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Jamie John

What books did you read in 2019?

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3. Enlightenment Now: I really liked this. For me it's not quite as good as Factfulness, which covers similar ground, but they complement each other nicely. If you tend to read a lot of non-fiction, and find yourself getting depressed at the apparent state of the world, these offer some welcome respite.

 

I've now started The Book of Humans - I'm about an hour into the latter, and it's started really well.

 

Previously:

Spoiler

 

  1. The Body Library by Jeff Noon
  2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

 

 

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2. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. A strange, post-apocalyptic land is overseen by a giant flying bear, where a couple of mismatched lovers avoid the gaze of The Magician, whilst encountering something newly borne. Whilst sounding totally unconventional it's actually a slightly more traditional and conventional read than Annihilation et al.  The description of the flora, fauna and general environs are hugely evocative but I felt at times the book meandered, especially mid-way through. But the plot is engaging, the characters are well fleshed out and the mysteries satisfactorily resolved by the end. I could happily spend time in the world that VanderMeer creates so vividly and I think it's a novel that really shows off his range and ability as a writer. 

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Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky.  Awesome military sci-fi that did not go the way I expected.  Surprisingly moving in places.  Recommended.

 

About a third of the way into Gardens of the Moon by Steven Eriksen.  Enjoyable so far.  I have not the faintest clue what’s going on, but I gather that’s not an unusual vibe at this point, so I’m happy to just go with it.

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On 12/01/2019 at 14:24, Jamie John said:

 

2. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carre

 

I didn't realise this was the third book in a series when it started, so I didn't understand some of the stuff to begin with, but I persevered and ultimately enjoyed it. It's easy to see how this has become such a touchstone for the genre: the twists and turns that the plot takes, the amorality of the powers that be on both sides, and the central antihero have all become staples of the spy thriller. This was the first Le Carre novel I've read and I'll definitely be picking up some more soon. Any recommendations? I've heard lots of good things about Tinker Tailor and enjoyed the film.

 

Reading next: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (but not until I've finished this month's edition of Edge)

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On 21/01/2019 at 23:36, Jamie John said:

The Gunslinger builds to a peak at around book 3 and then goes downhill from there, from what I can remember. The latter novels aren't terrible, by any means, but for my money he starts to muck around with parallel dimensions and does things like including himself as a character, all at the expense of the plot.

 

Generally, with King, I find his shorter stuff better than his sprawling epics. Some of his short stories are fantastic, as well as things like The Shining and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - tightly written, tense and imaginative. It's his longer stuff that goes awry - things like It and Under The Dome. He seems to begin with a horror story in mind and then feels the need to suddenly do something more self-consciously 'literary' instead of just telling a good story.

For me, this is about as accurate a description of King's work as I've read - some of his short stories are fantastic, Different Seasons being a highlight. he's obviously capable of some genuinely creepy horror  but in a lot of his books the drinks between water ,so to speak , are too long and bogged down by excessive exposition.

 

I'm about to give up on Perdido Street Station, over 120 pages in and it's just not grabbing me at all, I've not bought into the world or the characters and I've too many  books in my pile of shame that I need to get through.

 

Shaman by KS Robinson or There's a Devil in the Drum by J Lucy next .

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2. In Cold Blood - Truman Capote (Audiobook, read by Scott Brick)

 

I didn't really know much about this one, other than it's credited with being one of, if not the first true crime novel. Published in 1966, the story follows the murder of four members of the Clutter family and the two perpetrators responsible. I found myself checking Google, then rechecking again to make sure the book actually was non-fiction, not because it's an unbelievable story, but rather how it's written with such intimate detail. Capote doesn't inject himself at all in to the story, giving no clues how he obtained all the different accounts from all the different people featured. It's beautifully written in places, funny, too. I loved this description -

 

"It was as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center. Something of the kind had happened; the imperfectly aligned features were the outcome of a car collision in 1950—an accident that left his long-jawed and narrow face tilted, with the result that the lips were slightly aslant, the nose askew, and his eyes not only situated at uneven levels but of uneven size, the left eye being truly serpentine, with a venomous sickly blue squint"

 

I would definitely recommend the audiobook version, Scott Brick does an amazing job bringing all the characters to life.

 

I also watched the Philip Seymour Hoffman Capote movie tonight, it makes an excellent companion piece to the book and goes a long way to fill in the blanks to the questions I had about the process of how he wrote the book. It's a pretty wild story.

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4. The Book of Humans. This is brilliant. It covers similar ground to Sapiens, but is perhaps even better. I found it fascinating and loved the stories from the animal world and sense of understated humour throughout. I'm a real sucker for this kind of popular science which explains amazing stuff that I'm not smart enough to understand on my own.

 

Previously:

 

Spoiler
  1. The Body Library by Jeff Noon
  2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
  3. Enlightenment Now

 

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@TurningMonster In Cold Blood is on my list of books to read so thanks for the recommendation. I've read a couple of his nonfiction novellas (Breakfast at Tiffany's and Other Voices, Other Rooms) which I thought were ok, but I gather that In Cold Blood is supposed to be the best thing he ever did.

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In Cold Blood is the only one of Capote's that I've read, but I was utterly hooked on it at the time. Felt more like fiction given the depth and way it was written. And as you say @TurningMonster, the Capote film is a good companion piece.

 

Might have to add it to my re-read list now.

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3. The Time Machine - H.G. Wells (Audiobook, read by Kelsey Grammar)

 

This was a freebie I picked up over Christmas in a promotion Apple was running. I was fan of the original movie when I was younger, or at least the opening 30 minutes or so, it got a bit too weird and creepy after that. Anyway, the book was enjoyable enough, I found the relationship between the Time Traveller and Weena a little odd to the point of being creepy and the story maybe lacks in subtlety, but it's a fun read all the same. The descriptions of the last days on earth were pretty cool and not something I recall being in the movie version.

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In Cold Blood is on my list as well.

 

And reading all of King's work is basically my reading ambition which will last probably until the day I die, and at this rate (and his writing rate!) I might never make it. I do like to alternate and read some other books inbetween, and I don't read all of them chronologically. Basically I try now to read the old books in order, but mix in some of his new publications as well (as I did at the beginning of this year with Elevation). Rage is up next, but first I want to read something non-King.

 

Today I finished Tom Hanks' Short Story collection Uncommon Type: Some Stories. I took my time with it, had started it back in October. It was entertaining enough and he certainly has some talent and interesting ideas (a lot of unexpected sci-fi in there), but didn't blow me away either, so I gave it a 3/5 on goodreads.

 

 

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3. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Picked up for 99p on Kindle, after it was praised in a lot of the end of years, on here and by my friends. Initially it all seemed fairly predictable but the more it went on, the better it got. The characters were all well developed and became increasingly likeable and it became a really enjoyable and realistically uplifting. Reminded me of the feeling I got when I read The Curious Incident...As a populist novel covering some fairly meaty concepts it did a grand job. A well deserved 4/5. 

 

Now onto In your defence:Stories of Life and Law by Sarah Langford.

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Last night I finished The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. It's not a great book by any means, but I do like sci-fi from the mid-20th century because like all sci fi it isn't really about the future it's set in, but about the present in which it's written. So this novel, actually a series of interconnected short stories, is set in 1999 onwards but it's a very 1950s version of the 21st century. The first men to land on Mars literally climb out of their rocket, light their pipes, march straight to the door of the first house they see, knock on the door, and announce to the Martian who opens it "Hello! We're from Earth!" But what happens after that is a quite brilliant take on the concept of two species being so alien to one another, with no common frame of reference, that neither can even recognise how they're failing to understand the other. It's a real highlight that happens early on and the rest of the stories never quite manage to equal it.

 

But reading it today, it's the differences between this imagined 21st century and our real one that make it particularly interesting. And not just technologically, although Bradbury is no Arthur C Clarke and his futurology is basically "slightly more advanced 1950s tech but everyone has rockets," but especially socially. This is a 1950s American world of breadwinning husbands with dutiful wives happily keeping houses full of labour saving gizmos and obedient children. There has been no civil rights movement - one story is all about the black people in one town and the opportunities the new frontier on Mars offers them, and the incredulous, outraged reaction of most (but not all) of their white masters. Bradbury clearly sympathises with the predicament of his black characters but it's interesting that he couldn't - or chose not to - imagine that things might change for them in the next 50 years. But again, this isn't really about the early 21st century, it's about 1950s America, and perhaps the whole point of that story is to present a "what if" scenario - what would happen if all the cheap labour the rest of society exploits and relies on suddenly downed tools and left? However, the consequences aren't explored beyond the immediate reactions of the people affected.

 

So, interesting but oddly unsatisfying.

 

 


1. The Long Walk - Richard Bachman (Stephen King)
2. The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury

 

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The Martian Chrinicles ‘not a great book by any means’?!

 

It is, and will always remain, a work of pure genius. Beyond its nifty SF reckonings, it is possessed of a lyrical beauty and delicate pathos that few writers in any genre achieve, let alone in what was then such a very narrow one.

 

I am pretty disappointed in your critical analysis here, @Darren.

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:(

 

I know what you mean but it just didn't do it for me, except at one or two very good points. Mostly I think I just couldn't get past the 50s spacemen trappings. Practically every time a rocket lands the crew - arriving on a new planet for the first time - get out, light up and check the pistols in their holsters. At times it's like a John Wayne western in space.

 

I did like all the telepathy stuff, but once the martians almost entirely disappear about 1/4 of the way in, it never reaches the same heights again.

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Did you have an edition that contains stories like The Other Foot And The Concrete Mixer? There are quite a few Martian stories that crop up in his other anthologies like The Illustrated Man, and they sometimes come collected with TMC.

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3. 1984 - George Orwell (Audiobook, read by Simon Prebble)

 

It's hard to know where to start with this one, it certainly feels particularly poignant to experience the book for the first time with what's going on in the world right now. It's a depressing read and rarely does it seem that far fetched, which is the really scary part. I found the first half the most interesting, with all the world building and the plot moving along, while the second half is just relentlessly brutal, which makes sense, but man it's hard work. I hadn't realized quite how far the book has reached in to popular culture, things like the concept of room 101, I had no idea were from the book. It feels good to be slowly filling in the blanks of my huge back catalog. 

 

4. Theft by Finding - David Sedaris (Audiobook, read by David Sedaris)

 

This is my first David Sedaris book, although I'm quite familiar with his work having listened to him on various radio shows. t's probably a bit of a weird one to start with, as these are entries from his diaries, dating from 1977 to 2002. It starts kinda slow but as he starts to find his writing voice, it becomes a real joy to listen to and made all the better having him read it.

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On 30/01/2019 at 14:22, ZOK said:

Did you have an edition that contains stories like The Other Foot And The Concrete Mixer? There are quite a few Martian stories that crop up in his other anthologies like The Illustrated Man, and they sometimes come collected with TMC.

 

No, it was just The Martian Chronicles on its own, that I picked up in a Kindle sale. I read Fahrenheit 451 last year and enjoyed it, so it's not that I just don't get on with Bradbury. Oh well.

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4. In your defence:Stories of Life and Law by Sarah Langford. A serving barrister talks through 11 cases she had worked on, from cases of child custody to sexual offences. It's fairly enlightening throughout and the notes section clarifies some points of law. It dragged a bit towards the end of the book but the author's respect for the justice system and huge frustration with it's dismantling in recent years (legal aid issues etc) shine through. It's an enjoyable read and illustrates how quickly the legal system can go from being something you know a bit about to something you can actively be involved in, often through no fault of your own. 

 

Now onto My thoughts exactly by Lily Allen. I know she's a fairly polarising figure but seems to have an interesting story to tell. Although, in the opening pages she's said she wasn't born into the elite whilst then going onto talking about being the daughter of Keith Allen and the producer of Elizabeth, hanging out at the Groucho club as a kid, hanging around with Neneh Cherry, Miquita Oliver and many other celebs whilst at school, having some fairly notable godparents, Harry Enfield as a step-dad etc etc. 

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Spoiler

1. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

2. Sea of Thieves: Athena's Fortune by Chris Allcock

 

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Because I'm utterly obsessed with Sea of Thieves at the moment, I just HAD to read this as I wanted to know a bit more about the lore surrounding the game.

 

As it happens, Athena's Fortune is a cool little story, with charming characters, plenty of pirate cliches and pretty much everything you'd want for an easy read in a familiar setting.  This novel spans 2 timelines - the infamous pirate Ramsey and his crew with their tale of how they discovered the Sea of Thieves by travelling through the infamous Devil's Shroud, where so many pirates have perished.  The other protagonist is Larinna - a pirate in the present day who has also found her way to the Sea of Thieves.  Larinna is tasked with finding Athena's Fortune by a mysterious old woman in a tavern at one of the outposts.

 

It works well - alternate chapters between the two stories, loads of little hints to the game - the following questions are all answered:

  • Who are the Gold Hoarders?
  • Who are the Order of Souls?
  • Why are there so many skeletons?
  • Why don't you get to open the chests when you sell them?
  • How come we only ever see the tentacles of a kraken?
  • Why is there a Legend's Cave?
  • Who is the Pirate Lord?

It all builds up nicely and I really enjoyed reading it.  As I said, it's a nice easy read so I'll be recommending it to my kids as I think they'll enjoy it.  I think it echoes the mood of the game rather well and I hope there are more SoT novels in the pipeline.

 

4/5

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5. - Little Fires Everywhere. Having not liked this much at first, I ended up really enjoying it. There were a couple of plot contrivances which stretched believability, but I was willing to forgive it that.

 

Now on to Everything Under.

 

Previously: 

Spoiler

1. The Body Library by Jeff Noon

2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

3. Enlightenment Now

4. The book of Humans

 

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Spoiler

 

1. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

2. Sea of Thieves: Athena's Fortune by Chris Allcock

 

 

3. How To Be Right in a World Gone Wrong by James O'Brien

 

51bGX5W0dLL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

This is absolutely fantastic from start to finish.  Very well written, concise, witty (though the kind of humour where you facepalm and say "FFS!" to yourself out loud - sometimes on a train surrounded by fellow commuters but I digress...) and an extremely entertaining look at just how fucked up the western world is these days.

 

And yes, I intend to use the information I've learned to become an insufferable knowitall the next time I'm challenged to a 'debate' about nonsense such as Brexit, political correctness, immigration etc because it seems to happen far more often than it should.

 

I read this in about 3 days - I only ever read on my commute to/from work but this was so engaging that I carried on reading when I got home.

 

Awesome stuff.

 

5/5

 

 

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51kWpcBUGIL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

3. The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma

 

Shocking and tragic, this kept me engaged until the very end. It's a Nigerian novel about a group of brothers that is tonally and thematically reminiscent of Achebe's masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, with allusions to the story of Cain and Abel. Recommended.

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5. My Thoughts Exactly by Lily Allen.

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She's a hugely polarising figure and this book is no different. It's genuinely entertaining throughout and there'll be sections where you think she only has herself to blame and others where you'll feel genuine sympathy. She's had to deal with some awful events include the breakup of her marriage, pregnancy issues and a stalker whilst living a fairly privileged existence. She writes with real honesty, to the extent that I'm sure she's put a few noses out of joint and she regularly criticises her behaviour including regularly calling herself a promiscuous so-and-so. Keith Allen is portrayed as an appalling father and I'd love to know what he thought of Lily's assessment of him. We do get a glimpse of the occasional bout of being a diva, but she does across as reasonable for the majority of the time; although she thinks her marriage break-up was equally due to both parties, the evidence she gives make it seem like she should bear the huge brunt of the blame. She's not someone that ever really interested me at all, but her 4th album, No Shame, was terrific and was also inspired by the issues in her life. This was recommended by a friend and has proven to be an engaging and enlightening read. Her honesty is what makes this book. Recommended. 

 

Now onto Roadside Picnic and 84K.

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4. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

 

9781781127407.jpg

 

I'm cheating slightly with this one as I have read it before, although not for about twelve years, when I distinctly remember not enjoying it. This time, however, teaching it, I thought it was fantastic. I was dreading having to study it and figure out how to make it to fifteen year old kids, but I needn't have bothered as they were hooked and so was I, despite all knowing the story.

 

Much more interesting than The Time Machine by Wells, another contemporary early SF story which I've read recently, and approximately a bazillion times better than the sententious moralising of Treasure Island, which was my only other encounter with Stevenson. Seeing as it's free and only about 80 pages long it's a good quick read that I'd recommend to anyone.

 

Previous:

Spoiler

1. Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams.

2. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, John Lewis Carre

3. The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma

 

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6. Everything Under by Daisy Johnson.

 

I was really enthusiastic about this as it sounded right up my street. Sadly, despite many positive aspects - including being clearly brilliantly written - the story failed to move me, and I really struggled to bond with the first half especially. The opening third is also pretty confusing, though I think that's deliberate and serves the narrative on reflection. I certainly wouldn't want to dissuade others from reading it, but I personally ended up a little disappointed. 

 

Now on to Roadside Picnic as I haven't touched any sci-fi for a while. Still also working my way through The Stand on Audible - halfway through, and it remains excellent. 

 

Previously:

 

Spoiler

1. The Body Library by Jeff Noon

2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

3. Enlightenment Now

4. The book of Humans

5. Little Fires Everywhere

 

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