This year I have read 34 books, half-finished another three, and abandoned one to the elements. I have joined two book clubs: my church’s faith and science reading group, the wonderful London Book Club, and one breakfast club based on a book… Book groups are the way to meet and spend time with great and interesting people, world. And if they’re organised online, then that’s whole spectrums of people you’d never otherwise have come across.
1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.
aka ‘The One Everyone* Got for Christmas’
(*everyone being three people, for now, but it’s on the list for more, it’s going to be one of those books, like Kavalier and Clay).
I loved this book. There were only a handful of books that I couldn’t put down this year, and I got on the wrong train more than once because I was paying more attention to this book than the departure boards.
2. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
aka ‘The One that Didn’t Win the Booker Last Year (but should have)’
This is was the one book on last year’s Booker prize list that grabbed my attention, and it didn’t disappoint. It is, at heart, about gardening and healing in Malaysia after Japan’s occupation of it during the Second World War, and something about it just reflects the misty, mysterious, jungly location in a way that’s a little bit eerie but mostly soothing.
3. The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine
aka ‘Andrei Makine, so duh’ (and also, re-reading the one before).
Andrei Makine is possibly my favourite living writer, and I now spend 3 days reading the newest and then waiting 18 months or so for the next to be written, published and translated from the French. This is actually the one before the last (Brief Loves that Last Forever), which I also read this year – but while I really enjoyed that, this one has lingered longer. I read a review of it that said something like, ‘Of course, it’s pretty ridiculous that one person could have experienced all the key moments in Soviet Russia,’ and thus completely missed the point. The book is about distilling the experience of Soviet Russia from World War I to the end of the Cold War through the life of one man, the marriage of good memories with bad contexts, and the temptations and dangers of the nostalgia that creates – because how else can you make an understanding of that make sense to one person? It goes without saying it’s small, perfectly formed, and lyrically written, because Makine.
4. More than This by Patrick Ness
aka ‘I finally read some Patrick Ness and it was about damn time/worth the wait’
I’ve been eyeing up the Chaos Walking books in shops for a few years ago. Within a week of finishing this one, they were all on my shelf. Me and New Years have big plans for them. This is about family and how it works and doesn’t work and forms in other, unexpected ways, and about love and loss and despair, and how that feels as a teenager (and an adult) – and what you do as a result.
5. Desiring the Kingdom* by James K A Smith
aka ‘The One I Read for Work and Couldn’t Escape’.
A lot of people were talking about Smith’s follow up to this, Imagining the Kingdom, this year – at least in some parts of my world, although I actually came to hear of it through the New York Times. This was the one that really grabbed me though: one of those books that explains how something you do a lot actually works – something that you were only really semi-conscious of, but if you’d thought about it, then of course THIS – and then leaves you explaining your thoughts in terms of it for the next sixth months. Imagining… was very good and built on this well, but, personally, I didn’t need most of it.
6. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
aka ‘The One That Makes You Feel Like You’re Underachieving’
… Because the author’s about eight years younger than you and has written this and won the Booker. This is one of those swallow you up books, where you fall into a world, and drag yourself out of the water onto the beach at the end spitting up water and unable to get comfortable with anything else for a bit. Although I’d say that I don’t think it’s either as good or as revolutionary in terms of structure as the Booker prize judges implied (if I might, I’d suggest they head into the gene sections of the bookshop more often…), I had a thoroughly enjoyable time with this one. Best read on a kindle unless you like giving your arms a workout while reading.
There was only one book that I actively really disliked – see below. But there were a few that disappointed me, possibly because I out too much expectation on them.
1. Madd Adam by Margaret Atwood
Atwood has been one of my favourite novelists for years, and Oryx and Crake, the first book in the trilogy that this concedes is one of her most lingering, I think. And I, both foolishly and wisely, re-read it and Before the Flood, the second, before this arrived in my hands. So while Madd Adam is very good and wraps up the story very well, it didn’t do a huge amount more than that, for me. One of the things I always liked about Atwood was that each book was something different, thematic concerns and all, a loot of the time, while the last three – although starting from a high point – have been decreasingly good iterations of each other. So, moderate.
2. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Fundamentally, this just couldn’t live up to the hype. When you’ve heard words like ‘lyrical’, ‘poetic’, and ‘first great novel about Iraq and Afghanistan’ bandied around, anything’s pretty much set up for a fall. I was waiting for The Thin Red Line of twenty-first century war books, and this wasn’t quite that. I liked it a lot, and I think it’s going to be a great starting place for people looking for fiction to read about these wars later on, but it’s not ‘the one’.
3. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
I got this on a Kindle deal because I’ve been meaning to read some Lauren Beukes for a while. South African written science-fiction has my attention, especially when the likes of William Gibson and Nick Harkaway say it’s worth it, but this, which is neither SF nor about South Africa, was my first of hers when it ended up on the London Book Club list. I’m sad it was my first, really – because it means I’m going to end up delaying reading Zoo City for longer now, and I probably shouldn’t. It took me a while to get into, and then I ripped through it, enjoying it as I did, but the further it is in my past the less I remember about it and the less it lingers. There was just too much going on in it, and not a lot of it stuck past the final page.
Lowlights (AKA, Abandoned)
Taipei, by Tao Lin.
After 100 pages of a 200 page book that was just ‘Paul did this and went here and took these drugs with these people…’ I realised that I not only didn’t agree with the author’s take on the way status-update centric social media creates a narrative of people’s lives, he was writing it in a way that made me actively disagree and get cranky with his small-minded take on it, and frankly, life is Too Short. So I sent it away.