Notes on a Thesis – Tephanie Riviére

One of my current goals is to undertake a PhD, although life events keep stopping me from starting that (such as children!) But the cynical look at PhDs in the comic press always helps steer me away, as opening up for such a long drag always comes with hesitation. Riviére’s examination of a PhD is one of that tone, a woman who starts with dreams and ambition, and just about manages to end it.

A grim and adult look at relationships under pressue, family, ambtion and poor mentor support. Only the last I thought was unfair – putting words into the mouth of an advisor to make them unsympathetic rather than just distracted. Although French academic culture may be different in this regard.

But there are plenty of dry laughs in here, and a driving need to see if Jeanne succeeds. The art is also inspired, with lecture theatres full of vicious tigers one moment and shy kittens the next as she learns to manage lecturing and conferences. Worth a read!

 

Rethink – Steven Poole

Rethink is a look at the history of ideas. How there are very few truly new ideas, but a lot of ideas which were thought up before they reached their time. The focus was spread across scientific, political and economic disciplines, leaping from astronomy to mental health via chess.

The encouragement is to look again at currently discredited ideas, and to be patient with new ideas that require time and understanding be accepted as conventional. It makes fascinating reading, as links to modern ideas are found in ancient texts, and I enjoy a good story on an old academic debate, where what we know as a fundamental truth was first proposed.

Then there is a look at what ideas could be due for renaissance. This is where we steer quite firmly into political and economic territory, betraying Poole’s lack of scientific training. But these are all ideas which are moving into the Overton window, and becoming feasible in a way that they weren’t 20 years ago.

An interesting look on how ideas develop and move in and out of being accepted truths in human society.

The King’s Justice – Stephen Donaldson

The King’s Justice is a short and punchy novella, with the mysterious character “Black” who turns up in town shortly after an unsolved murder. But this book is not really about that murder, but about the balancing of forces and the understanding of who makes up “The King’s Justice” and how they become who they are.

“Very well,” begins Black. “You are aware, I hope, that you are both charlatans.”
The priests stare…

As so many fantasy novels are, it is in a pseudo-medieval setting. My only complaint is the origin of the enemy, but at least that is not gratuitous, but rather necessary to explain how he has access to magic that the King’s Justice doesn’t.

Well worth reading

Daughter of Eden – Chris Beckett

The third, and feels like the final, book in Beckett’s Eden series. Daughter of Eden takes place so far into Eden’s future that the earlier characters have firmly passed into mythology. He also still has something to say about human nature,and our need to believe in something. Through the characters he introduces he frames religious wars as the ridiculous ideas that they are,

But no one else looked at it that way. How can you ask if the story is true or not, if you’re in the story yourself?

I find it interesting that for the last two books he has focussed on female characters, with the surrounding male characters being two-dimensional at best. The women avoid the nurturing trap as well, and instead are powerful characters who have ambitions and leadership skills, despite the way that the society created on Eden has limited them. And the importance of the relationships between those women is central to this world.

I liked how the story was brought full circle without taking the easy escape. Of course Earth would eventually return, but how that was resolved was imaginative.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki has spent his entire adult life in the shadow of the expulsion from his friendship group in his late teens. Now in his mid-thirties, he is given the impetus to go and find out what has happened to his friends since then, and why they cast him out.

This was not what I expected, and every twist took this in a different direction. Throughout though, I found myself rooting for Tsukuru and hoping that he would be satisfied with the outcome of his pilgrimage. It also offers a view on contemporary Japanese life, with the ordinary everyday, and social structures, being visible alongside the emotional journey Tsukuru has to travel. Of course he doesn’t really take ownership or drive, but I am learning that that is typical of Japanese literature. He at least makes his own decisions about his life in the end, and any lack of resolution is balanced against the complete absence of any clarity at the start.

The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

Guylain Vignolles is an unlikely central character in a book. He lives a reclusive life, with a job he hates and few friends. But he has one saving grace: he reads. Not only novels at home for pleasure, but aloud, without invitation on his morning train ride. This has gained him a small following, and along with his lunchtime friend’s habit of alexandrines, gives this lightweight novel an pleasantly pseudo-intellectual feel, perfect for Sunday morning reading.

He stumbles through life, guided by instincts and the colourful characters he finds himself alongside. There are a few bumps, and echoes of an earlier traumatic incident, but mostly he is just bumbling through life with Roger, his goldfish, for company. Until….

Of course a change has to be made for their to be any story to hand on Guylain, but his ordinary life is what makes this book so readable. Well worth a lazy morning with tea.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Alderman’s The Power well-deserves its place in the Bailey’s Shorlist. An Atwood-style utopian/dystopian future. I did though have a little less respect for the Atwood quote on the front cover when the acknowledgements make it clear that she mentored Alderman. I’m very keen for writers in a genre to mentor upcoming writers, but then providing public feedback seems misleading.

Onto the book though: I like the concept, a reversal of all gender-based power. It places misogyny into context, whilst questioning just how much is due to essential shared human nature, with the flipping of the power merely changing who abused it.

I found the introductory letters confusing, until I read the epilogue letters as well, at which point the whole story clicked into much clearer context. The setting of the main book is a near-future science fiction, in which all women have gained a new life and death power. We follow four characters, and see how the changing world shapes them. Each central character is given depth, and has their own voice throughout. Their stories twist together and apart through this, done perfectly smoothly.

A must-read, and my favourite so far to win the Baileys, although as a science fiction fan I may be biased!

Is anyone else reading from the shortlist?

The Emperor of the Eight Islands – Lian Hearn – read by Paul English

I had this as an audiobook, read chapter-by-chapter as I took the train to and from work. Each day I lost myself in a mythical Japan, where Shikanoko finds his powers and influence within the Islands rises and falls. A strongly mythical setting, magical powers are real, and as important for influence as military powers. Spirits truly haunt, and fate plays a strong part in the direction of the characters.

This last part was one of the most frustrating parts of the book for me. Used to more active protagonists, heroes who fate repeated drops into the right place and time, again and again seem to lack decisiveness, and makes the novel more of a blocking piece than dependent on the characters.

But I will read the rest of the Tale of Shikanoko, to discover what happens to all these intricate, well-written characters.

One – Sarah Crossan

One is a very adventurous book. Its the story of two conjoined twins, as they grow into themselves, told entirely in verse.

I like poetry, and this was well-paced, short poems interspaced with longer to move the story along. The choice to only ever hear one twin’s voice was well-chosen, giving us a view of Grace as her own person alone, even as she is never apart from Tippi.

As young adult fiction it shows two girls with difficult lives making choices and growing to share lives with others and move into the difficult word of alcohol and sex. I think it stood up well as a book without the final dilemma they are faced with. That dilemma was handled well, with the choices well-framed and the unexpected ending bringing a tear to my eyes.

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

If this wasn’t quite so short and one of the Bailey’s prize shortlist, I would have given up on it. A deary introspective look at Neve’s relationships First Love never really offers love, just an understanding of why she can’t share it fully.

I’m not sure why this was shortlisted, and am glad it was from the library and therefore easy to return.