Tuesday, September 27

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker


Hopefully anyone who's just skimming this page will see the above and associate it with this image and then refrain from spending actual time actually reading this terrible book.

Just like Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project, the last book I reviewed on here, Joël Dicker's The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is an example of a novel that's been much better received by serious literary types than I can understand. Unlike His Bloody Project, though, which was an adept and enjoyable work, even though I don't get why it's on the Booker shortlist this year, Quebert is a silly, sloppy, flabby, idiot novel - a banquet of clichés pieced together with a nonsense plot and written by a teenager. And yet it won the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and was nominated for the Goncourt, and it's an international bestseller. Hmm.

Briefly, the narrator, Marcus Goldman, a young celebrity novelist, decides to try to clear his mentor Harry Quebert, one of the greatest living American writers, who has been charged with murder following the discovery of a body in his garden. The body belongs to Nola Kellergan, a fifteen-year-old girl who went missing in 1975, and with whom the thirty-three-year-old Quebert had been having an affair. He basically ends up writing and publishing a tell-all book while leading the investigation (because, duh, that's how crime-fighting happens in America), and of course he finds all sorts of buried secrets beneath the friendly New-England-small-town veneer, revealed through interspersed flashbacks and documents. So far so compelling.

But the book lets itself down on every level. Let's start with the plot, which is multistranded and sprawling, but which very little effort has been made to make internally consistent. For example, on the same night Nola disappears in 1975, the old woman who sees her being chased through the woods is shot. However, because Dicker's decided that the novel's focus is going to be on Nola, everyone involved - from the police searching for Nola to the townspeople grieving for the missing girl to Marcus narrating in 2008 - completely forgets about the dead woman. Nobody really thinks to try to solve that mystery. She barely gets mentioned, to the point that I forget her name.

And this happens more than once over the course of the book. In the present day, people get killed, buildings get set on fire, suspects literally skip town overnight, and nobody really seems to care beyond the extent to which these acts affect the main question of who killed Nola? even though solving these peripheral mysteries is probably a much more direct route than going to the town diner and hoping to find someone to question about the events of thirty years ago which is how the investigation proceeds most of the time.

The police procedural aspects are just unbelievably bad. Towards the end of the book, Marcus and Gahalowood, his cop buddy, do a double facepalm because they FORGOT, legitimately FORGOT, to follow up a lead about events which happened in Alabama in the late '60s. As if neither of them, a WRITER, and a COP, thought to write it down. Later, an 'aha' moment comes when Gahalowood is casually looking at a key piece of evidence implicating a man they just arrested while IN THE DINER EATING HIS PANCAKES OR WHATEVER because maple syrup on incriminating photographs makes them even more persuasive to a jury.

And don't even get me started on the central love affair between Quebert and Nola, which is clearly intended to be the stuff of great literature - a love for the ages - but reads like a harlequin novel written by a teenager. Quebert falls in love with Nola at first sight when he sees her dancing in the rain on the beach, which is just sheer laziness on Dicker's part. In fact, we are told time and again about how Quebert found it impossible not to love Nola, as in this dialogue between Marcus and his secretary:
"Marcus, I think I'm crying."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because of that young girl, that Nola; I think I love her too."
I smiled and said, "I think everyone loved her, Denise. Everyone."
Yet all we see is a naïve child who is in turn manipulative, whiny, stalkery, and a little psycho. She's not smart or funny or anything to Quebert beyond a hero worshipper, which really underlines the creepiness inherent in the whole adult-child-relationship thing that Dicker tries so hard to make you think isn't actually problematic though it so is.

It's not just Nola who's a really bad character. Literally every single character in the book is an underbaked cliché.* There's the narcissistic celebrity novelist, the sage lovelorn mentor, the grumpy cop with a heart of gold, the shyster lawyer, the overbearing Jewish mother, the rich Harvard-educated businessman and his physically deformed chauffeur. There's the social-climber diner owner and her long-suffering husband. They talk like this:
"But my shirt is making me itch, honey-bunny."
"Shut up, Bobbo!"
When Marcus and Gahalowood visit a mechanic, they meet him with his head under an old Buick, which makes sense because he's a cliché. There's even a police chief who turns up in the last chapter to say you've got 24 hours to close this case! as if that's not a totally arbitrary deadline dreamt up to keep the tension going.

This isn't helped by the fact that the writing is ridiculous, which makes every character sound like an idiot whenever they open their mouth. Here's a phone call between Marcus and Gahalowood:
"I'm on the Interstate. I'm going to see Elijah Stern."
"So you really think he's mixed up in all this?"
"That's exactly what I'm hoping to find out."
"You're totally crazy, Goldman. That's what I like about you." 
Here's Marcus trying to comfort Quebert in prison:
I grabbed him by the shoulders. "We will always be friends. I won't abandon you. This book is the proof of my unfailing friendship."
Heck, at one point, Quebert, one of the world's greatest living writers, says "All I know is that Nola lived inside me, literally," which, this book won the Grand Prix, so, wow, is all I'm saying. The characters also do the remind-me-of-the-exposition...? thing way too often, as if they're lapsing into temporary amnesia, which might explain some of the plot holes.

Also the novel jumps between viewpoints pretty frequently, and will sometimes flirt with omniscience in a terrifically annoying, fourth-wall-breaking way. We'll get haphazard snatches of each character's thoughts in a manner totally unbefitting a murder mystery. Or one minute Nola will be thinking about how excited she is that she's going to see Quebert, and then we'll get a... she did not notice the figure hidden in the bushes. That's a real line from the book. I didn't make it up.

I finished the book though. I guess I thought it would get better, or have a satisfying conclusion, and there were one or two (actually one) halfway decent twists, but the solution was convoluted and had a bit of a comedy-of-errors feel to it, so even that didn't satisfy.

Oh man. I could go on. There's so many truly scathing reviews on Goodreads with some exceptional examples of why this is an awful book and you should never read it. But there's also a crazy amount of gushingly positive reviews, so go and try to reconcile all that because I just can't. I'm so confused.

Notes on the audiobook:

Robert Slade's narration is the best thing about this book. It's still pretty bad. He has two voices, moderately angry and moderately whiny, and the nasal New England accent doesn't help things. I think that I would have liked the book slightly more reading it the old-fashioned way (slightly, mind). But then again, I probably wouldn't have had the stamina to finish it if I had to actually hold something and move my eyes back and forth, so there are no winners here.

Rating: 1/5
Amazon: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Audible: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Goodreads: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

* I was talking to Daisy about how everyone in the book was a New England small town / police procedural cliché. She then proceeded to guess every single character in the book with no prompting. She's psychic and everything, but the point that I'm making is that the book is bad.

Friday, September 23

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I... don't... get... it. It's not bad, that's for sure. But I think I would have rated it slightly better if it hadn't been on the longlist. Heck, now it's even made the shortlist, and it's getting pretty good odds to win (not that I understand odds... though as a statistician I really shouldn't be admitting to that).

For anyone not caught up in the Man Booker 2016 hype, His Bloody Project is currently being held up as the strangest inclusion in a strange long/shortlist that's eschewed better-known or previously nominated authors for more out-there choices. It's a historical crime thriller, basically, so it stands out. And there's been a lot of talk about how this year the judges are rewarding authors who take risks with the form, while simultaneously promoting some more accessible books.

And His Bloody Project is pretty accessible. It's a page-turner, and hard to put down, which isn't always the case with these Booker-type books. It revolves around a triple murder in the 19th-century Scottish Highlands, with the story told first from the perspective of the 17-year-old Roderick Macrae, who committed the murders (and who may or may not be insane), and second from a plethora of documents - witness statements, court transcripts, a medical memoir - relating to the case and subsequent trial. So far, so juicy.

But it's lighter in plot than you might think. From the beginning of the book, there's no question as to whodunnit? It's a little closer to the truth to call it a whydunnit, but really the only question is whether Roderick was insane at the time he committed the murders. His lawyer's argument that he is suffering from 'moral insanity', or 'mania without delusion' - similar to the modern popular concept of psychopathy - is the driving question of the second half of the book. But it's a question I didn't really care to know the answer to.

Other reviews have focused on His Bloody Project's 'grand themes' of class, fatalism, sexual repression, and insanity. I must admit to not really noticing them while I was reading it, though. They were there, on reflection, colouring the action and making the mid-1800s Highlands seem like a just terrible place to live. I suppose I didn't find what the book was saying that interesting on the whole.

Reviewers have also mentioned the grand job Macrae Burnet makes at drawing the historical and geographical setting. And yes, the crofting community of Culduie was deftly brought to life by the author. The characters and places feel real, and there's a genuine sense of claustrophobia, both in setting and in its fatalistic themes, that drew me in. But there was nothing particularly special or memorable about it; the prose and descriptions are competent and assured, but not magical or extraordinary.

In fact if I could describe the whole book in a word it would probably be 'competent'. It's well written and a compelling read, but I can think of other historical mysteries that play the same post-modern strings - unreliable narrators, unusual formats, unresolved questions - better (see, for example, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which won the Booker in 2013, or Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost). I did like the book, and probably if it hadn't been on the longlist I would have given it four stars instead of three, but I went in with my expectations raised and left with them unfulfilled.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: His Bloody Project
Goodreads: His Bloody Project

Friday, September 16

Book News: The Da Vinci Code - Young Adult Edition

I obviously wasn't paying attention back in May when Penguin Random House announced its plans to release a YA version of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, baffling Twitter, who correctly asked why anything by Dan Brown would need redrafting for young adults, before deciding that probably he planned to add longer words and more complex characters.

So I was surprised when I saw it last week in the Rideau branch of Chapters in Ottawa, part of a display titled "Read It Together" which suggests parents reading the standard version while their pre-teen children read the YA edition. I had the same reaction as the rest of the world, though: why would Dan Brown have to re-write The Da Vinci Code for young adults? I was 13 or so when I read it and it was really pretty simple! 

I opened it to check how it differed from the standard version, conveniently lying right beside it on the display. Here's the first three paragraphs of the first chapter in the standard version:
Robert Langdon awoke slowly. 
A telephone was ringing in the darkness - a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.
Where the hell am I? 
And here's the corresponding paragraphs of the new YA version.
Robert Langdon awoke slowly. 
A telephone was ringing in the darkness - a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.
Where am I?
Have you spotted the single difference yet?

I liked The Da Vinci Code when I read it. I certainly don't remember being put off by any adult themes or language, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to any young adult I knew (not for that reason anyway). But it looks like what we have here is a meeting of the minds between a publisher trying to squeeze more life out of an all-time bestseller and protective parents who shy from a little light flagellation.

I like the new cover though.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

In the introduction, and in other reviews, I read a lot about how Stefan Zweig's stories reflect an amazing grasp of human nature. This is my first Zweig - it was recommended to me as his best by a colleague - so maybe it's unrepresentative, but I found Chess Story's characters to be no more than simplistic wind-up dolls. For me, Zweig's story worked much better as a fable or an allegory than as a depiction of human nature.

Take the book's somewhat antagonist, for example: Czentovic is a single-minded, churlish simpleton who cares only for the prestige and money which arise from his uncanny ability at chess. He is egomaniacal and disinterested in others, until he is challenged by Dr. B aboard a ship bound for the Americas. Czentovic's almost polar opposite, Dr. B is self-effacing and timid; he has to be persuaded to play against the master, and, though clearly intelligent, has not played chess for 20 years. His chilling story, about his traumatic imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis and the genesis of his obsession with chess, forms the core of the story.

Neither of these characters are at all realistic, despite the psychologist narrator's eagerness to theorise about what kind of people they are and what drives them. The narrator - who the introduction suggests is a stand-in for the author - succumbs to a psychological determinism common to armchair psychologists: the idea that each person has a core, knowable 'self' which determines their behaviour, and that if you understand that 'self', you can predict what that person will do.

It's a similar issue that I had with the (very different) book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. In that novel, each main character seemed to have perfect insight into how the other would respond to their provocations, which is ridiculous when you realise that people don't even have perfect insight into their own minds, let alone others. And yes I know that in the 1940s practically all psychology was 'armchair psychology' of a sort, but that hadn't stopped literature from presenting a nuanced picture of human nature since Jane Austen and before.

Which isn't to say I disliked Chess Story. In fact I rather liked it; it's easy, compulsive reading, and I challenge anyone who gets halfway through not to read to the conclusion. Dr. B's story is chillingly gothic, something like Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum in its claustrophobia and breathless, slow creep of madness. The pace grows steadily faster (or was I just reading more feverishly?), and, though it's silly in places, it still made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. So it gets three stars.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: Chess Story
Goodreads: Chess Story

Wednesday, August 17

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I suspect that had I gone into this book with a slightly clearer idea of what it was like, I would have appreciated it a little more. I had the idea from the blurb and Goodreads reviews that it would be a straight Gothic romance in the spirit of something like Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, with an infuriatingly weak protagonist. I think I only really realised after finishing the book that it is in fact a distinctly modern work, more psychological horror than romance, with a strongly-characterised narrator who is chilling in her single-minded obsession with Rebecca, and all she represents.

In fact, the book it reminded me most of was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Both works are defined by a flawed upwardly-mobile narrator whose obsessions with social class come to the forefront when they establish a presence in the manor houses in the orbit of which they spent their childhoods. Both are ghost stories, though in both the 'ghost' in question represents something much realer, if psychological and equally intangible; here of course, the figure of Rebecca which haunts the narrator isn't a real presence in Manderley. Instead she is solely a product of the narrator's troubled psyche, and those of the other inhabitants.

Rebecca feels claustrophobic. Reading it, we are trapped in the viewpoint of the narrator - the second Mrs de Winter - and we cannot escape experiencing every neurotic and paranoid thought that passes through her head. And there are so many. Her terrible self-image - it's hinted that some childhood trauma is the reason behind it - is reflected in the text at every point, from her whirlwind romance with (the fabulously named) Maximilian de Winter (which at first she refuses to believe could possibly lead anywhere because honestly who would be interested in her?), to her total inability to impose her will on the staff at Manderley, despite their clear desire for her to do so.

And the more the narrator learns about Rebecca, the more her thoughts tend towards holding her predecessor up as an example of everything she can't be. Rebecca was beautiful. Rebecca was aristocratic. Rebecca knew her own mind. Rebecca was loved. The second Mrs de Winter will never be as good a mistress of Manderley, or a wife to Maxim, as Rebecca was. In fact, the narrator doesn't even possess a name - at least one we're ever told - while Rebecca's name is the title of her book! There's a horrible, telling moment soon after the narrator's marriage and arrival at Manderley, when, in response to a caller asking for "Mrs de Winter", the narrator replies that she's sorry, but Mrs de Winter has been dead for months.

Soon, this obsession turns a little creepy. Finding a dedication to 'Max' from Rebecca in a book of poetry that he's lent to her, the narrator tears out the page (something I was taught at a young age by my grandfather never to do) and sets it on fire, even as her suitor is in the next room. She looks for traces of Rebecca everywhere, once she gets to Manderley, and probes the staff for information about Rebecca's marriage to Maxim. She imagines Rebecca's mannerisms and tries them on herself, to the consternation of her husband. The vividly-drawn character of Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, with her terrifying devotion to her late mistress, is often cited as a key reason for the book's enduring success. However, contrasting the narrator and Mrs Danvers, and the changes that each undergo in response to the revelations of the final third, it strikes me that it is the former who is the more terrible of the two.

All that having been said, I don't want to give the impression that it's not an easy or pleasurable read. In fact it's a joy, and I found myself marveling at the language frequently. It's written in an elevated, archaic style, reflecting the Gothic romance novels of a century prior which inspired it. Du Maurier uses words like Bradshaw (a railway guide) and questing (as a verb, a lot) and luncheon and wagon-lit. The characters say things like "don't you really?" and "you look very well in that costume!", and the narrator complains that even the lowliest servant belongs at Manderley "more than I should ever do." At one point, a rather unsavoury character is said to have "laughed, opening his mouth", which is excellent and made me do a double-take.

The most evocative language is perhaps to be found in the book's opening pages, with the famous first line - "last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" - preceding an elegy to a lost, rural, manor-house idyll to rival anything I've read in its sense of yearning. It's a haunting theme that recurs throughout the book, and du Maurier conjures it well.

Rebecca's writing captured my attention even when my interest in the plot waned, and wane it did. Though reflecting in hindsight, my opinion of the book has improved, and I can appreciate the artistry with which du Maurier achieves what she's set out to do, not fully understanding what I was getting into meant that I couldn't appreciate it at the time. Instead I was annoyed at the slow-moving plot, the twists that I saw coming before they happened, the twists that I saw coming that failed to materialise, the constant Rebecca Rebecca Rebecca of the narrator's train of thought. I was nonplussed by the will-they-won't-they exercise in tension-building that made up the whole final quarter of the novel, and that ending! well! No spoilers here, but I would advise anyone getting into Rebecca to look at it as a meditation on the nature and consequences of obsession told in the guise of a Gothic romance.

Going into it straight, like I did, you might feel a little like the butt of a practical joke that du Maurier's played. And it's a good joke, skillfully told. I'm just enjoying it more now that I'm in on it.

Notes on the audiobook:

I didn't know this until I started doing the research for this review, but the audiobook is narrated by Anna Massey CBE, a BAFTA-winning actress known for playing "nannies, nuns, and nurses", often in period dramas and thrillers, including a 1979 TV adaptation of Rebecca in which she played Mrs Danvers!

Her Guardian obituary (she died in 2011) makes mention of her abilities in playing "cold and repressed" characters and of her "capacity for stillness". Indeed, her audiobook performance of Rebecca is perfect and chilling, and probably played no small part in my assessment of the second Mrs de Winter's character. She suits Rebecca perfectly, and I don't regret in the slightest listening to the book instead of reading it.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: Rebecca
Audible: Rebecca
Goodreads: Rebecca

Wednesday, August 3

Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd

You don't see many historical novels written in the present tense. There's three reasons for this. Firstly, novels have really only been written in the present tense for the past few decades, so if you're writing one that's supposed to be aping the style of the time (as this one does, badly), writing it in the present tense is an immediate barrier to that. Secondly, it's weird that the action has already happened a long time ago, but is also happening now. It's a strange and alienating paradox.

And thirdly, it's can just be a bit clunky at the best of times. Authors like Hilary Mantel have justified it by saying that it brings the past into the present, and that it captures "the jitter and flux of events, the texture of them, their ungraspable speed". And, yeah, I didn't like Wolf Hall, but I can appreciate the beautiful writing and how the present tense worked well as part of that style. In Savage Magic it just sounds like this: 
He asks after Sir Henry, and is told that the master of the house is up in London and has been for some weeks. Mrs Graham expresses some satisfactions that this is so as they sit down.
That just sounds clangy to me. I have trouble even picturing what's going on here. Plus how exactly has Mrs Graham, Charles Horton's social superior, expressed her satisfaction that Sir Henry, her cousin and lover, is away? That's a real minefield of a social situation, and emblematic of Shepherd's really sketchy worldbuilding.

And the writing is altogether generally sloppy, as if there wasn't much thought put into it. For example, do we really think that Aaron Graham has "heard good things" about the Hoxton madhouse?
He makes a note to visit Brooke House when he can, and perhaps even to consider placing Abigail in another institution - the Hoxton madhouse, perhaps, of which he has heard good things.
And can anyone picture this woman?
She is, by Horton's reckoning, over fifty years old. She wears clothes which once must have been respectable but which are now threadbare, although care has obviously been taken to maintain their dignity to the extent that such a thing is possible. Her grey hair is almost bald in places, and two or three ugly warts molest her face. But when she speaks out to him, her voice is warm and kind.
Plus did Shepherd just say that her clothes have dignity and that her hair is bald? This reads like it was sleep-written. He also drops in little bits of post-modern-ish anachronisms which are probably supposed to be funny:
Still the subject of what took place in Maria's cell the day before is not mentioned explicitly. It is a huge creature - an elephant, perhaps - that sits in the room beside them, about which neither is allowed to talk.
Or crazy switches in viewpoint:
And so, Charles Horton, you find yourself on a country lane face-to-face with a witch. What does one say in such a situation?
These would almost maybe work as humorous counterpoints in a novel that was better at aping the style of early-1800s literature, and that painted a complete and coherent picture of a dark and mysterious Regency-era London. Savage Magic, however, falls flat when it comes to describing its world, sketching out its locations, characters, and social issues with the lightest of tones, and keeping them free of the interesting details that would make them interesting to read about. The only evocative element is the setting of Brooke House - Shepherd did his research here, and it shows. It's the scenes in this asylum, particularly the converted chapel, that are the most vividly imagined.

Very occasionally, too, the writing gets good and we're treated with a flash of insightful characterisation or clever humour which shows the heights to which Savage Magic could have risen:
Sir Henry Tempest stands in front of his portrait with, Horton presumes, no satirical intent. But the juxtaposition of the idealised portrayal with the fat, angry and contemptuous reality is too stark to be ignored. Horton, after a mere three minutes with Sir Henry, thinks he can picture a small army of servants stood here where he is now, inwardly smirking at how far the real man falls from the man in oils up there on the wall.
It's a pity then that most of the novel is as reductive, inane, and ridiculous as this actual quote that one of the characters actually says to another:
'Hold your tongue, trollop. And tell me where Talty is, lest you spend the rest of this night in the watch house.'
I think there must be a reference work somewhere that states that if you want your novel to sound 'period', you should have your characters tell each other to hold your tongue, call each other trollop, say lest, whilst, and amongst instead of unless, while, and among, threaten each other with extended stays in the watch house, and refer to units of time with the pronoun this (this day instead of today, this night instead of the night, this hour... well you get the idea). And that you should call one of them Talty 

I haven't said much about the plot, partly because there's not much to say about the plot. It's a many-stranded, multi-viewpoint narrative which follows Charles Horton's investigations into witchcraft allegations at a manor just inside the M25, his wife's self-imposed incarceration in a lunatic asylum, and his colleague's investigation into multiple gory murders in the West End. They all come together in the end, through some hand-wavey explanations about magic, though the reader - like all the characters - is likely to be left none-the-wiser. Even the epiphanies of the detective-type characters amount to little more than "I get it now! It makes no logical sense!" Sigh. And I had such high hopes.

I've not read the first two in the series, so maybe that would have changed my perception of this book slightly. But I can't imagine they'd be that different. I won't be reading any more of them and I can't recommend that anyone else should.

Rating: 1/5
Amazon: Savage Magic
Goodreads: Savage Magic

Tuesday, August 2

Look What I Just Bought! Non-Fiction at the Owl Edition

After getting my twice-yearly haircut at a new place in Kentish Town last week, I decided to spend some time in my local independent bookshop, Owl. Although it's not technically independent, as it's owned by Daunt Books, and it's not technically my most-local bookshop, as that would be The Hellenic Bookservice - specialising in Classics and Modern Greek, it's still the best bookshop within a 20 minute walk from home. They also have a new website, which, it's about time. Even I have a website now.

The Fields Beneath by Gillian Tindall

Like all good local bookshops, Owl has a "Local Interest" section where I found this among the old maps. Apparently it's THE book to read if you're interested in the social history of Kentish Town, and of course you are.

It was originally published in 1977 and for the 2011 edition Tindall has added a preface which actually mentions Owl Bookshop, which is pleasingly meta.

I've started reading this already and am finding it a pleasant, easy read, full of interesting tidbits of local history that I can annoy Daisy with. It's also got lots of maps and old photos, which is nice. As mentioned below, I love maps.

Goodreads: The Fields Beneath
Amazon: The Fields Beneath

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics is subtitled Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World in North America, which is an amazing claim, if you think about it. I would have dithered much less over buying that book if I thought it would explain everything about the world.

And I don't read a lot of non-fiction, especially books about geopolitics, so there's a chance that this will just sit on my shelf forever. But I love maps. And it's got a thrilling 4.21 rating on Goodreads, so I'll probably enjoy it, when I get around to it.

Goodreads: Prisoners of Geography
Amazon: Prisoners of Geography 

Books I Narrowly Avoided Buying:
Slade House by David Mitchell and
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (I've never read any Mitchell, but I like the idea that I might, someday, start)
The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde
Mislaid by Nell Zink (I really liked The Wallcreeper, but Mislaid hasn't been received quite so positively)
The Good Book: A Humanist Bible by A.C. Grayling (though really the 'biblical' format makes for pretty awkward reading, so I'm not sure why it's being imitated here)