Books in May

I’m finally getting into a bit of a rhythm working from home and thanks to the lovely weather and the complete lack of anything else to do, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading in my garden. Two big hits, 1 middling and two misses this month, but the hits were really good.

Susan Cain – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
If ever I was in any doubt as to whether I was an introvert or not, two things have recently made me certain. The first is living alone during the current lockdown and really not actually feeling that stressed about my lack of companionship. The second is this book.
The initial chapters come across as a “them and us”, a bit of a moan that the world is built by and for extroverts. It felt a little like the expectation was that only introverts would read the book and so we could have a bit of a moan together. That sort of thing makes me a bit uncomfortable, even when the book is actually doing a solid job in evidencing it’s claim that introverts are discriminated against.
Either the conflict elements were toned down, or I got used to them though because the rest of the book made me feel less uncomfortable and more… seen. I could recognise myself in many of the anecdotes and examples, I could see where I would probably fall in the experiments that are described. Each section delved deeper into presenting possible explanations for why I am how I am – culture, neurology, nature/nurture and I felt more understood. Even the sections on advice for how to manage situations to reduce your stress were gentle and supportive, not patronising.
I still have a slight discomfort with the “them and us” aspect. I’m not sure how many extroverts would read this book, and I’m not sure whether they’d really get it, or just feel like they were being told off a bit. That’s a bit of a shame, because I think beneath the thin layer of (justifiable) chip on shoulder, there’s a fascinating and useful book underneath.

Samantha Shannon – The Priory of the Orange Tree
Someone must have recommended this to me as it ended up on my wish list, and I ordered it online in a big stack of books to help me get through lockdown. However I forgot one of the key rules of impulse buying books online – check the page count. This came in at over 800 pages and a devastating 2 inches thick. Still, not like there’s much else to do and at least it’s all in one book not turning into an endless series.
I think this is a book that suits itself very well to being read in big chunks, curled up in an armchair, or laying out on a deckchair looking for an escape from the real world. It’s a true epic fantasy (it even comes with maps in the front and a character list at the back). There are half a dozen different kingdoms, multiple legends/religions, good dragons and evil dragons, pirates, magic, war and romance. Absolutely everything is thrown into the mix and emerges as a well constructed world with interesting characters and a well paced story. It could have been shorter and tighter, but removing some of the padding may have made it feel rushed. My only other criticism would be that if you look too closely, two of the lead women are basically the same character which can make their stories blend together a bit. I’m not sure it was completely worth the page count if you’ve got more limited reading time, but I did thoroughly enjoy it and am grateful for it taking me out of the real world for a while.

Kate Atkinson – A God in Ruins
Do not read this book.
I don’t like making that kind of blanket statement, but the end of this book made me so spitting mad, that I’m going to straight out say you shouldn’t read it. I know what the author was saying with the ending of the book, I can even respect the powerful message. I’m not saying she was necessarily wrong to tell that story and end it that way (it’s her book after all, she can do what she likes). The book itself is a hard read, full of small sadnessses, focusing on the small frustrations and disappointments in life rather than giving any space to the joys and triumphs. It is well written with excellent observation and a lovely turn of phrase, although I found the jumping references to past and future kept disconnecting me slightly from the moment. After reading through those difficult times I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, but I was at least expecting a closing. Instead I got a twist that was a slap in the face that left me feeling angry, cold and empty. It’s well written, possibly even brilliantly written, but I wish I hadn’t read it.

Michelle Paver – Wakenhyrst
The blurb is rather misleading as it implies this is a book spanning multiple time periods, when in reality there are there are just a couple of very short sections in the 20th century and the majority of the book spans a few years in the 1900’s. That both disappointed me and unsettled me when reading it as I kept expecting to jump time periods and there to be more complexity to the story than there turned out to be. I would probably have been perfectly satisfied with the book without that confusion, although I don’t think even then I would have been blown away by it. The central character has an interesting and well developed voice and the diary sections are well used to provide an alternate voice. The story itself is ok, but nothing outstanding, so while I enjoyed it enough as I read it, I expect it to fade into memory fairly quickly.

Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee – Rama II
Rendezvous with Rama is an absolute classic of science fiction – elegant, understated and original. Rama II is none of those things. I suspect the main issue lies in the double author credit, and it would seem that actually Clarke was really little more than an editor. The first book written exclusively by Clarke focuses on the story, the mystery of Rama. The characters are secondary, there to perform roles – captain, engineer, sailor etc. That’s not to say they don’t have personality, but that’s incidental to the story. Rama II feels like it’s taken entirely the opposite approach, focusing on the characters and their relationships. But the characters aren’t very good. Most of the book reads like a badly constructed reality TV series, where despite years in planning the powers-that-be have decided to send a group of complete ill-suited misfits on the most important mission mankind has ever had. It’s a recipe for disaster that’s predictable, unrealistic and frankly not very interesting. There’s also a layer of mysticism that I could completely live without. Sadly I found this book unsatisfying and a bit of a trudge.

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