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60. Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey

I should have loved this - I love museums, academics, and popular science.

Really disliked his tone and the writing - for me he made the museum sound like, although it's full of fabulous collections and doing cutting-edge and important work, the people who work there are awful (I'm sure he's going for "loveably eccentric" but misses the mark and just makes them seem inept and creepy). Sounds like a place I wouldn't even want to visit, much less work.

The stories of casual sexism and sexual harassment in the past are all explained away by "it wouldn't happen now" and seem to be dressed up as funny anecdotes rather than a salutory lesson in why things are better now. That disturbed me quite a bit.

There's a blurb on the cover with Bill Bryson endorsing this book, which I find hilarious - to say this book doesn't compare favourably with Bryson's Short History of Almost Everything, which is one of the most inspiring general books about why science is awesome and important ever, is an understatement.

61. Her Last Breath by Linda Castillo

Another book with the ex-Amish detective set in Amish Ohio. I really liked the first three of these, but I think the novelty has worn off. I figured out who the killer was as soon as we meet them because they're presented the same way as the killer in the first book.

I still really like the detective, Kate Burkholder. She saves herself from the killer rather than waiting to be rescued.

62. Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist

From the author of "Let the Right One In".

The first section of this book is creepy as all hell. A washed-up Swedish musician is hunting mushrooms in the woods and finds a baby girl buried in a shallow grave. When he rescues her she makes a sound that isn't a cry but more like singing at a perfect pitch, so he and his wife raise her in their basement as they don't want anyone to find her and take her away. He's awful, his wife is depressing the girl and the way they treat her are really disturbing.

The rest is about disturbed youth getting together and perpetrating disturbed acts. It's still really well written but I thought it was a letdown after it all started out so well.
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57. Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

A collection of five linked short stories (technically two novellas and three very short stories) touching, directly or indirectly on the Vietnam War.

The first two stories, the long ones, are amazing. The first, Low Men in Yellow Coats, is set in 1960 and is about a young boy who lives with his miserable, controlling single mother in a small town in Connecticut. An older man comes to live in their apartment building, and swiftly becomes friends with the boy, eve though the child is aware that the older man is crazy.

Or is he?...

It starts out a innocent childhood adventure, and turns into a tragedy in many ways, one of which may or may not be supernatural and documents how a very promising young man loses all hope in life and stops trying, before his life has even got started.

This one really stuck with me.

I didn't know this part has been made into a film - it's on later this week, and probably sucks, but as I've just read the book I'm going to record it anyway.

The second story, the title piece, is a coming-of-age story set at the University of Maine, Orono in 1966, where a bunch of young men learn to live on their own and become politically aware. Not a lot happens, but really emotional stuff.

I didn't get much out of the last three stories - they show how messed-up the Vietnam experience made people, and tie up some loose ends, but that's it.

These don't take up much room, so I do recommend this book.

58. Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason

Went into the library to collect something else and this was sitting there - it's one of the detective series set in Reykjavik, and as we'd only just got back from there I couldn't resist.

The main character isn't the usual detective, Erlendur - who in this book is off on holiday. It follows his parter Sigurdur Oli. While Erlendur is the glummest detective in all of fiction, he's basically a likeable chap. Sigurdur is just a dick. He is, however, a really good detective.

59. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

Bought this one because the author was on The Daily Show and made it sound really interesting. It's about the women who worked at Oak Ridge in Tennessee enriching uranium as part of the Manhattan Project. In some places I would have liked more depth - it's largely an exercise in collecting the oral history of the women who were there before they die.

It was a completely surreal environment - tens of thousands of people shipped off to a city that grew up from nothing and didn't officially exist. Nobody could talk about their work, and nobody knew what it was that they were really doing, which made for an interesting way to try to build a society. In that way the somewhat jumping-around and episodic structure of the book mirrors life at Oak Ridge.

What is mainly interesting though, is how many women occupied quite senior roles within the Manhattan Project (not all at Oak Ridge, but Kiernan mentions some of the others) who have largely been written out of history. Because it was in Tennessee, Oak Ridge was segregated, and Kiernan doesn't pull her punches about how awful that was.

I'm completely failing to be coherent - it's not as excellent as I was hoping, but is an entertaining and informative read and definitely worth while.
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37. The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

38. The Killing Room by Richard Montanari

I'm writing these two up together because I ended up reading them at the same time and although both are compelling reading, they're incredibly different, and it was an interesting contrast.

The Mankell is a Wallander book. I know where I am with these - well written, well observed slices of Swedish life with an intelligent mystery and an incredibly gloomy main detective who is surrounded by impossibly competent colleagues.

I've been looking at Montanari's books in the library for years but never got around to reading them. This just happens to be the 2012 instalment. While it's nowhere near as literary as Mankell, it's nevertheless hard to put down. Set in Philadelphia (with a sense of place that reminds me of Baltimore as portrayed in The Wire, but look at a map and it's probably a fair assessment), it's a gruesome ritual-element serial killer work. He has all the hooks (short chapters, cliffhangers) that keep you reading. The end was disappoitning - the strands didn't all fit together for me, and the solution was nowhere near as interesting as the set-up. Having said that, I will probably read more of the series if I come across them in the library. The conveyance of the sense of place is good, and the detectives are just interesting enough.

The ending of the Wallander is a bit of a let-down too, but with him you conclude that he's making a statement about the banality of evil.
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12. Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Burton, Harris, O'Toole and Reed by Robert Sellers

I came to this as a dedicated Peter O'Toole fan girl, but there really wasn't much in here I didn't know about him already. The parts about Richard Burton were interesting, though. Or rather, I had no idea Liz Taylor was as big (and mean) a drunk as he was.

The tales of drunken exploits do, however, get pretty repetitive really soon. A lot of it is sad rather than funny (if you're me, I think you're supposed to find it all hilarious). There's really no insights. Probably wouldn't have finished if I hadn't been too unwell to read anything more challenging. And it's very short.

13.The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

This month's Bibliogoths book, but I didn't make it to the meeting. It was even my choice - I picked it because it's a classic ghost story and the archetypcal unreliable narrator book.

I didn't remember it being such hard going, but then I realised that I last read it around the time I was doing my MA, ie when I was still Properly Multilingual and spent my days reading things in French, Latin and Old English (and on very bad days German) and thus anything actually in English was light relief.

But James's prose is really, really difficult - it took me a while to work out that the unnamed governess spends entire chapters *saying nothing* and/or covering up for the fact that she hasn't a clue what she's doing with the children, and is in fact behaving pretty inappropriately (for the times) with them.

Also, I thought I knew it better than I did from having seen every film adaptation of it multiple times.

I did finish it in the end, it was a struggle but I think it was worth it.

14. Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (I can't be bothered to find the umlaut on the character map today).

The original Nordic detective novel. I was familiar with the story because Radio 4 dramatised all 10 Martin Beck stories not that long ago - I missed some, but caught this one. It's Sweden in the mid-1960s, and the body of a young women is found in a canal. The local police are unable to cope, so Martin Beck is sent from Stockholm to investigate.

It is very much the story of the police catching their killer by lots and lots of hard work. And without computers, mobile phones, etc. It's also very much the granddaddy of the Wallander series. Henning Mankell is by far the superior storyteller, but this is entertaining enough, and very short.
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1. Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason

Yet another Icelandic thriller. Just as grim as the last one. This one explores immigration into Iceland, as the crime being investigated is the murder of a young half-Thai boy.

I think I need to take a break from all this Nordic Noir.

2. Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie

The only one of Rushdie's books I've previously read is The Ground Beneath Her Feet. It's long and hard work, but I loved it. It's about music, and people who are born not belonging, two things very close to my heart.

When this came out, I caught Rushdie on Start the Week and The Daily Show plugging it. It's about his time under police protection after the fatwa, and it sounded really interesting.

It's fascinating, and beautifully written. I had a lot of thoughts about it, which basically distil down to - whether he did write something blasphemous or not, the Western, secular world should have stood up for him a lot more vociferously than it did. But instead, there was a lot of blaming the victim going on. My theory is that it was mostly anti-intellectual - a lot of commentators didn't understand the book, so they declared it rubbish and said that he deserved what he got. There was very little emphasis on free speech, and freedom of thought and ideas.

This book is the reason I want to read more Proper Literature. He's a writer in a very intellectual tradition, playing about not just with language, but with big ideas, and seeing where they go. I've kind of come away from that in recent years, and I should really re-engage. I don't necessarily want to go out and read all of his books, but I think I will give Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses a try. I've never particularly got on with magical realism though, so I'll see how it goes.
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72. The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason

Another Icelandic detective story from the same series as Jar City.

A real page-turner, but my all the characters are miserable! Erlendur's relationships with his children make Wallander and Linda look like father and daughter of the year.

There's two strands to this - the present-day mystery, where a skeleton is found in a lake bed tied to 1960s Soviet radio spying equipment; and the murderer's recollections of being a young Icelandic socialist at university in Leipzig in the 1950s and becoming disillusioned with the East German state. The latter is more interesting than the main mystery.

Entertaining enough, but not at all substantial.

73. Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients by Ben Goldacre

Not as entertaining as Bad Science, probably because it's all on one topic.

Not a lot of it was news to me as someone who has read New Scientist every week for more than a decade.

However, the parts about drug reps in hospitals did make me think. When you come to work in the NHS, it's just presented as part of the landscape. Goldacre makes the (valid) observation that doctors can afford to pay for their own sandwiches, and is dismissive about administrators letting reps in after they've been bribed. In that administrator's defence, we're so badly paid that a free lunch is a huge deal, and some NHS trusts abuse the fact that drug companies hand out stationery and refuse to supply basic equipment that you can't run an office without (Post-it notes. really) and the only way we can keep the place running (do you want to tell a Alpha-male consultant s/he can't have post-it notes or a telephone memo pad? Trust me, the answer is no) is perpetuating the cycle of taking stuff from reps.

Interestingly, my first ever NHS consultant back in 1990-2 had already adopted the Goldacre attitude of not having anything to do with reps. I had the conversation with him that I got where he was coming from, and while I couldn't so much afford to have such principles myself, if he had any issues then I wouldn't take stuff from them. He didn't expect me to share his principles though, so free lunches it was.
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71. Sidetracked by Henning Mankell

Another book in the Wallander series. This was one of the first, if not the first, of the ones that Kenneth Branagh dramatised in English. I've also seen the Swedish TV adaptation.

I started it and was going to put it aside because I thought I wasn't in the mood to deal with Wallander's pessimism, but then realised that I'd read 100 pages on the first day...really absorbing stuff, even though I knew who did it.
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22. Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

The first Wallander book, but the third that I've read.

I loved this a lot more than the other two[1]; whether because it's shorter and more tightly plotted, or because it's a different translator (I checked - the Wallander books have been translated by different people in random order at random dates), I'm not sure.  I think the latter, because I really enjoyed the language and flow of this one.

It's heartening to read that a lot of Swedes hate winter as much as I do.

I will be moving the rest of the series up my list of priorities.

[1] For the record, The White Lionness and Firewall.


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