The Twelve Reads of Christmas: The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shotin a pear tree.

Continuing The Twelve Reads of Christmas, today I’m reviewing my first non-fiction book in the series: The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss.

I really wanted to love this book. What’s not to like about a book that suggests you should work less and live your life more, and promises to teach you how to bring that happy state of affairs about? We can all agree that you shouldn’t wait till you’re retired before you start living, right?
Ferriss’s argument is that we should make life a series of mini-retirements, spending quality time on fun and fulfilling pursuits, not remain stuck in the 9-to-5 grind. We should establish an internet business that runs itself to fund our new improved lifestyle, and if we are an employee, we need to switch to working remotely instead of being tied to the office, so we can work from anywhere in the world while we party.
Ferriss himself has done exactly this, and has an impressive list of achievements to show from his new lifestyle, including acting, dancing, motorbike racing, learning other languages and enjoying much martial arts success.
For instance, he won a gold medal at the Chinese Kickboxing National Championships, after four weeks of training. He achieved this with a two-pronged assault. First, he lost a massive amount of weight by dehydrating just before the weigh-in, then rehydrating before the fighting the next day. As a result he fought in a weight-class three below his actual class. Secondly, he exploited a technical loophole that disqualified anyone who fell off the fighting platform three times in a round, and won all his fights by just pushing people off till he was declared the winner.
To me, there’s such a difference between being able to say you’ve won a gold medal, and actually earning one, that reading this made me feel I was in the hands of a snake oil salesman.
To be fair, the book does what it says on the tin: he outlines, in often exhaustive detail, the steps he took to become a free-range member of what he calls the “New Rich”. There are lots of references to books and online resources, many of them on his own website, aimed at helping the reader duplicate his methods.
And many of his points make perfect sense. For instance, most people realise that working from home (if you have the kind of job that allows it) is vastly more efficient than working in the office with all its distractions, meetings and telephone interruptions – not to mention the time saved by removing the daily commute from the equation.
The part I object to is when he gets down to the nitty gritty of how to achieve a permanent working-from-home solution. He outlines a step-by-step plan for employees to prove to their bosses how much more efficient they are at working from home in order to gain permission to work remotely all the time. The plan suggests, among other things, that they should deliberately be less productive on the days they are in the office so as to make their output at home look even better.
And of course the whole point of working from home all the time is so you can travel and win kickboxing championships when your boss thinks you’re working.
Not that he’s suggesting you shouldn’t do the work – see the aforementioned point about how much can be achieved in smaller amounts of time when you’re free of distractions. Plus you can always outsource some of your work to “Virtual Assistants” in India, at a much cheaper rate than doing it yourself. Who knew?
So yeah. I really wanted to like this book. Maybe I’m just not the right audience. I’m sure some go-getting entrepreneurial type could get a lot out of it. And he does have some good ideas for cutting distractions and focusing on more productive behaviours instead of just being “busy”.
But I ended up feeling vaguely dirty for having read it.

So, for something much more wholesome – the fifth day of Christmas features a blast from the past: Five On A Treasure Island by Enid Blyton.

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

On the third day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Continuing my review series The Twelve Reads of Christmas, for the third day I’m reviewing Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty.

I love Moriarty’s books. This was her first, way back in 2003 (Baby Duck was just a hatchling!), but it doesn’t read like a first novel. She has fabulous control of voice, and can be laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving all on the same page. When she changes point of view, you know it immediately from the differing word choices and sentence constructions.
Three Wishes begins with a prologue which switches seamlessly between several different narrators – an uptight mother, a waitress, a random guy on a blind date – all telling the story of a crazy incident at a restaurant, where three sisters – triplets! – were having a great night out celebrating their birthday, until suddenly a huge argument blew up, ending in one sister being stabbed in her very pregnant stomach with a fork and another collapsing in a faint and breaking her jaw. These different narrators are clearly differentiated and nicely observed.
But why did this happy occasion come to such an abrupt and violent end? As the triplets’ mother asks, “what in the world started it?”. That’s the question the novel sets out to answer.
“You could argue that it started thirty-four years ago”, Chapter One begins, when the girls’ parents met, had unprotected sex and became young unwilling parents. At least, that’s how Gemma, the commitment-phobic drifter sister, would put it.
“Cat would argue that if she was going to start with their conception, then why not go back through their entire family tree? Why not go back to the apes? Why not start with the Big Bang? I guess I did really, Gemma would chortle – Mum and Dad’s big bang. Oh funn-y, Cat would say. Let’s look at it logically, Lyn would interrupt. Quite clearly, it started the night of the spaghetti.
And Lyn, quite naturally, would be right.”
 – all of which give an amusing insight into the sisters’ relationships. Cat, desperate for a baby and dumped by her husband on “the night of the spaghetti”, would argue till her last breath, just for the fun of it. Lyn, the uptight perfectionist, is always right, though even her “perfect” life has its problems, including a teenage stepdaughter. Not as big as the problems sweet dreamy Gemma has been hiding from them all, though.
The sisters’ relationship is at the heart of the novel, full of the love and hate, old arguments and remembered injuries, passionate loyalty and childhood memories, that bind any siblings. Moriarty does family relationships in a marvellously entertaining but very real way. You’re nodding along, seeing things you recognise even as you’re laughing at the over-the-top antics of the trio.
The chapters alternate between the sisters’ points of view, starting with Cat’s and the infamous night of the spaghetti. The story then weaves its way through the tangle of their lives till it arrives once more at the restaurant of the start, only this time we know what’s going on and how important this night is for all three.
There are also amusing email exchanges between the sisters, and funny glimpses of the sisters’ past, little vignettes narrated by complete strangers about a moment when the lives of the girls influenced their own all unknowingly. This nicely illustrates the theme flowing through the novel of the interconnectedness of people’s lives, as well as being a clever way of introducing family history without interrupting the present-day story.
We get to know each of the sisters very well and care deeply about what happens to them. They are warm, funny, and loving – as well as occasionally bitchy, mean and point-scoring. Very real, in other words. There are developments in the story that felt inevitable, as well as twists you never saw coming, and the plot races along, full of the energy that sparks between the sisters whenever they’re together.
It’s a great read; often funny, sometimes poignantly real. If you like stories about relationships and the give-and-take of life, this is one birthday dinner you won’t want to miss.

Coming on the fourth day of Christmas, some non-fiction for a change of pace: The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss.

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

On the second day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.
Sorry, but I’ve had that damn carol stuck in my head for weeks, so I’m sharing the earworms around. Today, for the second day of Christmas, I’m reviewing Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan.

Two Boys Kissing could hardly be more different from One Shot, in both style and substance. At its heart are two boys, Craig and Harry, making an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s longest kiss. They used to be a couple, but now are just friends. Around them and woven through the story of the record attempt are the stories of other boys: Peter and Neil, who have been going out for a year; Avery and Ryan, who have only just met and are exploring the exciting possibilities of new romance; and Cooper who, with no one to love, despises himself more than anyone else possibly could.
Levithan uses these relationships to explore love and friendship in all their messy varieties. There are supportive parents, oblivous ones and angry, disapproving ones. There are the usual teenage problems of coping with bullying, finding acceptance among your peers and navigating those first awkward romances, all with the added difficulty of being gay in a straight world. There is even a transgender character, who was born a girl but is now a gay boy.
We are a long way from the usual teen romance fare.
Having said that, though, Drama Duck, our resident teen romance junkie, loved this book. She needed a little hint to understand who was telling the story, but once she was up to speed with that she raced through it.
Levithan has a beautiful, lyrical style and a mastery of the telling detail. The story of the record-breaking kiss is the story arc the rest of the book revolves around, but he manages to drop hints of the past and future of the characters, so you feel as if you’re seeing a slice of the lives of real people who live on outside the confines of the novel.
The story is narrated by the ghosts or spirits of those who died in the AIDS epidemic, but not in a woo-woo supernatural way. There are no ghost sightings in the novel. The narrators are more like a Greek chorus, who watch the lives of these boys with both compassion and envy, and tell their stories with delight at their passion and energy even while mourning their own lost opportunities. The tone is elegaic and beautiful:
“If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely that you knew us well. We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out any more.”
I found that reference to a quilt particularly compelling, having once seen one of those enormous memorial quilts, contributed to by hundreds of people who’d lost a loved one. That’s what I mean by Levithan’s mastery of the telling detail – that one reference carries so much history and emotion, a whole story in itself.
It’s a beautiful book, and an important book. Not the kind of book I usually read, and certainly not lighthearted entertainment, but a story that stays with you a long time. Highly recommended.

Next up, the third day of Christmas and Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty.

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: One Shot by Lee Child

Welcome to The Twelve Reads of Christmas, a series of book reviews based on the classic Christmas carol. Today we start with the first day of Christmas (maybe a day late, ssshhh, there was pudding to eat and presents to open yesterday) – but instead of a partridge in a pear tree, I’m reviewing One Shot by Lee Child.

Some of you may have seen the recent movie Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise. Oh, the travesty! Reacher’s meant to be a big ugly customer about 6 foot 5. Tom Cruise is at least 8 inches too short and waaay too pretty to play Reacher. Casting decisions aside, that movie was basically the novel One Shot, with a few things about the climax changed. Not a bad movie, actually, if you can overlook Tom’s … er … shortcomings.
And the Reacher books are not bad books, either. There’s a whole bunch of them now, and they’ve made Lee Child a big name in thriller writing. I’ve read quite a few, and mainly enjoyed them, though a couple had violence that verged on torture porn, a little too graphic for my taste. Performed by the bad guys, of course, not by Reacher. Though he’s very comfortable with violence, Reacher’s no sadist.
In fact, Reacher’s just about perfect – the guy that every guy wants to be, and every girl wants to go to bed with (even if he looks nothing like Tom Cruise). He’s a loner, travelling the US on a whim, never staying long anywhere. No commitments, no responsibilities, no phone. An ex-military police investigator, living off the grid and loving it. The guy doesn’t even carry a suitcase: he wears the same clothes for three days, then throws them away and buys a new outfit.
Living the dream indeed.
He’s unbeatable in a fight, smarter than everyone else in the room, a crack shot, and an amateur psychologist who can figure out any bad guy’s motivations and movements, thereby solving any crime – the perfect man. Whatever the situation, he always knows exactly what to do. He’s what writers call “a Mary Sue” – that character so beloved of his or her author that he’s given no flaws. He’s the embodiment of what the author would like to be, perfect in every way.
After a few books Reacher’s perfection can become a little tiresome, but the individual novels rattle along at such a pace there’s no time to do anything but strap in and enjoy the ride, and One Shot’s no exception.
It’s written in a spare, no-nonsense style, very heavy on detail, but nothing flowery. Just the facts, ma’am. The first sentence is typically brief. It’s simply:
I’m always interested in first sentences. They don’t come any shorter than this! The next sentence builds a little on this, adding one more piece of detail. Then the next builds on the piece before:
“Friday. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through a city.”
The whole book is like this, with details – lots and lots of details! – accumulating on each other to form pictures. And you go along with it, accepting the overload, because the pictures Child is building are intriguing. Already by the third sentence you know someone’s up to no good. Why is someone trying to move through the city unobserved?
Here’s another example from later in the first scene:
“He opened the minivan’s sliding rear door and leaned inside and unfolded a blanket and revealed the rifle. It was a Springfield MIA Super Match autoloader, American walnut stock, heavy premium barrel, ten shot box magazine, chambered for the .308.”
The rest of this paragraph continues with the gun’s history, its uses, accuracy, and the type of ammunition it’s loaded with. So much detail might be boring, except you already know this gun’s out of place. The shooter is a sniper in a parking station. So you read on, anxious to find out what happens, knowing it can’t be good.
The detail compels you to trust the narrator – he knows so much about guns, he’s giving you all these facts. He has authority. So you settle into the story, feeling you’re in safe hands.
And whatever you think about the improbability of Reacher’s character, you can trust Child to spin a good yarn. As shown by those opening sentences, he knows how to snag the reader’s interest, and then hold it.
Our mystery sniper shoots down five civilians seemingly at random, leaving so much evidence behind that the police soon have a suspect in custody. And that’s where Reacher comes in: though the suspect refuses otherwise to talk, he asks his defence to get Reacher.
Which raises an interesting conundrum. Why does he ask for Reacher when Reacher is one of the few people in the world who knows he’s committed an almost identical crime once before?
The answer to this riddle leads Reacher through a story full of fascinating twists and turns. A great read if you like your thrillers to keep you eagerly turning the pages and your heroes to be … well, perfect. (And not at all like Tom Cruise.)
Stay tuned for the second day of Christmas and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan.

Hope you had a fabulous Christmas!

First impressions

Like people, a story only has one chance to make a good first impression. I love a good first sentence, especially if it’s a funny one. Here’s a great one from Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia:

“On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.”

With an intro like that, how could I resist? Nor was I disappointed. If you like your action flavoured with werewolves, vampires and lots of snark, it’s a good fun read.

And then there’s the opening of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, which I reread recently:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

How can the army possibly use a 75-year-old recruit? Immediately you’re drawn in. The answer is very thoughtful as well as highly entertaining. I enjoyed it even more the second time round. If you like science fiction and you haven’t read it yet, grab yourself a copy ASAP. You won’t be disappointed.

How about you? Read any good books lately?

Finding the floor: Out of the Dark by David Weber

Finding the floor … my ongoing project to tackle the teetering tower of terror, otherwise known as the to-be-read pile. Up this time is Out of the Dark by David Weber.

This one was actually a loving wifely purchase for my beloved. He loves David Weber. Lots of battles, aliens, guns galore. But the blurb on the back sounded interesting so I snitched it off the pile and read it before him.

And then I had to wait for him to read it so I could fully express my outrage at the BIG FAT CHEATING CHEAT of an ending.

Ahem. Anyway, as I was saying, the blurb sounded interesting. Earth has been conquered by aliens, and a few pockets of survivors are putting up what resistance they can. Many of these we only get to know briefly before the aliens stomp them out of existence. Resistance is indeed futile, if glorious, in most cases. Sergeant Steve and a small band of soldiers are trying to organise survivors in the Balkans. Back home in the US, former marine Dave and his brother-in-law Rob, who must surely be the most insanely well-prepared-for-the-apocalyse guys in the history of the universe, are building a network of resistance across the southern states.

So far so bleak for the human race. The aliens are extremely advanced, though they almost call off the whole invasion on arrival when they realise how advanced humanity’s technology is. Their last intel was from the Battle of Agincourt, and things have changed just a little since then! They aren’t allowed to take over worlds as advanced as Earth, but fortunately for the story the alien leaders are crooked enough to ignore the galactic rules and so the battle begins.

The only saving grace for the humans is that since the aliens are used to fighting savages with spears, their armour isn’t built to withstand modern weaponry. And boy, what a lot of modern weaponry there is. Weber frequently stops the action for long – as in two pages long – descriptions of weapons. Every new gun, tank, whatever, gets described in exhaustive and loving detail. It’s like weapons porn for gun enthusiasts.

No problem there – I just skimmed through these bits and got back to the story, which was highly involving. Certainly a page-turner! The action built and built, the stakes got higher and higher, and I was on the edge of my seat, wondering how the hell the humans were going to avoid total annihilation, and then …

and then …

Well, I don’t like to give spoilers. The back of the edition I read certainly didn’t give anything away, but let me quote you from the blurb on the hardcover, which I found online:

“[things] look bleak. The aliens have definitely underestimated human tenacity–but no amount of heroism can endlessly hold off overwhelming force.

Then, emerging from the mountains and forests of Eastern Europe, new allies present themselves to the ragtag human resistance. Predators, creatures of the night, human in form but inhumanly strong. Long Enemies of humanity… until now. Because now is the time to defend Earth.”

You can probably guess from that, right? (And what sort of blurb gives away a Major Major Plot Point like that??) When the first vague kind of off-hand reference to something paranormal came up I ignored it. Nope, not going to happen. You’re imagining things. This is not that kind of book. This was late in the story, and it had been straightforward, real-world, shoot-em-up stuff all the way. No way was it suddenly going to jump the shark and veer completely off the road into the paranormal underbrush.

Except it did.

I still can’t decide whether it was a brilliant move or a terrible deus ex machina. But it certainly felt like cheating at the time. I thought I was reading science fiction, and all of a sudden I wasn’t. Your mileage may vary, of course. The Carnivore had no problem with it, though he was surprised at the change of direction. He thinks I’m too critical.

Perhaps I am, but a lot of the problem has to do with expectations. You don’t expect paranormal elements to suddenly crop up near the end of a straight science fiction story. It feels like cheating to fix a “real-world” problem by whipping out a magic wand. If there’d been clues earlier on that such things were possible it wouldn’t have felt as if it were coming out of left field so much. Maybe that’s why the hardcover had that spoilery blurb, to try to overcome that feeling. But it would have been better to address the problem in the story rather than on the back of the book.

Finding the Floor: Chasing Odysseus by SD Gentill

Remember Finding the Floor, my project to read my way through my terrible tottering tower of a to-be-read pile? I’ve been working on it, just a little slow to report on my efforts.

One of the first books to make its way out of the pile was Chasing Odysseus by SD Gentill. The author is a friend of one of my oldest and dearest friends, so I was keen to read it. It’s exciting when someone you kinda sorta almost know actually gets published – Look Ma! Real people can make it in the publishing world! I had a sneak peek at the first few chapters when Sulari had it posted on Authonomy, and thought the premise was a good one.

Basically, it’s the story of Odysseus’ famous journey home from the Trojan War, but told from the perspective of four siblings who are chasing him. They are herders who kept the Trojans supplied through the ten-year siege, but are now fighting to clear their tribe’s name after the fall of Troy. The surviving Trojans assume the herders betrayed them, so now it’s up to Hero and her three brothers to find Odysseus, the real villain behind the fall of Troy, and force him to claim responsibility for his act.

And so we have a wonderful demonstration of the difference that point of view can make. Seeing Odysseus’ well-known adventures through the eyes of Hero and her brothers puts an entirely new slant on them. Needless to say, Odysseus doesn’t come off as quite the hero Homer makes him out to be!

Each chapter starts with a quote from The Odyssey. It’s great fun to see these familiar episodes transformed by the “real story” of Hero and her brothers. I particularly enjoyed the part on Circe’s island. In the Homeric version Odysseus is saved by divine intervention. In fact it’s the quick thinking of Machaon, one of Hero’s brothers, that frees them all from the enchantress’s clutches, in a way that makes Odysseus look a complete fool.

The only divine intervention we see in the novel is by Pan, god of the Herdsmen, who provides a magical boat for the siblings. None of the main Greek pantheon make an appearance, though I hope that may be coming in the next books, since Hero spends such a lot of time praying to them. Her excessive devotion to prayer annoys her brothers, and I grew a little tired of it myself, so I hope it will prove to have a purpose later on.

What the next books in the trilogy will cover I’m not sure, since the story is satisfyingly complete in this book. But that’s a good thing. Too often lately I’ve been reading merrily through a book, only to have that sinking feeling hit me: Oh noes! There aren’t enough pages left to wrap this up – another case of storius interruptus!!

I know some authors and publishers think it’s the kiss of death to put “Book 1 in the Such-and-such Trilogy” on the front cover. What if people don’t like Book 1 so they avoid Book 2? What if they see Book 2 on the shelf but they haven’t read Book 1 and it’s not there so they don’t buy Book 2? What if – gasp! – they won’t buy any of them till the trilogy’s complete because they can’t stand waiting a year between books?

While I can see the validity of these concerns, as a reader I hate realising when I’m almost finished a book that there must be others to come. Not that it makes any practical difference; it’s more an attitude thing. If I know going in the story won’t be finished at the end of the book, I’m prepared. If I assume it’s a standalone and it’s not I feel ripped off.

Ahem. I’ll just hop off my soapbox now. Back to Chasing Odysseus … None of that applies in this case, since the cover announces it’s the first in the Hero Trilogy. Plus – Bonus Points!! – the story arc is actually complete in this book. Complete story + promise of more goodness to come = happiness all round.

One thing I did wonder was: why three brothers? One was the sensible eldest brother, one was the wild and reckless brother, and one was the … well, just the other brother. He didn’t seem to have a lot to do, and what he did could have been combined into the character of one of the others. Perhaps he has a bigger role in the later books. I did sometimes forget which was which, since they were all rather alike. Still, that’s a small quibble; the kind of thing the writer side of my brain thinks about even as the reader side is getting swept along by the story.

Chasing Odysseus is great fun for someone familiar with the events of The Odyssey. For someone who isn’t it would be a good introduction to the world of the ancient Greek legends. Sulari writes well and keeps the story moving along. I just hope she also writes quickly – I want to know what happens next!

Finding the floor: Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris

Finding the floor … or tackling the teetering tower of terror, otherwise known as the to-be-read pile. First it was a shelf, then two, then a neat pile stacked against the wall. Now there are tottering piles thirty books high. There must be hundreds of books there, cluttering up my floor and my life.

Hi, my name is Marina and I have a book-buying addiction. I can hear the authors among you yelling hoo-RAH! Bring on the book-buying addicts! And as addictions go it’s fairly innocuous, I admit. But it will take me years to get through that many books. Some have been there years already – some so long I’ve lost all desire to read them, which is crazy. I couldn’t even tell you what was on the bottom of some of those piles. Yes, I love books, but this is getting ridiculous. Time to tackle that monster!

Hence my new project – finding the floor in that scary corner of the room. Whittling down that overblown pile by reading one a week and reporting my progress here. Accountability is such a good motivator!

And to kick off the project, a book that spent barely any time on the pile, Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris. (That’s part of the problem – always reading the latest acquisitions and never getting to the older stuff – but I reserve the right to read in any order that takes my fancy.)

Dead in the Family is the tenth in the Sookie Stackhouse series about a telepathic waitress in small-town America and her continuing adventures with vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures. I’ve mentioned before on the blog how much fun this series is, and I dived into this one with every expectation of my usual huge enjoyment.

Let’s just say that Dead and Gone remains my favourite of the series. This one was very slow to start. Almost half the book passed in small incidents and recapping previous events. Halfway through I was wondering “when is the Big Thing going to happen? Where is the main storyline?” Sookie seemed to be spending a lot of time thinking, sunbaking, going to work, having lunch with friends and family – all the things that make up her regular life – but without any underlying storyline driving the plot along. Something did eventually happen, but it wasn’t really big enough to hang a whole book off. So instead of one main plot and several subplots, it felt like there were just a lot of subplots.

All this sounds as if I didn’t enjoy it, which is not the case. It still had a lot of elements I love about the Sookie novels, particularly Sookie’s pragmatism and the juxtaposition of her nice Southern gal manners against the monstrous misbehaviour of almost everyone around her. That’s the undead for you. No social skills. There’s humour in the way she stands up to the monsters and scolds them into better behaviour, but a serious side too. She forces them to remember their long-lost humanity.

Harris has Sookie in an uncharacteristically sombre mood for most of the book, which affects the overall tone. Bad things happen in most of the books, but usually Sookie retains her innate optimism. This time she’s still recovering from the terrible events of the previous book, and it seems to have changed her character. I guess it’s a good thing for the protagonist of a long-running series to change as the series progresses, otherwise the series can stagnate. But now there’s a manic feeling to her bubbliness, and she’s changed to the point of trying to organise the death of a vampire who’s causing trouble for her boyfriend. A rather different Sookie to the sunny character of the first books. It will be interesting to see how far Harris takes her.

So yes, I’m still looking forward to the next one, even though this one felt more like the characters getting their breath back from the last one than a whole new story. I think there’s still plenty of places Harris could take this series – I just wouldn’t recommend starting with this one.

Favourite books of 2010

I read 75 books last year, including non-fiction, fantasy, sf, young adult, paranormal and the odd general fiction or thriller. The bulk of them were young adult or paranormal, which are two genres I didn’t read only a couple of years ago. I guess I got tired of my usual diet of epic fantasy, and went looking for something new.

Nevertheless, one of my favourites last year was the biggest, fattest, most epic-y epic fantasy I’ve read in years, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.

If epic fantasy is your thing, don’t be put off by the stupendous size of this book. So what if you give yourself tennis elbow just holding it up? It’s worth it, I promise you.

Sanderson’s worldbuilding is fascinating. He has the same wonderful knack as Glenda Larke for creating a truly unique ecosystem. His world is ravaged by huge regular storms, which has shaped the way people live and all the creatures that exist. There are also tantalising hints of world history, and you get the sense this is a real world, with all the complexity that entails.

His main character is Kaladin, currently a slave, formerly a talented warrior, who is embroiled in an ongoing war in a very dangerous role. He is part of a crew that carries a bridge for the regular soldiers to cross the chasms that snake through the unusual battlegrounds where the war is taking place. Bridgemen drop like flies all around him, and his struggles to keep his crew alive and find a better life for them make compelling reading. So compelling that I did my usual thing of skipping all over the book. I got so caught up in Kaladin’s chapters that I skipped the ones dealing with the other characters and read Kaladin’s through to the end first, then came back and read the whole thing again in proper sequence.

Not that the stories of the other main characters aren’t interesting – far from it! It’s just that Kaladin was the best-drawn character in a book full of great characters. A win-win situation, really. The only downside is I have since discovered this is the first book in a projected series of ten, which means I’ll be waiting a long time for the end of the story, á la Robert Jordan and George RR Martin. Let’s hope Sanderson is a faster writer than either of those guys. At least Book 1 did have a very satisfying conclusion, while leaving some of the larger series questions open.

The other real stand-out of the year for me was Liar by Justine Larbalestier, a Young Adult which I’ve already reviewed here. A truly mindblowing book.

I read lots of other fun YA too, including some of the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan and the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy. Skulduggery is a detective, and the books are fast-paced, full of magic and mayhem. The really fun part is that Skulduggery is dead – he’s a skeleton, and a wisecracking one at that.

Derek Landy visited Australia in 2010, promoting the (I think) fifth book in the series, and we went to see him at our local children’s bookshop. He was very entertaining, much like his books. Demon Duck asked him where he got the idea for a skeleton detective.

“Out of my incredible brain!” he said.

I found some new authors on my visit to Aussiecon in September, and one of them was Tansy Rayner Roberts.

Her Power and Majesty is the first in the Creature Court trilogy, and I’m eagerly awaiting the second instalment, due out in April, I think. This book starts with a bang – naked guy falls from the sky, off his face on drugs, observed by our country bumpkin heroine, who’s just arrived in the big city to take up an apprenticeship as a seamstress. When it turned out she was the only one who could see him because of her hitherto-unsuspected magic, I thought I knew where this book was going. But no – instead of becoming her mentor, he takes her magic with her blessing.

And that was just the first surprise this book had in store. Later ones were much more jarring, so much so I had to reread pages several times to be sure what I thought had just happened really had. Roberts isn’t afraid to inflict suffering on her characters, and there are some pretty dark and dangerous ones in this book. Also lust, betrayal, a strong heroine and a very strange and as-yet unexplained adversary. I was so eager for more that when the book ended I had to read the whole glossary, something I never usually even look at, just so I could stay in the rich world of Aufleur a little longer.

Another world I like to visit is that of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels. It’s southern USA, only changed by the discovery that vampires are real. They “came out of the coffin” when Japan invented a synthetic blood they could live off, and the revelation has had profound political and cultural effects on society. It’s also made Sookie’s life a lot more complicated than it used to be. She’s a telepath, so not only are the vampires after her body, they’re after her mind as well.

Dead to the World is my favourite of the series so far. I could tell you the telepathic barmaid is a great character with a distinctive voice (true), and each book in the series adds new and interesting complications to the overall story (also true), but why do I really love this series?

Hot romance! Gorgeous vampire lovers!

I know, I’m shallow.

And this book is my favourite because it’s the one where Eric, the powerful (and hot – did I mention the hot vampire lovers?) regional overlord, who’s been lusting after Sookie for three books now, loses his memory. Instead of being a menacing (but hot!) figure, he has a complete personality change and becomes endearingly dependent on Sookie, who finds him running down the road near her house in the middle of the night. It’s romantic. The hot sex doesn’t hurt either. Ahem.

Okaaay. Moving right along.

Sex as oppression this time. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff was a very interesting exploration of what it means to be a wife in a polygamous marriage. The novel actually tells the stories of two nineteenth wives – a woman in a present-day Mormon sect accused of murdering her husband, and the based-on-historical-fact story of Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of one of the founders of the Mormon church, and her struggle to end polygamy.

The modern story is narrated by a teenage boy. His mother is the nineteenth wife, accused of murdering his father, neither of whom he has seen since he was thrown out of the sect at 14 and left to fend for himself. This part of the story follows his efforts to prove his mother’s innocence, no easy task given the sect’s attitude to outsiders.

Woven together the two stories present a damning indictment of the practice of polygamy. It was fascinating to read but also depressing to consider how much misery is caused by men using religion as an excuse for not keeping their libidos under control.

On the non-fiction front my favourites were two books I’ve already discussed on the blog.

Get Everything Done by Mark Forster is a great tool for procrastinators, as discussed here. Even works for procrastinators’ children. Drama Duck finds the oven timer trick very helpful for getting homework done.

The other one is The Sweet Poison Quit Plan by David Gillespie, which I discussed here.

You know how people talk about “books that changed my life”? Well, this one really did! If someone had told me at the beginning of 2010 that I would give up peppermint chocolate that year I would have laughed.

Me? Give up peppermint chocolate?? Inconceivable!

Yet I not only did, I don’t even miss it. In the process I also gave up headaches every morning and about four kilos. Not a bad deal, I say!

I wish I could make everyone in the world read this book (David Gillespie probably wouldn’t mind that either!). The facts it presents are quite scary, and make a compelling argument against eating sugar. Anyone whose New Year’s resolutions revolve around healthier eating or losing weight could do worse than have a look at it.

There were lots of other good books on the reading list, but those were the stand-outs. I have plenty of happy reading to look forward to this year as well, since the To Be Read pile has hardly shrunk. Books just seem to find their way into the house, and I’m always looking for new things to read. Does anyone have any recommendations for me of something they’ve enjoyed?

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Q: How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Fish.

The astounding Liar by Justine Larbalestier reminds me of this old joke. Not because the book doesn’t make sense, but because it constantly jolts your reality, forcing you to adapt to a new idea of what the story is about. Just when you get comfortable – bam! – it does it again. And again. And again. By the time you get to the end of the book you’re reeling from the constant body blows as the story keeps shifting.

Liar is a hard book to talk about, because it’s such a mind-blowing ride you don’t want to give anything away and spoil the experience for others. It’s narrated by Micah, a girl who admits she lies all the time, but is promising to tell us, the readers, the real truth. Larbalestier takes the concept of an unreliable narrator to such extremes it leaves you wondering how she managed to keep track of her slippery, twisting story. It does your head in just trying to keep up when you’re reading it – imagine holding it all in your head long enough to write it!

Every time you think you know what’s going on, Micah begins a new section by admitting that half of what she just told you isn’t true. Now she’s going to tell you what really happened. Only when you get to the next section it’s “well, actually, I know I said that was the truth, but, no, really – this is what happened”.

And you just keep on falling for it. Well, I did, anyway. And that’s what makes this book so clever. All fiction is lies, isn’t it, by definition. Fiction is made-up stories. When we read fiction, we agree to go along with whatever version of reality the author is presenting. It’s part of the deal – you tell me a good story, and I’ll accept for the moment that talking caterpillars exist, that other planets are populated by alien species, whatever it takes.

So we come to fiction happy to swallow the biggest fattest porkies an author can come up with, in the name of entertainment. We expect to be lied to. But the unwritten rule is that the author must present the lies as truth and we’ll accept it as such for the duration of the book.

So when a book like this comes along, where the narrator keeps pulling the rug out from under us, it really throws us. Maybe I’m a slow learner, but it took at least ten of these episodes before I got it through my head that this narrator really meant it when she said she was a liar. Every time she said “actually, what I just told you was crap, but now I’m telling you the truth” I believed her, because I’m so conditioned to the way fiction works. I was almost at the end before it dawned on me that maybe I would never find out “the truth”. I kept turning pages, unable to stop, desperate to “find out what happened”, because that’s what books are normally about – finding out what happened.

Only with this book you have to figure it out for yourself. And there’s not just one possible answer. Pivotal moments in the plot may or may not have happened. Whole characters may or may not really exist. Days later I’m still thinking about it. Talk about “choose your own adventure”! But how do you weigh the “evidence” when it’s all unreliable? Maybe none of it was true??

Awesome, awesome book. It’s just been nominated for a Children’s Book Council Award, and I hope it wins. I don’t know what else has been nominated, though I’m sure they’re all good books, but this is something very special. A book like this doesn’t come along very often.

Now I just wish I knew someone who’d read it so we could discuss it! It makes you want to compare notes with everyone, and see what they thought happened. I may have to force it on the Carnivore, though I suspect his accountant’s soul will not deal well with the lack of certainty.

Also, there are no car chases.