exercise and healthy eating goals – have already been derailed, although the goals themselves are still very achievable. I blame (in chronological order): a) a post New Years Eve party hangover that wiped out the first weekend of the year; b) a January 9th grant deadline to which I only found out we were applying at 4:45pm on my last work day before Christmas and which involved working both days last weekend; c) a head cold; and d) the combined forces of Bean Mom and George RR Martin. Hopefully I can make a fresh start after next week’s trip, of which more later, although there are various other grant deadlines coming up…
…but first I wanted to quickly post about some of the books I read last year! I couldn’t believe it when I noticed that my last book review post was over a year ago; Frank commented at the time on my “commendably pithy reviewing style”, so let’s see if I can be just as brief in this post!
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
I’d borrowed this book from my friend Kyrsten a few years ago, but then bought it for myself and re-read it when the sequel came out (see below). I’ve read a number of books set in the trenches of WWI before, but this one has a fresh and unique angle: the story centres around two young First Nations men who join the Canadian army as snipers and serve together in Belgium and France. One of them thrives in his new environment, while the other withdraws into himself and dreams of home; the latter soldier’s stories are interwoven with those of his Aunt, who’d rescued him from a residential school and taken him off to learn the old ways in the bush when he was a child. This is one of the most evocative and deeply moving books I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it to everyone. I bought it for my Dad and my sister last year, and they loved it too.
Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden
Sequel to the above (actually second part of a planned trilogy), the author again interweaves stories from two different narrators – the middle-aged son of the main character from the first book, and his niece. The uncle’s stories are of his attempts to escape his demons and his conflict with an old enemy, while the niece tells of her journey to Toronto, Montreal and New York in an attempt to find her missing sister. While this volume didn’t quite live up to the almost impossibly high standards of the first, the strong characters in rough situations in a modern day setting made for a very thought-provoking book that absorbed me entirely as I was reading it. I can’t wait for the final installation!
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
I’d heard great things about this book, and indeed it tells a very compelling story on an epic scale: the plot follows the progress of a young African girl kidnapped by slave traders, her horrific journey to the USA, her life there, and her travels after gaining her freedom. It’s a very well-written book, but I found as I got deeper into the story that it seemed to increasingly sacrifice believability for the sake of painting as complete a picture of the whole slave trade as possible. The main character journeyed from Africa to three different locations in the US, then Canada, then back to Africa, then London, experiencing every possible set of conditions as she went, in a way that made it seem to me as if the narrative was being driven more by the author’s wish to educate the reader as extensively as he could than by anything else. Other people absolutely loved this book though, so maybe it’s just me!
The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Another part two of a trilogy – this is the sequel to The Strain, which I reviewed in my last post. Unfortunately, this book had all of the faults and none of the merits of its predecessor. The pacing was rushed, and the writing similarly felt like it had been done in a terrible hurry – the overall impression was “messy”. Very disappointing. I’ll probably still read the concluding volume, just because I’m like that, but I’ll do so with very low expectations! I can’t make a final recommendation for the whole trilogy until I read the third book, but at the moment I’d say “don’t bother”.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Jane Austen and Steve Hockensmith
This book is (somewhat obviously) an attempt at a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I loved. I also greatly enjoyed Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (see my last review post), but unfortunately this latest edition fell flat. Without the juxtaposition to Jane Austen’s original, familiar text (I’m not sure why she’s “an author” on this one) the joke just doesn’t work all that well, although there are some fun moments. I was also disappointed that there was no real attempt at an origin story – the book begins at a time when the plague lies dormant, but still remembered by Mr. Bennett and other old-timers, so it’s more of a rebirth than a dawn. I found this annoying.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson
This is a pleasant and jovial enough lightweight easy reading book, but ultimately another disappointment. Many of the book’s best stories – or at least ones very similar to them – were already included in Bryson’s US and European travel books, which I read years ago, so it felt rather repetitive. More structure and synthesis, rather than just a loosely grouped collection of anecdotes and vignettes, would have been appreciated, and I also grew bored of the frequent statement that 1950s America was the all-time best time and place to grow up; yeah, I get it, it was fun and carefree and you loved it, but that doesn’t need to be mentioned more than once!
My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor
EcoGeoFemme recommended this book when I blogged about my mother-in-law’s brain haemorrhage in August, and I’m very glad she did as I (and my sisters-in-law) have found it very helpful, even though the exact type of brain injury is somewhat different. The author is a PhD neurobiologist who had a stroke at the age of 37, and is now – after many years – more or less fully recovered. Her scientific insight into what happened to her and how she recovered from it was absolutely fascinating, and definitely helped me understand my mother-in-law’s needs better than I would have otherwise. However, the second part of the book moves into more of a New Agey ““stepping to the right” of our left brains to uncover feelings of well-being that are often sidelined by “brain chatter.*“” territory, which I personally found less helpful. I did make a good-faith effort to try some of the mental exercises the author suggested, but without any success at all and I wonder if you have to have experienced what she went through in order for it to work, or if I was maybe just a bit too stressed out at the time.
*quote tweaked only very slightly from the Amazon product information page I linked to
I also re-read several old favourites last year – I prefer re-reading to reading new books when things get stressful at work, and it was a very stressful year – but I feel no compulsion to review them! Sorry!
I also, of course, read Experimental Heart by a certain Jenny Rohn and Matter Over Mind by some bloke called Steve Caplan. I thoroughly enjoyed both books, but for some reason I feel slightly weird writing detailed reviews of books written by people I know. I will attempt to get over this block at some point in the future, but until then I think you should all buy both books and make up your own minds. I have both authors’ second novels in my substantial “To Read” stack (actually now several stacks in three different locations, i.e. home, work, and my sister’s flat), but I fear I am getting sucked into the Ice and Fire universe (Mr E Man is already hopelessly and irrevocably lost there) and so might have to push everything else back!
What have you all been reading lately?