Monday, 17 January 2011


Starting the New Year off, I am half-way through a favourite that is too new still to be old, but I confidently predict that it’s only a matter of time. I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series. I know, I know, so kill me, but I like kid-lit. It’s far more interesting than some of the stuff that’s on offer for grown ups – it deals with life-and-death mysteries of the cosmos, not does-my-bum-look-big-in-this dating crap[1], and there is a blessed lack of prejudice against the Spec Fic genres. I am sure I will cover the whole SF issue/ kid-lit issue at another date, but this is a re-read, so let’s move on...

In at number 2 is another re-read. Pratchett’s Going Postal / Making Money duo. I love Pratchett, it has to be said, and I think that his forays here into chapters is an interesting structural change, and probably one that helps the pacing of the novels. But another re-read here, nothing particularly new to say.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is the first new book I’ve read this year. It’s somewhat caustic in tone, and that added to the fact that it’s essentially a well written polemic, means that I doubt Goldacre is going to be making any converts soon. He’s preaching to the choir with this one, which I think is a shame. He makes some very good points about how media scares and shoddy journalism (which, as a journalist himself he acknowledges is more the fault of the gatekeepers and editors than the actual jobbing writers themselves) as well as “selective reporting” of studies and statistics by both big Pharma and Homeopathy advocates presents a misleading, if not dangerous world-view to the lay-person. He manages to avoid being patronising to his readers; though he does skirt that line very closely at times, and I wouldn’t want to read this coming from the opposite point of view. Obviously this is a subject that Goldacre cares passionately about, and while it’s always better to read something by a passionate author than by an apathetic one, his passion can sometimes spill over into being confrontational. Worth a read, but brace yourself...

Continuing with the science non-fiction, we have Max Permberton’s Trust me, I’m a (junior) Doctor. It reads like my SO’s diary from last year. Written in 2007, it’s still a scathingly accurate portrayal of what is now called the F1 (foundation 1) year – i.e. the first one after you finish at university – as a doctor in an inner city hospital. If you want to know what’s wrong with the NHS, and why it’s still worth supporting, read this. You will never complain that doctors are paid too much again.

First fiction book of the year! After a trip to Waterstones, where we each come back laden down with books, I finally get round to reading some Scarlett Thomas, and I start with PopCo. It’s a book about cryptography, marketing, toys, the tricks of creative business, advertising, teenage girls, and treasure hunting. It’s a good book, that I can say. Well written, well paced, with interesting characters (and a female protagonist), a mystery that will unravel slowly and deliciously, and a few very good and interesting things to say about business, brand identity, and, strangely, feminism for teens. However, there were two things that just grated; firstly, after reading the Goldacre just recently, I could not stomach the main character’s obsession with homeopathy. It may just be really bad timing, but it was painfully immersion breaking, and put me right off. Secondly, the conclusion felt rushed and unsatisfying. I can’t say too much without spoiling the mystery, but I was distinctly underwhelmed. Not because it left things without answers, but more because it left things without questions. The flashbacks and forays into the past make for a much more interesting mystery, overall. I shall certainly be reading more Thomas, but perhaps not for a while.

Where does it hurt?, another Pemberton offering is just as insightful and honest as the first, this time dealing with a community outreach project. It’s not so much a rip-the-lid-off exposé, but it might just change the way you see people; specifically the dispossessed. Pemberton’s work with the homeless, the drug addicts, the A&E drunks, is handled sensitively and thoughtfully, portraying a broken system, but not always broken people. It’s a little bleaker than the previous, but again, it’s an important kind of a book to read.

Phillipa Gregory’s Red Queen has been sitting on my bookshelf since the day it came out, and I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long to get round to reading it. It’s the story of Margaret Beaufort – Henry VII’s mother – and it’s as gripping, well written and un-put-downable as any of Gregory’s oeuvre. The best thing about her, as a writer, is that she lets history do the work for her. The stories and characters she writes about are left to shine through without too much embellishment, save that which makes a better story. There is, obviously, a certain amount of conjecture and speculation, but the way she writes, it’s so hard to tell. She manages to create convincing and importantly consistent portrayals of historical characters, by telling their stories simply, and with the only frills being on petticoats. I enjoyed Red Queen so much, I had to go back and re-read its predecessor, White Queen.

[1] Not counting fic aimed at the Teen Girl demographic. Chic Lit is only a grown up version of this, only without the former’s sole redeeming feature of preparing girls for their first kiss/period/bra/forays into romance and social life etc.

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