A quick note to self on novels

So among other things, I think we’ve established that I read like it’s going out of style. Well, I do less of that these days – at least partly the fault of Plants Vs Zombies (curse you, Android phone!) – I still do a lot of reading, and try to keep track of what I read… and while I will admit that frankly I’m weak for silly fantasy novels, including Anne Bishop, and dodgy sci-fi, including Alastair Reynolds, I also do try to read worthwhile books.

So among other things, I’m trying to read my way through the Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist since its inception in 1996, and I’m trying to read a certain amount of historical and non fiction novels. In practice, this means I read novels by people like Sharon Penman and Hilary Mantel, and try and read whatever Bill Bryson and Christopher Hitchens got up to recently (I’d say bless him, wherever he may be, but I doubt my blessings mean much to his decomposing body, and he’d be offended were I to suggest he was anywhere else).

So without further ado, the books I’ve read so far this year:

1. Distress, Greg Egan

Sci-fi, by an Australian author. I always get a little kick when I read books that are set where I actually live, because it’s not so common. But Greg Egan’s good for this, as is Marcus Zusak. Anyway, Distress is a wacky tale of physics and the theory of everything and its potential impacts on the human race of the future. I didn’t love it, but Egan’s always got enough going on that if the main plot disinterests you, you’ll find some fun ideas anyway.

2. Naamah’s Curse, Jacqueline Carey

Oh, trashy trashy fantasy novels, how I love thee. Sometimes. Jacqueline Carey writes some sexy fantasy novels, set in a version of medieval Europe where the Gods once walked among people. She’s most famed for writing a series of novels about a woman whose god-given gift is to find pleasure in pain, i.e. she’s a total sexual masochist. Fun, fun, soft porn.


3. When We Were Bad, Charlotte Mendelson

Think of every cliche you’ve ever heard about Jewish grandmothers – or hell, Greek, Italian, or Slavic grandmothers – and then make an excellent novel out of genuine characterisation of all those cliches. It’s painful, but it’s illuminating.

4. Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman

Okay, I usually don’t go in for self-help books, but this one was a) an easy read, b) on topics I knew a bit about, and c) sounded like it would be helpful. It’s pretty obvious, really. Don’t get down on yourself when you don’t have to be. Next.

5. The Betrayal, Helen Dunmore

Oh, man. This book was killer. Have you ever heard about the siege of Leningrad? No? Me neither, but lately I keep running into books about it. Long story short, during WW2, the Germans pursued a deliberate policy of starving Leningrad and everyone who lived there to death. They didn’t want to take the city and changed the minds of the people, they wanted everyone dead. So they set up a blockage around the place and waited for everyone to die slowly. Dunmore wrote a book about this called The Siege and it was fabulous. The Betrayal is a sequel to it, and deals with life in Leningrad after the siege ended. It seems most people got through the horrible period by belieiving that when it was over, Leningrad would be reborn as the city it was always meant to be, and all the bureacracy and pain and secret police and reprisals of the previous decade would end, validity worn away by their suffering. The Betrayal is about how that didn’t happen.

6. The Last Hundred Days, Patrick McGuinness

Yes. And then after I struggled through the despair of Leningrad, I wandered into more of the same in Bucharest. McGuinness’ novel is also wonderful, mostly at eliciting that black humour that lurks around the absurdities of communist life, deprivation, and elite abuses. The novel follows the slow collapse of the country as it undergoes one more regime change sworn to change the state of affairs, and the snapping strings of the communist machinery coming apart at the seams.

7. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

And then for something completely different! Wolf Hall is quite a big deal of a book this year, and I… would love to understand why. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading it, because I did, immensely. I just would like to understand why it received as much critical acclaim as it did. In any case, it covers the Henry the VIIIth period of history, mostly covering the period with Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, but from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who if Mantel can be believed was a far more active character in the period than I’d been lead to believe. Also interesting for its portrayal of Thomas More, who I’d always seen as a bit of a git, but who becomes an increasingly stubborn and self righteous martyr. Ugh, martyrs. There’s nothing so tediou as a man who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.

8. Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy

Now this one was a strange book. Liars and Saints looks at three generations of one family, and the lies that kept them apart and bound them together. All fascinating, but sometimes less than believable – my incredulity was strained more than once – and something of a theme in recent years, I feel. Carried on in something of the tradition of “When We Were Bad”, but without the staying power, I felt. Also, the concluding events to the family matriarch? Trying at best.

9. At Home, Bill Bryson

 Oooh, now this was fun! Bill Bryson writes a history of the common home. Fascinating, starting with when people essentially lived in houses that consisted of a single hall, and everything in the world took place in there, to tables that were held on the knees between diners and leaned against the wall between meals, to the first upstairs rooms, to times when there were separate rooms for making food and washing up, and the invention of the phrases ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’. Also, the history of any number of words, and how salt and pepper changed the world. Disjointed but fun. I had an immense time and added to my always expanding knowledge of bizarre trivia.

10. Snowbound, Cari Hunter

Ah, and now I get to give props! Snowbound is the first novel of a rather good lesbian fanfiction writer. I find it so inspiring when people move from fanfiction to true novels! Not that there isn’t art in fanfiction, but I have concerns about its fundamental relationship with mental health… but not the point. Anyway, Snowbound isn’t tremendously original, but it is both touching and sincere in the way it handles the developing relationship between two women kept in a hostage situation, and with their lives put at risk. Again, credulity may be strained somewhat, but it’s still a lovely read that I stayed up til 2 am to finish. I no longer do this much, so full credit where it’s worth, I had a lovely time reading it. And yay, lesbians! 

11. Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Now this book wasn’t really what I expected and I feel it affected my judgement of it. It’s a story about a Nigerian family following the brief civil war the country experienced, and the many upheavals and the unevenness in that society. But it’s also about a man obsessed with God, and the way that slowly destroyed his family and himself. It’s quite post-colonially conscious – it’s quite clear that the father’s obsession with God, and his need to punish others acting against what he sees as God’s will, is the result of his own abuse and indoctrination at the hands of white priests in his youth. Regardless, I didn’t love it the way I did Adichie’s following novel, One Half of a Yellow Sun, which knocked me out of the water, and dealt specifically with the Nigerian civil war.

12. Ice Road, Gillian Slovo

Man, tales of Leningrad. It’s odd, I never knew Leningrad HAD a siege before last year, and now it’s come up in three books I’ve read in four months. Ice Road is another book about the various fuckeries of communism, the abuses of, and the privileges of the elite. Also, the blackness and absurdity and cruelties that it hid or permitted. A book to slit your wrists to, but one also to inform of a great many oddities of Russian history that I for one knew nothing about.

13. Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel

Another strange book. Mantel’s latest follows the life of a (genuine) psychic over the last years of the twentieth century, and the various torments she’s put through by both the public and the deceased. Alison’s deceased do not go quietly towards a bright light, they hang about, leaving messages about how to paint the kitchen and their daughter’s weight, and the people who tormented you in life stick around and run spiritual crimes on behalf of the obscure Nick. Fascinating, but frightening, especially as you suspect more and more about the nature of Alison’s childhood and the origin of her scars, memory blanks, and ghosts.

Next on the list – “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers”, written in deliberately bad English. We’ll see how this goes.


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