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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
A 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
Hamid’s novel marks his second recognition by the Man Booker committee; The Reluctant Fundamentalist made it to the shortlist and while it didn’t win, it won a slew of other prizes. I had very conflicted feelings about that book. Stylistically it was impressive, but substantively it fell short in a number of ways for me. I hadn’t planned to read this one (I skipped the book he wrote in between, which was also well-reviewed), but as I said before, it kept staring at me from the New Fiction shelf and I read a couple of interesting exchanges about it on blogs and at Goodreads.
I started out thinking I’d read 40 or 50 pages and see how I felt about it, and I finished it within the day. Teresa’s review does an excellent job of capturing many of the novel’s strengths, so I’ll direct you to her Shelf Love blog for an overview. If you want a formal review, this one in the Sunday NYT Book Review by Viet Thanh Nguyen is absolutely brilliant.
I loved the way Hamid made the settings both specific and general. Knowing he was from Lahore, I assumed from the opening chapters that the novel was set in Pakistan, but then when the civil war intensifies the setting feels more like what we’ve seen happening in Syria over the last few years. The gradual breakdown of civilian life and the need to get out is captured vividly, even though his style in rendering scenes of loss and horror is often matter-of-fact:
I know, I’m surprised too. I’ve followed the Booker Prize awards for decades, and I’ve read quite a few of the winners and nominees, but until a couple of years ago it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to read the long and shortlist nominees in real time. But I’ve really enjoyed Liz McC’s and Rosario’s posts on their reading experiences, as well as a few other readers I learned about. Last year I bought a number of the books but of course failed to read most of them before the prize announcement in October (I’d only read the eventual winner, which I loved and admired almost unreservedly).
This year, since I’ve been reading a lot this summer and following various litfic conversations and challenges, a number of the books were familiar to me and/or ones I’d been considering reading. I sincerely doubt I could read all of them by the time the shortlist is announced in early September, but here’s the full list and how they stack up in terms of my interests:
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. This was available at the library so I picked it up, but it’s 800+ pages of bildungsroman and seems to be based on the author’s life. I’m already in the middle of two 700+ page books about Men of Privilege and they are more interesting to me than the premise of Auster’s novel, so I doubt I’ll get to this one.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I’m a sucker for dark literary westerns, so I almost bought this at the beginning of the summer. And it’s not long! It’s definitely on the must-read list.
I’ve been reading across various genres this year, with a lot of literary fiction mixed in. Reading litfic requires mental muscles that I don’t exercise as much in genre, not because genre doesn’t require brain power, but because I’ll happily read a genre novel for its emotional payoffs or comfort-read benefits. If it’s not technically strong, I can live with that. Case in point: the Expanse series book I read earlier this summer. The writing was workmanlike at best and the plot meandered, but it was an interesting world and I was happy to fall into it.
With lit fic, I’ve been having the opposite reaction: the reading experience itself may not be great, but once I’m done and writing up my reactions, I realize the book’s strengths and have to give the author credit for them. Case in point: Ill Will by Dan Chaon. I put this on hold at the library when The Morning News announced its Rooster summer reading challenge.
I was excited enough about the challenge to buy the first book, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, but that one turned out to be a major disappointment. As I ranted at my LibraryThing page:
I loathed this book, and that doesn’t happen often. I could live with the stream of consciousness and the lack of quotation marks. I was fine being in her head as a writing approach. I just found her, the narrator, deplorable. I don’t know WHY I was in her head. The book is marinated in privilege, and the occasional line of self-awareness doesn’t excuse the overall treatment of Greece and the Greeks as backdrop to Aimless Rich One-Percenters. But even that I could have put up with, if I hadn’t been so revolted by the narrator, especially in the 2nd half. I was OK with her in the first half, but she really went off the rails for me in the second. In real life you would find this person appalling, so what am I supposed to get from her as a fictional character? What does she illuminate?
Also, I now hate comma splices with the heat of a thousand suns. I didn’t hate them before this book, but I’m transformed.
Nevertheless, I gave the book 3 stars because I thought it was trying to do something interesting and worthwhile, and I could see how the approach might work for a different reader.
I’ve read four more books this month. It hasn’t felt like that many, but one was in process, another was an audiobook, and a third was a reread from way back. So only one book really felt like a slog, and unfortunately it was the one I was looking forward to. I read and enjoyed Pamela Sherwood’s novella, The Advent of Lady Madeline, and Janine and SonomaLass both really liked the full-length novel that follows it, Devices and Desires, so I decided to try it even though I had mixed feelings about the sample. The novel was written before the novella and is modelled on the film A Lion in Winter (the author’s notes in both the novella and the novel are explict about that, calling it a “retelling”). The film, of course, is the film version of a play which fictionalizes the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their relationships with their children at a specific point in time. So you have a three-steps removed retelling of a famous historical relationship about which our information is decent but far from definitive, given that they lived in the 12thC. Moreover, the characters in the film are embodied by famous actors, who become fused with the characters themselves in our understanding of the latter.
I’m laying all this out because as I was reading I was experiencing the text at a variety of levels:
- as a genre romance with a central relationship embedded within a family saga;
- as an AU (Alternate Universe) version of real people as well as of a specific film version of those people;
- and as a story set within a specific historical context, i.e., a ducal castle in Yorkshire, England in Christmas of 1888.
I had mixed feelings about the sample because the types of anachronisms I had observed in the novella seemed to be cropping up here as well, and on top of that I wondered about a couple of more substantive logic issues in the story. Gervase, our hero, rejects being a barrister and instead decides to become a solicitor because he doesn’t want to be dependent on either his father or other people for his income. But to be a solicitor requires three to five years of being an articled clerk to a solicitor (something the text notes), which the clerk not only has to pay for (to the tune of hundreds of pounds), but during that time he is not remunerated, or at least not enough to live on. So who is supporting Gervase while he qualifies?
I’m woefully behind on my #20BooksofSummer reading challenge, but I did manage to finish a few books and wanted to write about them.
I reviewed Nathan Burgoine’s paranormal gay novel, Triad Blood, over at Dear Author jointly with Sirius, so I won’t write a lot about that here. I enjoyed it, especially Burgoine’s voice and the sense of place I got from the world-building. And I liked the characters! I’ll definitely read more of his work.
After that I read a 2015 rom-com by Fiona Harper, The Doris Day Vintage Film Club. It features a skittish heroine and a can’t-commit hero who spend much of the first half of the book in a Big Mis. If that sounds way too tropey, it’s not, or at least it wasn’t for me because I like how Harper mixes romance, women’s fiction, and chicklit. She’s also very good with supporting characters and that was true here. The Doris Day theme didn’t entirely work for me, mostly because while I acknowledge her talent, she’s never been a favorite. So reading about people who just love her movies and seek advice from her life was … not compelling? But that’s a fairly minor quibble. Overall, it was a fun, sweet read.
Finally, I just finished Dave Egger’s The Circle, which I avoided when it was released in 2013 (I grew up in and spend 4 months a year in Silicon Valley, do I really need to read fiction about it?). But the way technology and social media have evolved over the last few years, plus teaching privacy in the digital age, kept me thinking about it, and when Rosario reviewed it positively I put it back on the list. And I’m really glad I did.