I read quite a lot of books last week, but several of them were very short. Most of them were novels – I seem to be on a fiction drive at the moment.
There were a few that were disappointing, which was a shame, and one or two surprises. So without further ado, here are this week’s reviews.
The Break by Marian Keyes
This one was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a full review, which you can find here.
Defeat Into Victory by Sir William Slim
I’m not really sure why I bought this one. It’s a WWII memoir written by a Field-Marshal who served in Asia. I’m not a fan of war, or books about war (fictional or otherwise); it’s not a point in history that particularly interests me; and yet somehow this book ended up on my to-read shelf.
I possibly bought it because the title, Defeat Into Victory, is the kind of idea I like but that seems like a strange reason to buy a book I knew I wouldn’t really enjoy.
Perhaps I bought it for the maps. They’re pretty cool.
I mean, yeah I like a foldy-outy map. Not sure if I like them enough to buy a book though.
Anyway, I read it because it was there and I was trying to work out if there had been some reason for me buying it. I don’t think there was.
If you like war memoirs, this is probably quite a good one? It’s not a genre I read so it’s hard to tell. I found it boring and fighty and dry. You might find it exhilarating and full of tactical strategy, I dunno.
Mary Higgins Clark’s Laurie Moran Series
I accidentally read these books in back-to-front order. Whoops.
This meant that first of all, Laurie Moran – the producer of a hit TV series which tries to solve cold cases – was getting used to her new co-host. Then in the next book she was working with Alex, the co-host she really likes and feels comfortable with, even though she’s still grieving the death of her husband Greg after his brutal murder. Then in the next book her husband was being murdered and she was pitching the idea for the TV show. So yeah, probably if you read them the other way around they’d make more sense, though they were enjoyable all the same.
The least enjoyable was The Sleeping Beauty Killer – the one I read first – because I guessed whodunnit on page six. I really hoped I was wrong, and that the ending would be some kind of twist I hadn’t foreseen, but nope. I mean, I read enough crime novels that I quite often guess the culprit before the end, but page six is a record for me.
However, the other two were a bit less obvious, and actually I wonder whether it’s just that I’ve read so many of Mary Higgins Clark’s books that I know how her mind works.
The order you should read them in is:
- I’ve Got You Under My Skin (I’ve had the Frank Sinatra song in my head ever since…)
- The Cinderella Murder
- The Sleeping Beauty Killer
The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark
Not to be put off my MHC-fest, I then moved on to The Lost Years, which isn’t part of the Laurie Moran series. It concerns a lost parchment which dates back thousands of years. It’s said to be the only letter ever written by Jesus Christ, thanking Joseph of Arimathea for his hospitality. When the finder of the parchment is murdered, suspicion turns to his wife, who was found clutching the murder weapon next to his dead body.
But the simplest explanation isn’t always the right one, and when it comes out that next door’s jewels went missing from their safe the same night as the murder, the investigations start to intertwine…
It’s a Higgins Clark classic: twists, turns, suspense, and yet very easy reading. Perfect for a light read in between heavier books.
The Coincidence Authority by J.W. Ironmonger
Thomas Post is a philosopher studying the concept of coincidence. He excels at debunking people’s claims that something that simply couldn’t have been pure chance happened to them. Post knows that the odds of coincidences not happening are far greater than the odds of them occurring… until he meets Azalea, whose life seems to have been dogged by a number of coincidental events that even he finds astounding.
The story follows Azalea’s life from conception to the time we meet her as an adult. It jumps back and forth quite a lot, and not hugely skillfully, so sometimes the storyline feels a bit stilted. It was hard to work out, even at the end, whether the author wanted us to believe in coincidences being somehow deliberate or not, but perhaps that was part of the point.
On the whole, I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing style, but the story was interesting and it was a light read for a summer day in the park. I enjoyed the ending too: it concludes with a bit of uncertainty, which I liked.
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
When I first started reading this I thought I might have read it before, then I realised I hadn’t. I think what may have happened is that I picked it up at some point and read the first couple of chapters, before realising it was a post-apocalyptic zombie novel and setting it aside.
I don’t read a huge amount of post-apocalyptic fiction, because the little I have read hasn’t made me want to read any more. Often the worlds aren’t built very convincingly and the stories and characters aren’t especially compelling. I even found this about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which is one of the most widely-recommended of the genre, although at least she was good at world-building.
However, The Girl With All The Gifts changed my mind. Melanie is a zombie child (a “hungry”) who lives in an underground facility set up by uninfected humans. It’s a scientific centre which was established when it became obvious that some of the zombie children seemed to have human feelings and thought processes. At the centre the children have lessons in class every day, with a rotating group of teachers. Melanie’s favourite teacher is Miss Justineau, who reads them stories and Greek myths.
But one day the enclosure is threatened, and Melanie must take her chances in the outside world, accompanied by a group of people whose intentions towards her are less than honorable.
I enjoyed the book. It was a page-turner and its presentation of Melanie as a sympathetic character despite being desperate for the taste of human flesh was well written. The one thing I didn’t like was that Melanie mostly seemed to be viewed as redeemable because she was very intelligent – there were several mentions of her “genius level IQ” throughout the book. Setting aside the usual criticisms of IQ as a measure of intelligence in the first place, I found the swift dismissal of the other children in her class from the story a bit grating. They had feelings too: surely they were also worth saving? I understand it was probably necessary to focus on a single child in order to tell the story, but it still felt dismissive.
I wondered at one point whether Melanie’s reaction to her need for human flesh was a metaphor for an eating disorder. Upon further analysis this didn’t seem to be the case: I couldn’t find other applications of this without stretching things significantly. But the level of shame she feels when she’s eaten something, the desire to be alone when she was feeding, the way she didn’t even want to talk about it especially with the person she loved the most, were all pretty representative of life with an eating disorder. So maybe if that’s something you’d like to understand, keep it in mind when you’re reading this book.
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
I can’t quite believe I’m about to do this, but… I think I’m going to recommend a secondary source over a primary one.
I know. Unbelievable.
Of course it’s not a primary source anyway, correctly speaking, since it’s a translation. If you’re studying Leonardo da Vinci, you’ll want to read his notebooks in the original language. But if you’re just interested in his thought process, then while this book is good, I would actually recommend Michael Gelb’s How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci instead.
Why? Because it introduces the reader to the way Leonardo da Vinci thinks, rather than just what his thoughts actually were. If you’re interested in him, the chances are pretty high that you’re interested in the concept of Renaissance humans and how to be one, i.e. how to be well-rounded and capable in lots of different disciplines, rather than being a specialist in a single area. And if that’s the case, How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci will in fact give you a better grounding on the matter than the notebooks of the man himself.
I enjoyed How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci so much that I ended up writing a series of posts based on the exercises within it.
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci was a good book, because it’s always interesting to take a look inside the mind of a genius. Even if sometimes that mind seems a little disturbing…
But if you want to become a modern-day Renaissance human, How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci is the book you need.
Wise Words & Country Ways: Weather Lore by Ruth Binney
If you enjoyed Weatherland by Alexandra Harris as much as I did, you will probably like this book too. It’s not an academic study in the style of Weatherland, but it does make for interesting reading. It goes through weather-related sayings, superstitions and beliefs of the British Isles (of which there are many, unsurprisingly) and talks about which ones contain grains of truth.
A lot of them do, as it turns out.
If you like to learn about the origins of sayings; if you’ve ever wondered if your grandparents’ weird gardening rules had any truth to them; or if you’re just very British and enjoy talking about the weather, then this book is for you.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I have a complicated relationship with feminism.
As a teenager I was a Very Angry Feminist. I thought men were awful and semi-jokingly posited the idea of “man-pits”, where we could keep them for reproductive purposes if necessary but would otherwise exclude them from society. I enjoyed the idea of lesbian separatism, despite not actually being a lesbian.
Then I went to therapy for a while and got over a few of my issues (and also probably just grew up a bit), and became much more moderate in my views.
But then I kept meeting all these people who called themselves “feminists” but whose views I disagreed with, in some cases because they were still on the radical separatist side, and in others because they seemed to be saying “I’m a feminist” so they could get away with being assholes. This latter particularly applied to several men I knew, who would frequently talk about how they were feminists because they believed women should be equal, but who would do things in their day-to-day life that seemed even more sexist than the other men I knew who didn’t purport to be feminists.
So at that point I stopped calling myself a feminist, for much the same reason I don’t like calling myself an atheist, even though I believe there is no god: I don’t like a lot of the groups who sit under these umbrellas and don’t want to associate myself with them. Besides which, I find one-word labels like “feminist”, “atheist” and so on to be incapable of covering all the nuances I want to bring out when discussing these subjects.
When someone says “Are you a feminist?” I’m more likely to respond with “What do you mean by ‘feminist’?” than with a quick yes or no. And it’s not helped by the way most people seem to reply with “Someone who believes that men and women should have equal rights”, because again often these concepts aren’t very well defined within their minds. And what about people who don’t identify as men or women? What about transwomen? Transmen? What do you mean by ‘equal rights’, exactly? Are you talking about equal rights within the confines of my society, in the UK? If so, are you considering intersectional differences in race, class, health? Are you talking about equal rights in Nigeria? Should we be defining ‘equal rights’ in exactly the same way in every country in the world? Is that even possible?
That’s my problem. I don’t like to slot myself in beneath a term someone else has defined. Am I a feminist? Probably by your definition, assuming you’re taking a fairly moderate view, and allowing for the fact that I won’t agree with you on every single point. But I’d much rather have an in-depth discussion about life and equality and the human condition than slap a label on myself and immediately be self-congratulatory about it.
Having said all that, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s feminism is pretty hard to disagree with. She talks about growing up in Nigeria, and how women are denied many privileges there. She talks about going out to dinner with a man, and only the man being greeted at the door because the woman isn’t seen as a whole person. Things like this are unequivocally the kinds of things we need to fix in the world.
It’s a great little book, and coming in at only 52 pages it shouldn’t take even the slowest of readers too long to get through. If you’re looking for a brief introduction to why you might want to start thnking about feminism, it’s certainly recommendable.
It’s Always Wine O’Clock
A fun little book that contains many amusing and relatable sayings about wine. The kind of thing you’ll want to keep on your
coffee table wine table and pick up when you’re about to enjoy a glass or six.
Star Trek Cats by Jenny Parks
Exactly as the title suggests, this is a book in which Star Trek characters are reimagined as cats. If you’re not a fan of Star Trek: TOS, you probably won’t like it. If you are, you will no doubt find it fun to revisit all your favourite episodes with a feline twist.
100% recommended for cat-loving Trekkies.
The Caller by Chris Carter
Ugh, this book. Or rather ugh, the author.
To start off with: the storyline. This was good. Very gripping, theoretically. A serial killer is murdering people in horrific ways, while their friends watch via a video call. The way he sets it up means that their loved ones feel like it’s their fault the victims are dying. The police are on the case, but can they catch him before he kills again?
I wanted to know what happened. I thought the story itself was well-written. The murders were gruesome (and perhaps a bit enthusiastically written? There were a couple of points where I worried about how much joy the author seemed to be taking from describing the kills) and the murderer was not obvious. The reason why he killed them the way he did was also very clever.
You can feel the but, though, can’t you?
Here it comes.
It would have really helped if he hadn’t made his main characters wankers. The problem, I think, is that the author seems to hold some deeply internalised derogatory views of women. For example, apparently I couldn’t possibly be a woman, because I like whisky and I don’t care about shoes. The fact that my whisky collection is vastly larger than my shoe collection (the latter consisting of one pair of flip flops for summer, one pair of boots for winter, and one pair of trainers for the gym) apparently means I can’t be in possession of XX chromosomes.
The lead detective on the case is the allegedly brilliant Robert Hunter, who has a PhD in psychology but apparently very little understanding of the field. He enjoys making sweeping generalisations of mental illnesses, belittling serious mental health conditions, and making snarky side jokes about women and shoes. (Seriously, this author’s obsession with women and shoes is astounding.) On several occasions, Hunter has to explain to his boss some basic concepts about psychology and criminology, because of course his boss could not have understood them without his help. He also helps his boss come to conclusions about the case in a patronising, “I know you won’t have thought of this, dear” way. You guessed it, his boss is a woman.
Let me end this by saying I’m not particularly sensitive to this sort of thing in general. If a character in a book makes a passing sexist comment, I’ll usually let it slide. Sexists exist, after all. If a book is written from the perspective of an asshole, I don’t usually take that to mean it’s the author’s perspective. An excellent example of the latter is The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, which has enough anti-Semitic sentiment in it to make it difficult to read, and yet it’s obvious that the views are being put forward for the purpose of criticism, and aren’t the views of the author himself. But when several characters make sexist remarks throughout a book, and those remarks are backed up by paragraphs that are neither dialogue nor inside a character’s mind, ultimately you end up concluding that the author must see some sort of truth in the assumptions.
So skip this book. I doubt I’ll read anything else of his either, even though the storyline had potential, because it’s just not worth giving my time to someone who apparently doesn’t think I qualify as female.
Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto by Anneli Rufus
What, you thought I’d trashed The Caller? Oh, but I saved the worst till last.
This book made me sad because I had been so sure I’d like it. And I really wanted to like it, too.
It’s the kind of book I should love: written for loners, by a loner, about how often so many people disparage the choice of a solitary life and make it seem like some kind of sickness, rather than a valid way to live. Making people feel like their choosing to be alone is a good thing: now that’s a concept I can get behind.
Ohhh but this book was so badly written. So badly written I didn’t even finish it. Bear in mind that I finished The Caller despite it being sexist and irritating, and this book was shorter than that one.
Here are some of the notes I made before I gave up completely.
Author sounds quite bitter. Scholarship neither thorough nor rigorous.
The print on some pages is very light, and on other pages is very dark. This makes the book difficult to read especially if, like me, you often read by candlelight.
The kind of book that puts me off writing, for fear I might end up writing one like it.
I hate trashing books. It brings me pain. But not as much pain as trying to read this heap of shit brought me, so…
It’s not just that it’s badly researched and makes sweeping assumptions that are presented as fact despite not being based on anything. It’s also that Rufus is so scornful of nonloners, or people who belong to what she terms “the mob”. She seems to hold up the loner as a kind of Übermensch who scorns the rest of society because it’s worthless and the people in it are vacuous and awful.
Look, I hate socialising too, OK? I’m not a fan of parties or small talk. I prefer an evening in with a glass of wine and a book to an evening out dancing. I turn down social occasions with predictable regularity. I live alone and want to keep it that way. Ultimately I want to live in a little cottage somewhere far away from other humans, ideally on my own private island, and only see people very occasionally.
But I don’t think that makes me some kind of superbeing. It just means I’m the kind of person who prefers to be alone. Some people prefer to be with others a lot of the time, and that’s fine too. They’re just differences. And differences are what make humans interesting.
Ironically, Rufus is immensely scornful about nonloners needing external validation from society, and yet she seems to be angrily rallying for the same validation in her book. One of her main gripes about nonloners is that she sees them as desperately needy beings, constantly wanting someone to come along and tell them their life choices are normal, or at the very least OK. She hates advertising (again, a viewpoint I can get behind), but she also hates the people who fall for it – including, inevitably, herself on occasion. She hates that people want others to not scorn their life choices. And yet she’s essentially spending an entire book telling these people – the very idiots whose validation she scorns – why they need to validate her life choices, and why it makes her angry that they don’t.
She hates a lot of stuff. It must be exhausting inside her brain.
Rufus makes a point in the introduction of telling us that she’s sane: that “people whose job it is to know these things have told me so”. Setting aside for a moment the sweeping generalisation of the concept of sanity, I have to wonder at how desperate she is for us to believe that. When I read it, I thought it an odd thing to include: if you have to justify your own sanity at the start of the book, surely it doesn’t bode well for the book itself? And it didn’t. It’s surely much better to write a book that demonstrates that you’re “sane” (whatever you want to mean by that) even if you have a disparate viewpoint from the reader.
An experience the author had as a child illustrates her scornfulness of others:
“Two or three of the other girls combined, as I saw it, barely amounted to a complete person. They needed each other because they were not whole. This is how I learned to feel superior.”
Oh get over yourself.
I’m all for spending time alone and getting to know yourself; and I agree that it’s not nice when people make fun of your life choices. But it’s quite likely that each of the three girls she mentioned is a complete person in themselves, who just happened to be a bit more sociable and enjoy spending time with other people (complete people too, I’m sure) because they found things they related to.
I do agree that a lot of the time people don’t understand themselves as well as they might. I think it’s a really good idea to spend time on self-examination and self-analysis. It can help to understand our own motivations, and what we actually like and dislike as opposed to what we’ve been told to enjoy. Encouraging this kind of deep reflection is a good thing. But the way to do that is to write a book like Solitude by Anthony Storr, which not only talks about the well-researched reasons why this is a good idea, but also gives tips on how to do so. If you’re not going to write a well-researched book, then don’t write one that purports to be an authority or a manifesto. Write a memoir. Write a book that says by its very nature that you’re just spouting your opinion. Don’t write a scornful pile of junk and try to put yourself out there as some kind of authority based on your extensive hatred of most of humanity.
Normally when I finish reading my books for the week, I divide them into two piles. One pile – those I might want to read again or use for research – I keep, and the other pile I put on the little wall outside my house for people to take. This book is going to have to be an exception, because I’d feel wrong even giving it away for free. A traitor to its species, it is going straight in the bin, which is where it belongs.
Better luck next week, hopefully…