I'm on holiday in Australia with a bit of spare time on my hands. Here's what I've read since the last update.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
This book is very highly praised by many people whom I admire, and so I wanted to like it much more than I did. It's extremely well written and well crafted, but I never really got the point.
My edition came with a bunch of discussion questions at the back which left me completely baffled.
I'd really like to sit down and discuss the book with a genuine fan to see what I missed.
The Core, Peter V. Brett
Mercifully the last volume of the Demon Saga. The more I've read of this series, the more it feels like a tightly edited, grimdark version of The Wheel of Time, with enough sex and violence to get optioned by HBO.
Death Comes as the End, Agatha Christie
In which we learn that ancient Egypt was exactly like 1920s England. Quite enjoyable, with sharp two-dimensional characterization (think Dickens or Rowling).
Dark State, Charles Stross
I was not expecting to enjoy this book anywhere near as much as I did. It's the sequel to Empire Games, and I was expecting it to be a hectoring semi-blog about tech trees and how awful America is. Although it has elements of these, it's also a well told cloak-and-dagger story that had me turning pages and wishing for more.
I'm not generally a huge fan of Stross's characterization, but he does a great job in this book. I think this is partly because there's a lot of point of view characters, and so you never get too deeply into their heads.
The Woman in Black, Susan Hill
Quite tedious. For the longest time I thought it was Edwardian stodge, preserved for modern readers by some quirk of publishing history. However, it was actually written in the 1980s. Why someone would pursue this style of writing is beyond me.
Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari
I read this during an emotionally difficult period of life and found it a blessed relief, as this is a book which makes few demands of its readers. Like a lot of popular science books, you can read it with half your brain, nodding along, and feeling increasingly clever as you go along.
Like The Day Before Yesterday by Colin Tudge (which I very much enjoyed), Sapiens is an opinionated, highly curated history of the human race. Unlike Tudge's book, Sapiens takes pains to point out that there have been many human species other than homo sapiens (hence the title). It also is a much more political book, engaging with religion, capitalism, systems of government, animal welfare and so forth.
The writing crackles along, making the book very entertaining, but also mildly frustrating. For example, the book makes some great points about how science, capitalism, and colonialism all went hand-in-hand, and how this wasn't a coincidence. While reading, it all sounds very persuasive. However, when you're off trying to explain this point to your friends at the pub, all you can do is wave your hands and recount an anecdote about how the Beagle's voyage was a military one.
What I mean is, there's a part of me that wishes the book were less catchy and more scholarly. Of course, I wouldn't have put in the effort to read it if it were scholarly, so I guess Harari made the right call.
After spending much of the book asserting that all religions and spiritualities are mere social constructs with no basis in fact, Harari decides to end the book with a pseudo-spiritual Last Chapter constructing his own teleology. I don't think he points out the irony, but surely he must be aware of it.
Playing to the Gallery, Grayson Perry
A write-up of the Reith lectures Perry did a few years back, this is a short, eloquent introduction to the art world. Perry claims that he wants to help punters like me be able to get to grips with contemporary art, and that he will answer a bunch of important questions.
As it is, he never answers a question directly, but rather puts a few stakes in the ground, pointing out shapes that an answer might take.
I was surprised at how readable and insightful this book was. It is mercifully free of art world jargon, but avoids the trap of reverse snobbery. Perry obviously deeply cares about what he does, and understands that the obscure jargon is actually about something deep and important that is genuinely hard to talk about.
I would love to get a contemporary classical musician to read this book and then talk to me about it.