Books in April and May

I bundled two months of book reviews up together again, because I once again had a very slow couple of months reading. Partially because of my circumstances, but also because most of the books I’ve been reading just haven’t really grabbed me. The big exception being the first book below, which not only had me turning the pages, but adding loads to me to-read list.

Lucy Mangan – Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading
I seem to read a fair number of books about reading, and this is the first one that has really truly captured the joy of books and reading. I was sold on this book as soon as I saw the list of books that it covered because almost all of them I remember from my childhood, even just reading the titles made me feel warm and nostalgic. Although there are plenty of autobiographical elements in it, it never deviates from being completely about books, giving little bits of information about the authors and how their works were received. It even throws in some history and sociology, reflecting on the different way people have written for children over the centuries. Lucy Mangan has a lovely writing style, natural and unforced, with heart and humour. Even reading this book on a busy tube, I felt like I was snuggled under a blanket on a sofa with my favourite books for company.

Kate Mascarenhas – The Psychology of Time Travel
You can tell from the appendices of the book that a huge amount of effort has gone into the background of time travel, building up vocabulary and slang that would work in a community of people for whom time is fluid. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite translate into a solid book. I think the decision to tell the story from the point of view of people outside of the time travel community critically damaged the narrative, it meant that the science, logistics and (crucially) psychology of time travel was always slightly hedged in rumor and hear-say. It never felt like it was completely coherent. It would have been so much better to tell the story from within the time travel conclave, to fully immerse in it and be swept along with the way that people act within this context. Interestingly, I see the author is actually a psychologist. I wish she’d stuck to her strengths and really focused on getting in the heads of the characters, rather than getting bogged down in a murder mystery that didn’t really engage.

Tom Hanks – Uncommon Type: Some Stories
This book is exactly what I expected Tom Hanks to write, once I got over the slightly improbable idea of him writing short stories. If you know anything about the actor and his work, his choices of settings and themes will not surprise you – they’re about normal people, mostly living normal lives that are made extraordinary just because of the heart that goes into describing them. Hanks has an un-fussy approach that is really easy to settle into and carries you along. There’s nothing shocking here, minimal tension and hardly any drama so you can just relax into it and enjoy it. Just what I needed.

Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few
The core concept of this book is incredibly good. A fleet of ships that have fled a dying planet on a multi-generational search for a new home, but centuries later the ships ARE the home and although there are other options available, and some people leave, the fleet goes on. That’s a great set up. There are also some beautiful details of the culture and philosophies that have developed in the fleet, some passages really moved me. It’s also a good idea to follow a small number of fairly disconnected characters and cycle through their first person point of views, illustrating different aspects of the world. The problem is that there’s no plot. Each character is well established and has an interesting day-to-day life, and even some small elements of arc, but there’s just nothing substantial enough. I found it a book that was quite easy to put down and not very tempting to pick up.

Stephen King – The Shining
I’ve made it to a really quite considerable age before reading a Stephen King novel, and I find I really haven’t been missing that much. I can see why he’s such a good source for films/tv series because the ideas and characters he creates (at least as evidenced by this one work) are rich, interesting and vibrant. But I did not get on with his writing style at all. For a start it’s just so drawn out! Ironically when I reviewed the film of The Shining I complained that we “could have spent more time at the start when they’re ‘normal’ before the craziness starts”, well maybe that was a response to the book which took FOREVER to get there. I also didn’t like the disjointed nature of the writing, short chapters bouncing between different characters, most of whom were having some sort of hallucination or were half in flashback. I found it very hard to get lost in the book and kept reading faster and faster just to get through.

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