Books in July

I’m back to doing about 2 hours of commuting each day on the tube which means my reading is back up to good levels. I must be one of the few people on the tubes in the summer heat that is still reasonably happy about the circumstances, there’s nothing like having to drive to work for a few months to really make you appreciate the ease of being able to completely switch off while travelling. The quality of the most of the books this month has sadly been a bit more erratic.

E.M. Forster – A Room with a View
This book feels like it falls between two periods, which I guess is appropriate the period in which it was written and set (Edwardian, start of the 20th century), but makes it slightly weird to read if you have no real historical grounding. It’s a weird mix of Victorian prudishness (a single kiss between single people could be a scandal) and the start of a move toward equality – that women could be allowed to have their own opinions. I found it really hard to get a handle on what would be considered extreme – either old fashioned or too modern, what the rules were and what the challenges were, and that made it hard to really settle in to the book. There were sections that I became fully engaged in, becoming comfortable with the voices of the characters, but then I’d stumble as something lurched to another extreme. The use of broad caricatures to represent the extreme views made it hard to see anybody’s point of view reasonably. I did find it more engaging than a lot of ‘classics’ that I try to read, but that’s not saying a huge amount.

Hugh Howey – Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue
A solid but unremarkable space adventure story. I never quite lost myself in the book, the main character had a strong voice, but I could not quite reconcile her as a 17 year old, she acted as a very experienced professional when the story needed it, but an overly emotional naive teenager when the story needed that. Because she was telling most of the story first person, that rather tainted the reality of the places as well, particularly in the centre section which was trying to say something interesting but couldn’t find an elegant way to do it. There are some nice ideas, and it’s clearly setting up a series that might actually get better. Although I was underwhelmed by this, I may keep reading just because I know that author will go on to write the Dust trilogy after this, which I absolutely love.

Ian Stewart – Significant Figures: Lives and Works of Trailblazing Mathematicians
One of the reasons I review all the books I read is because I have a terrible memory, at best I will remember I’ve read someone before but not whether I liked it or not. When I picked this book up in the library I didn’t bother to check my reviews which was a mistake. It turns out I’ve read one other book by Ian Stewart and summed it up as “avoid like the plague”. I will say the same about this one, with the slight concession that I didn’t actually read the whole thing. I managed about 100 pages but got very little out of it. Just like his other book, this is a muddle of history, biography and maths and none of them are very well served. You really do have to be a mathematician to understand and appreciate the importance of each mathematician and even then, I’m not sure that the history side of things is interesting enough to make it worth the effort.

Carol Baxter – The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison and Pursuit
I felt a little conned by this book. I’d found it in the science section of the library and the title and blurb implied it was focused on the science and technology of the 1840’s and how they fed into police work. Really though the book is 95% crime thriller with the telegraph and forensic science only playing the smallest of roles. It’s a shame this put me in a grump, because it is actually a really good historical crime story. Non-fiction and (seemingly) impeccably researched, but structured and told like a proper legal thriller with a rich cast of characters, well structured plot and interesting insight into different parts of society at the time. Go in with those expectations and you’ll be very satisfied.

Dava Sobel – A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos
I studied history of science at University, and Copernicus was a big part of it, so I’m fairly familiar with the impact of his revelations, why they were so challenging and how they fit into the wider story of science. However I wasn’t that familiar with Copernicus as a person and his place in society. So I thought this book would be an interestingly new approach to the story. It gives an interesting insight into where Copernicus came from, the culture and society he grew up in and his day to day existence. It’s a little bit of a slog as there are quite a lot of names, places and dates to track and there was sometimes way more detail than was needed, or awkward sections told almost entirely in quotes from documents that 500 years later aren’t exactly easy reads. The real frustration for me was that the crucial section about the publication of the work, was framed as a play. For a start – I don’t find reading a script very engaging, for a second it was impossible to tell how much was actually true. When I’m reading non-fiction, I don’t want it dramatized, I don’t want to have to guess whether people said, felt or did what is being described. I felt significant liberties were taken with the truth which deeply frustrated me, and to add insult to injury, I’m not actually sure it made a very good fictional play either. That completely overwhelmed any of the good scholarly effort that had gone into the work and left me very frustrated.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 9: The October Man
I was slightly surprised when I started reading this novella and discovered that it not only did not feature the usual characters from the series, but wasn’t even set in London! It worked out ok though, because the new central character wasn’t a million miles away from Peter Grant in his character or tone and was just as well developed. I enjoyed the small scale nature of the story compared to the larger books which are adding to the overall storyline, but at the same time it opened up the scope of the series to know that there are other practitioners and professionals working with magic. I polished the book off in a couple of sittings and found it both entertaining and satisfying despite it’s short length.

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