Books 2009

In 2009, I have resolved to keep this page up-to-date, to review more non fiction books, and also keep a list of all my re-reads.


The Temporal Void, by Peter Hamilton. Four stars

Peter Hamilton is close to my favourite science fiction writer, but this isn’t his best book. It assumes too much knowledge – both of the previous book in this series, and of his previous ideas. I’ve got most of that, but I felt as if I needed to go and re-read lots of his book to get the best out of this one. Interestingly, according to Amazon, this hasn’t been released in the US yet (not until March). It’s rare I read a book this early in its release, which shows how much I love this author.

Without warning, by John Birmingham, Four stars

Another alternative history from John Birmingham. Also not yet released in the US – I’m on a roll! Imagines what would have happened to the world if almost all the people in the continental US had been killed by a phenomenen called “The Wave” in early 2003. Really interesting, even if I didn’t entirely agree with the scenario (but them I’m probably one of the Australians in the book he complains about who is generally overly optimistic about human nature).

Doors Open, by Ian Rankin. Three and a half stars

With the exit of Rebus, Ian Rankin has written a stand alone crime novel based in Edinburgh. Enjoyable, but if this had been the first Ian Rankin I’d ever read, I’m not sure if I would have searched out any more. Or maybe he’s just set too high a standard for himself.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, Four and a half stars

Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite SF authors, but he often (now he’s become enormously successful) needs an editor. Cryptomnicom, for example, had far too much explanation of cryptography (not necessary for plot) for my taste. But in this case, although there is a lot of digression into various scientific theories, and ways of thinking, it is better integrated into the plot, and (for me) more interesting. Loved it, even if it took me two weeks to get started because it looked too dauntingly thick there on the bedside table.

The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan, Three and a half stars

Not really my taste, but interesting. Richard Morgan is a cyberpunk author who is branching out with this novel into fantasy. It’s too serious and grim for my taste. While I do like a fantasy with strong interesting characters (and the main three are real people, with flaws and heroisms), if I’m spending a lot of time with them I need to like them as well. And in this case, they were too broken, for me. An interesting premise (two of the three main characters were gay, in a society that approved even less than our current society does, but they still managed to be heroes by dint of superb soldiering/fighting skills) but the characters were too bitter, and the prognosis of the society as a whole seemed pretty grim. Very well done, though.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer, Four and a half stars

This book is very sweet, but with a core of real life. An epistolary novel (not sure if I’ve ever used that word in a sentence before!) it describes a jaded Londoner, just after the end of World War II getting drawn into the lives of a group of Guernsey people who kept (mostly) sane during the German occupation of Guernsey by reading books and talking about them. My grandmother is from Guernsey, so I’m always drawn to stories about it (even though I’ve barely been there). Although the story seems cute, there is an underlying reality as glimpses of the horror that the war had been show through.

H.I.V.E. The Higher Institute of Villanous Education, by Mark Walden, Four stars

I’m not sure how to rank this one. Chatterboy insisted I read it, as he has just inhaled it (and the two next ones in the series). Surprisingly, I really enjoyed it – very well written and a plot that draws you in. The unlikely story of a secret school (high school age) to train villains in all the latest in villainy, following four children in the Alpha stream (the ones who are expected to become the next James Bond villains). Although they are being trained in villainy, in all the stories, they end up foiling really evil people, by general cleverness and great team work. It’s nice that the four children are two boys and two girls, each of whom have their own strengths that are all needed.

I’ve also read The Overlord Protocol and Escape Velocity in the same series – interestingly Escape Velocity is only available in the UK. I should have realised from the way there is no mention of the US in any of the books (the first one set entirely on a Pacific Island and parts of Asia, and then they later go to the UK and Europe) that it was written in the UK!

Before they are Hanged, the Blade Itself, and The Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie. Three and a half stars.

Mr Penguin and I read this series on our holiday. Mainly chosen because we would both find it OK, but be happy to throw it out once finished. We both enjoyed it more than we expected. Most of the characters in the fantasy are fairly unpleasant, but Abercrombie makes you empathise with all of them. Interestingly, the character who seems the most sympathetic at the beginning ends up (in my view) being the most irredeemably bad. It definitely grew on me, and was higher quality than the average holiday read.

Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz. Three and a half stars.

Another book introduced to me by Chatterboy, who loves stories about young boy spies who save the world (the gadgets are much better than the detective equivalents I read at that age, so I’m not surprised). Good fun, the violence is cartoonish, and not too nasty, and probably as good as a lot of the “adult” books I read when I’m not up to thinking.

The Complaints, by Ian Rankin. Three and a half stars.

Enjoyable – I found it hard to put down to go to sleep, but Ian Rankin is starting to feel a bit formulaic, to me. Even though this book is his first one without Rebus, and he’s made a big effort to change (current main character doesn’t drink, and makes a big effort to obey the rules), it didn’t make me want to rush and buy the next one. Maybe it is because his main character has always been Edinburgh, and his Edinburgh doesn’t vary enough.

Magyk, Flyte, and Physik, stories of Septimus Heap, by Angie Sage. Three and a half stars

Another series I’ve read because Chatterboy has loved them. A fantasy series in a non specific mediaeval-esque place, with lots of interesting detail about the way the society works and the people there. Very good at driving the plot so that you just have to read the next chapter, but after a while the characters started to feel a little formulaic, to me. That said, I’m still going to read the fourth one when Chatterboy has finished it.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. Four stars.

A book and series that has a huge buzz about it, partly, I think because of the sad story of the author, who delivered his trilogy to his publisher, and then died before the books were published, and partly because they are topical and tightly paced thrillers. I certainly found this book hard to put down, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. Based on the buzz, though, this book was harder edged, with nastier violence than I expected.

Non fiction

Outliers: the story of success, by Malcolm Gladwell. Four stars

As is usual with Malcolm Gladwell, a fascinating very readable book, that doesn’t quite hang together. But I didn’t mind that as I was reading, because each individual story was so interesting. I really think his New Yorker essays are his best work.

100 Ways to Happy Children, a guide for busy parents, by Dr Timothy J Sharp. Three and a half stars.

I got this for free, after the author, who bills himself as Dr Happy, spoke at a conference I went to (a good speech, but unfortunately he had been given about 20% less time than he was expecting, which meant he talked very fast). A book to dip into, most of which is common sense, but which bears repeating. After reading it (and watching the talk), I have been making a bigger effort to talk to the boys about all the good things we have in our lives – the book suggests talking about the good things that happened that day at dinner time, which we have always tried to do, but it had fallen off a bit lately.

Bring on the Apocalypse, 6 arguments for Global Justice, by George Monbiot. Three stars.

Before I bought this, I was only familiar with George Monbiot as one of the people often quoted by Deltoid, in global warming arguments (particularly against Ian Plimer). He is a columnist for the Guardian, and has a much wider range. I am often guilty of reading things I know I’m more likely to agree with (I find it hard to read the Australia, for example, and seek out the Guardian in the UK). But this book was too much for me. Possibly because as a set of collective columns, it was far too much at once. Or possibly because of his style.  The Now Show, describing the Copenhagen conference transport arrangements, mentioned George Monbiot “arriving on a bicycle made of his own recycled pomposity”.  An apt description.

The Pin Striped Prison, How overachievers get trapped in corporate jobs they hate, by Lisa Pryor. Four stars.

This book came out of a newspaper column, and it does show. The arguments are strongest around the core – which is an essay wondering why NSW’s top high school students all end up becoming lawyers and merchant bankers, and not liking it very much. But it is a good analysis of the market failures around the graduate employment market – or maybe just good marketing. The employers with the most money do end up with the best graduates, but not necessarily because the graduates actually wanted the money at the time – just because employers with big budgets can market their firms more effectively to the graduates. By the time the grads realise that the actual job isn’t that exciting, they feel trapped by the career path treadmill they are now on.

Born to Run. A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall. Four stars.

I found this book by watching the Daily Show – an interview with the author (not my usual route!) and buying it from Amazon in a weak moment. It’s a very rambling parallel story, of the author’s obsessive research into natural running, and discovering an increasingly accepted theory that humans evolved specifically as runners, and his equally obsessive search for a lost tribe of superathletes in the canyons of Mexico. I’m probably far too left brain, in that I really wanted more of the science, and less of the character sketches of the weird ultra distance running fraternity. That said, I really enjoyed reading it.

Nudge. Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, by Thaler and Sunstein.Four and a half stars.

This book was famously on Barack Obama’s reading list when coming into the Presidency. Reading it towards the end of 2009 was a bit late. But more seriously, as with all great research syntheses, it is a book that seems obvious once you’ve read it. Except that it wasn’t. It talks about how people really make decisions, and how the framing of those decisions, in all sorts of ways, will always influence that decision. Using a simple example to start off with – a school canteen – they talk about how well known marketing tricks can be used to massively change the eating habits of school children, with no changes to price or availability. The example they used that I’m most familiar with is the superannuation fund choice – choosing a default for people will change the savings habits of the vast majority of them – better make it a good one!

World Trek, A Family Odyssey, by Russell and Carla Fisher, 360 Degrees Longitude, One Family’s Journey around the World, by John Higham, The Family Sabbatical Handbook, the Budget Guide to Living Abroad with Your Family, by Elisa Bernick.  All bought in a flurry. As fun fantasy books, I enjoyed 360 Degrees Longitude the most (despite one of the children breaking a leg on the journey). I suspect if we get serious, I might be more in favour of the practical Family Sabbatical Handbook.

The Art of Possibility, Transforming Personal and Professional Life, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. Three stars.

This is a book about changing your approach to life to see possibility rather than obstacles. It was recommended on a leadership course I went to a few years ago. I’ve also seen Benjamin Zander on TED (where he was excellent), and did enjoy this book, but the tone was a little too earnestly american for me (even though Benjamin Zander is only american by adoption – I suspect the earnest comes from Rosamund Zander, who is a psychotherapist).

Come on Shore and We will Kill and Eat you All, An Unlikely love story, by Christina Thompson. Four stars.

Christina Thompson is an american academic, specialising in the South Pacific who met and married a Maori New Zealand man. This memoir tells some of the story of the marriage through the lens of colonization – throwing in a lot of South Pacific history and as much understanding of Maori culture as you’re likely to get as an outsider (the title was shouted to Abel Tasman’s explorers in 1642 as they circumnavigated New Zealand). As the child of New Zealand parents (from close by the hometown of Thompson’s husband), I enjoyed it, but in her (completely understandable) efforts not to tell too much of others’ stories, the characters of most of her in-laws (and especially her husband) are fairly cardboard, which reduces the reality of the story a fair bit.

Bailout Nation, How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and shook the world economy, by Barry Ritholtz, with Aaron Task. Four and a half stars.

Barry Ritholtz is the author of The Big Picture, a blog I became addicted to when I was trying to make sense of what was going on in the world during the last quarter of 2008. It doesn’t pull its punches, at one point creating a list of the top 22 players who were to blame for the Global Financial Crisis (number 1 is Alan Greenspan, to give you a flavour, but the ratings agencies come in at number 4). I largely bought this as I felt I owed Ritholtz, having read so much of his writing for free. It was a rollicking, opinionated read, the best kind.

Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin. Four stars

I’ve read a few stories of what life was like in China during the cultural revolution, but this one felt closer to home, as Li is not that much older than I am. He now lives a life of privilege and ease in Melbourne, as  a stockbroker and professional speaker, having grown up in a level of poverty that is hard to imagine, even when it is superbly described, and got out by becoming one of China’s and the world’s best ballet dancers. At times, this was hard to read, being reminded of what a privileged life I lead, compared with most of the people in the world, but it is also a gripping story and a remind of how much talent and determination undoubtedly continues to exist among the one billion people who continue to live on less than a dollar a day. Li got out of grinding poverty first because of the chance of being selected  to audition for ballet school. After he got there, hard work, determination and talent made him a brilliant success – but many others could probably have done the same given the opportunity.

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