Books in July

I continue to enjoy reading on my commute (although I wouldn’t mind the temperatures dropping by a dozen degrees or so) and am ploughing through books. To save my bank balance a bit I went and investigated the library! What a wonderful place – they just let you take books away! The selection is a bit limited, but thus far I’ve been managing to find some classics and some random picks.

Sarah Whitfield – Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables
Full disclosure – the author of this book is one of my best friends and I’m even mentioned in the acknowledgements (!) so this isn’t exactly an unbiased review. Also I should note you will probably struggle a bit to follow some sections if you have not at least passingly familiar with the musical itself, or at least look up a few youtube clips as you read.
This little book tries to explain why people are such fans of Les Misérables by looking at a number of factors – the story, the music, the marketing, the history of the production and a little bit on fandom itself. Although Sarah is an academic expert in musical theatre, this book is never dry. Peppered throughout the book are quotes and anecdotes from fans of Les Misérables who were surveyed as part of the research for the book. The analysis of the musical techniques, or emotional manipulation to hook audiences is always balanced with the voice of that audience expressing how much it means to them. Sarah doesn’t stand back from this as a passive observer – she also shares her own anecdotes about growing up with a father who loved Les Misérables, and who passed away while Sarah was writing the book. The sharing of powerful emotions throughout the book is a perfect match for Les Misérables, which as Sarah says, only an Easter Island statue could fail to be moved by.
At only 60 odd pages long, the biggest problem with the book is that it’s too short. There’s plenty of room for expansion and I was a little disappointed that some areas weren’t probed a little deeper – particularly the bubbling counterpoint of why “serious” theatre people look down on the musical (and maybe by extension the fans). But as it is, it’s a charming little love letter to a musical, its fans, and a father.

Derek Thompson – Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular
Any book advertised as picking up from Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point is setting a high bar, but also makes itself an easy sell to me. I find this kind of subject fascinating, it sort of spans marketing, business and economics, psychology, sociology and history. The trick that people like Gladwell, Seth Godin and Matthew Syed pull off is to blend in just the right number of case studies and stories and write the whole thing like a human being, rather than a dry text book. Thompson is a worthy addition to this pantheon. Hit Makers was not only a fascinating read, but also a fun one. The structure is clear and tidy, told with a journalist’s respect for grabbing attention, retaining it and landing messages deliberately and forcefully. The stories being told are a mixture of the familiar and the unusual, finding people and emotions that are relatable and inspiring. Thompson delivers a book that both explains why things are popular, explains why we’ll never understand why things are popular, and uses all the tricks he’s identified to write something that should be popular (except for the cover, which is stunningly poor). One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a very long time.

T. Kingfisher – Clocktaur War 1: The Wonder Engine, and 2: Clockwork Boys.
T. Kingfisher is one of my favourite authors and I’ve never seen a physical copy of her book. I’ve just checked and some of her books are available as physical books, but they’re far more aggressively priced as ebooks, so I don’t think anyone is really wanting us to buy the actual books. That means they have to rely more on word of mouth to sell and I continue to do my bit on that front. There’s something effortlessly simple and pure about her writing, which is of course anything other than effortless and far from common. Her stories are straightforward, retelling fairy tales, or in this case a fairly standard quest story. But the characters, worlds, and plots always sparkle. I read the two books back to back and I suggest you do the same as a) they’re impossible to put down and b) it’s really a continuous story and the first book by itself just sort of stops in the middle.
The story is a fairly straightforward quest set up with an unlikely team of experts sent off on an apparently impossible mission and a few heists and bumps along the road, plus the slightly inevitable romance of course. It’s all quite standard – the world has some magic and some steam punk type stuff going on, the team all have individual specialisms but aren’t used to working in a team and are a mixture of heroic rogues and roguish heroes. Everything jumps off the page, dialogue and thoughts of characters are immediately real, it’s laugh out loud funny, un-put-down-able action, a romance that even my cold heart fell in love with and some “unfortunate events” that had me reaching for the tissues. I cannot recommend this author highly enough and the ebooks are embarrassingly cheap so you really have no excuse to not read them.

Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
I’m not sure about this book. The writing style is refreshing, bluntly honest (although maybe not quite right for a sheltered 15 year old) and laugh out loud funny while also gut-wrenchingly painful. It’s the kind of book that is both hard to put down and difficult to keep reading because the emotions are so powerful at times, and various disasters loom like icebergs on the horizon. I can see why some people would love it and connect incredibly deeply with it, but it didn’t quite work for me on that level. It’s the kind of book that I respect more than I like. (573)

Agatha Christie – By the Pricking of My Thumbs
Another random Agatha Christie, but not one of her better ones. I did enjoy the characters of Tommy and Tuppence for the most part, although they occasionally got a little too smug and prim. Unfortunately the story itself let the book down, the mystery was slow to develop, relying on epic numbers of coincidences to keep things moving and come up with reasons that the characters should keep searching for a crime that was completely hidden. Then there was a rush of exposition at the end to bring everything together and explain the solution to a puzzle that I still didn’t quite believe was there. It’s as if Christie started writing hoping the plot would come to her, and then when she eventually found one, she didn’t bother going back to the beginning so that it made sense.

Seni Glaister – The Museum of Things Left Behind
A random pick from the library based mostly on the title, which then proved to be completely inappropriate as the Museum in question makes barely 2 appearances and even as a metaphor is pretty far stretched. The quirkiness sort of matches the book for the most part and it’s an interesting set up, but about half way through the author seems to decide they don’t want just a nice little story and tries to add more depth with more pointed political and social satire. The bait and switch unsettled me, I wanted something nice and quirky, not something that made me sad and thoughtful. I think the author was capable of delivering either approach interestingly, but the mixture was ill judged.

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