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What I’ve been reading this month


I often enjoy xkcd cartoons, and was intrigued by the premise of xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe’s book, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. As the title suggests, Munroe took absurd questions – “How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?” or “What would happen if everybody on Earth stood as close as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?” – and offered well researched scientific answers. Munroe’s approach weaved scientific principles with humour and panache, and provided me simultaneously with a good laugh and new insights. However, much like xkcd, it occasionally got too geeky (on science fiction themes) for me to follow the jokes. A few errors of fact in areas I’m familiar with made me worry about the accuracy of content that was new to me: for example, Munroe mixed up the stories of the murders of Alexander Litvinenko and Georgi Markov in a most peculiar way. Nonetheless, this book lived up to its clever conceit. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I continued reading Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series this month by finishing off Dearly Devoted Dexter, a book with a truly ridiculous body-part-littered plot which was so tightly written and infused with such good humour that I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was a worthy sequel to the first book. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Bill Bailey’s Dodgers blew me away: I’ve never read anything quite like it before. The protagonist, East, was introduced as a 15-year-old boy living in a cardboard box in the basement of his drug addict mother’s house in a deprived area of LA. He ran a team of lookouts defending a drug house. After his team failed to see a drug raid coming, East – who had never left his neighbourhood – was ordered to drive across the country with his 13-year-old half-brother and two other youngsters to shoot a witness in a drug trial. Unsurprisingly, things didn’t go to plan. Dodgers turned out to be a deeply personal coming-of-age novel set against a background of crime, deprivation and America. It was written in the sparingly tight prose of many classic American novelists, but with the detail required to make even the minor characters believable. This was a book that I’ll remember for a long time to come – and will certainly re-read at some point. (Amazon | Goodreads)

On the other hand… Dave Eggers’s The Circle didn’t do much for me at all. It was a dystopian novel set in the near future focusing on Mae, an employee of Google-like tech company. Fertile ground, but unfortunately the book was entirely one-dimensional, essentially consisting of a series of long hardline speeches in which characters espoused the pros or cons (depending on the character) of modern technology. No character ever conceded a single point, and Eggers’s own views were not even thinly veiled. A predictable plot strung the speeches together, and the book was bulked up with a few heavy handed allegories about the effect of monopolies. That the most notable of these centred around a shark eating smaller creatures neatly sums up the degree of novelty, insight and suspense this book had to offer. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an autobiography in which she described how she raised her children using a “Chinese” parenting style. Along the way, she described making some extreme choices: for example, insisting on her children practising musical instruments for hours a day even when away on holiday. But the whole book felt as though Chua has deliberately chosen to focus on the most extreme examples of her parenting. Hints of a more traditional “Western” style were glossed over, such as occasional mentions of “family time” organised by her husband. When I turned the final page, my first thought was “so what?”. It was a moderately interesting and entertaining read, but it didn’t strike me as anything more than that, and certainly not worthy of the media ruckus it appeared to cause on publication. (Amazon | Goodreads)

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