Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.

If Research Were Romance and Other Implausible Conjectures

If Research Were Romance and Other Implausible Conjectures - Manny Rayner I really enjoyed the previous collection of Manny's reviews (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/364286993), and this one is even better (in part, because it has a very useful index).

However, despite the 5*, I hereby beg Manny not to publish another collection! It was hard enough to write a review of the first one, and it's impossible this time.

The problem is, Manny's reviews cover so many styles, invariably witty, original, erudite, self-referential, daft, surreal, or some combination thereof, that anything I write will be dull in comparison.

And matters are exacerbated by the fact that several people have managed to find a clever angle to review it (Ian, Paul and MJ, I'm scowling at you in particular).

So I give up.

Buy your own copy, and see if you can write a decent review of all these reviews. And even if you can't, you will enjoy the book. It's brilliant.

Buying note: It's available at: http://www.lulu.com/shop/manny-rayner/if-research-were-romance-and-other-implausible-conjectures/paperback/product-21047811.html, but if using Lulu, make sure that one of the two Payment Types (Credit/Debit or PayPal) stays selected, otherwise the order will fail, without telling you why.


OK, so I admitted defeat in writing a witty and original review to rival those in the book, but I really enjoyed it, so I want to say a little about why.

This is another collection of Manny's reviews, helpfully grouped in categories, some of which are the same as before (Children, Trash, Literachuh (sic), Science Fiction, and Chess and other Geekiness), although Science and Religion is now one category, with many of the reviews being for books that overlap categories. There is also a useful index, in which God has by far the most entries (mainly because of the section about science and God).

As usual, Manny's self-deprecating, but self-referential humour is in evidence. It opens with quotes from reviews of his first collection, redacted to make them sound critical, even though they were not.

In addition, it opens with Life on Goodreads and has Unashamed Self-Promotion. These are particularly rich seams for those who have been embroiled in Goodreads for a while, and are familiar with some of the styles and characters referenced.

The variety on display is impressive and fun: you never know what you're going to read next. In some cases, the book being reviewed would be hard to guess: it just serves as a useful hook for a piece of writing. Others are pastiches, self-contained stories, mashups of characters from multiple books. In contrast, most of those in the Science and God section are fairly straightforward reviews, mostly accessible to laymen, but probably meaty enough for fellow scientists.

The final review is an anecdote explaining the title of this collection.

A few highlights (listed here as much for my own benefit as anyone else's):

* A pastiche of Kipling's "Just So" stories, coupled with political correctness and "Back to the Future".

* A review of Ted Hughes' "The Dreamfighter", that is a beautiful story in its own right.

* Elmar is almost a straight précis of the children's picture book about a patchwork elephant, with just a dash of satire.

* A beautiful tribute to E Nesbit.

* The review of "50 Shades" damns with feint criticism, "a bad book was quite a lot like another bad book".

* A noir version of "Twilight" works well. As Manny says, "Twilight mixes well with noir... virtually anything mixes with noir" but gives the exception of the Bible - and then proceeds to demonstrate noirish Bible passages.

* For "Histoire d'O", he cites Nabokov's dictum to identify with the author, rather than the characters, and uses this to imagine how the book came about.

* A mashup come pastiche of Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch; my only criticism is that it's in the "Trash" section!

* A three-way celebrity death match (mashup) of Anna Karenina, Hamlet and Jane Eyre, which works surprisingly well, throwing new light on all three.

* A two-way hybrid of The Prisoner and The Trail that has echoes of the Truman Show, and also includes an imagined final chapter of the latter.

* Simone de Beauvoir's "Les Mandarins" cleverly weaves biographical snippets of her and Sartre with the plot of the book and aspects of Manny's own life and research.

* The review of Dune stresses the importance of context and timing when interpreting a book. I find this is often a problem with sci-fi: books can seem clichéd when it's only because they were ahead of their time and the copy-cats are more familiar. However, Manny is more specific and potentially controversial: he shows how, if it were published now, it would be easy to see it as an allegory for the Middle East, oil, and the "war on terror".

* I read and enjoyed Le Guin's Earthsea books, but her only adult one I've read, "Left Hand of Darkness" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/596086862) was not enjoyable. However, Manny's passionate review of "The Dispossessed" sorely tempts me to give her another chance. She describes a "credible anarchist utopia" and the alien science has "just the right amount of background that it feels credible, but not so much that you're tempted to nit-pick". It subtly analyses freedom and promises - and changed Manny's life!

* Hitchhiker's characters discuss sequels - and (rightly, imo) decide that Adams should not have written so many.

* The analysis of Atonement, why it's so good, and particularly why Bryony is plausible, is perfect.

* Alice in 1984 seems like such an obvious pairing: I guess the skill is partly in the writing, but also in the choice of participants.

* The review of The Silmarillion is done as a list of How to Build a Truly Convincing Fantasy World.

* Manny's Feynman-esque anecdote from when he worked on a NASA project is SO cool, it's worth the price of the book alone!

* I didn't like Fforde's The Eyre Affair, but Manny's parody is far more enjoyable. Manny is a fictional character who is unpopular with Austen fans for doing an Austen parody.

The Science and God section has by far the most entries. There are some pretty esoteric books interspersed with more mainstream ones, and many of the reviews are played straight (though there are still humorous ones). This makes it a useful resource for those wanting to investigate the subjects a little more deeply, but unsure where to start, but also keeps the reviews interesting and accessible for non-scientists.

Many famous and infamous authors are covered, especially those involved in the battles between science and God, ID and evolution etc. However, The Bible and the Koran are not included. Perhaps they are too major and well-known to be needed here, or perhaps it's in part because much of the action in those reviews takes place in the comments (which are not included in any of the reviews here, presumably for copyright reasons, as well as others).

Points of note for me:

* Leaning that an ancient Roman (Lucretius) almost worked out atomic theory!

* CS Lewis defends his idea with enough imagination and force to be worth reading, even if one fails to be persuaded by his arguments.

* Fred Hoyle had some crazy views for a "proper" scientist, and is often seen as the acceptable face of Intelligent Design - which is why his books may be useful for discussion in schools.

* Francis Collins is a Christian geneticist who dismantles ID pretty well.

* A pap-mag style quiz to determine whether you're the sort of deep thinker who would enjoy Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here.

* Finally, a wonderful set of parallels between string theory and Star Wars. Who'd o' thunk it? "The dominant String Theorists are the Empire; led by the Vader-like Ed Witten, they control the corrupt funding agencies and rule science with an iron fist. Ranged against them, we have the eccentric and charismatic Rebels... "

In conclusion, fun and erudition in equal measure, for all.

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China Miéville, Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake