Category Archives: What I’ve been reading lately

What I’ve been reading lately, part 48

The Liar’s Dictionary — Eley Williams

A book published prematurely, I think. There is an intriguing double premise, with a modern-day story of a young woman working for a traditional dictionary publisher that is fading to nothing in the Internet era, and a hundred-years-ago story of one of the workers during the dictionary’s heyday, but nothing much comes of either of them — the story in the past, particularly, seems completely unsure of where it’s trying to land. More significantly, there is virtually nothing that ties the two stories together. It feels to me as though Williams had much grander plans for this book, but lost interest before she could make them work.

To be fair, the Guardian disagrees, calling it “a playful delight […] a virtuoso performance full of charm”. So, I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something. But to me it felt like a premise in search of a plot.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 47

Fake Law: the Truth about Justice in an Age of Lies — the Secret Barrister

A serious and depressing book about how the criminal justice system works — or, more often, does not work — in the UK. The anonymous author takes on lots of pervasive tabloid hobby-horses and shows how they are mostly based on lies and exaggerations: for example, there is no easy route to wealth in the UK by making unreasonably high compensation claims for minor injuries. The thread that runs right through the book, and which made it ultimately unenjoyable to read, is the progressive defunding and overstretching of our legal system, including the gradual but inexorable elimination of legal aid.

Recommended; but not because it’s fun, because it will make you better informed.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 46

Blackout (Sam Archer book 3) — Tom Barber


A workaday action novel about a counter-terrorism agent and his colleagues surviving a revenge attempt from a group of Albanian terrorists, number 3 in a series. There’s the seed of something here, but a lack of craftsmanship that renders most scenes plodding and most characters bland. Much is made of the lead character’s deep bonds of friendship with certain other characters, but nothing comes of it. Similarly someone else’s profound and detailed knowledge of guns doesn’t go anywhere. I won’t be going back for books 1 and 2, or 4 to 13.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 45

Lead — John Greenway, Andy Blacknell and Andy Coombe

This the densest and most economical business leadership I have come across. It’s a genre I am not particularly drawn to, and which is ripe for parody, but I read it because I know two of the authors. And I have to admit, I ended up finding it really helpful. That’s because, while most business books have One Big Idea, this one settles down (after an opening going over vision, values and goals) into an efficient format of four-or-five page chapters, each summarising the big insight from another book. So there are brief chapters on thing like the Four Stages of Competence and the Eisenhower Matrix, which give you the core of each of them without requiring you to plough through a whole book. Recommended.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 44

Made in America — Bill Bryson

The USA-specific counterpart to Bryson’s celebration of the English language, Mother Tongue, it’s about twice as long as the original volume because it also contains an episodic and selective history of the USA, viewed from a linguistic perspective.

To my mind, this makes it even more fascinating than Mother Tongue, because it ticks an important box for me: I am not very interested in history per se, but I am very much interested in the history of things: history of music, history of science, history of football, what have you. And what really fascinates me is seeing how these various History Of X‘s intersect. For example, Harry Govier Seeley published his classic paper “On the classification of the fossil animals commonly named Dinosauria” in the same year as the Football League was created, Edison’s phonograph was first demonstrated in London, and Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie was published — 1888. Bryson is really good at tying together such disparate threads, and what emerges is a kind of synthesized picture of a nation through nearly 400 years. Continue reading

What I’ve been reading lately, part 43

The Constant Rabbit — Jasper Fforde

This is a novel that tries to get to grips with how things would actually work if there were anthropomorphic rabbits of the kind that turn up in fiction from Alice in Wonderland to Bugs Bunny. Rabbits are human-sized, walk upright and talk, and have a distinctive culture. They live uneasily alongside humans, using some of the same facilities but often pushed to the fringes of society, with obvious parallels to apartheid South Africa or some parts of the Deep South of the USA in the 1950s.

It’s an interesting setup, but Fforde doesn’t seem to know quite what he wants to do with it, so we end up with a plot that is half a story of Forbidden Love between man and rabbit, and half 1984-style surveillance dystopia. In the end it all rather comes crashing down. I feel like this could have been much better if the ideas has been left to brew for another six months before the actual writing began.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 42

Career of Evil — Robert Galbraith

A re-read of the first Galbraith that I read. Rowling (for it is she) remains as compellingly readable as always. Definitely worth reading. My original comments stand.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 41

Emma — Jane Austen

I usually think of this as my second favourite Austen (after Pride and Prejudice, naturally), but on my re-read of all six, I found to my surprise that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps it’s partly because I had overdosed on screen adaptations recently: the Kate Beckinsale and Gwynneth Paltrow versions from 1996, the 2020 film with Anya Taylor-Joy, and the 2009 Romola Garai TV series. I really enjoyed all of them, but I guess having seen four rather different perspectives on the novel, the novel itself didn’t really have much more to show me.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 40

If I Never Met You — Mhairi McFarlane

This is is my fourth McFarlane book. (Previously: You Had Me At Hello, It’s Not Me, It’s You, Here’s Looking at You). She continues to impress and delight, although I do have to admit that by this point the plots are slightly starting to blend into each other a bit. Continue reading

What I’ve been reading lately, part 39

Northanger Abbey — Jane Austen

I’m making my way once more through all six of Austen’s completed novels, and was interested to see how this one would hold up. Although published posthumously it was actually the first one she completed, and bears many of the marks of juvenilia — including a lot of pop-culture references that are now lost on us, and were probably already outdated by the time it was published fourteen years after completion.

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