Category Archives: Reviews

What I’ve been reading lately, part 4

[Previously: part 1, part 2, part 3]

Murder on the Orient Express — Agatha Christie

This one has quite a well-known twist, but happily I’d completely forgotten about it, so it wasn’t spoiled for me. And in fact, it works really well. I don’t want to say any more for fear of spoilers, but I’d definitely recommend this one. But not as a first Agatha Christie. Read a couple of more regular stories first (e.g. Styles, End House) to get into the idiom.

The New Jerusalem — G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton is among the very top rank of my favourite authors, along with Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Douglas Adams. But there’s no denying that his output is wildly variable in quality. In part, that’s just because there is so much of it. He was ridiculously productive. He wrote about 80 books, 200 short stories, 4000 essays, several plays, and a shedload of poetry. For the last decade of his life he also edited and wrote much of his own weekly newspaper, G. K.’s Weekly. To achieve this massive output, much of his writing was dictation: he would essentially speak extemporaneously for an hour or two while his secretary took notes and subsequently typed them up. He rarely revised these drafts.

All this is by way of excuse for what I can’t really say is one of Chesterton’s better books. I made my way slowly through The New Jerusalem, a chapter or two at a time across several months, which arguably tells its own story. Its roots are in Chesterton’s visit to Jerusalem, but as is often the case with him, he uses that as a foundation to fly off in numerous different directions, some historical, some philosophical or theological. There’s enough insight in this book that I will return and re-read it some day — and I’ve found that without exception I’ve enjoyed Chesterton’s books more on the second read. But for someone looking to get started on his huge catalogue, I’d recommend The Man Who Was Thursday (fiction), Orthodoxy (theology/apologetics) or Heretics (social commentary). The former is freely available from Project Guterberg, and is one of my very favourite books.

The Game (The Game is Life, book 1) — Terry Schott

I joined BookBub, a free service that emails you once a day with links to free or heavily discounted e-books in subject areas that you’ve told it you’re interested in. It’s pretty good: most days there’s something that looks like it might be interesting to me, and every couple of days one of the free books will look appealing. I recommend it.

The Game is the first book that I “bought” (for free, naturally) from a BookBub recommendation. It’s a story about a world that exists only inside a gigantic computer game, and how things pan out for two of the people of that world who, while inside the game, figure out that that’s what their world is. Because of this set-up, it’s able to whizz very quickly through the lives of the people in the game-world (from birth to their thirties) while also covering a couple of weeks in the lives of the people in the “real” world. The switching perspectives keep things interesting. It’s not necessarily brilliantly written, but I did find it gripping and fascinating — enough so that I’m keen to read the rest of the series if they fall to reasonable prices.

Unfortunately, the second book in the series, Digital Heretic, is priced at £3.50, which feels like more than I want to pay for an e-book by an unknown author — at least, in light of all these free offers I’m getting. It’s interesting to speculate on what would feel like a good price to me. I think I’d pay £2 for the sequel — which, given that there are five books in the series all together, would mean paying £8 total. I can’t particularly justify why I landed on that price, though.

What I’d like is to place a watch on that book so that Amazon alerts me, or even automatically buys the book for me, when the price falls below a threshhold that I specify. Understandably, Amazon doesn’t seem to offer that facility; but I’ve been more surprised that I’ve not been able to find a third-party service that does it. There’s CamelCamelCamel, but frustratingly they only watch the prices of hardcopy books (and other physical goods), not e-books. Does anyone know of a service that does what I want?

The Club of Queer Trades — G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton is probably best known for the detective short stories featuring Father Brown, a devout but humanist and realist Catholic Priest, who solves mysteries not by analysing clues but by understanding human nature. (They’re very good: the first collected volume is available from Project Gutenberg.) But before Brown came another eccentric detective, Basil Grant. He is an ex-judge who either resigned or retired on either perceiving the insanity of the judicial system or going mad himself. The Club of Queer Trades collects the six Basil Grant stories.

I’ve read this a couple of times now, so I evidently enjoyed it enough the first time to want to re-read it. But in all honesty, it’s not Chesterton’s best — it feels at times as though he’s reaching too far to find amusing explanations for his mysteries, while in the Father Brown stories the resolutions generally feel comfortable, inevitable. Given the early date of the Basil Grant stories (the collected volume came out shortly after he turned 30), we can perhaps forgive him if his style had yet to settle. It would be another five years before the first of the Father Brown stories, and it might be best to see Queer Trades as a dry run for the better known series.

You can get Queer Trades from Project Gutenberg, but my honest advice would be to start with Father Brown, who is not only more logical but also more warm and likeable. Come back to this one when you’re up to speed with the more major Chesterton works.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — Lewis Carroll

Not sure why I found myself wanting to re-read this after many years, but it’s another example of a classic children’s book that fully deserves its classic status. Yes, it’s episodic, random, hallucinatory; no, it doesn’t make much sense; yes, it has the classic unsatisfactory resolution (“it was all a dream”). But the set pieces really work, there are numerous memorable and quotable lines, and Alice herself is believable in her odd way, and charming.

I recently started reading this to my twelve-year-old, who’s also thoroughly enjoying it, though looking a bit baffled at my choice of reading material.

(Alice is one of very, very few books I remember my dad reading, other than technical manuals for veteran aircraft. The only other one I can think of is Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.)

Unoffendable — Brant Hansen

The debut book by one of my favourite Christian bloggers, who is also a radio broadcaster responsible for, among other things, Hot-Tubbing With C. S. Lewis. I absolutely loved this. It’s a rare example of one of those books where I just want to go out and buy half a dozen copies for all my family and friends.

This book is a 50/50 blend of grace and laughter — two of my favourite things. I laughed out loud at the dedication, then twice more at the table of contents. It’s like reading Dave Barry, but with wisdom. Brant’s deliberately, defiantly unbalanced message of grace, grace and more grace is one that the world — and the church — desperately needs to hear. Told with self-deprecating humour and unrelenting realism, it’s a book to devour.

So: I’d certainly recommend it to every Christian, especially to anyone feeling worn down by the demands of churches. But I’d also highly recommend it to anyone who’s not a Christian and who wonders what can possibly be attractive about Christianity. You may well not agree with him by the end of the book, but you will certainly understand.

Here are links in case you want to buy it: [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]

What I’ve been reading lately, part 3

Peter Pan and Wendy — J. M. Barrie

I highly recommend this to anyone. Written in 1911, it’s now comfortably in the public domain, and you can pick up a free copy at Project Gutenberg. Like Mary Poppins, its a profound and touching book, best known from a Disney adaptation that systematically boiled all the charm and distinctiveness out of it. (I watched the movie after finishing the book, and found it enjoyable in its bland way, but completely unexceptional.)

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What I’ve been listening to in 2014

Here is my now-traditional top-ten list of the albums I’ve listened to the most in the previous calendar year. (See previous entries for 20132012, 20112010 and 2009.)

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I listen much more to whole albums than to individual tracks, so each year I pick the ten albums that I listened to the most (not counting compilations), as recorded on the two computers where I listen to most of my music. (So these counts don’t include listening in the car or on the iPod.) I limit the selection to no more than one album per artist, and skip albums that have featured in previous years. Then from each of those ten objectively selected albums, I subjectively pick one song that I feel is representative.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 2

As noted recently, I’m taking advantage of my Kindle’s reverse-chronological book list to keep track of what I’ve been reading, and blogging a few thoughts about the books. Here’s part 2.

Second Foundation — Isaac Asimov

Very much more of the same, following on from Foundation and Foundation and Empire, which I wrote about last time. It remains compelling reading, but it continues to astonish with its amazingly primitive technology: for example, apparently the libraries of 20,000 years into the future will still use microfiche. I quite like the sense that Asimov, as he was writing these stories, had no more sense of where they were headed than we have.
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Sunday in the Park with George

One art-form I’ve not written about at all on this blog is the musical — which is surprising, because I do believe that it’s the greatest art-form of them all. Done well (which I admit is not often) musicals combine so much: music, poetry, visual design, drama.

Among the writers of musicals, one stands head and shoulders over all the others, and that is Stephen Sondheim. Now in his eighties, his body of work goes back to 1957’s timeless West Side Story (as a lyricist only) and includes classics like Company (1970), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Into the Woods (1987). Usually I’d pick the latter as my favourite — by a short head — and I’m very excited about the film adaptation, which opens near us in three days. But I just finished watching Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and I wonder whether it might be even better.

1024px-Georges_Seurat_-_A_Sunday_on_La_Grande_Jatte_--_1884_-_Google_Art_Project

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What I’ve been listening to in 2013

Here is my now-traditional top-ten list of the albums I’ve listened to the most in the previous calendar year. (See previous entries for 2012, 20112010 and 2009.) Note that this is for 2013, not 2014 — I won’t know the final 2014 tallies for another few weeks, and I want to get this out before it’s a whole year late.

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I listen much more to whole albums than to individual tracks, so each year I pick the ten albums that I listened to the most (not counting compilations), as recorded on the two computers where I listen to most of my music. (So these counts don’t include listening in the car or on the iPod.) I limit the selection to no more than one album per artist, and skip albums that have featured in previous years. Then from each of those ten objectively selected albums, I subjectively pick one song that I feel is representative.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 1

It occurred to me recently that, since my Kindle lists books in the order of how recently I’ve had them open, the first few pages of its index are a useful reverse-chronological order record of what I’ve recently read (at least, once I discard the entries for books that I’ve not yet finished).

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Years ago, I used to keep a record of what books I’d read; I’m not sure why I stopped doing it, but I kind of regret it. Now that I have a record of my more recent reads, I thought it might be interesting to say a few words about each book. So here’s what I’ve read since I bought my new Kindle on 28 August (having had my old one stepped on).
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