Book reviews!

An inner monologue, recently: “oh! I have a blog! I should write something. But the most exciting thing that happened this year isn’t really bloggable yet; the second-most exciting thing was the wedding in England of a very dear friend who would not want her wedding photos posted on the internet, and also that seems too long ago to write about now; and most of the other things that happened this year involve grants, and no-one wants to hear about that even though I did set a new department record by submitting six grants in the same week this week.

I have read quite a lot of books, though. Maybe I’ll blog some book reviews”.

(Yes, my inner monologues contain semi-colons).

So, here you go! In no particular order, but now with ratings 🙂

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. 10/10

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I started it during my aforementioned trip to England, and could barely put it down. At one point I took it out of my bag to read during lunch in the café in the British Museum, and an hour and a half later had to remind myself that I was surrounded by some of the most interesting objects in the world and could read the book some other time. It was a tough call though.

The eponymous Harry is born in the North of England between the two world wars, grows up poor, survives WWII, grows old, and dies… and then is born again. Same body, same time, same place, same life. And then again. And again. In his early lives Harry struggles to understand, seeking out answers in all the countries and religions of the world. In later lives, he learns to exploit the situation and meets some fellow travellers, called Ourobourans.

It’s ever so cleverly done: Groundhog Day meets The Time Traveller’s Wife, but better than both – whole lifetimes repeated instead of a single day, and concerning broad swathes of human history instead of one couple’s love story. The meat of the story concerns Harry’s attempts to prevent a fellow Ourobouran from destroying the world, but the real joy of the book lies in how cleverly North has worked out the logistics of how this kind of existence would actually work. For example, one device is that Ourobourans can pass messages forwards and backwards in time. A young child visits a dying elder, giving them a message from the child’s future that the elder can take back to the year of their own rebirth, so that they can find a dying elder during the childhood of their next life and send the message back even further. “At last, something new to talk about!”, exclaims one such dying elder when he first receives the message of the end of the world.

I’ve just started North’s new book, Touch, which I’m really enjoying so far. Again, the logistics of having a rare kind of gift are explored in a delightfully clever way.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. 7.5/10

I think I’d have enjoyed this new book by the author of Cloud Atlas more if I hadn’t read it immediately after Harry August. It contains a similar theme of a small community of people who live multiple lives, except that they’re reborn as different people in different places and times with each new life, but just wasn’t as satisfying.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book, with its initial hints that something is not as it seems followed by a gradual unfolding of the nature of the mystery, and I also liked the final section, set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future. However, the penultimate section spoiled the overall experience for me. There was a very sudden and jarring change of pace, with lots of breathless action interspersed with some long information dumps explaining what was happening. I enjoyed the slower, more gradual revelations of the earlier chapters a lot more. It was as if Mitchell suddenly realized “crap, I’d better explain some of this stuff before I can wrap up the rest of the story” and then just sort of rushed through it. Great characters, good story, and some superb writing – shame about that one section though.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. 7/10

OK so I’m a bit dim sometimes. This was a book club pick, and I read more than half of it thinking it was a novel rather than an autobiography. I only realized my mistake after I complained to a friend that it was a bit disjointed and didn’t really flow logically! Needless to say, I liked it better after the reason for that became clear (and after I read the part describing the drive back from Mexico, which was hilarious). There were still some unsatisfying parts – really, you lived in a junkyard with a bunch of feral kids for a few months and barely even mentioned it in passing? – but I did enjoy it, and I’ve bought the next installment (but haven’t read it yet).

The funniest part was at the book club meeting in Beth’s apartment. Each of the “book club discussion points” that Beth found on the internet could have been a PhD thesis. One of them was something like “to what extent do issues of race, gender, and class intersect in this book, and in that time period in American history in general?” We laughed and laughed as Beth read down the list. We’re not a very serious book club.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker. 7.5/10

A re-telling of the Pride and Prejudice story, but from the point of view of the Bennett family’s servants. The original story is seen in glimpses – oh, Mr. Collins has arrived! ooh, here comes Mr. Darcy to propose for the first time! – but the real action takes place downstairs, where the staff are scrubbing Miss Elizabeth’s muddy petticoats and conducting romances of their own. Light and frothy (except for the chapters set in the war that Mr. Wickham et al. were supposed to be preparing for), and very enjoyable except for the less than kind take on Mr. Bennett (oh, Mr. Bennett, how could you?!).

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. 5/10

Weird book. A friend of mine recommended it very enthusiastically when she was about halfway through, but her tone seemed to have changed when she’d finished reading it and asked me if I was enjoying it. I was about halfway through it myself at that point and said that yes I was, very much – but then it all went wrong.

The first half is lots of fun, with a really interesting structure, but then it just gets sort of messy and frustrating (and preachy. Very preachy). The topic is animal experimentation, and the flip side point of view that “the lab in question has done great work on Parkinson’s – these are not easy questions” is barely mentioned in passing. I ended up more annoyed than anything. The friend who recommended it agrees, and we both learned a valuable lesson about being sure to read the whole book before recommending anything to others!

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. 3.5/10

I avoided all the media hoopla about this book in an attempt to avoid spoilers. I was aware that there was some controversy over whether the book should have been published, but didn’t know any of the details. I ended up wishing that I’d paid more attention so I could have avoided reading this (and thus spared my book club from reading it, too – this was my most recent pick. Sorry, ladies). There were some good elements, but the pacing and voice were all over the place. The editor who said, “I’m not going to publish this, but you can obviously write and hey that back story sounds pretty interesting” made the right call.

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels. 8/10

I was slightly dubious about this book club pick, wondering how interesting the fictionalized version of the invention of the theremin could really be. But it was actually a very good read! The inventor himself, Lev Termen, didn’t exactly make for the most charismatic and engaging character in literary history, but the book’s very well and smoothly written and the settings and story are very interesting, especially after Termen returns to the USSR. Definitely recommended.

How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran. 8/10

This is a riot! A working class British teenager reinvents herself as hard drinking, hard partying music critic Dolly Wild and goes off on a hilarious crazy sex-fueled adventure – until it all goes horribly wrong. The only thing that spoiled it was that the author seemed to suddenly try to wring some kind of serious message out of it at the very last possible moment, when it might have worked better as pure frothy fun.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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8 Responses to Book reviews!

  1. Nina says:

    Good to “hear” from you Cath! And book reviews are always good.
    Having said that, I am also curious to your record of submitting 6 grants in one week. I feel like I may have to do the same soon, so a review of that process is also welcome 😉

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Hi Nina! Likewise!

      I don’t recommend six in one week – in fact, after I submitted the final one at 4:55pm on Friday, I said to the PI responsible “let’s not do this again”, and he agreed. There were originally seven all due on Tuesday, but we got an extension on one of them until Friday, and the collaborators who were leading another one decided to withdraw it.

      You have to start early, delegate wherever possible, and try to carve out decent-length chunks of time in which you can focus on one grant at a time. Spend a whole afternoon on one of them, rather than doing bits and pieces of all of them, unless you’re really down to the wire and just pulling all the fiddly little bits together.

      Oh and finalize the budget as early as possible, and base everything else around it (unless you absolutely have to change something). If you change the budget last minute, it necessitates changes to almost everything else and makes your friendly local grant facilitator rather grumpy!

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        p.s. I still have up to seven more submissions to go before my vacation in November! Although maybe only five, if the two letters of intent don’t get approved to move to the next stage. And four of them are updated versions of some of the grants we put in this week – it’s a two-stage process by which you submit a draft, get feedback on it, then submit the final version a few weeks later. But still.

  2. xykademiqz says:

    Wow, 6 grants! I have 3 lined up for the last week of October and thought I was a bad-ass, but now I stand corrected, for I am a wuss…

    I wanted to second your endorsement on Harry August, it is really an exquisite book. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a book quite as much. It’s really very, very well written; highly recommended.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      3 is bad-ass; 6 is masochistic!

      Have you read any of Claire North’s other books? I’m enjoying Touch – many of the same themes.

  3. Chall says:

    Oh boy, six or seven grants…. Does it really matter since it sounds insane 😉 happy you made it and good luck with the other ones before vacay!

    Thanks for the book reviews. I’ve read some of them and agree with you (the disappointment). I have one recommendation “Americanah” is really good and intriguing. I first thought it was a non-fiction but it’s fiction, about a Nigerian woman moving to USA and her experience here (also expat life and expat friends).

    Other thing, I’ve bought the goldfinch and keeping off reading it. I’m scared since I really liked the secret story (name in English?) by tartt…. Ah well, maybe for November break?! Have you read it?

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Thanks, I’ll add that to my list!

      I didn’t really like The Secret History to be honest. I’ve read so many mediocre books set in (or about friends who met in) the English / Liberal Arts departments of American universities that I’ve developed something of an irrational instant negative reaction to the genre 🙂

  4. bean-writer says:

    Ahhh, you’re back and book-reviewing! And I just now saw this!

    I’ve heard of some of these books, hadn’t heard of others. Guess I’ll cross “We are All Completely Beside Ourselves” off my list without guilt now. . . Have you read “The Martian” yet? I loved it and everyone in my book club loved it, too. Science geekiness to the max! It’s by no means a “literary” work, but it is sheer fun and funny and you finish it feeling good about humanity, for once.