Books in August

Hans Rosling and Ola Rosling – Factfulness
Like many, many thousands of people I discovered Hans Rosling through his Ted talks using data and statistics in simple yet visually creative ways to present a richer pictures of things we assume we know. His utterly charming personality, passion and energy come across perfectly in this book. I didn’t put the full title above, which is “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think” but the book does rather do what it says on the tin. Unlike some books of this type there is a powerful and simple structure running through it, each chapter presenting a different way that it is incredibly easy to get things wrong. There is a mix of anecdotes, data, psychology, statistics and sociology in every chapter that carefully reinforces each key point. Not a chapter went by without me being surprised and enlightened. It’s a relatively short book and a phenomenally easy read that will open your mind and genuinely make you feel a bit better about the world. Everyone should read this.

Claire North – The End of the Day
Looking back, I adored Claire North’s first two books (The First 15 Lives of Harry August and Touch) but the last two (this one and Sudden Appearance of Hope) have frustrated me. All her books have in common an incredible richness of central idea, they are all playing with sci-fi like abilities/powers/curses and North has built them in a way that fully embraces and plays with all the implications that they bring. But I feel that she doesn’t always embed them in a good story. The End of the Day in fact doesn’t seem to have much in the way of story at all. It’s a huge collection of small stories that don’t really seem to go anywhere. The characters and settings involved are all interesting to spend time with, so it’s not a disaster, but I was always aware of the fact that it didn’t seem to be coming together. There’s a lot of observation about the world today that if I’d known was going to be there, I probably wouldn’t have read the book (“warning – this book contains social commentary and observation that may make you angry and sad”). Despite the great concept at the centre of the book, I just came away unsatisfied and frankly a little depressed.

T Kingfisher – Summer in Orcus
If you read the author’s notes at the end she explains that this book ended up a home for a lot of the stray ideas she’d had that hadn’t made it into another book. That could make for a bit of a mess, but I think it just about works here. It’s held together with a familiar structure of a child transported to another world, but but writer and the child herself are aware of those tropes and so it feels like it’s moving the ideas forward rather than just retelling them. The collection of ideas are beautifully collected, and you can see how each grew out of either a phrase, a visual image (the valet birds are my favourite), or even a pun. I don’t think it’s her best work, it lacks some punch and it’s more of a children’s book than most of her other fairy tales, but it’s a lovely tale to read.

Agatha Christie – A Murder is Announced
With my increased commute, my reading time has multiplied dramatically and as I’m powering through books so fast I’ve started using my local library rather than bankrupt myself buying books. The selection is quite erratic, but I can always rely on finding an Agatha Christie. I haven’t read many Miss Marple’s but there’s something very comforting about the slow pace of them, easy going detective work and village life and relatively low impact crimes being investigated. There are lots of elements to the mystery, so even if you see through one or two early on as I did, there’s still more surprises to come. It does get somewhat more brutal towards the end, but it’s slightly swept away which left me feeling a bit bruised and feeling slightly less satisfied than I might otherwise have done.

David Thomson – How to Watch a Movie
The author makes a point of explaining that he is not looking to reduce the enjoyment of films through over-analysis, and I could completely get behind that message. I find that my enjoyment and respect for films is often improved by knowing a bit about the context of their production, their place in history and the complexities of producing them. So I was completely with him. Then I read the book and he actually had me doubting the whole idea. The book is STUNNINGLY boring to read, weirdly too dry to be entertaining, but too flimsy to feel educational. It wanders all over the place with little coherent messaging. I got no sense of love or joy from any of it and ended up just turning the pages as fast as I possibly could.

Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep
A classic. Hmmm. I can see the charm of the writing style, the turns of phrases and dry wit are beautifully written and really leap off the page. But I didn’t feel like I was pulled into the book at all, like I was observing something at a difference. Maybe it’s because the central voice is so dry and emotionally distant, and the rest of the characters are all fairly unlikable so it’s hard to really engage, but I found myself just turning the pages rather than really sinking into it.

Philip Gwynne Jones – Vengeance in Venice
It’s not long since I read the first book in this series and I can see it becoming a series that I happily return to with each new work, but rather forget in between. The characters are charming and real, all with their own flaws and eccentricities (particularly the cat). The plot on the other hand is a bit so-so, as a murder mystery it relies on too many coincidences and even though the writer ‘hangs a lamp’ on those issues, it doesn’t excuse that you don’t have to try too hard to pull the story apart. But really, the star of the book is Venice itself. I’ve only been there once myself but I can certainly recognise it from the book – both the wonder of the place and the insanity of it. As mindless reads go – it’s great fun, as a quality murder mystery – it’s a bit mediocre, but as a promotion for the Venetian tourist board – it’s beyond compare.

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