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Books 2010 half-target review [20100602|11:31]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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I set myself a minimum target of reading a book a week, and as I've just finished my 26th book of 2010, I thought I'd write some brief reviews of this year's choices. I've bolded my favourites. I define a "favourite" as something I'd lend to or buy for others, and that I would re-read. I don't tend to re-read entire works of non-fiction so if you can't tell whether or not I'd recommend one of those works to others based on my review, let me know.


  1. Margaret Atwood Negotiating with the Dead:A Writer on Writing (non-fiction): The contents of this book drifted into my head like snow and melted away just as quickly in the heat of its successor.

  2. Emile Zola The Debacle (fiction): Fictionalized footsoldier's stories from botched nineteenth century battles. By turns gruesome and uplifting. Features many scenes of manly compassion and devotion. I had to struggle quite hard not to slash them constantly in order to maintain my appreciation for the futility and horror of their situation.

  3. Noel Coward The Vortex (play): Spoiled rich people behave badly. A satisfying indulgence in schadenfreude that would have left me feeling guilty were it not so short.

  4. Kamila Shamsie Burnt Shadows (fiction): Portrays moderate Muslim life in a beautifully understated manner, which I found quite refreshing. The heroine emigrates from Japan to India to Pakistan to New York over the course of her life, blithely breaking taboos and bending cultural norms without trying particularly hard.

  5. Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm (fiction, re-read): The heroine strides about putting messy lives in order, gently but firmly attracting attention to herself and then deflecting it away to the places it belongs. Permeated with quite humour. About as believable as a PG Wodehouse story, and equally enjoyable.

  6. Kamila Shamsie Salt & Saffron (fiction): Focused on the internal romantic monologue of the characters, it lacks the lush settings that made Burnt Shadows so captivating. Still an absorbing read, but only just.

  7. Wislawa Szymborska View With A Grain of Sand (poetry): A collection of poems I picked up in Budapest. Piercing observation and graceful allegory on every page.

  8. Kyle Kurpinski & Terry D Johnson How To Defeat Your Own Clone (non-fiction): I demand that every Hollywood filmmaker who wishes use genetic manipulation as a key plot point be required to read Chapter 3 of this book, in which nearly every misconception about it is neatly exploded.

  9. Ivan Turgenev First Love and Other Stories (fiction): Heady, tragic romances. Love happens (mostly chastely) and is thwarted.

  10. C. S. Forester Flying Colours (fiction)
  11. C. S. Forester The Commodore (fiction)
  12. C. S. Foreseter Lord Hornblower (fiction): It's easy to get caught up in, and unthinkingly admire, the bad-tempered anti-heroics of Captain Hornblower. But not enough to stop me from hoping that his wife got to play away while he was busy gallivanting around and bedding various other ladies.

  13. Emile Zola Nana (fiction): The rise of a gutterling to courtesan and her indulgence in excess of every kind. Ruinous and glorious, she stands mildly bemused and disgusted at the centre and watches everyone fall for - and because of, according to them - her.

  14. John Le Carre Tinker Tailer Solder Spy (fiction): Ugly grumpy little man uncovers a good deal of corruption in government, is powerless to do much about it, becomes even grumpier. This provokes an inordinate degree of sympathy in the reader.

  15. Wells Tower Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (fiction): Explorations of humiliation and unhappiness at various stages of life in short story form, with varying degrees of completeness. Inconsistent. Also, suspect this guy really hates funfairs.

  16. Chris Yates On Fishing at Sea (non-fiction): This chap sits on rocks, admires scenery, catches fish and releases them. Rinse and repeat at least 20 times. A very soothing read.

  17. Chris Mullin A View from the Foothills (non-fiction): The Blair years from an inside-outsider's perspective. The advantage of not being important enough to attract undue attention appears to be the freedom to observe with scathing wit much that might otherwise have been concealed.

  18. Toby Barlow Sharp Teeth (fiction): Disparate threads of free verse concerning rival gangs of shapeshifters in Los Angeles snap together in a gratifying conclusion. Tight, sexy and memorable.

  19. Chris Mullin A Very British Coup (fiction): England, having surprised everyone by voting for radical change, discovers it can't actually cope with it. Revert! Revert!

  20. Dara O'Briain Tickling The English (non-fiction): Not particularly original observations about the foibles and quirks of English culture expressed through the vehicle of a stand-up comedy tour. Kate Fox was far more thorough, though not as overtly funny.

  21. Alexander Pushkin The Queen of Spades and other stories (fiction): Mistakes are made. Prices are paid. Primarily through loss of sanity.

  22. George Eliot Silas Marner (fiction): Escapes being cloyingly moral by virtue of the alienation and loneliness of the protagonist. When he wins his happiness at long last, the sheer arrogance of the good people trying to take it from him is infuriating.

  23. Elizabeth Gaskell Cranford (fiction): Even the narrator's insightful perspectives on ordinary Victorian life can't overcome the stifling setting. I found myself repeatedly wanting to tear off the lace on my collar and run into the streets screaming while reading this, and I don't have any lace on my collar.

  24. Emile Zola L'Assommoir (fiction): This heroine - who comes to a sticky end, of course, as do all of Zola's characters - is probably his most multi-faceted and believable. She tries so hard to pull herself out of poverty and her repeated failures, some due to her flaws but mostly due to others', are heart-wrenchingly realistic.

  25. Michael Brooks 13 Things That Don't Make Sense (non-fiction): I wanted this book to be better than it was. It began by seeming relatively unbiased in its presentation of some of "big questions" in science, but after a few too many instances of a lack of critical analysis of singular perspectives, I was put off. Finished, barely.

  26. China Mieville Un Lun Dun (fiction): Young heroine is charged with saving both London and alt-London using brains and determination. Lots of points for race!win and gender!win. Minus a few for the setting being clearly derivative of previous versions of alt-universe London.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: sanat
2010-06-02 10:59 (UTC)
Oh good, I just checked out Un Lun Dun. Gonna get on it once I finish this non-fic.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-02 13:52 (UTC)
It's a chunky volume but it whistles along very quickly. I had to slow myself down deliberately so I could savour it.
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[User Picture]From: alice_mccoy
2010-06-02 11:41 (UTC)
Apart from recommendations and the subliminal effects of icons, how do you select your next reads?

I am quietly indulging myself by working through Philippa Gregory's Tudor series. Well paced, sumptuous or stark as necessary and enjoyable.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-02 13:56 (UTC)
Sometimes I pick up on book reviews from the Economist or New Scientist and order from Amazon (if it's not towards the end of the month and hence my paycheck). I've also been making an effort to read things that are considered classics that I know I missed out on previously. I'd like to complete Zola's twenty-novel cycle of which the three listed above are a part eventually.
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[User Picture]From: cosmiccircus
2010-06-02 13:25 (UTC)
Wow! Good list! Something for everyone! I'll definitely get some of the recommendations off of this list...
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-02 13:49 (UTC)
It is a bit of a hodge-podge. I think I can break down the composition as follows:

- My core favourite authors
- My tendency to look up famous literary personages from the countries I visit
- Things the bloke liked that he leaves lying around for me to pick up
- Things my internet friends/work colleagues have burbled happily about
- Things that are available as cheap, lightweight paperbacks through Oxford/Wordsworth/Penguin Classics
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[User Picture]From: 3g0
2010-06-02 16:00 (UTC)
I'm happy to see other people liking Sharp Teeth. I thought that it was a really kick-ass little book that sadly wouldn't get enough press because: free verse and: fantastical, but it's like the love child of Neil Gaiman and Tim Powers.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-03 14:31 (UTC)
My copy is currently on loan and I hope it stays that way for a while. I think it's pretty remarkable that he managed to get the pacing and plot development spot-on when writing in such a medium.
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[User Picture]From: sekl
2010-06-02 18:19 (UTC)
Gaskell seems to have that effect on people. Her novels are always better dramatized than read.

Thanks for the recommend on Burnt Shadows. It sounds more uplifting than Nella Larsen's Quicksand.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-03 14:29 (UTC)
I'll have to give watching Cranford a go. I have to admit the same holds true for me with Jane Austen. Once I'd seen the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice, I found re-reading the book a much more pleasant experience than when I'd been forced into it in high school.
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[User Picture]From: becala
2010-06-02 22:18 (UTC)
Your reading habits are so much more refined than mine. The most highbrow/refined my selections get these days is Neal Stephenson. Otherwise it's all really cheesy fantasy. Which is why I don't really blog about books. My usual excuse is that I use my brain all day and tend to want to curl up with something non-challenging at night, but that doesn't really fly in this particular company. :)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-03 14:27 (UTC)
I think it might not be far off the mark to replace "refined" with "cheap", as a lot of classics cost £2 or less through various publisher's editions. :-P I have been making an effort to read more canon literature from various cultures over the past couple of years, and it's worked out pretty well. Some of them are not as hard going as I had feared - they wouldn't have become canon if they weren't enjoyable.
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[User Picture]From: victorine
2010-06-02 22:51 (UTC)
I think just about every Victorian novel makes me want to scream and tear lace off people's collars. In college I had to read House of Mirth, and some other Victorian period piece that I blocked out. I hated them both, not because of the writing, but because of the way women were portrayed as either pretty and useful (ie marriageable) or plain/ugly and useless (a drain on their fathers who must support their spinster daughters).

I recently read Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played with Fire". Waiting for paperback copy of "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest." A film version of the first novel was made in Swedish and now they're talking about making an American version. Can't wait to see what kind of hash they make out of it.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-03 14:24 (UTC)
I much preferred The Age of Innocence to The House of Mirth because in the former, pretty much everybody behaves badly regardless of gender. It's easier to take.

The bloke's mum has gotten into the Stieg Larsson books. I'll borrow them from her the next time we visit.

Speaking of re-made Swedish things, have you watched the original version of the crime drama "Wallander"? I suspect you would like it. I'm not easily hooked on television serials, as they are too much of an emotional and a time commitment for me, but Wallander is proving to be an exception.
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[User Picture]From: cataragon
2010-06-03 03:36 (UTC)
I was going to read Un Lun Dun after Dan, but he lost it on a plane. Will try and remember to get it from the library, or buy another copy at some point.

Have you seen the film version of Cold Comfort Farm? It's completely ridiculous, but fun.

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[User Picture]From: leidan
2010-06-03 04:50 (UTC)
Nope, it was the next China Mieville book I lost in Jeddah.

Un Lun Dun is somewhere or another.

PS. I loved the unbrellas.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-03 14:06 (UTC)
At first I thought you were making a clever pun about having lost a book rather than Un Lun Dun. :-)

Rebrellas ftw!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-03 14:08 (UTC)
I haven't seen the film. I've heard good things about it from friends who like the book. Plus it's got Stephen Fry and Kate Beckinsale and that's a combination I've got to see, so it's in the Amazon cart now. Thank you!
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From: lunar_alchemy
2010-06-03 06:06 (UTC)
!

that all looks really good!

*adds to growing list*
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-03 14:05 (UTC)
I'm glad you found it useful. I used to just keep lists of the books I've read but it's much more helpful just to write down a sentence or two so I don't entirely forget the flavour of them.
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[User Picture]From: nimoloth
2010-06-04 20:41 (UTC)
The China Mieville one sounds quite interesting. Is it very strange?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-06 08:01 (UTC)
Oh no, not any more so than most children's fantasy. If you enjoyed The Phantom Tollbooth, I would say this is a good comparison.

His earlier work Perdido Street Station is kind of like the adult version of Un Lun Dun, but is a lot more bizarre.
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[User Picture]From: nimoloth
2010-06-07 12:15 (UTC)
I haven't read any of his books, but I've heard of them. I generally love children's fantasy books, so I might get that one some time. I like anything alternative London, generally, since I came to know Neverwhere!

Randomly, the phrase "children's fantasy" brought to mind a comment I saw from an author somewhere once. They said, "Kiddy-lit is something you put in the cat's litter tray. It's children's literature." So true!
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[User Picture]From: seismic
2010-06-05 01:15 (UTC)
Thank you for this. I started my 26th of the year today and am making note of a number of these for future reading.

I'm torn between posting my list early and annotated or saving it for the end of the year as usual. So far it's lots of reread, reread series, read others by author(s) of series, non fiction, and other comfort reading. Don't much expect that to change.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-06-06 08:05 (UTC)
I didn't wait until the end of the year for two reasons. First, I figured 50+ is a lot of book reviews to absorb at once, even if they're short, and second, when I read over the list after adding Un Lun Dun, I realized I couldn't recall much about the first one. That was only going to get worse if I waited until the end of the year to write reviews. I imagine your comfort reading doesn't suffer from that problem!
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