Books (2014 to 2016 ish)

Someone (rather surprisingly!) mentioned they’d enjoyed my last post about books I’d been reading, and would be interested in another one, hence this post.

Lots of these were recommendations from people I know, which I always hugely appreciate, but I haven’t attempted to note who recommended what below, partly since I’m not sure people would be happy with those recommendations being public.

(The links below are affiliate links to Amazon UK, in case that concerns you. Although I don’t know why I bother, really – I think such links have made me about £2 in total over the last year.)

“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara

This is a long, brilliantly written and deeply upsetting novel. I cried more during this book than any I can remember in a long time, and had to stop reading often.

I have some reservations about this book, but on the whole it was an incredible experience to read. You should be warned, though, that it has descriptions of horrifying abuse in it.

“Utopia for Realists” by Rutger Bregman

This is an argument for a series of radical progressive policy ideas, including:

  • Universal basic income
  • Shorter working weeks
  • Open borders

It’s a bit of a polemic; it doesn’t really address some of the issues with universal basic income, for example, such as that some people in society do need more support from the state from others, and how you address that. However, it’s thought-provoking and it’s a good source of references to places where these policies have been tried. (e.g. I didn’t know that Richard Nixon was close to passing something very like a universal basic income in the USA.)

“The Taming of the Queen” by Philippa Gregory

This is one of Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Tudor period, specifically about Kateryn Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII. I had mixed feelings about this; after reading Hilary Mantel, the writing seemed a bit flat, and the basal exposition in dialogue got repetitive. It’s very tense, though, and a fascinating story that I knew nothing about.

“Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser

I found this book about the safety of nuclear weapons since their earliest development completely gripping, and very alarming. It interleaves the broader history with a detailed account of one particular incident, which worked very well, I thought.

“Hooves Above the Waves” by Laura Clay

(Disclosure: Laura is a friend.) I really enjoyed these dark and absorbing short stories. They also feature some creatures from Scottish mythology which I used to read stories about as a child, but hadn’t thought about for a long time. I’m looking forward to her next works.

“Bad Vibes” by Luke Haines

Subtitled “Britpop and my part in its downfall”, this is a bitter, angry and entertaining account by Luke Haines (of The Auteurs) of the Britpop years, how he disliked almost everyone else in that scene and none of them understood his genius, etc. etc. It works quite well as a companion piece / antidote to “The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock”. I definitely found it more funny than objectionable, probably because I think it’s clear that he knows he’s an arse.

“The Stranger” / “The Outsider” by Albert Camus

I’d never read this before, but I think it’s always intriguing reading a book for the first time that you know the reputation of through popular culture. I can see why it’s so highly regarded, but the idea that lots of young men (apparently?) identify with the protagonist does upset me.

“Life Moves Pretty Fast” by Hadley Freeman

A joyful celebration of 80s movies, and a great source of recommendations for interesting films from that decade that I missed, or are worth rewatching.

I can’t agree about how highly she rates some of the films: for example, I like Ghostbusters, but it’s nowhere close to being my favourite film, as it is for her. Also, I loathe almost everything about “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. But that doesn’t matter at all, since she presents interesting, thought-provoking cases for all the films and the writing’s funny and involving throughout.

“Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig

This is an account of the author’s experience of clinical depression and recovery. (I’ve been treated for depression myself in the past and still struggle with it, but I’ve never experienced anything so severe as him.) There was a lot that I related to there, and it’s a quick, easy read and surprisingly uplifting read.

“Ancillary Justice”, “Ancillary Sword” and “Ancillary Mercy” by Ann Leckie

This science-fiction trilogy (“space opera” I guess) has been rightly lauded; the world-building is fantastic and I loved the story. The way it plays with your perceptions of gender and appearance are fascinating as well.

“Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer

I read this after watching the film “Everest”. I found it very absorbing; I know a bit about mountaineering in the sense of “climbing Munros” but the tensions and contradictions of expensive guided climbs in the Himalayas, at altitudes where the human body is effectively dying, was largely new to me.

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

As far as plot goes, I found this a bit predictable, but it was certainly gripping and the unreliable-due-to-alcoholism narrator worked well.

“Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

One of many re-reads – it’s still such a gem of a book, which has some of my favourite jokes in it.

“Saints of the Shadow Bible” by Ian Rankin

So long as Ian Rankin keeps writing Rebus novels, I’m going to keep reading them. I remember this being up to the standard of the later books (i.e. good :))

“Deep Work” by Cal Newport

This is about how important it is professionally to be able to regularly get into that lovely state of deep concentration so you can work on hard problems, even if it’s for relatively short periods of time each day (e.g. 3 or 4 hours). It’s hard for me to evaluate this book, really, because it plays exactly to my prejudices about what constitutes worthwhile work, which several people have told me are a bit broken :) However, I found it inspiring—it’s OK to stand up for this!—and its practical suggestions for, say, making email less time-consuming, were useful. I’d recommend it.

“Age of Ambition” by Evan Osnos

A very well written book about contemporary China. I learned a lot from it, and it’s very engagingly written. Highly recommended.

“Mansfield Park” and “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

These are the two Jane Austen novels I know least well – I think I read them as a teenager, but couldn’t remember much about either. As far as Mansfield Park goes, I found Fanny Price pretty unsympathetic up to the point where everyone’s putting appalling pressure on her to marry Henry Crawford, at which point I found myself cheering her on. Northanger Abbey I loved too – particularly the awkwardness of trying to get to know people in Bath at the beginning. They’re both brilliant, obviously :)

The Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane series books by Dorothy Sayers

Lord Peter Wimsey shares with Psmith the disconcerting contradiction in my mind as a reader that we must accept that these are clearly attractive men despite both wearing monocles. Anyway, my introduction to Dorothy Sayers was from the Nine Tailors and Five Red Herrings, but I think my favourite novels so far are those featuring Harriet Vane, and the journey of their relationship improving from the cringingly awful start in Strong Poison. Gaudy Night, in particularly, is brilliant, and I found that novel and Busman’s Honeymoon very moving in particular.

“Willpower: Rediscovering our Greatest Strength” by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

It’s a bit curious writing about this book, because I’d have been very positive about it except for the issue that the research described in this popular science book is at the centre of the reproducibility crisis in psychology. The material about drawing “bright lines” when you’re trying to give something up, and the parts about how low blood sugar can really affect your emotional state and ability to make decisions rang very true to me.

“The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds” by John Higgs

A brilliant account of the story of the KLF (so far) but it’s really about far more than just what they’ve done – it goes into the art movements that inspired or (may) relate to the band, and different ways of interpreting their bizarre story. It’s also very funny – I laughed out loud a lot when reading this.

“Stranger Than We Can Imagine” by John Higgs

By the same author as the previous book, this is an audacious journey through the 20th century, looking at how art and culture changed. I enjoyed it, and admire both the attempt and the writing – it’s great fun to read.

Terry Pratchett – Discworld novels

I’ve lost track of which Discworld novels I’ve re-read over this period, but it certainly included the Witches series. Anyway, they’re always so pleasurable to read – I’m really glad I started reading them again after such a long gap.

“Master and Commander” by Patrick O’Brian

I know lots of people who are big fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey / Maturin novels, but I’d never read any before this. I found it took a little while to get used to the idea that it was fine to not understand all the nautical terms, and just figure out roughly what’s going on from context – this is very similar to lots of science fiction, in fact. (I should say that I know some people get just as much enjoyment out of understanding every detail of these books as well.) Anyway, I’m planning to read more of the series, but got a bit stuck, for reasons I’m not sure of, part way through “Post Captain”. I’m sure I’ll go back to it, though.

“Danny the Champion of the World” by Roald Dahl

I loved this as a child, and it’s still marvellous. Perhaps the biggest shift in getting older is that I thought the father was wonderful when reading it as a child, and as a 40-year-old my thoughts were that he was, despite having many great qualities, unbelievably irresponsible.

“Nation” by Terry Pratchett

A marvellous standalone Terry Pratchett novel, which is funny and delightful. I think probably the less said about it the better, because right from the start there are things that are surprising, so arguably might constitute spoilers :)

“Anno Dracula” by Kim Newman

I don’t normally read horror fiction, so this was a bit of a departure for me. It’s by Kim Newman (whom you might know better from his film criticism) and set in a Victorian London some time after a key event in Dracula went differently, and now about a third of the population are vampires and Dracula is the Prince Consort. It was certainly disturbing, but very imaginative and packed with fictional characters from the period which reminded me of Alan Moore’s excellent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics. It’s really good.

“Dracula” by Bram Stoker

I think I re-read this after Anno Dracula. It’s still excellent, of course, but for some reason the thing that jumped out at me this time is that Van Helsing’s treatment (random blood transfusions from one person to another) were very likely to harm the recipient given this was before blood types were known about.

“The Knot Shop Man”: “Air”, “Fire”, “Earth” and “Water”

(Disclaimer: the author is a friend and colleague.) An amazing set of four books that you can read in any order, despite having a single narrative thread running through them all. These are in the finest tradition of dark and fantastic stories for children (sorry: “smart children or thoughtful adults”) with a huge amount to enjoy. (If you’re interested in knots, then you’ll like it even more.)

“The Fourth Revolution” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

I didn’t quite know what to make of this; the history of what they consider the previous revolutions in types of government was interesting to me, as was the cataloguing of the changes the world is going through. The conclusions, though, seemed not only like just what you would expect from editors of The Economist, but also pretty unimaginative.

“Creativity, Inc” by Ed Catmull

I wish this was more about the history of Pixar, and trying less to be a management book. (The management stuff is pretty good, and has quite a few things that were certainly readily applicable to where I work, but it’s not really why I was reading it.) It is a good insight into Pixar as a company, though, if you’re a fan of them (as I am!) both on a cinematic and technical level. There’s quite a bit about the troubled development history of some of their most successful films (e.g. Toy Story 2) and how they decide what to do with projects that are seen as failing.

I describes “Inside Out” as a work in progress, and on reading that I thought, “how’s that ever going to work?” How wrong I was :)

“Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” by Sebastian Faulks

I was a bit sceptical about this – a Jeeves and Wooster novel written by someone other than Wodehouse! – but it’s really joyous, particularly in ways that I can’t talk about for fear of spoiling it for you :)

“Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine

A very good book debunking the nonsense talked about the difference between men’s and women’s brains.

“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

I think Sarah Waters is just a brilliant writer – I’ve read all of her novels, and this latest one is great too.

“Geek Sublime” by Vikram Chandra

Unfortunately I didn’t get on with this at all. I care a lot about the aesthetics of programming, obviously, but didn’t really relate to what the author was saying.

“The Way Inn” by Will Wiles

An excellent second novel from Will Wiles (disclaimer: whom I know a bit from college). It’s funny, painful, and not quite what you might expect from early on in the book. (It’s added a certain something to staying in chain hotels for me, which you’ll understand if you read it.)

“The Blunders of Our Governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

This book is in two halves – the chapters in the first half are each on a blunder which a UK government has made in recent history (e.g. the Poll Tax, Individual Learning Accounts, etc.) and the second half has more general analysis and suggestions. I think the first half is brilliant, and very professionally relevant to me and a huge proportion of the people I know who work in civic tech or GDS, say. The second half is less convincing, particularly when it touches on IT projects. But the case studies in the first half are compelling, partly because you will frequently cringe  on hearing some of the mistakes that well-meaning people have made.

“Dodger” by Terry Pratchett

More Terry Pratchett, in Dickensian mode (Dickens even appears as a character). Very enjoyable, as you’d expect, and I found the mystery / thriller aspect exciting.

“Coraline” by Neil Gaiman

I read this partly out of embarrassment that I hadn’t before, but also because a friend told me they didn’t enjoy “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” because it was so similar to Coraline. I disagree, I think – both stand on their own merits. They’re both brilliant stories – I wish I’d they’d been around for me to read when I was much younger. (I watched the animated film of Coraline later, which is a very nice adaptation.)

“23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism” by Ha-Joon Chang

This title rather sets up the obvious line that this included quite a lot of things that I have been told about capitalism :) It’s interesting, though, and a quick read with some interesting examples, and tackles lots of broken assumptions people make about economics.

“A Slip of the Keyboard” by Terry Pratchett

This is a collection of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction writing, which has some real gems in it – e.g. his anger when writing about the danger of extinction of orangutans is very powerful, and (very different in tone) an essay about how our Father Christmas has clearly been swapped with one from another universe is brilliant. I read this shortly after Terry died, so a lot of this felt very poignant.

“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying” / “Spark Joy” by Marie Kondo

These books, which are ostensibly about tidying up, but in large part about getting rid of your possessions, have a huge following. I’m a bit conflicted about these because they are bonkers, but they’ve been genuinely useful to me in prompting me to get on with (a) recycling or selling on things that I don’t really need, based on her test of “does it spark joy when you hold it?” and (b) her techniques for folding and storing clothes.

(When I say it’s “bonkers”, I mean, for example,  the suggestion that you give little pep talks to screwdrivers and other unglamorous but necessary possessions; thinking about how your socks feel being bundled into a drawer; the assertion that clothes that are worn closer to your heart being easier to feel affinity with, etc. etc. Still, it’s interesting to me that despite these things, I think these books have still had a very positive influence on my life.)

“Hatchet Job” by Mark Kermode

As a dedicated follower of the church of Wittertainment, I was predisposed to like this book by Mark Kermode about the practice of film criticism and its place in the world, and it didn’t disappoint me.

2 thoughts on “Books (2014 to 2016 ish)”

  1. Totally agree with you regarding Philippa Gregory. I’m glad you enjoyed the Peter/Harriet series – I’m a massive fan, but I feel there aren’t enough of us around. I just finished reading “All the light you cannot see” which I thoroughly recommend.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion – I’ve added that to the queue :) Worryingly, I think Jenny and I only have one more just-Sayers Wimsey novel left now: “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club”.

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