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A Stitch In Time

A Stitch In Time - Penelope Lively It's odd how the children in books are quite often techno-geeks, or science geeks, or sports mad, or even, in a few cases, artistic. They're hardly ever history geeks and books are hardly ever written for history geek kids. This book might well be the exception. Maria has a natural talent for historical investigation: she's got empathy AND as a taste for research. It's all a bit uncontrolled at this stage especially when her hypotheses about what happened in the past get out of hand. And yet, even as an adult historian, I can relate to what she's doing. A Stitch in Time has more attention to sensitivity and detail than to page-turning melodrama but if a child is a real history geek they'll probably be so delighted to find themselves reflected from the pages it will grip anyway. I have a history geek child so perhaps I'll update this review if I find out what she thinks.

Learning the Tarot: A Tarot Book for Beginners

Learning the Tarot: A Tarot Book for Beginners - Joan Bunning I needed to learn the basics of Tarot so I could bring it into a story I was writing, so this was basically research. It's a fine book, not too long, does what it says on the packet.

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds - Robert Rankin That was entertaining though what I really like is a bit more depth to my reading. It's the sort of book I would read if I had a long commute and wanted to relax with nothing much on my mind.

Rankin serves up genre candy - a mix of sci-fi, fantasy and detective novel in an exotic but nevertheless familiar historical setting. He gives us a long and complicated plot which has quite a bit of a 'plot for the sake of plot' feel to it. Most of the amusement lies in the cleverness of his style and the level of detail in the worldbuilding - especially the integration of Victorian London with the fantasy elements.

I haven't read the first two books in the series. I liked this well enough that I might pick them up if I saw them, especially as most people in the know seem to feel they were better.

Itch: The Explosive Adventures of an Element Hunter

Itch: The Explosive Adventures of an Element Hunter - Simon Mayo I don't know, I was expecting something a bit more Artemis Fowl-like without the fantasy element. I expect it didn't help that I hit chapter 2 just after eating something that disagreed with me since it consists of several pages of detailed descriptions of collective vomiting! That's when I realized that Itch is really meant to be Horrid Henry for older kids.

I think the real problem for me is that Itch is dangerously stupid and I couldn't really empathize with him. Also, the obvious baddies were bad obviously. My daughter and I had a laugh round about chapter 5 or 6 analyzing all the foreshadowing of badness.

Anyway, it's not that i hated it, but I wasn't thrilled and she, being in the appropriate age group, liked it a tad better than I did, but only just.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan I didn't like this as much as I thought I would. I've had this life-long obsession with books and the basic premise sounded right up my street. What didn't work for me is that the characters stayed as flat at comic book characters. Like the female 'love-interest', Kat. Wearing the same tee-shirt all the time and rarely been seen off the internet isn't character development. It's a comic book character's visual signature.

It didn't help that the plot is basically a puzzle without believable consequences (despite the hi-falutin' promise of immortality, or whatever). I honestly thought this would have worked better as a comic book, with lots of amazing visual stuff. In fact, I think it would have worked brilliantly that way. But as a novel, it lost me a bit.

Omai: The Prince Who Never Was

Omai: The Prince Who Never Was - Richard Connaughton This has to be one of the worst books I've ever been misguided enough to read. I say misguided because I knew it had bad reviews. I was just so interested in the life of Omai I couldn't resist. Since I've been through it, I feel I should try to explain what's wrong with it for the benefit of future readers.

First of all, for a history book it's very bad at explaining its sources, but I'm not really getting at it for that. Wherever I'm familiar with the primary sources, the actual facts given in Connaughton's book seem accurate enough. That doesn't guarantee the rest, but I'm prepared to buy the whole story provisionally.

The problem is that most of the book is given over to trying to establish a socio-political argument based on these facts. Let me see if I can express it:

Ignorant and not particularly bright low-caste Polynesian, Omai is tricked into attempting to bend absolute class boundaries in both Polynesia and Britain by the wicked British Imperialists who have their own agenda and fail to see through his cunning imposture or his self-interested motives which they knew were bound to fail.

There. Now, I'm no stranger to historical books that cast their narrative in terms of power, identity, colonialism, race, gender, you name it. Some of them involve brilliant and enlightening analyses. But they need to be coherent and consistent and Connaughton consistently is not. He can never even make up his mind whether Omai is an innocent simpleton or a devious and manipulative schemer. He can't keep his head in the maelstrom of competing individual and collective motives of the British, let alone keep track of his own. He manages to come across as a 21st century class essentialist, for pete's sakes! And he completely loses track of the fact that Omai was a person, making him nothing but a pawn in his attempted argument. I find that rather unforgivable.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a fantasy set in 18th century England (with bits in Italy, Spain, Germany). An 18th century Europe with magic of course.

It was a long book and at times I was very entertained by it, at others a bit bored. There's something quite episodic about it. I think maybe, along with the rather 19th century voice adopted by the narrator, there was an old-fashioned approach to story development. It reminded me of those Victorian stories which were originally published as weekly or monthly serials. It rambled a bit and I liked some plot threads more than others. Another old-fashioned touch, quite a nice one, is the way the narrator passes judgement on the characters as were going along. I am getting so bored with the 'show and never ever tell' thing and a bit of personality and opinion from the narrator was welcome. Sometimes I thought the style was just too polite for the darkness and wildness of the ideas being raised and that wasn't able to exploit those elements as I would have liked.

In the end, I was left with a lot of nice vignettes in my mind and the thought that I might read it again some time.

Memory Palace

Memory Palace - Hari  Kunzru Well, for a start, Hari Kunzru has been on my mental to-read list for ages and it wasn't until I joined Goodreads that I put two and two together and realized he was also responsible for Memory Palace. I was one of the people who saw the original Victoria & Albert 'currated novel'. That was a fantastic experience - imagine - reading a book as spectacle, a bit like going to the theatre of the cinema! When I first got the book though, I was a bit disappointed. I thought, for some reason, it would contain more than the show, rather than being just being a souvenir.

I was interested to see how the 'souvenir' would stand up, a bit less than a year later. Pretty well, I would say. The story is interesting, touching, thought-provoking, poignant to all of us, I think, and for Londoners, especially so.

No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days

No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days - Chris Baty This is the NaNoWriMo* handbook. It's perfect for the task in that it contains a limited amount of extremely suitable advice. It's also extremely funny. That makes it worth reading even for those writers who don't feel inclined to embark on a 50,000 word sprint. What it doesn't contain is a lot of detailed, highly technical knowledge about what good writing should be like. That just wouldn't be in the NaNoWriMo spirit!

* In case anyone didn't know, NaNoWriMo is an annual novel writing event in which participants dedicate themselves to the task of writing a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs The Home for Peculiar Children was a lot of fun, though I'm not quite sure why the book shops have filed it in adult literary fiction. I thought it was perfect YA though when I told my daughter about it, she told me about a couple of other books with similar plots.

It might be because of the collection of old photographs which illustrate the book. They were a very nice touch, though a bit gimmicky. Still, I liked the atmosphere and the story was well written. Jacob is an interesting character - not too perfect, not too self-centered, maybe not quite reflective enough. I'm sure I'll read the sequel when I get a chance.

An Evil Eye

An Evil Eye  - Jason Goodwin The cover of my edition, and the blurb on the cover do not do the book any favors. When I picked it up at the library, I was expecting something pretty silly.

Then I saw that the author's academic background and personal history make it likely that he really knows his stuff when it comes to life in 19th century Istanbul.

In the end it turned out to be a fun Agatha Christie style mystery with a main protagonist who's as laid back as Hercule Poirot, a very well created setting and ... recipes. I thought the recipes were a bit of a gimmick at first, but some of them sounded really tasty and after all, why not?

The Coincidence Engine

The Coincidence Engine - Sam Leith Some really cool ideas, but meh...

For a start, there is no Douglas Adams connection here, apart from the presence of a coincidence engine that somewhat resembles the infinite improbability drive. Oh yeah, and the author is British. Once people start making comparisons like that, you might expect humour? Well, it isn't that kind of book.

Now we've got that out of the way, what is there here?
1. A very complicated, interconnected cast of characters and institutions, all in pursuit of said coincidence engine which is basically a bit of a mcguffin. Various forms of violence, scheming and subterfuge ensue though the point of most of them was never very clear to me. There are also a few coincidences, but no more than in your average novel and a bit of philosophy. Leith basically throws all this up in the air and tries to juggle with it, but instead of forming a nice arc, it comes out as random flying objects. One of the symptoms is the very rapid shifts of point of view, including a few where he suddenly turns round and starts addressing the reader. I can actually understand why he thought we might need a bit of stage direction.
2. A few interesting characters. I actually got the feeling that the author is a bit challenged when it comes to all that touchy-feely stuff of human subjectivity and relationships. His very best characters, the one I developed most empathy for was the one who was distinctly out of the ordinary in the way he processed human experiences. There were also some character based subplots which might well have proved interesting but for most of the book they seemed irrelevant, only manifesting as pointless coincidences right at the end.

All in all, it's a book that certainly had its fascinating moments, but it didn't quite gel.

What Makes This Book So Great

What Makes This Book So Great - Jo Walton This is a bit of an odd book to get as a library book as I did. 130 essays about desirable books and odd issues related to reading sci-fi and fantasy don't lend themselves ideally to reading from cover to cover before the borrowing time runs out. Still, the author's very readable and interesting style made it doable.

I'm possessed by a strange desire at the moment to have someone else choose my books for me. I accept recommendations from the Goodreads engine, other reviewers and the people at the library who choose the books for the display shelves. I think this may turn out to be the most enjoyable set of recommendations of the bunch.

It's going to be a bit hard following them, since several are obscure orout of print but especially because of my library's strange approach to stocking its sci-fi and fantasy shelves. I assume what they have done is bought this book, made a list of all the titles it contained, carefully purged their collection of any title on the list, then placed this book on the shelves to tease us with.

Oh, one other thing, I happened to see Jo Walton's fantasy novel [b:Among Others|8706185|Among Others|Jo Walton|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1317792367s/8706185.jpg|6449955] in the book shop. I had several reasons for wanting to give it a try, but it turned out to be good to read straight after this, because now at least I recognize the many, many books the character talks about.

Give Up to Get On: How to master the art of quitting in love, work and life

Give Up to Get On: How to master the art of quitting in love, work and life - Peg Streep, Alan B. Bernstein I may try this book again later. It does contain a laundry list of things about human beings that every human being should know.

The 'giving up' or 'failing' of the title is really about moving on. That's not the problem. The trouble is, the authors didn't work out the full implications of their own assertions when they started explaining why we're bad at it. They said: if you prime human beings with ideas of their short-comings they will respond less optimally than they might otherwise. Then they went on to do just that. There are ways of presenting the exact same truths that prime human beings with the possibility of improvement and avoidance or disaster. But the authors didn't. Every time I picked up this book, it made me feel depressed, and, sensitive soul that I am, it interfered with my work.

Also, it does not, actually, have the big pay-off at the end which it keeps promising as reward for reading all that's less than optimal about us. The only answer is to bear in mind the reasons why you might be making less than optimal decisions.

I find it odd, and disturbing, that this book should be in the public library of one of Britain's more challenged neighborhoods. I expect the librarians didn't read it themselves.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making - Ana Juan, Catherynne M. Valente Well I liked it, I really did. It's full of beautiful words and sparkly ideas and there is a plot in there as well. It's somewhat related to the plots of Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz but I think that doesn't matter. It's the words and images and ideas that count.

Unfortunately I had a reading experience with it that was less than ideal. It's a book that needs to be read fast to get the most out of it. It did not lend itself to my daughter and I reading it aloud when we were already exhausted from school and work. It doesn't have those qualities of suspense and excitement that make you read through the pain and enjoy it anyway. We didn't need to know what happened next as much as we needed to get to sleep.

Six weeks in and only a third of the way through we agreed to give up on it and I decided to finish it in an all-nighter. To my surprise I was done by midnight. The last fifth of the Kindle version of the book is all interviews and previews and stuff like that! If we'd known... but I think it may genuinely by too aesthetic for my daughter.

The Mind of a Madman: Norway's Struggle to Understand Anders Breivik

The Mind of a Madman: Norway's Struggle to Understand Anders Breivik - Richard Orange I had to read this book for research and found it to be clear, straightforward, not too long. It covers the basic chronology of Breivik's acts of terrorism and prosecution, but it's main point is Norway's deliberations into whether he was sane or not.

Since it's at quite a journalistic level, it doesn't go very deeply into that conclusion. It was a bit low on insights, but there was one point that struck me as deeply ironic. Breivik was passionately opposed to multiculturalism. He also wanted a diagnosis of sanity in order to have his crime recognized as a political act - and most of Norway agreed with that, since it meant a harsher punishment!

In the end, Breivik got what he wanted, but purely because most of those involved were themselves prepared to be 'multicultural' in the way they approached his own extreme right-wing subculture. The two experts who found him insane were those who dismissed the relevance of culture to their diagnosis.

Conclusion: a well-written summary of what you maybe already read in the newspapers, back then.