I stole this blog idea from my friend Kimothy. I like to steal things. Especially from children, because if they get angry I can just knee them in the face.
I started off the reading year strong, with 12 books read in January. You’ll note this blog only includes 10 because two haven’t been published yet. When they are I will be NEENER NEENER-ing that I got to read them first.
My reading schedule kind of fell apart over the last week because MY BOOK WAS RELEASED! Did I mention I had a book coming out? Well, I did. I was a bundle of nerves and excitement, but early reviews have been very good and I’m touched by how kind and supportive people have been, especially since I’m kind of a dick.
Nonfiction January Reads
Fiction January Reads
Side note: I’ve noticed over the last year or so that I read a lot of books with blue-green covers. I wonder if I’m unconciously attracted to those covers (I do think that colour scheme is pretty) or if it’s a side-effect of the genres I read. I’m leaning towards the former because I read in a wide range of genres, but I’m not sure. Thoughts?
Do you want to know what I thought of all those books? No? Well this is my website and I’m going to tell you anyway, so there.
At the Edge of Uncertainty explores 11 threads of scientific investigations that are pointing towards surprising results, like splicing different organisms together, Jurassic Park style, or creating a conscious computer.
The author actually said that Jurassic Park was *not* scientifcally accurate, but I assume that was a joke.
Usually I wouldn’t forgive an author for even JOKING about Jurassic Park not being a documentary, but Michael Brooks gets a pass (he’s on thin ice, though). He’s an auto-buy for me because his writing is what I look for in popular science: accessible without being patronising.
Another reason I love him is that his books always cross different disciplines rather than just focusing on physics or biology or chemistry. If you’re a science nerd, check this out. I also recommend his 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, which is probably more accessible to non-science-geeks than At the Edge.
4/5 because not all of the chapters had me absorbed and, well, the author dissed Jurassic Park.
Human Errors also passed the accessible-but-not-dumbed-down test, and this was a new author for me. Everybody who doesn’t have sex with their sister/aunt (same person) understands the Darwinian theory of evolution, but there are some common misconceptions: firstly, that evolution is ‘aiming’ for increasing intelligence and complexity (i.e. that all animals aspire to be humans) and that it’s a done deal rather than an ongoing process, leaving all species perfectly adapted to their environments.
Well, no. Human Errors looks at all the ways the human body and mind are not perfectly adapted to the environments we live in. I learned the answers to a lot of questions I’ve vaguely wondered about – Why do humans get colds so often when cats and dogs never seem to? Why are knees so fucking weird? – and even the stuff I already knew was so well-presented that I was absorbed in reading it. Highly recommended.
5/5 Interesting and well-written and doesn’t cast doubt on Jurassic Park’s nonfiction status.
Sapiens looks at Homo sapiens’ time on Earth, structured around the three great revolutions: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution.
I was amused to see reviewers taking it VERY personally that Harari doesn’t think the agricultural revolution – the move from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to settled lifestyles – was a good thing for individual humans. The evidence is pretty clear that it led to more disease, less calories, and a far more restricted diet, so we were all sitting around popping pustules and chewing on wheat from morning to evening listening to people cough. But one reviewer had written a multi-page diatribe defending the agricultural revolution, as if it were sitting on Goodreads feeling wounded and yelling “YEAH, YOU TELL HIM, WHEAT IS EVERYTHING!”
Other reviewers blasted Harari for being anti-human, so I’m adding him to my list of ideal dinner party guests.
I’m a sad loser who has been looking for a good book on human prehistory for years. I tried many and they all disappointed me, mostly for focusing on the archaeology – the now – when I wanted to know what life was like then. Sapiens finally delivered.
Unfortunately, the prehistory part only took up about a third of the book. That would’ve been fine if the remaining two thirds really had been about the scientific revolution, but instead it was all about politics, religion, and the creation of empires. I read books to get away from hearing about how shitty humans are when we get a bit of power and start playing with politics, religion, and war. The last section left me feeling a bit dirty. And not in the good way that a double-cheese pizza makes me feel dirty.
2/5 because I loved approximately two fifths and had no interest in the rest.
Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole is a collection of interesting medical cases by a neurologist. I found it MUCH more engaging and well-written than the most renowed of these types of books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. It was a bit self-congratulatory, with the author taking pains to show that he could get the right diagnosis when others couldn’t, but not enough to be irritating.
4/5 Interesting but it didn’t live up to the Holy Grail of medical memoir/case files, This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay
Seashaken Houses is a history of lighthouses, and both my mum and colleagues took the piss out of me mercilessly for buying a history of lighthouses. But I like learning about really niche things, okay??
Sadly, I should have listened to them. Super-niche nonfiction only works if the author is endearingly passionate about the subject, and I just didn’t get that from this book. The writing was pretty dry and kept switching between past and present tense which was jarring. I did finish the book and I find myself not knowing much more about lighthouses than when I started and, more importantly, not caring.
2/5 Bonus point for trying to write a mass market book on lighthouses, even if it didn’t quite work. Also, how gorgeous is that cover?
Madame Bovary is the fictional story of Emma, a 19th century Frenchwoman, who marries a boring doctor, is bored by the boring doctor, and embarks on a series of affairs with boring men. I expected to like Emma a lot and root for her as a woman constrained by a patriarchal society where she had few choices and hardly any agency… but she was whiny, childish, and flaky.
She was also totally disinterested in her child and wanted it kept as far away from her as possible, but even that wasn’t enough to redeem her. I liked her boring husband more, because at least he had some motivation in life: to be a good doctor and make his wife happy.
I did enjoy the scene where a man’s gangrenous foot was amputated without anaesthetic.
I did not enjoy the bizarre comma usage, which the translator’s note assures the reader was intentional on the part of the original author. Fuck off with your weird commas, Gustave.
1/5 Enjoyed about four pages
Weekend at Thrackley was a rollicking yarn, what what. Written in the 1930s, it’s a sort of cross between a country house mystery á la Agatha Christie and a heist by a gentleman theif in the vein of Raffles. The cross didn’t quite work, mostly because the author eliminated all suspense by showing us the point of view of both the villain and protagonists so we knew exactly what was going to happen at all times… but I loved the writing style so much that I didn’t need a watertight plot. Dry, witty, cynical, and very British. I want to read more by Alan Melville.
4/5 Fabulous writing, fell short on the plot.
Everyone knows the plot of The Stepford Wives, right? A woman moves to Stepford with her family and is increasingly freaked out by the handmaidens that populate every house; women who live for nothing but cleaning their houses, serving their husbands, and beaming proudly at their children.
I first read Ira Lewin last year with Rosemary’s Baby, possibly the best horror book I’ve ever read. He knocked it out of the park again with The Stepford Wives. That man has a brilliant talent for showing us everything from the protagonist’s point of view and yet making the reader terribly afraid for her when she doesn’t know anything is amiss.
5/5 creepy as hell and I only wish it had been longer
The Jane Austen Society follows a group of protagonists in Chawton, a village in which Jane Austen lived for some years. They all have their own storylines but they come together to form The Jane Austen Society, devoted to preserving items and buildings associated with Jane. This is a true ensemble book with each of the eight protagonists given equal prominence; sounds very hard to pull off, right? Well, Natalie Jenner manages it. I loved that this was a ‘quiet’ book with no life-or-death stakes, no car chases, no gimmicks to capture the attention of someone who’d rather be watching Netflix. It’s simply well-written with well-rounded characters and a beautiful charm.
5/5 You need this whether you’re an Austen fan or not.
Peter James is another auto-buy for me; he never lets me down. Dead if You Don’t isn’t James at his best, but substandard James is still better than… well, almost any other writer.
Maybe it’s just me, but if the first scene introduces a mobster who has a pet alligator, and feeds that alligator bits of people who annoy him, you kind of expect to see someone eaten by an alligator at some point, right? WELL NOBODY GOT EATEN WTF.
I’m also really, really sick of detective novels making snide remarks about POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD! and HEALTH AND SAFETY GONE MAD! Really over it. I was SO disappointed that James had a lesbian police officer spouting off about PC GONE MAD while she was being hit on. At work. By a colleague. Just no.
Also, the detective star of this series, Roy Grace, has sprung a surprise kid from somewhere and that kid is frickin’ WEIRD. I like it.
4/5 Peter James would probably have to kick me in the crotch to get less than a four. Even then, if he said sorry, I’d probably let it slide.