Spring (ha!) update

Spring is supposedly here, but there is snow on the ground and the temperature is below freezing. In April! This is so, so wrong.

It’s been ages since I posted here. Work has been very busy, and whatever writing I’ve accomplished has been in other venues, mostly work-related. I’ve been reading a lot, though, which has been greatly facilitated by staying off the internet in general and social media in particular.

My January plans included multiple reading challenges, Muriel Spark readalongs, autobuy romance authors, and manga. How am I doing?

Reading challenges: These are going well. I followed the Tournament of Books again this year, reading more than half the shortlist. I was happy to see Fever Dream take it all, especially since it beat Lincoln in the Bardo in the finals, but a lot of other books I thought were excellent were taken down, sometimes in early rounds with judgments I totally disagreed with. Which is par for the course, honestly: the TOB longlist is one I always look forward to, but the shortlist and tournament decisions are rarely in sync with my preferences. I did read some very good books I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, though, and I think everyone should read White Tears and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

My Muriel Spark readalong started well but then got overtaken by TOB reading and library-hold books. I really enjoyed what I did read, though, so I plan to get back to her novels. Mid-century women authors deserve a lot more attention than they get. The intelligence, insight, and acerbity they provide are hard to find elsewhere in one package.

I haven’t been reading romance much. Mysteries have filled in the comfort-read slot for the moment. I’ve reread a few  early John Le Carré novels, as planned, a Dick Francis, the first Martin Beck mystery, and the first in Mick Herron’s Slough House series. Hard as it is to admit, I think I’m just burned out on the romance genre. The new books and authors aren’t working for me (I’ve DNF’d quite a few highly regarded romances across different subgenres) and even my beloved autobuys aren’t doing the trick. It’s OK, it’s happened before when the zeitgeist and I were on non-overlapping tracks. I’ll come back. In the meantime, though, I don’t have much to say in or about Romanceland.

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More 2017 reading highlights and reading plans for 2018

Happy New Year!

After I posted on my 2017 year in reading and then continued to talk about books on Twitter, I realized that my abundance of good books meant that the 17 I listed needed to be augmented. I thought about it when I was compiling the original list, but as I said to Liz, I’d be up to 30 if I didn’t stop myself. But then I thought, so what? It’s my list, it’s about what I enjoyed and what I wanted to tell people were really good books. So here are a few more:

  • I listened to the audiobook of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which I had not read in many years. Anna Massey is the narrator and she is superb. Highly recommended.
  • I continued on my yearly read of Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo series. This year was the 3rd novel, Race of Scorpions.
  • I read the novelette award shortlist nominees (except one) for the 2017 Hugos. Ursula Vernon’s entry was a worthy winner, but they were all very good.
  • I read two books on the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize shortlist and enjoyed them both immensely: The Threat Level is Severe by Rowena Macdonald and Man With A Seagull on His Head by Harriet Paige. They are from small presses by authors I’d never heard of before. But I’ll certainly be watching both the authors and their publishers now.
  • Thanks to the PopSugar Challenge’s occasionally quirky categories, I finally read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Uncommon Reader, and Lady Susan. All three were terrific. I also reread, after many years, Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings, which was as good as I remembered it to be.
  • In other rereads, I returned to Dick Francis, Colin Dexter, and John le Carré (the last in preparation for reading his newest) and was reminded again at how good they are, book in and book out. They are absolutely products of their time and their treatments of women and non-white characters occasionally made me wince, but the quality of their plots, characters, and prose overrode the negatives.
  • Two of the Tournament of Books summer challenge selections were books I would never have picked up because they were outside my usual wheelhouse, but they were well worth reading: Dan Chaon’s Ill Will and Samantha Schweblin’s Fever Dream.
  • Janine and Kaetrin’s joint review of Mary Balogh’s Someone to Wed piqued my interest, and my hold finally came in after a few weeks. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it; I had tired of Balogh after reading so many of her books, but it’s been a couple of years and it was great to revisit her style and characters again. There’s a reason there were 90 holds on 30 copies at my library.
  • I had a great time participating in Willaful’s #DecktheHarlequin challenge in December. I read ten books in total, four of them regular ebooks and six Harlequin comics.

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My 2017 Year in Reading: Highs, Lows, and Discoveries

I like to wait until the last possible minute to write a yearly roundup post, mostly as a way of justifying my procrastination, but also because I’m reading up to the last day and who knows what I’ll find? I’ll finish a book today, probably, but we can call the year done for all intents and purposes. So how was it?

Overall, despite the horribleness of the public year, my personal year was pretty good, especially on the reading front. Here, in no particular order, are my highlights, lowlights, and new discoveries.

HIGHS:

  • I found my reading mojo and read a lot of great books across a diverse set of categories. I discovered that the less I was online, the more I was reading and the better my concentration was. This meant I didn’t only seek refuge in comfort reads but also stretched myself with my reading choices. And it never felt like work. Reading for discovery is more important to me than reading for recognition, and when I’m out of balance I don’t get enough of what I want and need out of it.
  •  I completed two reading challenges and read more books than I have in ages. I finished the PopSugar Reading Challenge a month early (as opposed to the previous two years, where I either didn’t finish or had to fudge categories to finish). I completed the second tier of the Mount TBR Challenge (36 books), as opposed to last year where I completed the first tier of 24 books. And I read 103 books across all categories (text v. audio, regular novels v. manga/comics, different lengths of fiction, poetry).
  • I bought a new ereader and made Kobo my main ebook retailer. I linked my account to my favorite St. Louis independent bookstore (a wonderful store that is a terrific community resource) so I give them back a little with each purchase.
  • Reading various book awards longlists led me to vibrant discussions on Goodreads, so I reactivated my dormant account. And as a result I also found category romance readers and old friends. So when Twitter is dominated by talk about books I won’t ever read, I hop on over to Goodreads and get a whole different set of recommendations.

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Review: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

I ran across a couple of articles about this historical mystery earlier this year, put it on my mental to-read list and promptly forgot about it. Then Liz Mc2 discussed it in a recent blog post and I discovered that it was available through the library. So I took advantage of some extra reading time and sat down with it. I discussed the book in comments to Liz’s post as I was reading it, but rather than filling up her comment feed I decided to write up my thoughts more fully here.

I wanted so much to like it. A mystery set in 1919 Calcutta about a British policeman, which is written by a British Asian rather than the usual white author? Yes please. And the reviews have been very favorable. Sadly, I think the reviews are as much about the intention and effort as the execution. This is so clearly a first novel, and maybe the second one will address some of the many flaws. I hope so, because there is stuff to like here, but the problems are glaring. Some are undoubtedly consequences of first-novelitis, but a lot of them should have been dealt with long before the book was released.

Captain Sam Wyndham is paired with Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee to investigate the murder of a high-ranking civil servant. Wyndham has just come to Calcutta and this is his first case. In addition to Banerjee he works with Digby, a veteran police officer who is resentful at being passed over for promotion. Wyndham soon finds that the murder is more complicated than it seems, potentially implicating British officials, Indian activists, and millionaire businessmen. Wyndham moves between the British and Bengali communities, trying to piece together evidence.

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Bookish check-in

Much has been happening, including reading, but not including blogging. Time to rectify that, so here are some random updates:

E-reading: I broke down and got a new ereader last week, a Kobo Aura H2O Edition 2. That is an even worse name than Nook Glowlight Plus, but I will give it a pass because the reader itself is terrific. I’ve been using Kobo as my ebook store more and more over the past few months and it still offers a Blackberry app, so I’d been syncing across my phone, tablet, and computer. And my Glowlight was starting to get a bit glitchy. The great thing about the Kobo is that it’s a 6.8″ screen in a form factor that is only slightly larger than the Nook. The larger screen size lets me read pdfs! This is very exciting, since I still occasionally get a book in pdf form that doesn’t want to convert nicely to epub. And while the Kobo store is sometimes more expensive than Amazon, they have a price match feature (difference + 10% of the lower price) and I’ve taken advantage of that.

Goodreads & LibraryThing: Readers, I updated my lurker account at Goodreads. I know I said I’d never go back, and I’m staying far, far away from the romance, YA, and m/m communities, but there are a bunch of people reading general and literary fiction who don’t kerfuffle and say interesting things. Not that interesting things aren’t said in the rom community, I still lurk there, but once bitten etc. Anyway, if you have a GR account you can find me under sunita_p and I’m writing brief notes on books as I finish them. I’m not commenting much but I’m there. And I’m still at LibraryThing (also as sunita_p). I like their cataloguing system and interface a lot, they just don’t have much conversation.

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Recent Reading: More award nominees and a timepass

Well, the Booker prize winner was announced last week. Now I know how people who disliked The Sellout felt last year. I loved The Sellout and didn’t mind that a US author won. This year half the shortlist was made up of US authors (writing very US-focused novels) and the best known, most garlanded author’s book won (George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo). Eh. Never mind. The longlist was awesome and I found new authors and novels I really enjoyed, and in looking for other longlist readers I stumbled across a couple of reading groups on Goodreads and blogs I didn’t know about.

I read two National Book Award longlist novels (neither made their respective shortlists), another Booker nominee, and one of the Goldsmith shortlist books:

Hate U Give coverThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This seemed to be the It Book of its season, at least it was all over my Twitter feed and there were lots of feature stories about it in the press. I don’t read much YA so I didn’t put it on my TBR, but then I put a library hold on it out of curiosity and it came in right around when the NBA longlist was announced. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It feels like a debut; the structure is quite transparent, the plot goes pretty much the way you think it will, and if you’ve been paying attention to the many protests since Trayvon Martin’s killing some of the set pieces will look familiar (although they’re well written and integrated into the characterizations and storyline). The characters provide a little too much symmetry: there is a bad cop and also a good cop, a bigoted white teenager and an oblivious but trying-to-learn white teenager, good mothers and bad mothers. But the authorial voice is terrific, and the protagonist gives readers an important window into various aspects of middle- and working-class (and lower) African American life. The characters are quite nuanced and there’s something unaffected and fresh about the telling of the story, and it’s an important story to tell and tell well. Thomas does. Continue reading

Recent reading: Awards season

I’m still reading, somewhat more slowly given other demands, but steadily. Fall is awards season in literature-land and new short and long lists are popping up all over. And of course October is when the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced. This year the committee went for a candidate whose choice lots of people could understand and approve: Kazuo Ishiguro. Like many readers, I’ve read Remains of the Day, and we have several other books of his on our shelves. I didn’t love Remains of the Day, which I read soon after it came out, so I hesitated to read more from him, but that was definitely my problem not his. It’s a brilliant, lovely book, but I encountered it just when I was really tired of reading about the travails of comfortably situated white people and I couldn’t see past that, even though I could see the quality and artistry. I need to reread it, but that will have to wait until I’ve read some of the other works. I’m especially looking forward to The Buried Giant.

Man with seagull coverI read one more off the Not The Booker Prize list and loved it: Man With A Seagull on His Head by Harriet Paige. It’s a debut novel from a small press and it’s just as quirky as the title suggests, but it’s also insightful and quietly satisfying. It tells the story of artist Ray Eccles and the people around him. Ray is (literally) hit on the head by a diving seagull while he’s at the beach and he becomes obsessed with painting a woman he saw there at the same time. He’s discovered by a couple, George and Grace Zoob, who find and publicize “outsider artists,” and becomes quite a sensation. I hesitate to describe Ray as an artist, although he clearly produces art, because I think of artists as guided by intentionality, and Ray is compelled to paint rather than choosing to do so. His talent and fame affect the Zoobs and their young daughter, as well as the object of his paintings, Jennifer Mulholland, and Ray himself. The story is told from multiple POVs and stretches over a couple of decades despite being a fairly short book. And there is a pigeon. It’s a meditation on art, loneliness, attachment, and other aspects of the human condition, all told in an understated, unpretentious but deeply thoughtful way.

I also discovered that one of the major Canadian literary prizes, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, had just released its shortlist this week:

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Recent reading: award nominees and challenge choices

September is always a super-busy month for me but I’ve managed to keep reading. In addition to the Booker shortlist in the first half of the month, the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced last week. The Goldsmiths is given to a novel written by a UK or Irish author which is “genuinely novel and which embodies the sprit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” There is frequently overlap with the Booker but not always, and usually not much. The six nominees are:

  • H(A)ppy by Nicola Barker
  • A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume
  • Playing Possum by Kevin Davey
  • Reservoir 13 by Jon MacGregor
  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley
  • Phone by Will Self

I’d heard of 4 of the 6 and was thrilled to see the MacGregor on the list. Like many readers, I’d never heard of Playing Possum, which is published by the wonderfully named Aaargh! Press. The Barker and the Baume had been on my radar, and I’ve been meaning to read a Will Self novel. I’ve managed to pick up half the list through the library and will order the Barker for sure.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a bit more of the Booker list and other award-nominee novels, along with some lighter and more comfort-oriented fare.

History of Wolves coverA History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. I bounced off the description because it sounded like another MFA-influenced novel about retrospective looks at teenage girls. But after it made the Booker shortlist and I read quite a few positive and convincing reviews and comments, I decided to try it. It didn’t start well; I had to force myself to keep reading through the first third of this novel. The writing felt overly self-conscious and I wasn’t convinced that it was in character. There are two storylines, one involving Maddie/Linda’s schoolmate and a teacher, the other involving a mother and child who come to live near Linda in the woods. The two parts don’t cohere and it’s not clear where anything is going. But then Leo, the father, shows up, and things start to fall into place.

The book is about so many things, too many really, because Fridlund can’t quite bring everything together. But the themes are important and her approach to them is unusual. The teacher-student relationship, the role of religion in Leo and Patra and Paul’s lives, Linda’s relationship with her parents, all of these are written beautifully and the twists and turns in each storyline are unexpected. Continue reading

The Man Booker shortlist

I woke up knowing that the Booker shortlist had been announced while I was asleep (10am BST). My first intimation that it was not what I and some other readers were expecting came when I read Rosario’s and Theresa’s tweets. Whoa. There were three I expected and three I didn’t, two choices that I agreed with and multiple omissions I didn’t. So, I suppose, a normal Booker year? Here’s the list:

  • 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
  • The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozely
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  • Autumn by Ali Smith

What was different for me this year was that I had read over half the list, which is far and away the most, and I’d been so sure, along with a few other people, that some of the books were slam dunks. In that category were the Ali Smith , which made it, and Reservoir 13, which didn’t. In the next category (probably but not a slam dunk) were Solar Bones, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Home Fire. I thought Days Without End and The Underground Railroad might suffer from the “too many awards already” problem, but the Barry certainly deserved to be there on quality grounds in my opinion, and the bookies and the rest of the literary world thought the Whitehead did too.

This year’s longlist was really strong, and there were always going to be worthy books left off. I’m still kind of stunned, though. I shouldn’t be; after years of reviewing genre novels I certainly know the importance of taste, and when you have a high quality threshold like you do here, taste is going to play a key role.

Of my choices that didn’t make it, the one I feel most strongly about is Reservoir 13. It’s a terrific accomplishment, it’s innovative while still being accessible, and McGregor is a long way from a household name. McCormack has already won awards for Solar Bones, and I’m guessing Home Fire will do well in upcoming award competitions.

Right now my first choice on this list is Autumn, but I plan to read the Fridlund and the Mozely before the announcement, and I’ll see how much headway I can make on the Auster. My taste-wise least favorite is the Saunders; I can see why it was chosen, and lots of smart thoughtful readers love it, but if it wins I’ll know how the anti-Sellout people felt last year. 🙂

The winner is announced on October 17.

How about you? What do you think? Are you surprised, pleased, befuddled, or some other emotion completely? Which ones are you going to read (or not)?

Booker longlist reading: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Just under the wire, I finished one of my most eagerly awaited longlist nominees. Shamsie’s novel has received rave reviews all over the place and is the bookie’s favorite to make the shortlist. It’s a topic that I’ve studied and written on and one that matters a lot to me: the way in which the post 9/11 (and in this case, 7/7) attacks have reshaped the way Muslims are perceived and treated in western Europe and North America. Shamsie’s novel is set in the UK and focuses on the particular issues there, but the larger themes apply across many settings.

Liz, Rosario, Theresa, and other Booker Longlist readers have described the plot so I won’t rehash that here (you should definitely go read their reviews and the comments to them). Shamsie models her story on the plot of Sophocles’ Antigone, with a few modifications in the cast and family relationships. In her telling there are two central families, one comprising Isma, Aneeka, and Pervaiz Pasha, the children of a British-Pakistani man who died fighting with Islamist terrorists; and the other headed by Karamat Lone, rising front-bench politician and current Home Secretary whose marriage to a wealthy, successful American businesswoman has propelled his career. Karamat and Terry have two children in their 20s: Emily, an investment banker in NY, and Eamonn, a somewhat aimless but charming and handsome 24-year-old.

Isma is the older mother-substitute, who finally has the chance to pursue her own intellectual ambitions when twins Aneeka and Pervaiz reach adulthood. But her decision to pursue a Ph.D. in the United States sets a number of actions in motion, actions that will have devastating consequences for all of them. And Karamat Lone is drawn back into the Muslim community that has both raised and rejected him, with his political ambitions tied to events he can only imperfectly control.

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