By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not really sure what to say about this book, to be honest. It’s a classic for a reason, as Vonnegut writes a fictionalised account of his war, climaxing with with firebombing of Germany, using his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, to talk about the horror of war and its aftermath, as Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” and is abducted by aliens, both of which can be read as metaphors for PTSD and ways to escape the middle of war.

Billy is a passive character, allowing whatever happens to happen to him, secure in his belief that you can always focus on the more pleasant moments of your life, and with his catchphrase, “so it goes” always to hand.

The book is short and easy to read, or would be if it weren’t for the brutal nature of the subject. Vonnegut describes it clear and without sentiment, leaving the reader to make up their own mind, although even without polemic, it’s fairly clear what his point of view is.

Book details

Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 1969

Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years

By Jared Diamond

Rating: 4 stars

There’s a lot in this book to wrap your head around. The basic premise tries to look at human history since the last ice age to determine the ultimate causes of why the shape of human history evolved as it did: why has Eurasia, and Europe in particular, dominated recorded history and spread and conquered so much of the world.

The answers that Diamond comes up with are interesting and thought-provoking, looking at geography and biogeography over “race”. His four basic conclusions involve the availability of suitable plants and animals for domestication; the orientation of the major axis of the continents and how this affects diffusion of both things (plants, animals, people) and ideas between and across continents.

Obviously, a book of about 450 pages can’t cover a subject this big in great depth, but the thesis seems compelling to a layman like myself, with its explanation of why Europeans were the ones to develop the guns and steel and bring germs to the lands they conquered. The book while being moderately academic in tone is still very readable and has lots of real-world examples. (However, it’s still one that I had to read moderately slowly, breaking it up with lighter reading material.) The major caveat that I have to admit is that I am a layman and although Diamond’s hypothesis makes sense to me, I have no idea what other ideas are in out there in the field, and how seriously this one is taken compared to others.

The book is coming up to the 20th anniversary of its publication and it would be interesting to see an updated edition to see how our understanding has changed in that time, thanks to developments in archaeology, genetics and anthropology over the last couple of decades.

Book details

Publisher: Vintage
Year of publication: 1997

Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book

By Washington Irving

Rating: 2 stars

This is an odd little book. It starts off with an essay describing why Christmas was better in the Old Days and then proceeds to a travelogue in which the narrator runs into an old friend while travelling the country at Christmas and is invited to the family homestead where he encounters all sorts of quaint old traditions in the old school.

I don’t really grok this book. I’m not sure if it’s parodying the sort of nostalgia which Britain has been famed for these last centuries or whether it’s actually indulging in such nostalgia. The one thing that I did admire about the book is the illustrations. Apparently Randolph Caldecott was a well-regarded artist in his day, and the illustrations are lush, from the full-page ones to the smaller ones that adorn almost every page, they’re very definitely beautiful.

I mostly picked the book up because the edition that I found was very old, and I love old books. This particular one was from 1903 and has a handwritten inscription from 1905 on the inside and another one below that to the original writer’s granddaughter, and I loved that. The book itself failed to grab me though. If nothing else, at least it’s short.

Book details

ISBN: 9781603550789
Publisher: Juniper Grove
Year of publication: 1820


By Noelle Stevenson

Rating: 3 stars

I don’t know if it was because I was ill while I was reading it, but this book doesn’t seem to have left that much of an impression on me. Or it could be that the person who recommended it praised it to high heaven and I had too high expectations? Nimona shows up at Lord Blackheart’s secret lab one day and announces herself as his new sidekick. Cue many chapters of fun, mayhem and shapeshifting, with more heart developing in the book as we go on. We find out more about the relationship between Blackheart and his arch-nemesis Sir Goldenloin; the obsessed head of the Institute and the lengths they go to; and the relationship between Blackheart and Nimona becomes really sweet as they start to care about each other.

The art is serviceable but not really to my taste, although it does seem to suit the story quite well.

Book details

ISBN: 9780062278234
Publisher: HarperAlley
Year of publication: 2015

Rivers of London: Night Witch

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

In the second of Peter Grant’s visual outings, we see a kidnapping, the Russian mafia and the lengths a parent will go to to get their child back. The art here is, again, rather lovely. I find the style really suits the series, so top marks to Lee Sullivan. The story is fairly slight, once again, and readable in a quite short space of time. I found it didn’t hang together hugely well on first read, although a re-read did definitely help (and it’s short enough that you can read it a couple of times in as many hours). The graphic novel format does mean that we’re outside of Peter’s head for most of the time, which is a shame, as so much of the joy of the series for me comes from his narrative voice. But it does mean that when we do get a “Peter Grant moment”, it’s a real joy.

This one is set sometime before [book: The Hanging Tree], but probably after [book:Foxglove Summer]. Alas, DC Guleed, along with most of the regular cast, is missing from this volume, although we do get a brief scene with Dr Walid. I’ve come to really like Guleed over the last few books although a certain other former partner of Peter’s does make an appearance.

So, like I said, it’s slight, but a lot of fun. And the way the Russians manage to “persuade” Nightingale is clever.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785852930
Publisher: Titan Comics
Year of publication: 2016

Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal, #1)

By Zen Cho

Rating: 3 stars

Zacharias Wythe is the first black Sorcerer Royal, being the ward and heir of Sir Stephen Wythe. This doesn’t go down well with many of his peers in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, who are plotting to remove him. It isn’t helping that there is international politics brewing and that England’s magic appears to be diminishing. Meanwhile, orphan Prunella has stumbled upon the greatest magic discovery in centuries. Despite himself, Zacharias must work with Prunella to change the face of sorcery in England forever.

The main problem I had with this book was nothing to do with the book itself, but how it was sold to me. It was sold as a cross between [author: Susanna Clarke] and [author: P. G. Wodehouse]. And while there are definite shades of Clarke in the period fantasy setting, the argument for Wodehouse’s influence is much more lacking. There’s one character who could perhaps be described as Wodehousian, but it wasn’t the laugh out loud book that I was expecting.

Beyond this, however, it’s a well-constructed novel with good characters, some neat twists and misdirection. I wasn’t wild about the character of Prunella, although I can understand why she made the choices she did. I did find Zacharias extremely sympathetic however, and liked the way that Cho tackled the racism that he (and, indeed, Prunella) encountered face-on. I’m not sure if I’ll be rushing to read the sequels though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781447299462
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 2015

The Story of Doctor Dolittle (Doctor Dolittle, #1)

By Hugh Lofting

Rating: 3 stars

I can’t remember what format I first encountered Doctor Doolittle in, whether it was a film or possibly a cartoon featuring the good doctor. Whatever it was, I’m fairly sure it didn’t have the racism of the original book. It’s a shame as otherwise it’s a fun little kids’ book. The titular Doctor learns the language of animals, and goes off to Africa to cure a plague amongst the monkeys. But the subplot about the Africans he encounters (especially the very sad one about their prince) are cringeworthy to a modern audience, and the language used mean that I’d be very hesitant about giving this as a present to my young niece, as I’d originally intended.

Apart from that, it’s quite a charming story, with a very kind-hearted protagonist who saves animals and fights pirates. Ultimately, as an adult, I’m able to put it in context and do the whole product-of-its-time thing, but I definitely wouldn’t want to give it to a child without having A Talk with them first.

Book details

Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Year of publication: 1920

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

By Edwin A. Abbott

Rating: 3 stars

This short volume (barely a novella by modern standards) shows us a two dimensional world and we’re taken on a tour of it by one of its inhabitants, a Square, before he has his horizons (literally and metaphorically) expanded as he’s shown other planes with more or fewer dimensions.

The geometry in this hasn’t aged an awful lot. It’s a nice piece of work that forces you to think about planes in a geometry would work and it’s quite fun. Shame the same can’t be said for the story around it. Flatland sounds like a sexist, class-ridden place where women and the lower classes (ie fewer sides) have few rights and can be killed for the most minor offence. It doesn’t even have to be number of sides, no matter how many sides you have, gods help you if you’re an irregular shape!

There’s possibly a metaphor there somewhere, but I’m not sure I get it. Still worth it for the geometry though.

Book details

ISBN: 9780486272634
Publisher: Dover Publications, Inc.
Year of publication: 1884

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