My 2016 Reading List

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:station-11

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?

pillowbook-insta

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 Mosssigns-for-lost-children

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.
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My 2015 Reading List

It’s rather small this year, and a little belated, but here it is.

Notes/Rambling: I can’t help but feel a strange common thread has run through my reading and thinking life this past year, about reincarnation and immortality and living in the present moment, a time being, moving through time. It’s there in David Mitchell’s novels and of course in A Tale for the Time Being and in My Name is Memory and in Orlando, both the stage production I saw at Sydney Theatre Company and the original novel that I finished off the reading year with. It’s here, it’s now. It’s consciousness. It’s maybe the opposite of death. I haven’t intentionally sought out this thread but it seems to keep finding its way to me, and I’m glad.


1. Sabriel by Garth Nix

Starting the year off on a light note. I’d heard a lot about this series, and that Sabriel was a solid female protagonist. I enjoyed it, but it’s definitely for younger readers and I’m not going to track down the rest of the series (but I probably would if I’d read it fifteen years ago!)

2. Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

Seriously… look how pretty it is!

 

Another successful ‘I bought this book because the cover was pretty’ venture. Bodies of Light is about one of the first female students to study medicine in London – her childhood, her frigid relationship with her mother, women’s suffrage, a certain period in history. The prose is almost as gorgeous as the cover. One of those happy accidents stumbled upon in a bookstore that I want to tell everyone about. Go! Find! Read!

 

 

3. A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

Recommended by a friend (which is how I read most genre fiction). Very enjoyable urban fantasy where the city of London has developed its own magic of electricity and Biker gangs and graffiti. It was grungy. It was strange. I liked it a lot.

4. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This is one of those books I’ve always had a vague feeling I should have read, and this year I finally got around to it. Now I can finally sing the line about Maya Angelou in La Vie Boheme from Rent and know what I’m talking about!

5. Clade by James Bradley

I have been a reader of James Bradley’s blog on and off for a while now, and I really enjoy the way he writes. This is the first full-length piece of his fiction that I’ve read, and I was not disappointed. Though beautifully written, it left me with a lingering sense of sadness that was hard to shake. It follows generations of a family through a world devastated by climate change, and it just felt all too real to me. It didn’t feel like science fiction, it just felt like the future that we are all going to be stuck with.

6. South of Darkness by John Marsden

More than anything else, this reminded me of Treasure Island by my good ol’ great-great-grand-cousin, Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a relatively simple tale of a young London orphan in the 1700s who gets himself sent to Australia as a convict to seek a better life. This is Marsden’s first ‘adult’ book, but to me it felt strangely much more child-like than his excellent Tomorrow When the War Began serieswhich was packed with heavy questions about war and death and reams of character development, all of which were lacking in South of Darkness.

On a happy side note, I did get to see John Marsden speak at the Sydney Writer’s Festival in 2015, and my tatty old well-loved paperback copy of Tomorrow When the War Began is now signed by the author, which makes my fangirl heart infinitely happy.

7. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Okay, we all know how much I love David Mitchell by now. His books are like dreams. It’s incredible to me that this was a debut novel. While I enjoyed some of his later work better (and Cloud Atlas will always be my favourite), this was seriously impressive for a first novel. I could only dream of writing something this powerful and original.

I got to hear David Mitchell speak at a couple of sessions of the 2015 Sydney Writer’s Festival, and I absolutely and unabashedly have a writer-crush on him. He is awesome, funny, humble, incredibly smart and creative, and ever-so-British.

8. Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This was the longest book I read this year. I read the first half of it very slowly and the second half very quickly – it takes a while to get going, and the fact that I was on holiday to read the second half definitely helped. This book is sort of like… the love-child of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen wrote a 19th century urban fantasy novel. I enjoyed it overall, but I’m not quite sure I understand what all the fuss and the cult following is about. It could have been shorter.

9. A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Another recommendation, this time from Mum, and I hereby proclaim it my Book of the Year. A few months after the 2010 tsunami, a Canadian writer (named Ruth) finds a lunchbox washed up on the shore and inside it the diary of 16-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl, who is quite determined to write a diary before she kills herself. The book weaves back and forth between the novelist reading the diary and the diary entries. While I found the schoolgirl Nao to be a more entertaining narrator, the real glory of the book is the way the two threads intertwine.

I can’t really describe this book. It did stuff to me. It was a book that I deeply needed in my life this year.

As per tradition (the fact that it happened once before makes it a tradition, right?) my Book of the Year gets the honour of my favourite passage transcribed:

“A single moment is all we need to establish our human will and attain truth. […] Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, without cease, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole world.”


10. Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

This was my Unfortunate Disappointment of the year. I first read Eucalyptus in Year 11 English class and I remembered enjoying it at the time as an Australian fairytale-esque novel. On re-read a decade later, it appears to be a loose collection of short stories tied together by an irritating plot in which a modern Australian man sells off his daughter to whoever wins his stupid tree-naming competition. No one sees anything strange in this medieval marriage/competition throwback and the daughter mopes around doing and saying literally nothing for the entire book while her future is determined by a handful of male characters.

I put the book down around the last chapter and lost track of where I’d left it for a little while. When I found it again, I couldn’t even be bothered finishing it off. Ugh.

11. Fools Quest (Fitz & the Fool #2) by Robin Hobb

Imagine your absolute favourite long series of all time. Imagine reading twelve novels set in this fantasy world with the greatest characters you have ever read. Imagine reaching the end of the twelfth book, where everything is more or less wrapped up, only there is this little tantalising and frustrating thread of the unknown left. But the author says at the time that that’s it, that was the final book, there will be no more sequels for these characters.

Years later, the author changes her mind, and pants are peed in excitement.

This is the second book of the ever-so-incredibly-and-desperately-long-awaited Fitz & the Fool series, and it really kicks off in book 2. If you read it, sacrifice chickens to the God of Cliffhangers and offer prayers of thanks that at least Hobb is a quick and reliable writer, and the next one should be coming out in 2016.

12. number9dream by David Mitchell

See my happy rant about David Mitchell for #7 on this list. I don’t know if it’s the way all of his books are set in the same mega-universe, or the dreamy quality of them, or if it’s just that they blow my mind so much I can’t keep track – but I do have a hard time differentiating between Mitchell’s books. So I can’t give a very effective recap. As it’s set in Tokyo and it’s a coming-of-age story for the main character, it echoed A Tale for the Time Being in a strange and interesting way for me.

13. Spinster: making a life of one’s own by Kate Bolick

Another recommendation, this time from Laura The Selfie Queen. This book is part memoir, part non-fiction, about Kate Bolick’s life and the lives of a group of writing and thinking women who she has chosen as her inspiration. What makes a ‘spinster’ different to a ‘bachelor’? It’s an interesting look at society’s expectations and judgments surrounding marriage, motherhood and creativity. No offence, Kate Bolick, but I found the historical women you wrote about rather more interesting than your own life. That’s just the hazard of having good source material, I guess.

14. The Collected Poems, Sara Teasdale

Rarely have I devoured a book of poems so voraciously and easily as I did this one. Sara Teasdale has a deceptively simple style and vocabulary, but her poems have this deep ache and joy and beauty in them. She died in 1933 but I swear she gets me.

I made you many and many a song,
 Yet never one told all you are —
It was as though a net of words
 Were flung to catch a star;
It was as though I curved my hand
 And dipped sea-water eagerly,
Only to find it lost the blue
 Dark splendor of the sea.

 

(“Time,” echoes Josh Pyke, “is like the ocean; you can only hold a little in your hands.”)

 

15. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

How could I resist this book? It’s dedication is ‘For the librarians’:

People of the Book is a fictional re-telling of the real Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th Century Jewish prayer book which has survived wars and violence and centuries, and the story of the people who created it and saved it and discovered it through the many years of its life. Historical fiction is not a genre that I read a lot in, but I really enjoy Geraldine Brooks’ work.

16. Looking for Alaska by John Green

I quite possibly would have loved this book if I had read it as a young teenager. As an adult, I found Alaska (the love interest of the main character) to be a shallow and hugely self-absorbed brat. So it was rather irritating. I felt like the main character was too smart to be obsessed with such a yucky person. Alas.

17. My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares.

Yes, Ann Brashares, of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants fame! This book is about (again) reincarnation and immortality, but this time with the frame of a love story. Two soul mates are reborn again and again through the ages, but only one of them remembers and tries to seek out the other in the next life. This would have been great, if only I hadn’t discovered in THE LAST THREE PAGES that this is actually the first book of a (as yet unpublished) series, so there was no closure whatsoever. Argh. It should be illegal to publish a non-stand-alone book without mentioning somewhere on the cover that it is Book One Of Many.

18. Orlando by Virginia Woolf

This was my other favourite book of the year. I picked it up from the library after seeing the Sydney Theatre Company stage production at the Opera House. It has further cemented my love of Virginia Woolf, and was one of those books that come along at just the right time when you need it the most. It was also surprisingly funny, although when I look back at the wry humour in A Room of One’s Own, I’m not actually sure why I was surprised. It’s about many things – sex and gender, history, memory, our multitude of selves, the surge of time and the present moment. And it’s about writing.

The book is inextricably mixed with the production I saw in my head, so when I read the first I was picturing and hearing the voices of the second. The tiny boat reaches the crest of the wave… I am beginning to understand.

 

These are the books I read in 2013: mini-reviews and highlights

Thanks to the awesomeness that is Goodreads, I’ve managed to keep track of every book that I have read throughout the course of this year. My aim for the year was to read more books than last year, in which my total was 26.5 (Ulysses took me almost four months over last summer). I know, I know, quality over quantity, but 26 seems far too

Scriptsmall a number for a whole year! Happily I achieved this goal for 2013, with a total of 36 books.

I felt like I had a very solid run with books this year – I really loved almost everything I read, with some minor exceptions. It was a very good year for amazing, mind-expanding speculative fiction (never underestimate a book just because it sits on the genre shelf in bookstores). It was also a surprisingly good year for buying books because of their pretty or interesting covers, and the content of those books turning out to be even more awesome than their packaging.

Here’s the list, in the order that I read them. Highlights (and one low-light) are in blue, and brief thoughts on each are below:

  1. Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond
  2. Froi of the Exiles (Lumatere Chronicles, #2) by Melina Marchetta
  3. Quintana of Charyn (Lumatere Chronicles, #3) by Melina Marchetta
  4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. Embassytown by China Miéville
  7. On the Beach by Nevil Chute
  8. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  10. Island by Aldous Huxley
  11. Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Lisa Appignanesi
  12. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
  13. A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel
  14. The Amber Amulet by Craig Silvey
  15. By the Book: a reader’s guide to life by Ramona Koval
  16. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
  17. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
  18. TheFrench Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
  19. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  20. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  21. The Death of the Moth and other essays by Virginia Woolf
  22. How to Climb Mont Blanc in a Skirt: A Handbook for the Lady Adventurer by Mick Conefrey
  23. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  24. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  25. The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski
  26. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  27. Possession by A. S. Byatt
  28. Shakespeare: the World as Stage by Bill Bryson
  29. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  30. Letter to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon
  31. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser
  32. The Colour of Magic (Discworld #1) by Terry Pratchett
  33. Journal of Katherine Mansfield by Katherine Mansfield
  34. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
  35. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing by John Scalzi.
  36. Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente.

And here’s my brief thoughts on each one:

1. Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond

An interesting look at the history of civilisations and what allowed different societies to expand and gain cultural dominance (hint: it’s not the superior whiteness of their skin). It is not coincidental that 2013 was also the year I started playing Civilisation IV – the book was a perfect complement to the game. It’s all about location and resources.

2 & 3. Froi of the Exiles (Lumatere Chronicles, #2) by Melina Marchetta
and Quintana of Charyn (Lumatere Chronicles, #3) by Melina Marchetta

I can’t consider these books separately as they are all one story (I read book 1 of the trilogy in December 2012). I was curious to see how Melina Marchetta – author of Looking for Alibrandi and other such contemporary, real world novels – would transfer to a fantasy setting, and of course she did not disappoint. This series didn’t make me cry as much as her other books. Which is a good thing for my tear ducts, I guess.

4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I picked this up because I wanted to see the movie with Emma Watson (and everyone knows you have to read the book first), and I’m glad I did. I wasn’t quite a teenager in the 90s, but pretty close. It’s nice to be reminded of the times when we felt infinite.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This was one of the earliest books I studied in high school (pretty sure it was year 7).   I was a very sheltered 11 year old and was mostly clueless about race and discrimination. Now that I’m older and hopefully at least a little bit wiser, this was so worth a re-read. The courtroom scene made me bawl like a… Well, like an 11-year-old.

6. Embassytown by China Miéville

One of the unexpected highlights of my reading year. This is a sci-fi novel that examines the power and structure of language itself. It’s about the importance of that difference between the signifier and the signified. It’s about aliens that speak in two voices. It’s about words. It is strange and weird and phenomenal.

7. On the Beach by Nevil Chute

I’d been meaning to read this for a while because it’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in Australia, and I want to write one of those one day. It’s always weird reading something ‘futuristic’ that was written in the past; sometimes I couldn’t tell if what I was reading was bizarre characterisation or just a product of the period in which it was written (1950s). Who calmly goes about their business when impending nuclear fallout is going to kill everyone within 6 months? Imaginary Australians from the 1950s, that’s who.

8. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I read this because it had a pretty cover and an interesting blurb and also because it is a product of Nanowrimo. Proof that novels written in the space of a month CAN be published! (After much editing, I’m sure). This was fairly light reading, but had some lovely passages and some imaginative ideas.

9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I’m not really sure how to describe this book, other than ‘probably the best I’ve read this year’. Talk about epic – it spans multiple characters, multiple styles and thousands of years. It is a glorious puzzle box of a book, about people, and power. ‘We may be just one drop in the ocean, but what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?’

10. Island by Aldous Huxley

This is Huxley’s utopian counterpart to Brave New World, one of my absolute favourite dystopias. Of course that was going to be hard to live up to, not least because dystopias by their nature make for more compelling reading (it’s hard to write a narrative without conflict). This book was a bit uneven, but still interesting, especially in comparison to Brave New World.

11. Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Lisa Appignanesi

I picked this one up in Gleebooks because I couldn’t resist the title, and also I felt I should do some reading on feminism that didn’t come off the internet. I found myself somewhat disagreeing with some of the essays and then realising that was exactly the point – feminism isn’t some monolithic structure where you have to toe the Party Line or you get kicked out of the club. It was good to read some other perspectives, sometimes very different to my own. After reading this I also attended a tie-in session at the Sydney Writer’s Festival in May.

12. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

This book helped to tackle some of my prejudices about rural America. It’s about climate change, but also more broadly about science and communication.  While it was definitely a book with a purpose, this didn’t take away from its readability or its empathetic characters. As with every story about a woman stuck in an unhappy family life due to an accidental pregnancy, I always wonder why marriage and children was the only outcome that was considered – especially since this character was not particularly religious. Then I remember the book is set in America…

13. A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel

Manguel could write about grass growing and I would find it moving, fascinating and enlightening. In this case, he was writing about books, so it was even better. This wasn’t my favourite of the books he’s written about reading, because many of the chapters were about books that I personally have never read before. Still, I will read anything this author produces and enjoy it immensely. (My year 12 English teacher would be so surprised – and pleased, I hope).

14. The Amber Amulet by Craig Silvey

This is a sweet, tiny little hardback about a young boy who wants to be a superhero and solve mysteries. It has a lovely cover design. It is satisfyingly bite-sized; I think I finished it in a day.

15. By the Book: a reader’s guide to life by Ramona Koval

I picked this up off the same library shelf as Manguel – I do like reading books about books. Again, there was quite a lot about books that I’ve never personally read. But it was more autobiographical writing that tied in with the author’s reading history.

16. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

I’m so glad I read this book this year. Of course, everyone knows Mandela – but having read his autobiography I have even more understanding of what the world has just lost. For me, the most inspiring thing about Mandela was his ability to understand the difference between a system of prejudice and the people who are perpetrating it; his anger was always reserved for the former. I deeply admire his ability to be angry without becoming bitter or cynical; it’s something I’d like to work on in myself.

17. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Another random buy because I liked the title. These kind of purchases can be a bit of an (un)lucky dip, but all of them this year have been winners! As a bonus, it turns out this is the first book in a trilogy of modern fairy tales, so this was the discovery that just keeps on giving.

18. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

I liked this book, but I didn’t really GET this book. I think perhaps it expects the reader to be more familiar with the romance genre (in the traditional sense of romance). The ending(s) baffled me. Still, it was  an enjoyable enough read, if ultimately a little unsatisfying.

19. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This was my most highly anticipated book of the year, and it did not disappoint. Neil Gaiman is not only one of my absolute favourite authors, but also someone I look up to a lot as a writer. He tackles such incredible ideas without ever sacrificing the enjoyable, page-turning quality of his work. He is consistently able to make my hair stand on end. He is the example I point to if anyone questions the literary value of ‘genre’/speculative fiction. This book is about the darkness of childhood, but such a short summary can’t possibly do it justice.

20. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Another random I picked up because of the pretty, pretty cover. I never thought I would feel so uplifted by a post-apocalyptic novel. This was a story about the irresistibly human impulse to find beauty and joy in the world, even after that world has fallen down to rubble around your ears. Lovely, lovely characters. After a virus has wiped out most of the planet’s population, the protagonist flies over a deserted world in his vintage plane with his trusty dog. Considering it deals with the end of the world as we know it, this is a wonderfully gentle, life-affirming book.

21. The Death of the Moth and other essays by Virginia Woolf

Disclaimer: I named my first ever desktop computer ‘Virginia’ in honour of Woolf, so I can’t exactly claim to be unbiased when it comes to her writing. Her voice comes through the decades so clearly, it’s almost spooky. I wrote a blog post about this here.

22. How to Climb Mont Blanc in a Skirt: A Handbook for the Lady Adventurer by Mick Conefrey

At first I was a little miffed at the title of this book – publications ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ are often full of horribly sexist stereotypes, in my experience – but then I read the introductory chapter in which the author admits to writing a previous book about adventurers and only realising after publication that they were almost all men. Thus, this book was made to redress the balance. It is full of bite-sized anecdotes about female explorers, and the unique challenges that they faced because of their gender, as well as a generous dose of their quirky habits and weird bits of advice.

23. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book was written in 1958 and in some ways, it shows. Basically, it’s about a mentally retarded man who is given experimental neuroscientific treatment to make him a genius. And… I couldn’t quite get past this over-simplification. Obviously the book was ‘speculative fiction’ at the time it was written, but all these years later, our understanding of what exactly constitutes ‘intelligence’ and how you get it is still anything but clear. Also, I found it very disturbing that the character, still emotionally a child (even if mentally a genius), entered into a sexual relationship with another adult. Big whopping consent issues, right there.

24. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Gosh, Hamlet is whiny! But it was great to finally read the play that so many common English expressions are drawn from. After reading this, I saw the play performed at Belvoir Street Theatre. So many fantastic lines. How is it that a man who lived so long ago can still speak so clearly to us today?

25. The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

Sadly, this was one of the dud books in my reading year (but happily, it was pretty much the only one). After reading House of Leaves, I was expecting another postmodern masterpiece… Nope. It was a simple story. The illustrations (images of thread that had been stitched into paper) were interesting at first, but never developed any deeper significance. And it felt like almost half of the pages of this already slim hardback were left blank – like a short story masquerading as a novel(ette). Disappointing.

26. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

How can you not love Atwood? And somewhat gruesome apocalypses? (Insert Buffy joke about the plural of apocalypse here). Continuing on from the first novel in the series, Oryx and Crake, It’s a frightening world of genetic engineering gone wrong. It’s disturbing, but you can’t stop reading. I’m looking forward to reading the third book (MaddAdam) once it comes out in paperback.

27. Possession by A. S. Byatt

Words, words, words. I love books that are about the power of language, contortionist books that bend back on themselves, funhouse mirror books that reflect back their own crazy shapes. This is a story of the romance between two Romantic (in the historical sense) poets, and the 2 modern day literary researchers discovering their story. It has my favourite quote from a book this year:

“There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect … There are personal readings, which snatch for personal meanings … There are – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.
Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark.”

28. Shakespeare: the World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is my other ‘could write about grass growing’ author. And the more I read and see of Shakespeare’s plays, the more curious I am about the writer who came up with them. So Bryson writing a biography of Shakespeare makes for some happy non-fiction reading. However, as Bryson points out, there is not actually that much that we know for sure about the Bard himself. There are enticing holes in the story of his life, and rumours abound. One of the most entertaining sections of this book is devoted to cataloging the more crazy ideas and then gently debunking them.

29. Animal Farm by George Orwell

Trying to catch up on my Classics. My edition of Animal Farm included a fantastic Introduction, in which I discovered that my conception of Orwell as an anti-communist author is almost completely incorrect, and probably a product of the way the book seems to be taught in American schools. Orwell was actually very pro-communist in theory, and his parable was only critiquing the way communism was put into practice under Stalin in Soviet Russia. And there I was thinking that Orwell was a right-wing capitalist… Oops.

30. Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

This was a re-read of one of my HSC English texts. It is an epistolary novel in which Fay Weldon plays (with, one suspects, only a modicum of exaggeration) a bossy Aunt who is writing to her niece, Alice, about studying Jane Austen at university and Alice’s goal of writing and publishing a novel. The fussy, nosy Aunt persona is actually almost endearing, and the letters are full of lofty writing advice.

31. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

This book has a pretty cover, and also won the Miles Franklin Award for 2013. I can see why some reviewers found it a little slow-moving, but the prose is more than dazzling enough to make up for it. It’s a dual story about an Australian woman who travels the world and eventually settles in Sydney, and a Sri Lankan refugee who seeks asylum there. Quite a melancholy read.

32. The Colour of Magic (Discworld #1) by Terry Pratchett

Fairly entertaining but nowhere near as good as Good Omens, which is the only other Pratchett I’ve been exposed to. However, I’ve been told the Discworld series doesn’t really take off until a few books in, so perhaps I won’t give up on it just yet.

33. Journal of Katherine Mansfield by Katherine Mansfield

I loved this, and wrote about it in my most recent blog post.

34. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

This book is endorsed on the front cover as ‘an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird‘, which is quite apt. As the narrator, Charlie, is quite a bit older than Scout in Mockingbird, this is somewhat more adult in tone (and the crime which forms the basis of the book’s plot, discovered in the first chapter, is revealed in a proportionately more horrifying manner). For me this cemented Craig Silvey’s position as a writer with great empathetic powers, but as a bonus it also included the most electrifying and exciting game of cricket ever retold in literature. You’d think it would be impossible to be kept up until 2am to find out who wins a cricket match; you would be wrong.

35. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing by John Scalzi.

I read this in a bundle with a few other Scalzi short stories, which I think I enjoyed more than the non-fiction portion about writing and the writer’s life (since I haven’t actually read any of his fiction before). The chapters about writing are taken from his blog Whatever, which I am a regular follower of. At this point, I think it’s time for me to stop reading books about writing and just write something myself. Hello, 2014 New Year’s Resolution.

36. Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente.

A glittering little novella about technology and machines and souls and science fiction transformed into folk tales. I wish I could write like this.

And that’s it! Roll on 2014.

What excellent or terrible books have you read this year? Is it possible to pick a favourite?

Books, books, books!

(It’s a lovely word that is worth repeating three times.)

This gorgeous list of The 20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World has got me all hot and bothered. In a sexy way, because books are sexy. Yes. Be still, my beating heart!

Out of the 20 listed, I’ve only visited one, and that’s the Shakespeare & Co. book shop in Paris, where James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published. I visited quite a few grand old churches the last time I was in Europe, but (and this probably isn’t a surprise to the people who know me) the closest I came to religious experience happened in this bookstore.

Now I’d love to design a travel itinerary that revolves around the other 19 places on that list.

What’s your favourite bookstore? If you could design your ultimate bookish experience, what would it look like?

Feminism in the literary world

Statistics can be so disheartening sometimes.

Sophie Cunningham writes about the plight of the female author in the literary world. Read the article here.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of quotas. Mainly because I know that it shouldn’t be necessary for equality to be enforced – it should come naturally. The current numbers indicate otherwise, though.

As a hopeful writer, how does one go about Changing The System? Where do we start?