08 January 2013

The 52 Books I Read In 2012: Part 1: 1-26

As I have been doing since 2009, I kept track of my reading during 2012 on LibraryThing. This post is a compendium of those notes. The quality & depth of comments on the books I read varies widely - this is much more likely to be a relfection of how busy I was at the time, rather than the quality of the books!

This post covers the first 26 books I read in 2012. The next post will cover the remaining 26, and a third post will discuss my thoughts on the reading year past and the one ahead.

In a subsequent post, I'll talk about my highlights of the 2012 reading year, and some thoughts about the year ahead.

Note: the links from the book title and author, where available, are to the relevant LibraryThing pages.

1. Sympathy for the Devil by Justin Gustainis - novel/supernatural thriller (3.5/5)

A real guilty-pleasure holiday read, this one - I enjoyed it, though there were some fairly large plot and character motivation holes to navigate around. If I tell you that among my tags for the book are "demonic possession" and "Republican Party", that should give you a pretty good idea of whether you'd enjoy it!

2. When A Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts - nonfiction/politics/environment (4.5/5)

A well-written account of the many environmental issues China - and therefore the world - is facing by the Guardian's Asia environment correspondent. Fascinating but rarely encouraging reading.

3. delicate access by Madeleine Marie Slavick - poetry/collection/dual language (4.5/5)

This book was the perfect complement to my #2 - a collection of poems written in English and translated into Chinese by Luo Hui, dealing, sometimes obliquely and sometimes directly, with life in China and Hong Kong. There are many very fine poems in this collection.

4. The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios - nonfiction/physics (4/5)

My son, who is very keen on physics, keeps asking me questions about quantum mechanics that I can't answer. Before I get to the stage where I can't even understand the questions, I thought I'd give this backgrounder on quantum mechanics a try.

I enjoyed the early chapters, but found the later chapters on the applications of quantum mechanics in technology less interesting - I would have preferred more on the fundamental scientific and philosophical issues raised by quantum mechanics. But that wasn't this book's brief, and it did what it does do very well.

5. Tymon's Flight by Mary Victoria - novel/fantasy (4.5/5)

Really enjoyable first novel in the Chronicles of the Tree YA fantasy trilogy by Wellington writer Mary Victoria. It's not often these days that I get caught up in a fantasy or SF story as I used to do when I was teenager, but Tymon's Flight brought back those delicious "what's going to happen next??" feelings.

Here is my interview with Mary Victoria: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/interview-with-mary-victoria.html

6. Backbone by Harry Laing - poetry collection (3.5/5)

Some good poems in here, especially in the closing sequence "Heated", but also a number that didn't come alive for me. I have heard Harry Laing perform his poetry and he is excellent - I think I'd gain a new appreciation of these poems if I heard them live.

7. Relinquished by Thomas W. Devine - novel/thriller (2.5/5)

8. In Cold Pursuit by Sarah Andrews - novel/thriller (4/5)

A pair of thrillers to carry me through a busy couple of weeks. The woman-in-sexual-peril plot of "Relinquished" didn't appeal to me, even though it's quite well done, but I did enjoy "In Cold Pursuit", despite some deficiencies when viewed purely as a thriller, as I said in my review:

The strength and weakness of this book is that it is based on a two-month stint the author spent in Antarctica. She does a great job of writing about the places she visited and the people she met there (or their fictional analogues), but the attempt to graft a thriller plot onto the travelogue doesn't work so well, as the protagonist of the thriller goes on side trips that tell the reader a lot about Antarctica and about climate science but threaten to derail the plot.

So, if I was rating "In Cold Pursuit" purely on its thriller elements, I would give it about three stars - but, if you are at all interested in fictional descriptions of Antarctica, people who choose to live in Antarctica, climate change, and the way science is done, as I am, it's well worth four stars.

9. Land Below The Waves by Julie Leibrich - poetry/collection (3/5)

10. Samiha's Song by Mary Victoria - novel/fantasy (4/5)

Reading has taken a bit of a back seat in the last few weeks, but I have finished these two. Land Below The Waves is a New Zealand poetry collection from 2004 that has some very good poems but seemed a little uneven to me.

Samiha's Song is the second volume in Mary Victoria's Chronicles of the Tree trilogy. I didn't like it quite as much as the first volume, Tymon's Flight, mainly because it took a while to get going, but it does the things the second book of a fantasy trilogy should do: it deepens the world in which the story takes place, introduces new complications, and prepares the main character for the trials to be faced in the concluding volume, Oracle's Fire. I think that should be a cracker.

11. The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse by Fredrik Brouneus - YA comedy fantasy (4/5)

I liked this book a lot. It's the first book for which I've been asked to provide a book-cover quote, and here is what I said:

"This road trip with reincarnation is full of teenage hormones, forbidden - well, inadvisable - love, signs, portents and coffee-addicted zombies. If the Dalai Lama and Terry Pratchett collaborated on a novel, it might read something like this."

12. Road Markings by Michael Jackson - memoir/travelogue (4/5)

Michael Jackson is a distinguished NZ-born anthropologist, now teaching at Harvard. This book is the narrative of a recent return trip he made to New Zealand. There are some fascinating reflections on national culture, 'firstness' and the dilemmas of the expatriate here.

Here is my interview with Michael Jackson: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/interview-with-michael-jackson.html

13. No Ordinary Deal by Jane Kelsey - nonfiction/international politcs and trade (3.5/5)

This is a book about an important subject - a highly secretive set of international trade negotiations over the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, which if enacted will lock participating countries even more firmly into the failed neoliberal model of international trade and finance.

Unfortunately, most of the chapters are written by academics who do far less than they should to make the subject matter clear and comprehensible to the general reader. That's a great pity, given the importance of the subject matter.

14. Oracle's Fire by Mary Victoria - novel/fantasy (4.5/5)

Concluding volume of the "Chronicles of the Tree" trilogy, and I think it makes for a very strong finish to the trilogy.

I wouldn't say I'm the target market for a YA fantasy trilogy, but I enjoyed these books a lot.

15. Hilary and David by Laura Solomon - epistolary novel (4/5)

I enjoyed this recent novel by NZ author Laura Solomon, which I reviewed for Landfall Review Online: http://landfallreviewonline.blogspot.co.nz/2012/07/friends-on-facebook.html (NB: For some reason I have a lot of trouble with links to Landfall Review Online reviews. If this link doesn't work for you, please just go to the LRO home page and search for the review.)

16. The Quantum Universe: Anything That Can Happen, Does by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw - nonfiction/science (4.5/5)

A very good concise guide to quantum theory, especially as it applies to elementary particles.

17. The Ten PM Question by Kate De Goldi - fiction/YA novel (4.5/5)

A lovely coming-of-age story about a boy with anxiety, a mother with agoraphobia, and the new girl in the boy's class who catalyses change in his life.

18. How To Live By The Sea by Lynn Davidson - poetry/collection (3.5/5)

Lynn Davidson is a skilled poet, and there is a lot to like in this book of poems about living by the sea, family and relationships - but I have to admit that this collection didn't really engage me.

I think that's my fault rather than the book's - I tend to enjoy poetry collections more when I read them in one or a few sittings, whereas in this case I read a poem here and a poem there over the course of a month or so. Reflective poetry and a busy life don't always go well together!

19. E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis - nonfiction/science (4/5)

I don't usually enjoy science books which are focused more on the biographies of the scientists than on the science itself, but perhaps because Bodanis is a historian, he carries of this mix of biography and science very well. A strong secondary theme is the waste of scientific talent caused by the sexism that has historically held back female scientists, several of whom are included in this tale.

20. The Intentions Book by Gigi Fenster - fiction/novel (4/5)

I liked most of this debut novel by NZ author a great deal, but one section of it didn't work so well for me, as I discuss in my review for Landfall Review Online: http://landfallreviewonline.blogspot.com/2012/08/heart-of-ranges.html

21. The Tenderness of Light by Mary McCallum - poetry/chapbook (4/5)

Very enjoyable poetry chapbook by NZ writer Mary McCallum, who although best known for her novel "The Blue"started off by writing poetry. Rich, detailed poems - I want to read this one again.

22. Master of the Grass by Nina Gabrielyan - fiction/collection (3.5/5)

This collection consists of a novella followed by six short stories, and I reviewed it for Belletrista: http://www.belletrista.com/2012/Issue18/reviews_4.php

23. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi - novel/SF (3.5/5)

There's a lot to be impressed by about this near-future SF novel, set in a future which is, if not post-apocalyptic, at least post-a lot of bad things. Both the style and the plot appear to be strongly influenced by William Gibson's Neuromancer, with good helpings of J G Ballard and Joseph Conrad in the mix, but this is biopunk rather than cyberpunk.

The novel's great strength is in its depiction of its future Thailand, and in the depiction of those characters who get enough attention to be well depicted. Its major flaws - and they are sizeable enough to have created a lot of controversy - are:

1) The author crams too much in - too many storylines, too many tangents. The result is that some characters, such as the gifted but shadowy genehacker at the core of the plot (whose name suggests a sizeable tribute to Gibson), remain figures from central casting - in this case, Marlon Brando playing Mr Kurtz.

2) The titular character, Emiko, is a genetically programmed sex slave who suffers several brutal sexual assaults in the course of the novel. Spoiler alert: She turns into an assassin and wipes most of her tormentors out, but nevertheless, the relish with which these scenes were described left a nasty taste in my mouth.

Despite those criticisms, it's clear that Paolo Bacigalupi is a very talented writer who thinks deeply about the worlds he creates.

24. The Affair by Lee Child - novel/thriller (3.5/5)

The book group I'm in hops wildly from genre to genre - that's the second-best thing about it, the best being the people - and so we tackle books I would never normally read, like this one.

I was expecting something in the Tom Clancy line, but this was quite a bit better than I expected - even though the solution to the murder mystery is telegraphed quite early in the novel, which makes the introduction of a lengthy read herring in its second half rather annoying. Jack Reacher is an engaging character, and the milieu of the novel is well-drawn - although I knocked off half a star for Reacher's readiness to act as executioner as well as judge and jury. He's the human equivalent of a drone strike.

25. Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson - nonfiction/travelogue (3.5/5)

In this travelogue of a journey around Europe in 1991 or thereabouts, Bill Bryson is his usual entertaining self for the most part, but his frequent bitching about the strange habits of foreigners did get on my nerves after a while.

26. Beyond Today: A Values Story by Claire Browning - nonfiction-history/politics (3.5/5)

In 1977, when I was still too young to vote, I joined the Values Party, New Zealand's first green party (and one of the world's first). By the time I joined, Values had passed its high-water mark, but its successor party, the Green Party, is now a major player in New Zealand politics.

I expected this book, published to mark the 40th anniversary of the Values Party's foundation, to be a history of Values and how it influences the Greens, but that's a relatively small part of the book. Most of the book covers Claire's views of how the Greens should move forwards, and it ends with an excellent chapter from former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.

If you are interested in green politics (big or small "G"), "Beyond Today" is well worth reading.

Here is my interview with Clare Browning: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.co.nz/2012/08/an-interview-with-claire-browning.html

Here endeth Part 1...

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