Bristol Bookworm

No longer in Bristol

Politics: A Very Short Introduction – Kenneth Minogue

I am quite a fan of the OUP very short introduction format. Its satisfying to pick up a book which both assumes no prior knowledge but also intelligence. This combines nicely with a low page limit and pocket-sized form so that you are only committing an hour or two’s worth of reading to a subject for which you might not necessarily want begin reading about at length.

My reading has however been tracking my rising increase in politics for some time. It is after all field which has so much influence on our lives, security and choices, but also one where individuals making decisions today can shape the world we live in. This is true both of the politicians and the aggregate data of voting decisions of every franchised person combined.

I like that Minogue acknowledges current issues on welfare and Europe, in both a current and historical sense.

Power has always found its balance, but the costs have been great. That is why so many Europeans have favoured transposing this whole endeavour into a new key, and creating a unified Europe by agreement rather than conquest.

Minogue was a well-respected academic, known for his conservative views. These do come across in places, and he both acknowledges that every generation has thought it has the best system and morals so far, whilst placing an argument that the current Western two-party system is the best available.

The historical position of much of politics is considered, and one part in particular caused me to think of “In the game of thrones you win or you die.”

Staking one’s life in the game of politics remained a deadly option until the middle of the eighteenth centenary… In the modern world it is only despotisms which have recourse to the firing squad or the noose.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I work in a great office. We are all quite technical (1/3 of us have maths degrees and most of the rest have some kind of engineering), but also geeky and very into books. Books are passed around with a recommendation on a regular basis and its perfectly acceptable to have new boxes of books delivered there.

The Great Gatsby was one such book. I’m the third person in our office to read this copy. It came with no more description than “one of my favourite books” so, like a good book borrower, I accepted it then put it in the tbr pile for a good few weeks (it also came with a no hurry to return statement). Yesterday I finally got around to picking it up, and this morning it was finished.

It is a beautifully written book, full of foreshadowing and metaphor to the extent that I feel almost inspired to write an English literature essay on it. Beyond that it is also a book of its time, setting a scene of life for privileged upper class Americans on the east coast in the twenties. There is acceptance that this is their place in the world, unthinking use of the less well-off and excess.

Prohibition is mentioned breifly, but does not remotely limit the drinking and excesses. Instead it is used to put down those whose illegal activities enable life to continue.

The novel opens with the narrator introducing himself directly, and explaining why he finds out all of these things. Then he fades away, and becomes pretty much inconsequential aside from as a pawn to enable events to pivot. Instead he is simply a blank slate for the reader to project themselves into. We know how he is connected to key characters, but about him as a person, despite viewing everything through his snarky viewpoint.

Gatsby himself is a wonderful classic character. I am loath to explain further due to not wanting to spoil the novel, but his behaviour and reaction to his position is fabulous.

I read the Penguin Modern Classics edition. It is not worth reading for the introduction, which I gave up on after 6 pages because I haven’t read the book this is apparently a new take on. I sort of expected the introduction to give more of a sense of place and time, and literary devices, rather than a comparison to a book few of the readers will know.

The Republic of Thieves – Scott Lynch

Book three of the Gentleman Bastards (following The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies). This is where an author really needs to avoid the trap of books seeming repetative, especially in a series like this where the central characters have already reached adulthood and are following their natural place in the world.

Unlike the second book, this The Republic of Thieves returns to linking back and forth to the Bastards’ past, drawing out parallels and links between a child-like dilemma where they were fumbling and finding themselves, and the current life-and-death set-up. Of course the children of Shades Hill have never known safety, and the Gentleman Bastards are trained to cope with anything, so the contrast may not be as great as would be expected.

We see the return of the Bondsmagi, politics and trickery as would be expected. But life is trickier than before, and the stakes are moved ever upwards.

And there is Sabetha. Otherwise known as “Her”, because Locke has spent a lifetime unable to comprehend of being in love with anyone else. Being thrown in with your first love again is just another layer of trickery in life.

“Stand down Jean, it’s the same hard sell we use… Astonishing promises first, important disclaimers second. Just get on with it Patience.”

The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Part 1 – Akira Himekawa

I haven’t read any new manga for years, but happened to be by the graphic novels section of the library today, so picked up pretty much the only thing they had part 1 of on the shelf.

It is a little young (aimed at the players of Zelda), and something seems to have been sacrificed to matching the narrative of the game itself. Of course a good narrative for a game has very little scene set-up and lots of meandering plot where the characters move through puzzles. This makes a somewhat dull structure for a novel: I definitely wasn’t a fan of Lord of the Rings for example!

Also a main plot point in this manga is that there are four (five?) identical characters whose main differential is the colour of their clothes. It is printed in black and white, so at every scene change it disrupts the reading to work out who is actually present.

This is clearly not my sort of reading material

This said, I’m eyeing up my Wii and wondering if I have the time to start a new game. And I will be glancing over the small graphic novel selection in the future in hope of the library having something I’d rather read in it.

Red Seas Under Red Skis – Scott Lynch

Red Seas Under Red Skies is the second book in the Gentleman Bastards series, after The Lies of Locke Lamora. Lynch manages to make the new book seem fresh, with new challenges to face.

The book opens with the card tricksters working their way up a prestigious gambling house, with some flashback scenes to provide the missing links and drop in some of the set-up as it becomes necessary.

But the name suggests, in this book they go to sea, via attempts to defraud the rich and powerful of course. There is piracy, power struggles, negotiation and outright murder to be coped with. But beyond that there is some character development and dealing with grief.

Lies has to be read first, but this is definitely a series where I need the next book. It was on order before I’d even sat down to write about this one.

Have you been reading a series that you’re loving?

The Bucket – Alan Ahlberg

I happened to be involved in a conversation about children’s books a couple of weeks ago, and one thing that came out was that Peepoo! was about the last time Alan Ahlberg saw his dad alive. I then saw this memoir in a bargin box so had to read it to find out if it was true.

I can confidently say that it isn’t, although I do wonder if the teddy is indeed Ahlberg’s teddy, which seemed to be something he brought with him through life.

Children’s literature links aside, this was a very descriptive, flowing memoir of a childhood in a working class family during and just after world war two. We don’t see the war, just where the bombs have been, because when you’re six the war itself doesn’t matter.

It is also an exploration of a free childhood, where children could roam and explore their surroundings, and the consequences of this.

Extra library books: Railway Atlas and How to Read the Landscape

In addition to the long-form Blind Giant, I got out a couple of flick-through reference type books last time I was at the library.

Firstly was a Railway Atlas: Then and Now. This has lovely side-by-side maps showing the railway network in 1923 and 2012, where lines have been removed, what they have been replaced with (such as roads, bike lanes, light rail etc). It is a fascinating historical reference, although I’m not sure I need to buy it right now I feel more informed for having flicked through.

The second was a pocket book on How to Read the Landscape which explains the geography behind distinct landscapes and how they were created. This meant that when walking at the weekend I could recognise and understand a hanging valley for the first time.Hanging Valley Waterfall

The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age – Nick Harkaway

Fortunately for this book the subtitle is much more obvious than the actual title, which I still don’t understand, so I scooped it of the library shelf in a hurry.

Harkaway gives a swift tour of how technology has changed how we think in the past, and offers perspective on how we are changing now. There is a mixture of history and light Psychology, with a lot of consideration as to the interaction between our communication methods and our internal thoughts and social structures.

The hearth, once a very simple, solid thing with discrete boundaries, has been extended into the world. The telephone allows us to reach out; the television allows us to see out; the computer allows us to search, to send messages and so on. We have positioned these things within the compass of the private space, and extended its reach.

He could do with considering his privilege though: of course someone well-connected and articulate will benefit from the social media revolution. That doesn’t mean that even the majority of people will do as well from it as he has. I don’t disagree with his premise that a lot of people stand to gain from an increase in connectivity, I just think he may be overselling that aspect somewhat.

Overall there is considerable food for thought, about how we think and communicate.

There is also something delightfully meta in writing a blog post about a book about the internet.

The Gospel of Loki – Joanne Harris

Harris has moved a long way from Chocolat with its magic so subtle that you aren’t sure whether its true magic or supersticion to pure myth.

Loki has a tale to tell of how Asgard went from his perspective, and how his choices were constrained. His sharp dialogue and explanations are interwoven with prophecy, lessons and foreshadowing, along with the knowledge anyone who knows Norse mythology has of how this all must end. But the ride with Loki can’t fail to be thrilling as it is tragic.

┬áBasically don’t trust anyone

Harris turns this epic world into a real place, with characters and relationships. The animosity of our first person narrator towards all others paints a different light on the more traditionally heroic figures.

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

Locke and his gang of Gentleman Bastards are liars. Nothing personal, its just how they make a living.

But there is of course change and conflict ahead. Locke has to work out how to navigate these new challenges and survive in a pseudo-medieval world in which lying has been essential for their entire lives.

For light fantasy there is a lack of magic or myth. Merely the world having its own mythology, but in this book at least that is all it is. Simply a pantheon of gods who stay away from the real world.

This book has been challenging me from the tbr pile for years, and now I’ve read it I’ve straight away ordered the sequel! At least waiting so long has given Lynch time to write a good part of a series.

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