15 January 2013

The 52 Books I Read In 2012: Part 2: 27-52

As I have been doing since 2009, I kept track of my reading during 2012 on LibraryThing. This post is a compendium of those notes. The quality & depth of comments on the books I read varies widely - this is much more likely to be a relfection of how busy I was at the time, rather than the quality of the books!

My previous post covered the first 26 books I read in 2012. This post covers the remaining 26, and a third post will discuss my thoughts on the reading year past and the one ahead.

Note: the links from the book title and author, where available, are to the relevant LibraryThing pages.

27. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson - novel/SF (4/5)

I enjoyed this return to the inhabited Solar System of KSR's magnificent Mars Trilogy - in many ways, this book is a sequel to the final volume in that trilogy, Blue Mars.

This book doesn't have any characters who are as memorable as the half-dozen or so leading characters of the Mars trilogy - but all the same, if you want a single-volume tour of KSR's future system, this is a fine place to start.

28. The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi - memoir/graphic memoir (4.5/5)

I thought the first part, covering her childhood in Iran, was outstanding, but although the second part, covering her adolescence outside Iran and eventual return to the country is also good, it didn't grip me quite as much as the first part. All the same, this was well worth reading - and everyone in my book group liked it very much, which is rare indeed for our group!

29. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel - memoir/graphic memoir (5/5)

Another wonderful combination of graphic novel and memoir from Alison Bechdel. After Fun Home, which centred on her father, the focus of Are You My Mother? isn't a surprise: this time, the parent is seen through the prism of psychoanalysis rather than literature, but the result is just as thought-provoking, involving and moving. Highly recommended.

30. Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers - novel/historical fantasy (3.5/5)

This was pitched somewhere between Powers' alternate-history fantasies involving the lives of the poets with added Nephilim, and his ghost-catching mythology. I like the former but dislike the latter, so it's no surprise that I found this book very good in some parts and frustrating in others. The literary clan in peril here is the Rossetti family, but compared to the portrayal of Shelley and Byron in previous novels of this stripe, they never really came alive for me as characters.

So ... good, but not great, Tim Powers.

31. Graft by Helen Heath - poetry/collection (4/5)

A fine collection by Helen Heath - the highlight for me being some excellent poems about science and scientists, such as this award-winning one:

32. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick - novel/science fiction (4.5/5)

When I went through my "Philip K. DicK phase" in my late teens/early twenties I read many of his novels, but never this one. That's a pity, because it's very good, bringing back that distinctively Dickian sense of living in a Universe whose arbitrary, provisional nature can almost be sensed.

33. Blood in the Water by Jane Haddam - novel/mystery (3.5/5)

Entertaining and well-plotted police procedural, although the ending didn't work all that well for me.

34. Just Then by Harry Ricketts - poetry collection (3.5/5)

Harry Ricketts is best known for The Unforgiving Minute, his biography of Rudyard Kipling, but he's also a fine poet. There's an element of miscellany about this book, but the best poems are very good indeed. This is my favourite: http://theredroom.org/2012/06/12/tuesday-poem-phoenix-foundation-by-harry-ricketts/

35. The Heir of Night by Helen Lowe - novel/heroic fantasy (4.5/5)

Very well-written and well-constructed first volume in a heroic fantasy tetratology - although there may be science-fictional elements to this world as well. Helen Lowe is an excellent writer and brings a richness of detail to this novel that makes it well worth reading.

For news on the progress of this tetralogy, and plenty more besides, check out Helen's excellent blog.

36. Mansfield With Monsters by Matt Cowens and Debbie Cowens - short story collection/mash-ups (3.5/5)

This (to my knowledge) is the first New Zealand example of the mash-up genre - it's superficially in the tradition of such books as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, but in fact the spirit of this book is much more respectful towards the original stories by Katherine Mansfield, the great New Zealand short story writer of the early 20th century.

How well these Mansfield-with-added-horror stories work depends for me on the tone of the original stories (some but not all of which I'm familiar with). There is a good dose of New Zealand gothic in Mansfield stories such as "The Woman at the Store", and the extra elements of horror work very well here. In some of the other stories, they didn't work quite so well for me - but overall, the concept pays off and Matt and Debbie Cowens have done a very good job with this book.

Here is my interview with Matt and Debbie Cowens: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.co.nz/2012/08/mansfield-with-monsters-interview-with.html

37. The Gathering of the Lost by Helen Lowe - novel/heroic fantasy (4.5/5)

Impressive continuation of the tetralogy begin in The Heir of Night (#35 above). The protagonist, Malian, has aged from 13 to 18 between the two novels, allowing this one to have a darker tone and more adult material - The Heir of Night felt like a YA novel, but this one much less so. In addition to the quality writing and characterisation, the hints being given out about the background of the world make me want to keep reading. Looking forward to the next volume!

38. How It All Began by Penelope Lively - novel/realist fiction (4/5)

Well-written novel about the chain of consequences set in motion when an elderly woman is mugged, and how this affects a range of characters. The main storyline is beautifully written and well-resolved - some of the other storylines are less appealing, or dealt with too abruptly. Very enjoyable, though.

39. Triptych poets: issue three - by P.S. Cottier, Joan Kerr and J.C.Inman - poetry/collection (3.5/5)

I enjoyed 2/3 of this three-poet collection very much - the final third wasn't as good, but still interesting. My full review is here: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.co.nz/2012/11/book-review-triptych-poets-issue-three.html

40. Warm auditorium by James Brown - poetry/collection (4/5)

Seventh collection by New Zealand poet James Brown. I have reviewed this collection for Landfall Review Online and the review should appear in their February 2013 issue: http://landfallreviewonline.blogspot.co.nz/

41. Rock Bottom by Sarah Andrews - fiction/mystery (3/5)

I have read several mysteries by Sarah Andrews. She is excellent at writing about landscapes, geology, and the science v creationism debate - and here she has the canvas of the Grand Canyon to work with. But the mystery is perfunctory and even a doofus such as I was instantly able to see whodunnit. This would have been better as a nonfiction book about rafting the Grand Canyon - I would really have enjoyed that.

42. Firewall by Henning Mankell - novel/thriller (3.5/5)

The first Henning Mankell novel I've read was the last Wallander novel he had published, and although I didn't know that when I read it, I had the sense of an author who had grown tired of his character. Not bad at all, but not as good or as gripping as all the praise for the Wallander novels had led me to expect.

43. Dwarf Stars 2012, edited by Geoffrey A. Landis and Joshua Gage - poetry/anthology (4/5)

The Science Fiction Poetry Society's annual Dwarf Stars anthology collects up the best short-short speculative poetry of the past year. I have read several of these anthologies (and nominated one of the poems included herein, Rod Usher's "Before Science Stepped In"), and I think this is the best that I've read. In addition to Rod Usher's poem, I especially liked "The Robot Scientist's Daughter" by Jeannine Hall Gailey and "Containers" by F. J. Bergmann.

More information about "Dwarf Stars" and the SFPA's other publications is available at http://www.sfpoetry.com/

44. The View From Up There by Gerry Te Kapa Coates - poetry and fiction/collection (3.5/5)

A first collection - mainly poetry, but also a few stories - from Gerry Te Kapa Coates, who is now showcasing his skills as a writer to go with those he has already demonstrated in engineering, iwi leadership, sustainability and a whole range of other areas.

I discuss with Gerry his writing and how it relates to other areas of his life in this interview: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.co.nz/2012/11/an-interview-with-gerry-te-kapa-coates.html

45. The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning - novel/war novel (3/5)

I read this for my book group. The first novel in the author's "Balkan Trilogy", it came well recommended, and several other people in the book group liked it - but I found the characters uninteresting and the story, although potentially engaging, told in too roundabout a manner to hold my attention.

On the other hand, the novel is well written at a sentence-by-sentence level, and I was trying to read it at a particularly busy time when anything more complicated than Janet and John might have been too much for me, so I am giving it a cautious three stars.

46. Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years 1969-1979 by Michael Palin - nonfiction/diaries (4/5)

These diaries cover Michael Palin's Monty Python years, though their coverage of "The Holy Grail" and "Life of Brian" is better than that of making the TV series, and Ripping Yarns, and towards the end begin to look ahead to the second half of his career - the travel programmes and non-Python films.

For a Python fan such as myself, these are well worth reading. Non-Python fans might find the minutiae of the Python years less interesting, but these diaries also give a good picture of what Britain was like in the 1970s - very different, in many respects, from today.

47. The God Species by Mark Lynas - nonfiction/environment - (3.5/5)

I have only skim-read this book so far and want to reconsider it in more depth. Lynas argues that the environmental movement needs to reconsider many of its most cherished attitudes, notably its opposition to nuclear power, because the alternative to nuclear, i.e. coal, is far worse for the climate.

I'm with him on the fact that we must stop new coal-fired power stations being built, and ultimately phase out coal, if we are to maintain a liveable climate - but I also got annoyed by his lone-prophet-in-the-wilderness tone. Despite that, I think this book is well worth reading - and I may reconsider the rating above when I have read it in more depth.

48. Invaders (What They Don't Tell You About) by Bob Fowke - nonfiction/children's/history (3.5/5)

As an appetiser to the next book on the list, I read this MG-ish nonfiction history of the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking invaders of Britain. My main interest was in the latter, but I enjoyed the first two sections too. These books are in the tradition of "Horrible Histories" - that is, history as nasty, brutish and short.

49. Blood Of The Vikings by Julian C. Richards - nonfiction/history (4/5)

I was looking for a book about Viking Britain - in particular, the area of Viking-occupied Britain known as "the Danelaw". This book was too general a history of the Vikings in Britain and Ireland to give me the details I was looking for, but it is a good introduction for a non-specialist such as myself.

It's the book of a TV series, which means that some sections appear to be written to facilitate shots of a rugged presenter addressing the camera while walking along a windswept beach - but, if this is a fault at all, it's a minor and understandable one. Worth reading if you're interested in this under-emphasised period of British and Irish history.

50. My Family and Other Strangers by Laurice Gilbert - poetry/collection (4.5/5)

I enjoyed this first collection by Wellington poet (and New Zealand Poetry Society president) Laurice Gilbert tremendously, and I say a few things about that and share one of Laurice's poems here:


51. Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith - novel/mystery (4/5)

I have the first three of Martin Cruz's Smith Arkady Renko detective novels, and didn't realise that this was the sixth. The first three are excellent - this is till good, but feels a bit like a retread of the first in the series, Gorky Park. Still worth reading if you like mysteries and/or Russia, though.

52. The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller - novel/mystery (3.5/5)

A mystery set in 1920 and focusing on the consequence of the execution of a British officer for cowardice during World War 1. I found the description of the era fascinating, and the mystery is interesting too, but rather let down by an ending in which the villain of the piece explains his motivations and actions in considerable detail.

08 January 2013

The 52 Books I Read In 2012: Part 1: 1-26

As I have been doing since 2009, I kept track of my reading during 2012 on LibraryThing. This post is a compendium of those notes. The quality & depth of comments on the books I read varies widely - this is much more likely to be a relfection of how busy I was at the time, rather than the quality of the books!

This post covers the first 26 books I read in 2012. The next post will cover the remaining 26, and a third post will discuss my thoughts on the reading year past and the one ahead.

In a subsequent post, I'll talk about my highlights of the 2012 reading year, and some thoughts about the year ahead.

Note: the links from the book title and author, where available, are to the relevant LibraryThing pages.

1. Sympathy for the Devil by Justin Gustainis - novel/supernatural thriller (3.5/5)

A real guilty-pleasure holiday read, this one - I enjoyed it, though there were some fairly large plot and character motivation holes to navigate around. If I tell you that among my tags for the book are "demonic possession" and "Republican Party", that should give you a pretty good idea of whether you'd enjoy it!

2. When A Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts - nonfiction/politics/environment (4.5/5)

A well-written account of the many environmental issues China - and therefore the world - is facing by the Guardian's Asia environment correspondent. Fascinating but rarely encouraging reading.

3. delicate access by Madeleine Marie Slavick - poetry/collection/dual language (4.5/5)

This book was the perfect complement to my #2 - a collection of poems written in English and translated into Chinese by Luo Hui, dealing, sometimes obliquely and sometimes directly, with life in China and Hong Kong. There are many very fine poems in this collection.

4. The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios - nonfiction/physics (4/5)

My son, who is very keen on physics, keeps asking me questions about quantum mechanics that I can't answer. Before I get to the stage where I can't even understand the questions, I thought I'd give this backgrounder on quantum mechanics a try.

I enjoyed the early chapters, but found the later chapters on the applications of quantum mechanics in technology less interesting - I would have preferred more on the fundamental scientific and philosophical issues raised by quantum mechanics. But that wasn't this book's brief, and it did what it does do very well.

5. Tymon's Flight by Mary Victoria - novel/fantasy (4.5/5)

Really enjoyable first novel in the Chronicles of the Tree YA fantasy trilogy by Wellington writer Mary Victoria. It's not often these days that I get caught up in a fantasy or SF story as I used to do when I was teenager, but Tymon's Flight brought back those delicious "what's going to happen next??" feelings.

Here is my interview with Mary Victoria: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/interview-with-mary-victoria.html

6. Backbone by Harry Laing - poetry collection (3.5/5)

Some good poems in here, especially in the closing sequence "Heated", but also a number that didn't come alive for me. I have heard Harry Laing perform his poetry and he is excellent - I think I'd gain a new appreciation of these poems if I heard them live.

7. Relinquished by Thomas W. Devine - novel/thriller (2.5/5)

8. In Cold Pursuit by Sarah Andrews - novel/thriller (4/5)

A pair of thrillers to carry me through a busy couple of weeks. The woman-in-sexual-peril plot of "Relinquished" didn't appeal to me, even though it's quite well done, but I did enjoy "In Cold Pursuit", despite some deficiencies when viewed purely as a thriller, as I said in my review:

The strength and weakness of this book is that it is based on a two-month stint the author spent in Antarctica. She does a great job of writing about the places she visited and the people she met there (or their fictional analogues), but the attempt to graft a thriller plot onto the travelogue doesn't work so well, as the protagonist of the thriller goes on side trips that tell the reader a lot about Antarctica and about climate science but threaten to derail the plot.

So, if I was rating "In Cold Pursuit" purely on its thriller elements, I would give it about three stars - but, if you are at all interested in fictional descriptions of Antarctica, people who choose to live in Antarctica, climate change, and the way science is done, as I am, it's well worth four stars.

9. Land Below The Waves by Julie Leibrich - poetry/collection (3/5)

10. Samiha's Song by Mary Victoria - novel/fantasy (4/5)

Reading has taken a bit of a back seat in the last few weeks, but I have finished these two. Land Below The Waves is a New Zealand poetry collection from 2004 that has some very good poems but seemed a little uneven to me.

Samiha's Song is the second volume in Mary Victoria's Chronicles of the Tree trilogy. I didn't like it quite as much as the first volume, Tymon's Flight, mainly because it took a while to get going, but it does the things the second book of a fantasy trilogy should do: it deepens the world in which the story takes place, introduces new complications, and prepares the main character for the trials to be faced in the concluding volume, Oracle's Fire. I think that should be a cracker.

11. The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse by Fredrik Brouneus - YA comedy fantasy (4/5)

I liked this book a lot. It's the first book for which I've been asked to provide a book-cover quote, and here is what I said:

"This road trip with reincarnation is full of teenage hormones, forbidden - well, inadvisable - love, signs, portents and coffee-addicted zombies. If the Dalai Lama and Terry Pratchett collaborated on a novel, it might read something like this."

12. Road Markings by Michael Jackson - memoir/travelogue (4/5)

Michael Jackson is a distinguished NZ-born anthropologist, now teaching at Harvard. This book is the narrative of a recent return trip he made to New Zealand. There are some fascinating reflections on national culture, 'firstness' and the dilemmas of the expatriate here.

Here is my interview with Michael Jackson: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/interview-with-michael-jackson.html

13. No Ordinary Deal by Jane Kelsey - nonfiction/international politcs and trade (3.5/5)

This is a book about an important subject - a highly secretive set of international trade negotiations over the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, which if enacted will lock participating countries even more firmly into the failed neoliberal model of international trade and finance.

Unfortunately, most of the chapters are written by academics who do far less than they should to make the subject matter clear and comprehensible to the general reader. That's a great pity, given the importance of the subject matter.

14. Oracle's Fire by Mary Victoria - novel/fantasy (4.5/5)

Concluding volume of the "Chronicles of the Tree" trilogy, and I think it makes for a very strong finish to the trilogy.

I wouldn't say I'm the target market for a YA fantasy trilogy, but I enjoyed these books a lot.

15. Hilary and David by Laura Solomon - epistolary novel (4/5)

I enjoyed this recent novel by NZ author Laura Solomon, which I reviewed for Landfall Review Online: http://landfallreviewonline.blogspot.co.nz/2012/07/friends-on-facebook.html (NB: For some reason I have a lot of trouble with links to Landfall Review Online reviews. If this link doesn't work for you, please just go to the LRO home page and search for the review.)

16. The Quantum Universe: Anything That Can Happen, Does by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw - nonfiction/science (4.5/5)

A very good concise guide to quantum theory, especially as it applies to elementary particles.

17. The Ten PM Question by Kate De Goldi - fiction/YA novel (4.5/5)

A lovely coming-of-age story about a boy with anxiety, a mother with agoraphobia, and the new girl in the boy's class who catalyses change in his life.

18. How To Live By The Sea by Lynn Davidson - poetry/collection (3.5/5)

Lynn Davidson is a skilled poet, and there is a lot to like in this book of poems about living by the sea, family and relationships - but I have to admit that this collection didn't really engage me.

I think that's my fault rather than the book's - I tend to enjoy poetry collections more when I read them in one or a few sittings, whereas in this case I read a poem here and a poem there over the course of a month or so. Reflective poetry and a busy life don't always go well together!

19. E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis - nonfiction/science (4/5)

I don't usually enjoy science books which are focused more on the biographies of the scientists than on the science itself, but perhaps because Bodanis is a historian, he carries of this mix of biography and science very well. A strong secondary theme is the waste of scientific talent caused by the sexism that has historically held back female scientists, several of whom are included in this tale.

20. The Intentions Book by Gigi Fenster - fiction/novel (4/5)

I liked most of this debut novel by NZ author a great deal, but one section of it didn't work so well for me, as I discuss in my review for Landfall Review Online: http://landfallreviewonline.blogspot.com/2012/08/heart-of-ranges.html

21. The Tenderness of Light by Mary McCallum - poetry/chapbook (4/5)

Very enjoyable poetry chapbook by NZ writer Mary McCallum, who although best known for her novel "The Blue"started off by writing poetry. Rich, detailed poems - I want to read this one again.

22. Master of the Grass by Nina Gabrielyan - fiction/collection (3.5/5)

This collection consists of a novella followed by six short stories, and I reviewed it for Belletrista: http://www.belletrista.com/2012/Issue18/reviews_4.php

23. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi - novel/SF (3.5/5)

There's a lot to be impressed by about this near-future SF novel, set in a future which is, if not post-apocalyptic, at least post-a lot of bad things. Both the style and the plot appear to be strongly influenced by William Gibson's Neuromancer, with good helpings of J G Ballard and Joseph Conrad in the mix, but this is biopunk rather than cyberpunk.

The novel's great strength is in its depiction of its future Thailand, and in the depiction of those characters who get enough attention to be well depicted. Its major flaws - and they are sizeable enough to have created a lot of controversy - are:

1) The author crams too much in - too many storylines, too many tangents. The result is that some characters, such as the gifted but shadowy genehacker at the core of the plot (whose name suggests a sizeable tribute to Gibson), remain figures from central casting - in this case, Marlon Brando playing Mr Kurtz.

2) The titular character, Emiko, is a genetically programmed sex slave who suffers several brutal sexual assaults in the course of the novel. Spoiler alert: She turns into an assassin and wipes most of her tormentors out, but nevertheless, the relish with which these scenes were described left a nasty taste in my mouth.

Despite those criticisms, it's clear that Paolo Bacigalupi is a very talented writer who thinks deeply about the worlds he creates.

24. The Affair by Lee Child - novel/thriller (3.5/5)

The book group I'm in hops wildly from genre to genre - that's the second-best thing about it, the best being the people - and so we tackle books I would never normally read, like this one.

I was expecting something in the Tom Clancy line, but this was quite a bit better than I expected - even though the solution to the murder mystery is telegraphed quite early in the novel, which makes the introduction of a lengthy read herring in its second half rather annoying. Jack Reacher is an engaging character, and the milieu of the novel is well-drawn - although I knocked off half a star for Reacher's readiness to act as executioner as well as judge and jury. He's the human equivalent of a drone strike.

25. Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson - nonfiction/travelogue (3.5/5)

In this travelogue of a journey around Europe in 1991 or thereabouts, Bill Bryson is his usual entertaining self for the most part, but his frequent bitching about the strange habits of foreigners did get on my nerves after a while.

26. Beyond Today: A Values Story by Claire Browning - nonfiction-history/politics (3.5/5)

In 1977, when I was still too young to vote, I joined the Values Party, New Zealand's first green party (and one of the world's first). By the time I joined, Values had passed its high-water mark, but its successor party, the Green Party, is now a major player in New Zealand politics.

I expected this book, published to mark the 40th anniversary of the Values Party's foundation, to be a history of Values and how it influences the Greens, but that's a relatively small part of the book. Most of the book covers Claire's views of how the Greens should move forwards, and it ends with an excellent chapter from former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.

If you are interested in green politics (big or small "G"), "Beyond Today" is well worth reading.

Here is my interview with Clare Browning: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.co.nz/2012/08/an-interview-with-claire-browning.html

Here endeth Part 1...