Books in March

Arthur C. Clarke – Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur C. Clarke was one of the authors who sparked my love of reading science fiction and it’s a toss up between him and Asimov for the title of most quintessential science fiction author. But I haven’t re-read anything of his in ages, and Rendezvous with Rama seemed a good place to start. It’s interesting coming back to it after reading many other SF authors, there are things which he does effortlessly, but aspects that I’m used to in more modern SF writing that’s completely missing. Clarke manages to near effortlessly get the story started and moving along, there’s hardly any pre-amble or scene setting, it’s all immediately there with no fuss and nothing but incredibly believable and grounded set ups. What’s less present though are the characters, each one is efficiently introduced for their purposes, but no time is wasted really getting into their feelings beyond what’s needed to explain their actions. They’re not cold though, they’re all clearly complex individuals who clearly have their own stories, it’s just that only relevant facts are shared. I will confess I struggled to keep track of the complicated geography and descriptions of Rama itself, which is weird because I remember Clarke’s ability to describe things being a lot better, so maybe I just missed something obvious. Clarke is always efficient, anyone writing this book today would have taken three times as many pages and left nothing to the imagination, but even with that sparsity Clarke still delivers tension, humour and a true sense of wonder.

Alan Connor – Two Girls, One on Each Knee
This is a book about cryptic crosswords, and is written in a style that will appeal to those that like cryptic crosswords, but becomes slightly tiresome for those that have a more casual interest. There’s a lot of material about the history of crosswords, their rules, how to solve them and even cultural relevance – but because it’s all broken up into small chunks and delivered seemingly randomly it can be a bit hard to follow. I always felt like I was brushing the surface rather than fully understanding any depth.

Stuart Turton – The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
This book sounded right up my street – a murder mystery at a 1920’s house party combined with a ‘weird’ element of bodyswapping and time loops. I was excited to start reading it and settled in to read a big chunk in one setting. But I struggled to get into it. And then I struggled to stay engaged. And then I started questioning things. Then I started picking holes in things. Then characters eventually started asking the things I’d asked hours ago. And then it was just a matter of plodding on to the end.
This is a first novel from the author, and even won the Costa Award for first novel, but I felt it still had a lot of work to be done. The mechanics of the ‘weird’ raised too many questions for me (what remained between timeloops, how the overlapping worked…) and I didn’t have confidence that the author knew the answers. Someone like Claire North does such an incredible job building her ‘weirdness’ and establishing the rules, that she’s set a high bar for me on how I expect things to be watertight.
The murder mystery elements were fairly solid though, with plenty of different characters, threads and branches interweaving into a complex net. In fact, I found myself repeatedly wishing I was just reading that as a straight story without the weirdness which over-complicated all the characters and twists, but I’m guessing that wouldn’t have sold so well.

Agatha Christie – Peril at End House
A very enjoyable outing for Hercule Poirot. I like that he’s played up as really quite obnoxious and annoying, it’s like the narrator of Captain Hastings is just rolling his eyes the whole time. The case is well plotted out with a couple of zigs and zags and although I guessed some of the elements quite early on, I was never certain and so continued to buy into different options as they also came up.

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Books in October

Tim Harford – Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy
Economics is a subject I always wish I understood more, but it doesn’t seem to matter how much I read or study, it just doesn’t seem to stick in my head. Tim Harford makes economics both interesting and accessible and this book is a great illustrator of a lot of core ideas to the subject. There are 50 chapters on different physical things, or non-tangible ideas that are each just a few pages long so really easy to pick up on tube journeys or while dinner is cooking. Harford’s style is so engaging, always using stories, examples and simple metaphors that it is a really easy to see how each ‘thing’ shaped the economy and in turn shaped the world (for good, bad and often both). This is one of those uncommon books that teaches you lots and entertains you while it does it.

Agatha Christie – Nemesis
Some may find Miss Marple’s meandering slowness endearing and relaxing, but I just find her a bit dull and this book really emphasized it without even trying to compensate for the character traits by having a more active plot. It felt like the whole thing just dragged and dragged. It was hard to get engaged in the case when you didn’t meet half of the key characters in the mystery and by the time the plot filled in, it felt very obvious to me who did it. Not one of Agatha Christie’s better works.

Ian Fleming – Dr No
I thought reading a James Bond book was probably one of those things I should tick off, although I do wonder how many people, even those that consider themselves James Bond fans have actually read one of the original books. I’m not a huge James Bond film fan, I’ve watched most of them I should think, but not with any real loyalty, just as a passable action film. I went into the book nervous at what James Bond written in the late 50’s would look like, when even in modern versions he’s a fair way from what I consider ‘acceptable behavior’. I wasn’t wrong to worry as the overt sexism and exploitation were pretty miserable to read. It completely overwhelmed any enjoyment I might have got from a solidly put together action novel. It’s not going to hold up well in terms of plot and action to modern thrillers, but it got the job done as a page turner. If you can ignore the “of it’s time” elements then I suppose it’s entertaining enough, but I’m not sure why you’d bother when there’s any number of modern thrillers that will avoid most of the issues.

Max Gladstone – The Craft Sequence 1: Three Parts Dead
I’m a bit torn on this book. On one hand it’s got a fairly original premise – magic and religion are kind of like contracts and trading – power, belief, terms and conditions. So lawyers are at the heart of it all. That’s an elegant idea, but I didn’t think it was very well introduced or developed. There was a bit too much going on for a first novel, and as I didn’t understand how the world was working, I couldn’t get lost in the schemes and subversion of the rules. The characters were all solid, I think the plot just about hung together and it was very readable; I just didn’t quite feel it was quite there.