Saturday, 30 March 2013

Review of John le Carre's 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (George Smiley, #5)Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A classic which I completely missed first, second, and third time around, le Carre's seminal Cold War spy novel is understated and intelligent. The variety of viewpoints gives a great breadth to the narrative, and while Smiley is definitely the hero he is an effectively flawed one, and there are other very well-explored characters as well. The novel is slow and thoughtful, dialogue-rich, and not afraid to follow interesting diversions to lend depth to a character and their situation.

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Monday, 25 March 2013

This year's reading challenge

I'm lucky enough to work at a bookshop, with fantastically well-read, intelligent, knowledgeable people. My and my colleagues were at the pub recently, and one of my colleagues claimed to read three books a week. I thought: "Wow, that's a lot of books to read a week!". Turns out, that's about average for a bookseller. So, in an attempt to step up my game, I've challenged myself to read a minimum of 52 books this year, with a goal of reading 156 books. You can keep up with my progress on Goodreads, if you like.

Review of 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What a weird book. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is long and rambling, full of diversions and sub-stories, complex, and actually quite charming.

The novel could be described as magical realism, but includes historical fiction (focusing particularly on the Manchurian Crisis, Communism, World War Two), love stories, and war stories. What starts off as a simple problem (the main guy, unemployed Toru Okada, loses his cat) quickly escalates as he goes on to lose his wife, and then gets involved with various characters with their own stories to tell, and then has a series of symbolic supernatural encounters which throw him against self-doubt, the claws of history, and his powerful brother-in-law.

I came away feeling that there's more to the book than I had taken from it, that perhaps I'm not intelligent enough to appreciate how much genius is in there. I do know that I didn't want to stop reading it, and that the book's imagery, cultural-historical descriptions, and mini-narratives made an impression on me.

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Review of 'The Healer' by Antti Tuomainen

The HealerThe Healer by Antti Tuomainen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tuomainen's 'The Healer' is an original and gripping crime thriller. The dystopian near-future setting is well-drawn and central to the bad guy's motive and therefore the plot, so it's not merely a bandwagon-jumping decision to set the novel in a dystopia. It rattles along at a good pace, mixing familiar crime plotting and character archetypes with this speculative-fiction element so that the reader is at once on familiar ground, and exploring new terrain. The novel grabs you and doesn't let go until the intriguing open ending.

The first-person point of view is interesting and original, but not as groundbreaking as the blurb promises. Our hero and narrator is a struggling poet, but this intriguing voice doesn't much affect the narration or the character's mode of detection. The character is original, certainly, quick talking and obviously intelligent, but he doesn't give us many striking images or unique insights into the crime. I felt that this USP wasn't delivered as well as it could have been.

Overall, if you like crime novels you won't be disappointed. If you like speculative fiction and dystopias, you won't be disappointed. If you're looking for a truly original voice, you might be a little bit disappointed.

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Review of 'Moonwalking with Einstein' by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering EverythingMoonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'Moonwalking with Einstein' is a great bit of participatory journalism, and a nice introduction to memory training. You can read it without feeling like you're reading a self-help book, but you still come away with a good idea of the basic techniques and ideas such as the memory palace and the major and PAO (person-action-object) systems for learning numbers.

It's also nicely candid about where memory training falls down: after winning the USA memory championship and going out for a celebratory meal, Foer forgets that he has driven to the restaurant and goes home by train.

It would have been nice if the book offered some analysis of memory training techniques versus 'natural' memories, though Foer's book isn't without investigation of people with apparently exceptional natural memories, and indeed one of the best pieces of journalism in the book is his investigation into Daniel Tammet, author of 'Born on a Blue Day'. I felt that Foer didn't go far enough in his discussions of education, the links between memory and moral character, and the links between memory and landscape (particularly interesting to me as a reader of natural history). But the book doesn't pretend to be an academic book: as a piece of participatory journalism it's well written, informative, and entertaining.

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Review of 'The Examined Life' by Stephen Grosz

The Examined LifeThe Examined Life by Stephen Grosz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a layman, I enjoyed this insight into the psychoanalytic process, and was impressed at some of the chapters as Grosz lays out the reasoning behind his clients' behaviour, in an obviously knowledgeable and not at all arrogant fashion. However, I became a little bored by the short chapters and their pithy conclusions: Grosz rarely goes into a client's long-term treatment in any great detail, and when he does he seems to cut things short just when they were getting interesting. Perhaps this is down to the necessarily confidential nature of the material, or the perceived audience of the book, but I was left wanting more.

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