There has rather sadly only been three blog posts since my last reading list, and yet here we are again! Already!
I have read a total of 33 books this year – 15 more than last year, so a numerical improvement (although that’s not really what I measure reading by). Some interesting serendipities, old flames and new discoveries.
1. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
This was a great ‘ideas-book’ of a sci fi, translated from the original Chinese. I think it’s always good to read more books from different countries of origin, and interesting to feel the difference in tone between this and English sci-fi. The prose was certainly nothing spectacular (although who’s to say whether this is from the original or the translation), but I can certainly say it was very different to any other sci-fi novel I’ve read.
2. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
I’ve always wanted to read Camus ever since I read that quote of his – “In the depths of winter, I finally found that within me there lay an invincible summer” – and this year I finally got around to it. A treatise on absurdism in a meaningless, Godless world. I found it incredibly cheerful.
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
3. Trigger Warning: short fictions and disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Short stories by Neil Gaiman are always good. They are the kind of short stories that I absolutely wish I could write.
4. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
One of my great discoveries of the year, Station Eleven is the story of several characters experiencing the end of the world as we know it (a swine flu mutation wiping out most of the earth’s population), and the post-apocalyptic survivors 20 years later, a travelling band of Shakespearean performers keeping the Bard’s words alive. Two things about this book:
1) There is a scene during the global melt-down where a plane full of infected passengers lands at an airport and taxies to the far end of the runway. The doors remain sealed. The plane sits in the background of the story for decades, full of bodies. I felt eerie and haunted every time I saw a plane for at least a month after reading this book.
2) A fantastic hidden interactive reading experience. I turned the page and the first line on the next page was “A folded piece of paper fell out of the book.” … And a folded piece of paper fell out of my book. I was literally seeing what the character was seeing. This is my favourite piece of cool publishing ever.
5. Writing Down the Bones: freeing the writer within by Natalie Goldberg
I’ve read a lot of writing advice books in my time, and in fact I’ve generally stopped reading them now, as it’s reached the point where the only thing I really need to do in order to write is just to sit down and do it. However, this tiny little pocket-sized book caught my eye in the library returns room and I couldn’t pass it up. While there were quite a few good prompts and bits of writing advice in there, what I really got out of the book was a philosophy of writing more than anything.
“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter…”
6. Writing to the Edge: prose poems & microfictions by Linda Godfrey (ed)
Another random acquisition from the library returns room, I picked up this slender volume because I figured if I was going to be writing short stories I should be reading more in the genre, and I really enjoy microfiction.
7. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Honestly all I can remember about this book is Barnes’ usual glorious prose. I have no memory of the plot or narrative or anything whatsoever. Whoops. I remember enjoying it, though.
8. The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis
I picked up this book and the following one after a Gleebooks YA author talk, and I’m so glad I did. Three teenage boys deal with the death of one of their friends. I may have cried a little bit.
9. The Flywheel by Erin Gough
Enticed into buying this after the same author talk, I was not disappointed (I find I never am, when I buy a book due to meeting the author). Del drops out of high school to take care of her family’s cafe. I need to read more books with LGBT characters in them. Also, this was set very specifically around Glebe, where I was living at the time, and I always love reading Aussie books with recognisable settings.
10. Slade House by David Mitchell
My Halloween book recommendation of the year, Slade House was deliciously creepy in a very David-Mitchelly sort of way. A succint but satisfying addition to The Bone Clocks universe.
11. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
The disappointment of the year.
Authors, repeat after me: Fairytales should not be extended into novels, at least not while trying to keep the fairytale-esque style. This could have been good as a short story but as a lengthy novel it draaaaagged. I wasn’t really sure what the point of it all was. And since the prose was fairly bare, in keeping with the fairytale style, I couldn’t even squeeze enjoyment out of that aspect.
12. Secret Scribbled Notebooks by Joanne Horniman
This one was a re-read for me – I read it as a 16 year old and absolutely adored it. I thought it might be a let-down since I loved it so much as a teenager, how could it stand up to re-reading?
… IT WAS EVEN BETTER YOU GUYS. The bookish main character read all of the same books that I went on to read in my late teens and early 20s, and I don’t even know if that’s just coincidence or if this book wormed its way so deeply into my subconscious that I was destined to read them. I’m pretty sure Kate is my soul mate, or maybe I was her in a past life, I don’t know.
13. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
The longest book I read this year. I have no idea how to summarise a Miéville novel, as I’m too dazzled by his imagination. It’s a chunky book and a bit of a slow starter, but it accelerates towards the conclusion. You know how in most sci-fi books the aliens are just funny-looking humans, maybe speaking a different language, but otherwise pretty indistinguishable? … Yeah, Miéville’s alients are not like that. Not that this book is sci-fi, exactly, unless sci-fi got cross-pollinated with urban grunge fantasy.
14. My Candlelight Novel by Joanne Horniman
Kind of a sequel to Secret Scribbled Notebooks, this one is told from the perspective of Kate’s older sister Sophie. While I don’t feel I have quite as much in common with her, there is something about the way Joanne Horniman writes and the way that her characters see the world that nestles perfectly against my heart. I must now acquire every single little thing that this author has ever written.
15. The Penelopiad: The Play by Margaret Atwood
I got this out of the library randomly, and since I did actually make my way through Homer’s Odyssey (as a complement to my slog through Joyce’s Ulysses), I thought it might be worth reading the feminist, Atwood-version of the story. I do enjoy modern re-tellings of ancient myths. Reading plays is always a bit weird though.
16. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
This is the least David-Mitchelly book of all of Mitchell’s books – if you hadn’t read anything else in his universe, it would probably just seem like a quirky 1980s coming-of-age story. Of course, if you know where to look you see characters from his other books popping up all over the place.
17. The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon
How can a journal, a secret scribbled notebook written so many centuries ago (AD990-early 1000s), feel so relatable in so many ways?
18. We Ate the Road like Vultures by Lynette Lounsbury
I heard the author speak somewhere (was it at the Sydney Writer’s Festival?) about how she really loved the beat poets and On The Road by Kerouc, but hated the part where they were all kind of sexist assholes and not very nice people. She wanted to write a road story told in the same style but by a teenage girl, and so this book was written. It was an insanely fun wild ride. I read it in about 24 hours. A moose explodes in the first few pages. You have been warned.
19. My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
I opened this novel and lo and behold, the epigraph was one of my favourite quotes from the last few pages of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, which I had only just finished reading. My Year of Meats is about a Japanese American documentary maker and the dodgy practices of the American meat industry, and it will probably make you want to be vegetarian. It’s also about documentary making and telling the truth in general, which is where The Pillow Book comes in.
20. Communion Town by Sam Johnson
I bought this book years and years and years ago on sale (it has a pretty cover), and finally got around to reading it. It’s an unusual city told in a collection of short stories, with different styles and genres. I like this idea of collected short stories, and I think I want to try writing one one day.
21. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Set on the British airfields in WW2, this book is about two girls (a secret agent and a pilot) and their friendship. Apart from making me cry (as war books have a tendency to do), this had a lot about planes and airfield life in general, which I found really interesting – my grandparents on my dad’s side met on an airfield base in WW2 so I gave them a copy for Christmas.
22. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A. S. Byatt
A collection of fairytales – done right this time, each tale sticking to an appropriate length. Traditional in many ways but also with an edge of modernity underneath.
23. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Okay, so I know I’m late to the bandwagon in finally getting around to reading this book. I sort of liked it, but there were a few too many “hand-wavy” moments to explain the time travel. It didn’t quite make sense and seemed to promote the irritating idea that the future is set in stone, so the characters never bothered to make any real choices. Also I wasn’t quite sold on the romance – if a middle-aged guy showed up in my childhood and told me we would get married one day, I think I’d resent the loss of agency and free will. Even if he turned out to be super hot and totally cool.
24. Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook
I got this one out of the library because a Text newsletter reviewed it as being “A sweatier, dustier, woozier, kangaroo-ier Heart of Darkness” and I was immediately sold on this description. I’m not sure why, as I don’t really like Heart of Darkness much, and had a bit of the same dislike for this one. It’s never fun to watch characters make obviously stupid decisions and ruin their lives. But it was an interesting take on the Australian outback (and alcoholism and gambling).
25. Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
The sequel to Bodies of Light which I read last year, with an equally gorgeous cover. Early interactions between Japan and Europe in the 19th century seem to crop up weirdly often in the books I read, and it happened again here – Ally’s husband Tom goes off to Japan to build lighthouses while she stays behind and works as a doctor in a women’s mental asylum. Loads in here about the psychology and mental health of 19th century women but that description makes it sound far too dry; Sarah Moss is one of the best wordsmiths I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Ally is such a powerfully real character, a quiet feminist of her times.
26. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
A fantastic idea told in some of the worst prose I’ve ever read. It’s set in a slightly futuristic, somewhat dystopian world which everyone escapes by logging in to a virtual reality game called ‘OASIS’. It plays on RPG/gaming tropes (which my geek heart really enjoyed), but the little amount of social commentary given to this fascinating idea was extremely unsubtle, and there were a couple of moments where the writing/dialogue was so bad I had to stop and put down the book in order to roll my eyes. If I had gone into it expecting a story for young to mid-age teens I may have enjoyed it more; I think I approached it too much as an adult book, which was a mistake.
27. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
It was with this book that my love for Steinbeck became somewhat tainted with the realisation that he really, really, really didn’t like women. I’ve read three of his stories now and all 3 of them have had a ludicrously vile and evil/stupid woman as the antagonist. (Usually a sexual element to their evil-ness, too). Come on, Steinbeck – a guy who wrote the timshel passage should bloody well know better.
Read East of Eden instead.
28. Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down
I opened this book to the ‘about the author page’ to the following three realisations: 1) Her name was Jennifer (cool name yo). 2) It was her debut novel. 3) She was the age of my little brother.
Then I huffed and got jealous.
Anyway, a melancholy little book set in very recognisable parts of Australia (in the second half of the book the main character moves to Randwick). How do debut novelists have such gorgeous prose? It’s not fair.
29. The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Prameeta had been recommending this to me for ages (thanks PLal!) and I finally borrowed it out of the library after seeing the three writer Moriarty sisters at an author talk (what a family full of talent). It’s about relationships and family life and secrets. It’s not quite my usual cup of tea but I did like it better than I expected. It’s tightly written with a satisfying conclusion.
30, 31 & 32. The Colours of Madeleine Trilogy by Jaclyn Moriarty
I’ve put these three books of the trilogy together because I devoured them as one story in the space of about a week and a half (they were holiday reading while I was in Byron Bay – book 1 was actually a re-read for me). I read Jaclyn Moriarty’s first book, Feeling Sorry for Celia, when I was about 15 and have eagerly snapped up anything she’s written ever since. I was so excited to finally meet her at Hornsby Library this year and thank her for a decade of happy reading – I think it’s so important for young readers to have access to Australian books, with characters that you might bump into while hanging out at Hornsby Station or at school on on Sydney’s Northshore.
Not that The Colours of Madeleine is set around here – it’s in Cambridge and also in the magical Kingdom of Cello, where Colour Storms rage over the land and a rogue Purple can kill you in an instant. Jaclyn Moriarty is a seriously whimsical lady.
33. Railsea by China Miéville
I am cheating only a little bit by including this – it’s midday on December 31st and I haven’t quite finished reading it yet, since reading time has been delayed in favour of Christmas events and eating far too much delicious food. Quite different to the other Miéville books I’ve read (as I think this one is classified as YA), it’s just pure rip-roaring fun. Sort of riffing off Moby Dick (and maybe a touch of Robert Louis Stevenson too), except instead of a whaling ship on the ocean it’s a mole-train on the Railsea, crossing the earth that boils with giant beasties that will eat you as soon as you put a toe overboard. The captain of the mole train is hunting a giant white moldywarpe named Mocker-Jack and…. here, just read this and giggle with me:
“You know how careful are philosophies […] How meanings are evasive. They hate to be parsed. Here again came the cunning of unreason. I was creaking, lost, knowing that the ivory-coloured beast had evaded my harpoon & continued his opaque diggery, resisting close reading & a solution to his mystery. I bellowed, & swore that one day I would submit him to a sharp & bladey interpretation.”
Something tells me Miéville studied Moby Dick in high school and had to write that essay explaining what the white whale was supposed to symbolise.