Welsh Reading Roundup

What I did on my holidays: I read ten books. (And a whole bunch of short fiction, but that’s for a later post.)

And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts
Autism’s False Prophets, Paul Offit
Bad Science, Ben Goldacre

Three pieces of non-fiction, on aspects of medicine ranging further than the science. And the Band Played On is a classic account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US, covering the terrifying bureaucratic and political slowdowns of the government response while more and more men fall ill with mysterious immune diseases. It’s a long book, which feels even longer because the lessons never get learned, and while I was most interested in the science, it was the aspects of gay politics and culture that I learned most about. Autism’s False Prophets and Bad Science cover similar ground, with the former specifically about the bad science surrounding autism and the desperate search for any treatment which leads to the use of often damaging therapies and the current vaccine scare, and Goldacre’s book is a more wide-ranging primer on evidence-based medicine and the problems of media coverage of science. the Offit is a fine book, but more specialised and a little American-centric, while the Goldacre is not only a good layman’s introduction to a useful branch of science, but also extremely funny about a subject which is extremely depressing.

The Case of the Imaginary Detective, Karen Joy Fowler
Dreamers of the Day, Mary Doria Russell

Two mainstream novels of genre interest, both ultimately a little disappointing. The only previous Fowler I read was The Jane Austen Book Club, which failed on both the plot and the meta level, because I hadn’t read any Jane Austen. The Case of the Imaginary Detective (or Wit’s End, for you US-types) works much better. Rima Lanisell goes to stay with her godmother Addison Early, the famous mystery writer, whose works include a fictionalised version of Rima’s father, Bim, and the local isolated cult – or are they fictional? There’s lots of fun to be had with the ideas about fans, fan-created works, how fiction and reality collide (sometimes in Real Person Slash!), but the underlying story is slight, and while Rima is appealing enough, the other characters are pretty thin. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but it’s pretty disposable.

Dreamers of the Day is only disappointing when compared to Mary Doria Russell’s previous novels, as both The Sparrow and A Thread of Grace were powerful, moving stories, with character deaths which actually made me cry (something which only a handful of books have ever done). Dreamers of the Day gave me the same sense of foreboding, knowing that the story of Agnes Shanklin and her life-changing trip to Cairo during the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference was unlikely to end happily ever after. And it doesn’t, although not in the tragic way of Father Sandoz or Renzo Leoni, but in a gentler way – Agnes escapes the control of her mother only when tragedy befalls her family, and while the trip to Cairo certainly changes her and her life, it seems too little too late. My reservations about the book stem from the coverage of the Cairo Conference, which is not the story that Russell is interested in telling but is one which is more interesting to me, and gets a fairly cursory treatment for an issue as large as drawing up the boundaries of the Middle East as we know it. I’m also not convinced the narration from a land beyond the grave adds that much.

Song of Time, Ian R. MacLeod
The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness
Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Robert
The Night Sessions, Ken MacLeod

Four SF novels from 2008 (or early 2009, in the case of the Roberts), and all worthy of your attention. While I like Ian MacLeod’s short fiction, I have previously failed to finish The Light Ages, my only attempt at his novel-length fiction, and now I feel slightly guilty that a book as fine as Song of Time is coming out from a small press and may not get the size of readership it deserves. I largely agree with Niall’s earlier review – I too was guessing at the identity of Adam only to be completely wrong, and the revelation feels like it would be unsatisfying in the hands of a less skilled writer, but works perfectly here. I think it’s time I gave The Light Ages another shot.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is hard to say anything about without giving away the plot, but it’s a fairly standard YA coming-of-age story done very nicely in an interesting setting of colonising the frontier which happens to be another planet, and with some thoughtful gender roles. The protagonist is a little too stupid and irritating at the start, but that does leave a lot of room for character growth, and while the constant interruption of the villains just when we’re about to learn an important plot point starts to grate, it still rushes along quickly and doesn’t seem 500 pages long. The biggest problem is that it is book one of three, and I would like to read book two right now. (It’s also the third book I read last week to feature a cute dog, which does make a nice change from all the cats.)

Yellow Blue Tibia is probably the strangest of the books I read last week, but in a good way. A story of SF writers in the post-war Soviet Union, who wrote a story about aliens which starts to come true, it is narrated by an ironic, alcoholic and elderly Russian writer and reads like one of the more farcical Coen brothers films, although this might be the effect of a recent viewing of Burn After Reading. There’s even a strange love story going on, in between the jokes about Scientology and testicles and the SF plot, and it’s refreshingly different from almost anything else I have read this year.

I liked The Night Sessions a lot when I was reading it, partly because I had been wanting to read some proper SF and this was one of the few books I had with space elevators and robots and AIs and all those skiffy things, but upon reflection I’m not sure it’s as good as I thought it was. The plot is a fairly linear crime story about preventing terrorism in 2037, only it’s a future where the result of the “Faith Wars” started by America is that religion is driven out of public life. It’s an intriguing premise that doesn’t quite go into enough depth, especially when the action is mostly set in future Scotland and I want to hear about all the rest of the world, and the characters aren’t that deep either. It’s good, but it feels a bit MacLeod by the numbers.

8 thoughts on “Welsh Reading Roundup

  1. that’s not ten! (yeah. I know, long book still to discuss- really I am just waiting for obama to be president and am trying to pass the time.)

  2. Whoops, that is only nine, but the tenth was a reread of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and I don’t really have anything interesting to say about, except that it just confirms my feeling that the previous generation are far more interesting to read about than Harry and co.

  3. And the Band Played On is a classic account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US, covering the terrifying bureaucratic and political slowdowns of the government response

    Funnily enough, I just attended a lecture by Harold Jaffe about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, which he punctuated with clips from the TV movie based on this book. (Which, tangentially, is one of those films where you end up recognising almost every actor in every scene — Ian McKellan! Lily Tomlin! Alan Alda! Richard Gere! And many more.) There was a clip of a CDC meeting with various blood transfusion organizations which was indeed terrifying, although Jaffe caveated it by saying it was the least accurate of the clips he played. As you say, it seems that any time an actual response was required, progress was grindingly slow. That said, the picture he painted of the original epidemiological investigation was a positive one, in that they were able to produce case characteristics and recommendations years before the virus itself was identified. Interesting to listen to, anyway.

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