A Pile of Books / eBooks

With my intermittent blogging I’ve not been updating my list of read books. So here I go:

This is by no means an attempt at literary criticism. No deconstruction. No Post-Lacanian analysis. Just a few personal opinions on books I’ve read since March or so. There are a heap of books to mention so I’ll try to keep the comments brief and to the point.

Times have changed and for Christmas last year we got an Amazon Kindle. Originally the idea was to cut down on luggage weight when travelling but we’ve been using the Kindle a lot. It’s convenient when reading in bed (it can be held, and pages turned, with one hand) and when a book’s finished another can be downloaded right away. Especially useful if one’s having insomnia! Plus, in our small home books can be seen gradually taking over; we need the space!

But I still love physical books and happily read in both media. Let’s start with the traditional printed, analog, books:

An Illustrated Life; Danny Gregory: How Books

An Illustrated Life; book by Dan Gregory
An Illustrated Life

This book inspired me. It’s a compendium of the sketchbook samples from 50 artists, illustrators and designers. Each person offers many examples from their sketchbooks plus some written insight into the how, why and where of their sketchbook. I’ve used sketchbooks for years but this book has inspired me to draw more often and to explore more media in my books. Highly recommended for everybody! (we’re all artists, sometimes we just need to release that talent.) Rating: 9/10

Paris 1919 : Six Months that Changed the World; Margaret MacMillan; Random House

cover of Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan
Paris 1919

I’m a history buff. I especially enjoy books that take a period and provide  comprehensive insights into the W5 (why, where, who, when, what). I had some inkling about how the Treaty of Versailles and other post WWI treaties shaped our modern world but Paris 1919 describes in detail how a small group of men and their attendant advisors and sycophants created the beginnings of a political mess. The rise of Nazi Germany, the conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, even the Japanese/Chinese antagonisms were all advanced by the post WWI treaties. And, of course, who was going to pay any attention to a lowly dishwasher named Ho Chi Minh who tried to speak for the interests of Indochina? Rating: 9/10

On the Grand Trunk Road; Steve Coll; Penquin

On the Grand Trunk Road by Steve Coll
On the Grand Trunk Road

Contemporary history with a focus on the late 20th century  and South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan). Steve Coll traveled in and reported from South Asia for the Washington Post. As a reporter for a respected newspaper he had access to many people and places. He not only spoke to leaders (some of whom are still alive, some of whom have been assassinated) but to people in the street. The post-colonial politics and First World  pressures have created enormous problems in South Asia where age old political, cultural and religious divisions continue to broil under the hot sun. At times funny, horrific and frequently revealing this book helps explain a complex situation. Although originally published in the mid-90’s the author has added a foreword and epilogue that update it to the post 9/11 world. Rating: 9/10

The Golden Spruce; John Vallant; Vintage Canada

The Golden Spruce by John Vallant
The Golden Spruce

It’s took me awhile to get around to reading The Golden Spruce. Mainly because I knew how it ended and I knew I’d be depressed. Although sad,  it is an instructive tale of environmentalism taken to an extreme. The Golden Spruce tells the story of a hard core logger turned hard core defender of the forests (Grant Hadwin); of a proud nation with an incredible culture (the Haida); and the destructive history of an industry (logging). This book should be on the curriculum of all BC high schools. Rating: 8/10

The Colour of My Dreams : The Surrealist Revolution in Art; Dawn Ades (editor); Vancouver Art Gallery

The Colour of My Dreams : The Surrealist Revolution in Art
The Colour of My Dreams

In my late teens a local artist turned me onto surrealism via Salvador Dali. Over the years I lost interest in the movement, especially as many of my teachers disdained the movement and especially Dali. As I visited more museums and galleries I found other surrealist artists whose work I appreciated. So when The Colour of my Dreams exhibition came to the Vancouver Art Gallery we went to see it. Rather than focussing on the popular icons of Surrealism the exhibition contained works large and small, in a variety of media and zeroed in on an important connection: NorthWest Coast aboriginal art. It was a huge exhibition and hard to digest in only one visit. The accompanying catalog is valuable with its many essays provides insights into Surrealism along with reproductions of some of the artworks. Rating: 8/10

Just Kids; Patti Smith; HarperCollins

Just Kids
Just Kids

Patti Smith is a poet who eventually put her words to music. This autobiographical book focuses on her life and times with Robert Mapplethorpe, the brilliant photographer who died far too early. Beautifully written, Just Kids draws the reader into a (now gone) New York City milieu. Artists, poets, musicians,various hipsters and transgressors of The Norm populate the pages. Patti Smith soaks it up like a sponge and follows her own path while acutely observing the people, places and events around her. No celebrity posturing here. Patti Smith’s down to earth and her writing, always poetic, is direct, honest and a joy to read. Rating: 10/10

Barney’s Version; Mordecai Richler; Alfred A. Knopf Canada

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
Barney's Version

Although Barney’s world is not my world the novel has Everyman themes (eg. aging and reflection; truth and perception) that resonated. I enjoyed the narrator’s wry tone and witticisms. An aging man’s reflections on his somewhat tumultuous life Barney’s Version is a page turner with a satifying urban legend ending. Rating: 8/10

Pass Thru Fire : The Collected Lyrics; Lou Reed; De Capo Press

Pass Thru Fire : The Collected Lyrics
Pass Thru Fire

The title is pretty self explanatory. Lou Reed’s a poet. Like a few other musician/poets (eg Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen) it’s well worth reading his words on their own. Also this book is beautifully designed and typeset by Stefan Sagmeister, renowned NYC graphic designer. Rating: 9/10

The Bird Garden; Stephen W. Kress; DK

The Bird Garden
The Bird Garden

How to design your garden to be bird friendly! Having recently built a small pond I wanted to continue developing our property to be as bird and bee friendly as possible. Lots of good ideas and nicely illustrated. Rating: 8/10

Picasso: Creator and Destroyer; Arianna Stassinopouls Huffington; Simon and Shuster

Picasso: Creator and Destroyer
Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

I read an excerpt of this back in the 80s when it was published but never got around to fully reading it until I spotted it in the library this year. I knew Picasso’s bad boy rep and have previously read Françoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso. Huffington’s book was published after Picasso’s death, which is both good and bad. On the good side Gilot was interviewed and gave Huffington much personal material she’d left out of her own book. On the bad side it sometimes reads like a poison dagger exposé. Although I don’t think you can judge someone’s work by their personal life I found it helped explain some of the transitions in Picasso’s art (I’m no expert but have seen many of his works including the major collection at the Musée Picasso). It’s also a scary portrait of how one man can willingly destroy his various families and friends.  Rating: 7/10

And a couple of re-reads:

On Photography; Susan Sontag; Dell

On Photography
On Photography

I first read Sontag’s collection of essays on photography about 20 years ago. It’s very interesting reading it now in the age of digital photography. I never completely agreed with all her ideas (eg. I don’t believe the camera brings us closer to the subject; I think it is a screen that filters reality and creates some distance from the subject). But she writes clearly and succinctly, something many theorists can’t, or won’t, do (I tried reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Obscura and so far have only managed to skim it). On Photography is thought provoking; which is reason enough for anybody serious about photography as an artform to read it. Rating: 8/10

Exit Music; Ian Rankin; Orion

Exit Music by Ian Rankin
Exit Music

The last of the Rebus series. Ian Rankin’s crime novels are the stick by which I measure all other contemporary crime novels. Few come up to his level (Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy, both American, are the only other two I’ve found as gripping and empathetic). Now Rankin is onto a new series with a new protagonist I look forward to his future books but still find myself plucking the Rebus books from the shelves and diving into the gray world of Edinburgh’s finest detective. Rating: 10/10


The Redbreast/Nemesis/The Devil’s Star/The Leopard/The Snowman/The Redeemer; Jo Nesbo; Vintage Digital

The Redbreast
The Redbreast

Harry Hole is the Norwegian Rebus (but his name is more… eh… telling). I enjoyed these books (obviously: I read six of ’em!). They kept me turning the pages; I found the characters engaging; the Scandanavian setting interesting and the overall arch of the series well done. My only gripe is I grew tired of the sex/violence combo which seemed to escalate with each book. Rating: 8/10

Jar City/The Draining Lake/Voices; Arnaldur Indridason; Vintage Digital

Jar City
Jar City

And onto Iceland… these books I found slightly less interesting. Mainly because the pace wasn’t sustained as the protagonist contemplated his dysfunctional family life. Also I hate it when I find myself thinking “Get with it man. You’re missing something big here!” The three are not equal. I’d rate The Draining Lake highest at: 6/10

Pattern Recognition/Zero History; William Gibson; Putnam Adult

Zero History
Zero History

I read Spook Country a few years ago and enjoyed it. I’ve been a Gibson fan since Neuromancer and read most of his books but kinda lost interest around Virtual Light. Spook Country got me interested again and when Zero History came out in 2010 I waited for the Kindle edition (it just seemed fitting). Then I read the first of the Blue Ant trilogy, Pattern Recognition. The three are all brilliant. Once again Gibson’s created a first rate female protagonist: Cayce Pollard. She’s smart, perceptive and has an interesting fashion sense, which is why Blue Ant keeps hiring her to track down new phenomena. Gibson has a quirky sense of humour and a distinct voice which gives his novels a cool edge. I’m a fan. Rating: 9/10

A Song of Ice and Fire (Books One, Two and Three); George R. R. Martin; Amazon Digital

A Song of Ice and Fire
A Song of Ice and Fire

I saw some of The Game of Thrones on TV and thought I’d try the books. The first of A Song of Ice and Fire series (The Game of Thrones) got me hooked. Although the characters are a bit one dimensional I liked that the plot took interesting turns and sympathetic characters could die. Sometimes I found the descriptions of clothing or dinners a bit of a drag but I kept going. Until Book Three (A Storm of Swords). Then I found I was losing interest as the story dragged on with very little catharsis. The story of Daenerys continued to interest me but the others plodded along with gratuitous plot twists which frustrated me. While some have compared Martin to Tolkien I think his series lacks the focus and interest of Lord of the Rings. Rating: 7/10

The Player of Games; Iain Banks; Amazon Digital

The Player of Games
The Player of Games

A few years ago I bought Banks’ Matter for reading on a long plane journey. It took me awhile to finish but it was an interesting ride. If you like your heros to survive and overcome evil this is not the book for you. While browsing the Kindle Store one night for reading material I looked at Banks’ Culture series. I noted that one, The Player of Games, was reader recommended as being more lighthearted and positive than many of his other books. It took me a few chapters to get into the setting, the language and the characters but once hooked I was really into the book. Like any good writing this transcends its genre (sci-fi). Rating: 9/10

I think I’ll be reviewing books as I read them from now on! Stay tuned …


  1. That’s a great list of books, Kelly! I must say that I’ve enjoyed all of the Game of Thrones books, but I’m an admitted fantasy/historical fiction junki…I think the huge cast of characters that G.R.R. Martin keeps juggling has a lot to do with the slow moving plot at times. Funny enough, Daenery’s character is the one that bugs me the most! Theresa

  2. I should clarify: It’s not so much Daenery’s character I like (although I admire her strong, determined female character) as her plot line. It moves along compared to some of the others. However, I think my favorite character is Arya. I’d have continued on with the fourth book but I understand it doesn’t follow many of the same characters, which I find frustrating. Also I’ll make a broad, sweeping generalization here: I think male readers like action, female readers are more into the cultural details (e.g. food and clothing). I’ve previously given up on the Earth’s Children series (Clan of the Cave Bear etc.) and Diana Gabaldon stories (who I know you enjoy!) for much the same reasons. So beyond Lord of the Rings what fantasy/ history novels have I really enjoyed? Years ago Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (I’m a big Arthurian fan); also as a boy was a big Robin Hood fan and more recently liked Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell. As the decades pass I’m finding myself more interested in crime novels as far as genre writing goes. Non-fiction I enjoy reading history and travelogues. In the future I’ll try to update my blog on a regular basis and provide a fresh take on what I’ve been reading, listening to, watching and (most importantly) creating! Thanks for the comment (and I will probably return to the Fire and Ice series at some point).

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