2011 in books

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?


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
This entry was posted in blog buddies, book review, family, grant wrangling, medicine. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to 2011 in books

  1. chall says:

    well, obviously I have more time right now since I’m already inside the “fire and ice” land 🙂 (have read the books before the tv series made it…..)

    Anyhow, The strain is on my night stand and I’m hoping to get to it and the other ones very soon…. a little sad reading your review but since I have the first book and looked forward to that one so i hope the first one is at least giving me good vibes for the second (and third).

  2. Grant says:

    “but for some reason I feel slightly weird writing detailed reviews of books written by people I know”

    I reviewed a book written by one of our sciblogs crowd (forensic scientist Anna Sandiford’s Expert Witness) and I have to admit I went through all sorts of mental contortions writing the review. I got there, but in future I’ll stick to reviewing books written by people I don’t know.

    I’d tell you what I’ve read, but I’m inclined to follow your example and write a blog post. Y’know killing two birds with one stone and all that. Meantime a DVD re-run of the final of the LOTR trilogy awaits so don’t expect anything soon. (I forgot just how long those films are. Good thing my local store didn’t have the extended versions for rent.)

  3. Eva says:

    Well, the last thing I read was Grant’s comment on this post. (See above). It was a short read, but informative.

    I’m also currently reading a book called “The End of Mr. Y”, which is so far hard to categorize. Before that I read a Dutch book (fiction) about a black girl from a poor neighbourhood attending an all-white posh school. Before that I re-read half of Oliver Sacks’ “Musicology”. I should read the other half, but I got distracted by new books.

  4. Alyssa says:

    Great list! I have Three Day Road on my to-read list (I think you suggested this to me when I reviewed Motorcycles and Sweetgrass…or at least somebody did!). Right now I’m reading Secret Daughter, and it’s pretty good!

  5. Hm, I have hardly read any of the ones you reviewed. Okay, just one (the Bryson one) which I enjoyed well enough, but agree is pale compared to his earlier ones.

    I did read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but really didn’t like it much – the idea was fun, but the execution a bit heavy-handed and amateur, in my humble-yet-inestimably-accurate-at-all-times opinion. 😉

    Right now I’m reading Ron McLean’s autobiography Cornered, which is entertaining in parts but kind of meh overall. The last fiction I read was my third time through Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down. I need to buy some novels, I think.

    It is awkward reviewing things by people you know. What do you write about the parts you didn’t like?

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Chall, I think you’ll really like The Strain – and I’d be happy to send you The Fall if you want, so you don’t have to spend any money on it! I won’t be reading it again 🙂 Just email me your address if you’re interested! The new one’s already out, but I might wait until my next long flight before buying it – it’d be the perfect aeroplane book!

    Grant (and other LOTR fans), have you ever seen The Hunt for Gollum? It’s a low budget (but very well done) fan-made short that’s been made available for free on the internet. A work friend of my husband’s told him about it last week and we watched it last weekend. It’s definitely worth seeing!

    Eva, I used to be able to read two or more books at once, flitting between them all multiple times a day, but my poor old adult brain doesn’t seem to be able to cope with that any more so I know just what you mean about the distraction of new books! I can cope with one fiction and one non-fiction book simultaneously, but I used to have several novels on the go at any given time – one for each room of the house, basically 🙂

    Alyssa, I think I did recommend Three Day Road to you, but I can’t see any comments on that blog post so maybe we’re both imagining it! Either way, I really hope you like it as much as I do. It’s been a long time since a new book has become one of my all-time favourites, so I was delighted to find it!

    You’ve also read The Book of Negroes, right? What did you think? Opinions definitely seem divided among the people I know who’ve read it!

    Richard, OMG I LOVE The Moon Is Down, but I’ve never before met anyone else who’s read it! It made a big impact on me when I first read it in my mid-teens. I’d love to see it in its originally intended play format, too.

    BTW, are there any more professionally handled zombie-Austen mashups you could point me towards? 😉

    • Regarding zombies – er, no. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or I’m just a literature snob. Either is equally likely, and they aren’t mutually exclusive possibilities, either.

      I was struck this time by how easy it was for me to visualize The Moon Is Down as a play – particularly in how some of the dialogue works, and in how many things happen “off stage”, so to speak. I hadn’t thought of it in that way before, but somehow I was reminded by reading the introduction that it was a play.

      I also love Steinbeck’s travelogue/documentary pieces: Once There Was a War and A Russian Journal. I haven’t read Travels With Charley… or the Sea of Cortez books, but I really want to. 🙂

      • Yes – all the big stuff (explosions in the mine, young men escaping to England in fishing boats) is never seen, but the whole thing is so cleverly done that you almost don’t notice!

        Travels with Charley is an absolute gem and one of my all-time favourite books. I also enjoyed the Sea of Cortez, especially for the insights into Ed Ricketts (my beloved “Doc” from Cannery Row). I haven’t read the other two, but will add them to my Amazon wish list!

        • Just in case you’re still reading… Once There Was A War is a compendium of his wartime news filings, and so is a bit more serious and sombre. But that Steinbeck dry wit does shine through, and I find the history very compelling. He also brings the “common soldier” point of view, documenting the GI’s and their day-to-day activities beautifully.

          A Russian Journal is even more historically interesting, as he and Robert Capa navigate post-war communist territory. He also takes a few digs at Capa (possibly the archetype of the wartime photographer) and the tone is generally light.

          They’re not fall-down funny, but I love both books, and they’re undeniably Steinbeck in voice.

    • chall says:

      “Chall, I think you’ll really like The Strain – and I’d be happy to send you The Fall if you want, so you don’t have to spend any money on it! I won’t be reading it again Just email me your address if you’re interested!”

      Thanks Cath! If nothing else, with the speed I’m reading right now I can pick up the book when I see you in april 🙂 (email soon to see if there can be some plans set in place … haha *giggles when i think about vacation!!! in Vancouver*)

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Sounds like a plan – Mr E Man says he might want to read it too so I’ll make sure he knows there’s a deadline!

        Please let me know your dates as soon as you can, ‘cos I just talked to my sister and she’s thinking of coming around that time too! We can all meet up together, but we might go out of town for a few days while she’s here…

  7. Alyssa says:

    Hmm…perhaps it was on your blog somewhere? Or via email? Or we had a dual hallucination…

    I did really enjoy the Book of Negroes. I didn’t feel the same way about the author trying to pack all of the history of slavery in the book while I was reading it. I guess the story was gripping enough not to think about it, but looking back I can kind of see how some would think that way.

    • Facebook, maybe? Rings a bell…

      I agree that the Book of Negroes was very gripping, and the characters well developed and sympathetic – and I’d still recommend the book to others on that basis. It did annoy me a bit though! 🙂

  8. Liz says:

    The Book of Negros is the only one I have read on your list and your review was spot on with my feelings about it. About at the point when she journeyed back to Africa, I started to realize that I was a bit annoyed by how hard the author was trying to complete the full circle of the experience. (I think I may be overly sensitive to this because it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine when books or movies try to wrap everything up too cleanly. Real life -or at least my real life -just doesn’t have that many life events come full circle.)

    I just finished reading The Wind-up Girl, which was a fantastic scifi story taking place in future Thailand, where the oil era has ended and genetically modified plants and animals essentially provide the energy to run society. I don’t normally consider myself a big fan of scifi, but I found this stroy very compelling.

  9. Kyrsten says:

    I’m really glad that Three Day Road was so enjoyable for you too! It was just a different take on something we’ve all heard so much about.

    • I’m really glad you suggested it! Have you read Through Black Spruce yet?

      • Kyrsten says:

        absolutely! bought and paid for too, not just through the library. I loved it.

        Books I’m currently into? most things by Isabel Allende. I’m learning a lot about Southern American culture that I just am not exposed to regularly, otherwise.

  10. bean-mom says:

    Ha! I am spitefully gleeful to see that you and Mr. E. are now hopelessly lost in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire land. I am languishing there myself. What can I say–it seems I like to spread my addiction.

    Oddly, I haven’t heard of any of the books you’ve mentioned, aside from the Guillermo de Toro book and Stroke of Insight. Three Day Road does sound really interesting, though. I’ll have to put it on my “someday list.” Cause right now I have a stack of unread books on my nightstand, and two more in the queue at Amazon…

    On my nightstand now: Dreamsongs I, a collection of short stories by George R. R. Martin. Good stuff, but the most fascinating parts are actually his introductions to each section, where he speaks of the writing process and his development as a writer. Fascinating echoes of A Song of Ice and Fire in his early stories, Although it’s a truly varied bunch of stories, with a lot of sci-fi as well as fantasy.

    Also working my way through “A Tiger in the Kitchen” by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a food/ethnic crossover memoir by a New-York based journalist who goes home to her family in Singapore to learn how to cook the dishes of her chlldhood (and reconnect with her roots, etc. etc.). My sister gave me this for Christmas. I was rolling my eyes at the blurb–foodie plus ethnic story memoir, sooooo trendy these days! But it’s actually pretty winning.

    Also read about 50 pages of a biography of Alexander the Great and trying to get through the rest.

    Also re-reading Game of Thrones in between. Can’t help myself.

    • It’s a good addiction, though! I imagine we’ll both be following you into Martin’s other works once we’re done with the Ice and Fire saga.

      Boyden and Hill are both Canadian authors, which may explain why they haven’t had much exposure south of the border.

  11. Grant says:

    Cathy – thanks for the pointer to the short film. It’s a fair effort – particularly given the budget. FWIW, a relative is working in the crew of The Hobbit.

    I still don’t know what this Ice and Fire thing is, but I swear I will not get caught in this trap! 🙂 (Peeking at wikipedia it seems to be fantasy, which isn’t usually my thing, with a few exceptions.) Seriously, I have far too many other things I “ought” to read, including work stuff. Currently I’m trying to make time for Seduced by logic, which I’m finding excellent so far. Wish my library had copies of Jennifer’s books so I could try them.

    • Yeah, not bad, eh?! My husband is a movie set carpenter and is very jealous of your relative – there was a rumour that Jackson would choose BC instead of NZ for the LOTR trilogy at some point, and he was beside himself with excitement at the thought. But he did get to build the X Jet in X-Men II and to work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes – other childhood favourites of his, although apparently still nowhere near as cool as LOTR!

      I don’t usually read fantasy either, LOTR aside, but Bean-Mom talked me into it with this blog post she wrote in mid December! I’m still near the beginning of the first book, but it’s incredibly well written and full of political intrigue and shades of grey. The only thing that jars a little is some rather US-specific idioms (e.g. “someplace” instead of “somewhere”, a child says she is unhurt but “hungry some”) that seem out of place in the Mediaeval-type setting, but that’s a minor thing that I can live with!

      • Grant says:

        I’m skeptical that Jackson would choose to film outside of NZ given a choice (he comes across as very pro-NZ in interviews, etc.), but the movie company certainly would look wider (and he’d have to work with their interests too).

        My relative is working as a grip.

        Took me a moment to “get” your meaning re US idioms. You mean that the Ice & Fire series has some US idioms? I first read you to mean LOTR, which seemed odd & unexpected! 🙂

        I notice that in some books, too; it can be jarring.

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          Yes, sorry – the US idioms were in Ice and Fire, not Lord of the Rings.

          We’ve just started watching the HBO series, and the proper Northern English accents of Sean Bean et al (like my original accent!) sound much more appropriate, although I acknowledge the cultural bias inherent in that statement 🙂

          • bean-mom says:

            I’ve only seen a few clips (waiting for my order of the DVD set this spring) but I love the northern accents! And it seems very appropriate, since his character is a “Northman!”

  12. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for the list, I plan to check out a few of them

    I’m re-reading George R.R. Martin’s series right now, just so I can be one of those terrible people to my labmates, who says during the lunch conversation about the HBO series the next morning…” well, in the book they didn’t do that…

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      And I’m sure they thank you for it!

      We’ve noticed that the TV series seemed to start diverging significantly from the book around episode 4, which is as far as we’ve got to date!

  13. chall says:

    Hockey update as promised:

    (at least before this week is done 🙂 )

  14. ecogeofemme says:

    Thanks for the reviews! We’re always looking for good suggestions for my book club.

    Regarding Stroke of Insight, I too thought it was hard to get to the “right brain space” or whatever she called it without having had her experience. But it was interesting to know it existed and I did enjoy some of the exercises she described. I found them somewhat helpful for relaxing and escaping stressful thought loops, but they didn’t get me to the zen-like state she describes. I’m pretty sure that’s why people use hard drugs.

  15. HA! Yes, that may well be a faster route to zen enlightenment…

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