Saturday, 3 January 2009

Books I Read in 2008

I have decided to again detail the books I read in the previous year.  My first shot at this can be seen at:  I pretty much enjoyed reviewing the books and in 2007 I did not seem to read anything that I would warn people away from and in fact had a number of recommendations.

Looking at 2008 the first noticeable difference is how many fewer books I read compared to the previous year, only 15 in total in 2008 compared to 31 in 2007.  Admittedly I read two books over 1000 pages long in 2008 compared to shorter ones in 2007, but I think that being busier at work, especially working through my lunch breaks and having a less conducive setting for reading in the house I moved into in December 2007 has had an impact.

As last year, I have split the books into fiction and non-fiction books.  Generally I read one non-fiction book for every three fiction books I read.  Of the fiction books, as I outlined, last year, I have long adhered to a pattern of moving through different genres in sequence to ensure I read a range of fiction.  This year, as in the past, the bulk of my the books I read came from charity shops and the availability of the books in any given shop (I have moved to an area with 9 charity shops selling books, in a five minute walking distance of my current house) determines a lot of which particular books I read.

Rather than listing the books strictly chronologically, when I have read more than one by the same author, I group those books together as sometimes I make comment about the author's work in general.  Anyway, here goes my review of my reading habits of the last twelve months:

'The Assassin's Touch' by Laura Joh Rowland.
The 11th book in the Sano Ichiro series of detective stories set in 17th century Japan.  The hero is now moving at the highest levels of the Shōgunate's government.  As I noted last year, the main hero is rather too worthy and too bland, but his rivals are well drawn with human motives and flaws that make them intriguing if not admirable.  I always reading detective stories set in societies with very different rules to our own and seeing how the constraints of such societies shape the investigation.  This particular story would also interest those into martial arts stories as well as early modern Japan.  Rowland's stories move along at a good pace and if her central character was deeper then these would be excellent rather than good novels.  Concerns about his wife's behaviour have appeared before but Rowland is too kind on her leads to let them suffer too much.

'Looking for Jake and Other Stories' by China Miéville
I came across this book by accident, but it seems that Miéville is a leading light of science fiction/fantasy writing of the moment.  In some ways he reminds me of a modern day Michael Moorcock crossed with Bruce Sterling.  Many of the stories are fantastic realist in approach rather than out and out fantasy, but all the more intriguing for it.  I love the conceit of a society for spotting appearing and disappearing streets and a story based on real events during the 1991 invasion of Iraq in which Iraqi soldiers were buried alive in trenches by bulldozers driven by the US-led forces was both chilling and showed a contemporary awareness.  Not every story worked for me, but the author does have a good sense of place and interesting ideas many of which are worked well.

'The Female of the Species' by Sapper [Herman Cyril MCNeile]
This is another story from the 'Classic Thrillers' series from the 1980s of reprints of adventure stories from the early and mid 20th century.  This is a Bulldog Drummond story and features as usual bullish men charging around the British countryside.  The interesting thing about this story is that it is a sequel to the one in which Drummond's nemesis Carl Peterson has been killed and it is his mistress, Irma (who is often referred to as Irma Peterson, but there is no indication she married Peterson) who kidnaps Drummond's wife and later tries to kill Drummond and his associates in a bizarre manner tied to a replica of the Stonehenge structure.  Irma is interesting being in a 1928 novel as the key criminal in a story and a woman (though this was not the first time this had happened, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes short story, 'A Scandal in Bohemia' (1891) the antagonist had been a woman, Irene Adler).  Also interesting is how she uses a younger man devoted to her to carry out her plans but treats him utterly cynically remaining loyal to the dead Peterson.  I have a soft spot for these kind of adventures, I suppose because the hero can get things done in contrast to our society when the average individual has minimal influence over what happens to them particularly when crime is inflicted on them.

'Victorian Detective Stories' ed. by Michael Cox; 'Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' ed. by Alan K. Russell; 'The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' ed. by Hugh Greene.
These are three anthologies from the 1970s and 1980s featuring detective stories from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, i.e. 1837-1910, though the span of the stories in these is actually 1845-1914.  The detective novel did not really get going in full force in the UK until the 1880s and was often serialised in one of the numerous periodicals of the time.  Some of the same stories feature in these different anthologies.  Whilst it is interesting to see the different characters and approaches and particularly female detectives, notably Loveday Brooke, having read these you soon realise why the Sherlock Holmes has continued to be popular whereas all of these 'rivals' have fallen into obscurity.  A lot of it comes down to the quality of the writing.  There are some good ideas, though after a while you do see some of the same plot devices repeated.  There is often a sense that making an assault on an individual particularly bizarre or nasty is going to keep the reader's interest, but instead makes the story fantastical so undermining the aspect of the cold logic of the detective which is the real draw for the reader. 

You can see the genre working to find its footing and the fact that Conan Doyle did this having extraordinary events but keeping them grounded and having an eccentric detective but one who adhered to deduction without it becoming tedious and who was willing to resort to fists, a weighted cane or a gun, made his stories stand out among these others.  Too many of these detectives are without flaw compared to the crotchety, drug addict Holmes.  Many contemporary detective story writers know you have to make the detective as least as interesting as the crime to keep the reader.  Some of the stories in these collections were decent enough, but some were incredibly tedious.  Read these then go back to Holmes knowing why you do.

'The Golden Key' by Melanie Raion, Jennifer Roberson & Kate Elliott.
I tend to avoid doorstop fantasty novels, this one totals 1075 pages. One reason why I embarked on it was because it is not book one of an epic series but self-contained.  It is broken into three and I wonder if each of the authors wrote a different section.  The setting is a kind of Renaissance Italian/North African fantasy continent in which paintings have magical abilities.  The book drops into different periods over centuries, tied loosely by a single protagonist who finds a way to remain immortal through manipulating magical paintings.  There is a lot of dynastic rivalry and the society is conjured up very effectively with its own culture, religion and even language.  Without the fantasy element it could have been one of these historical drama/romance novels.  Reflecting on the book I think of it more kindly than I did at the time of reading it.  I think it could have been a little less overblown and a little further away from Italy of our world.  However, it is an interesting entry into the fantasy canon, and trying not to be sexist may appeal more to female readers.  That may have been the point, to attract women to fantasy in the way that The Women's Press sought to in the mid-1980s publishing authors like Joanna Russ.  Though I am not rushing out to read any of these authors single authored books, if I saw one in a charity shop I would pick it up.

'Oscar and Lucinda' by Peter Carey
This book attracted a lot of attention, winning two awards at the end of the 1980s and so for a while, like 'Jaws', 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' and 'The Da Vinci Code' was a book you would find in every charity shop you walked into.  It is about two compulsive gamblers, the Oscar and Lucinda of the title, who end up in Australia in the 1860s, if I remember rightly.  It is pretty well written and gives you a feel for Australia at the time.  However, the characters are too quirky, particularly Oscar, a failed clergyman.  The climax of him travelling on a boat inside a church made of glass as part of a bet is utterly ridiculous and undermined the whole novel.  I guess I am prejudiced as I do not like stories set outside Europe and certainly feel dragged down by the barreness and hostility of Australia shown in this novel.  Overall I think it was far too self-satisfied; perhaps a tendency of books verging on fantastical realism like this one.  I was annoyed by this novel and regretted reading it. I advise you to stay a way from this book, it is very depressing in so many ways.

'Labyrinth' by Kate Mosse.
This was an interesting story.  Mosse clearly has a love of France especially the region around Carcasonne (which I visited as a boy) and further South into the Alps.  The story jumps between the crusade about the Cathars in that region of France in the 1230s and a modern day archaelogical dig uncovering artefacts from that period.  However, it strays into 'The Da Vinci Code' territory (both books were published in 2006 with Dan Brown's book being the only one to outsell Mosse's in the UK that year) as it has the Cathars protection a kind of 'grail', a series of three ancient Egyptian books which show people how to live for hundreds of years. 

Both in the medieval setting which the 21st century heroine often finds herself fusing into (reminds me very much of the 'Assassin's Creed' computer game) and in modern day, sinister, powerful people are seeking to take and protect these books.  Both settings are well written with credible characters and behaviour and if you can look beyond the incongruity of a secret way to very long life then this is an enjoyable book.  Having read the non-fiction 'Montaillou' (1975) by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie about a Cathar commuity in the late 13th and early 14th centuries it was interesting to see the facts given flesh with fictional Cathars speaking Occitan a lot of the time; you learn quite a lot of that language by the end.  The medieval parts remind me of Ellis Peters's Cadfael series of novels and that is no bad thing.

'Spheres of Influence' by Lloyd C. Gardner.
An unexceptional account of the beginnings of the Cold War following the Second World War.  It certainly needed better editing and I seem to remember a historical error but cannot now recall it.   I found this one dry and because of the poor editing, sometimes difficult to follow. There are better books covering the same topic. 

'A History of British Gardening' by Miles Hadfield.
Having studied some gardening history in my time I was disappointed by this book.  The focus is very much on long namings of various gardeners in British history and the large gardens they worked on.  It is rather disparaging of gardening outside aristocratic estates.  There are some interesting bits on how different plants were brought to Britain but Hadfield does not really follow through.  There is no real analysis of what motivated the shifts in approaches to gardening, different fashions and technologies and the social and even political context which had an impact on these things.  This book would be better called 'A Narrative of British Gardening' and after a while even someone interested in the subject as I previously was, is going to tire of wading through name after name and disparaging of Scotland in particular.

'The Hutchinson Atlas of Battle Plans Before and After' ed. by John Pimlott.
Does what it says in the title.  Well drawn maps with interesting details on the plans for various battles in history and how they actually turned out.  A useful book if you do any kind of wargaming or want to see how unpredictable battles can be.

'The Second Russian Revolution' by Angus Roxburgh.
This books fits the observation that history never moves on to the third of anything.  We are always experiencing the 'second' industrial revolution.  As Russia experienced three revolutions 1905-17, anything subsequent should at least be the fourth, but Roxburgh, a journalist rather than a historian, conflates those earlier revolutions and this book looks at events in the late 1980s in the USSR.  I came to it too late because I knew what happened into the early 1990s which overtook much of his speculation in the book.  It was reasonably well written but being a very much 'of the moment' book it now felt incomplete.  As a result I also chucked out a book on Eastern Europe written around the same time as I envisaged it would suffer from the same problem.  I can deal with history books stopping at a certain date, but I imagine it was because these were popular level journalistic books that made their stopping before all the events had played out jar for a reader coming to them more than a decade later.

'Dreadnought' by Robert K. Massie
Despite being over 1000 pages long, I found this book very readable.  It focuses on the naval rivalry between Britain and Germany before the First World War.  However, despite this being the core, it encompasses a far wider appreciation of the political context in which all of this was happening and the tensions inside both countries as well as between them.  There is detail but the book is written deftly and so you do not feel drowned by it.  This is the best kind of historical writing.  It is not surprising that this book still turns up in charity shops despite now being 18 years old.  If you read one book of modern British history in the near future, I suggest it be this one.

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