Last monthly reading post for 2012. It’s a little more crowded than some other months, because I was trying desperately to catch up with all the 2012 books I’d been planning to read and failed to over the previous months. I failed miserably at this, obviously. Because I’m lazy, because I had ambitions too large for one month (those of us who are not Larry must set ourselves more realistic targets), because, as those of you who are in Delhi or have been watching the news will know, for a good ten days or so things went to hell and I was torn between going out and smashing kyriarchies and hiding under a blanket and never emerging and this was not an state of mind in which one could do much reading.
Things I hoped to read that I did not:
Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker; Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom; Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines (I’m a bit of the way in and it’s gorgeous so far); Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child; Kij Johnson’s At The Mouth of the River of Bees; G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. Anything at all by Frances Hardinge. These are books of which I’ve heard mostly extremely positive things, and hopefully I’ll be getting round to them this year. I started Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis and put it down to come back to it later, and in the meantime I read this interview and it turns out he’d rather I didn’t. I also had to put down J.A Baker’s The Peregrine because it was gloriously intense and I didn’t have the energy at the time. I’ve been dipping in and out of the Ian Sales-edited collection Rocket Science and should be finished with it soon. I also abandoned this because it was very bad.
Things I did read:
Felix Gilman, The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City: I was quite excited about the release of Gilman’s latest book, a sequel to The Half-Made World which I really enjoyed. I reread the first before tackling the new one, and it’s still good. TRRC is better, I think. THMW’s goodness stems in large part from its excellent conceit (it’s a fantasy Western with a number of metaphors about the west literalised) and the ways in which it had its characters stray from the genre patterns that that setting might seem to impose upon them. By TRRC we already know this stuff, and we’re going to be less impressed with this world. So Gilman chooses to set most of his story in the “made” parts of his world and focuses instead on Harry Ransom’s voice (first seen in this story). Tt’s clever and playful and metatextual (isn’t everything these days though?) but also more polished, and (because it’s this character and he’s wonderful) more joyous. I do wish we’d seen more of the Folk. I wasn’t wholly comfortable with the way Gilman’s versions of Native Americans were portrayed in THMW, and I’d hoped that fleshing out that aspect of his world would help. I don’t think he’s planning a sequel to this, so that would appear to be that.
Michael Bond, A Bear Called Paddington: What does Paddington Bear tell us about postcolonialism? Or something. I have many thoughts on this subject.
Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault, Virginia Wolf: I wrote about this here.
Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill: I don’t know if it is cheating to include this as a “book”; my copy of it is a tiny chapbook in terrible condition. Reread for the purpose of the review above.
Joyce Dennys, Henrietta Sees It Through: The second of Dennys’ epistolatory WW2 books; I wrote about the first here. This one is quieter and more serious- it’s set later during the war and there’s a sense that all the characters involved now really do what loss is. It’s still lightly done and never sentimental, but it’s an infinitely more poignant book.
Nick Jackson, The Secret Life of the Panda: I read this a little at a time over months, then this month read the whole thing through again so that I could write a (criminally late) review.
Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts/ The Brides of Rollrock Island: I wrote about this for the column, and will be putting it on the blog soon. It’s very, very good.
Philip Pullman, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: I think I was unfair to Pullman here in not making it clear that from an academic perspective I really love what he’s done with this collection. The introduction and the end notes for each story are brilliant; it’s the stories themselves that don’t contain anything recognisably Pullman. Since that seems to be the intention, I can hardly fault the book for being well executed.
Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales: I’ve read this every year since Shikha gave me a copy so I don’t know if it counts to have this listed here. Except that I read it a few days earlier (with a reread on Christmas of course) this year, so I could write about it for the column. Which is here.
John Scalzi, Redshirts: The thing about Redshirts is, the prologue is one of the tightest pieces of short writing I’ve seen in a while. It’s possible that on the strength of this I was expecting too much of the rest of the book. It’s an entertaining plot- characters on a spaceship with alarmingly high death rates discover that they are the disposable minor characters on a Star Trek rip-off show and band together to stop this from happening. Time travel is involved, saving the whales is not, and there’s a long section at the end involving the scriptwriter that is probably a perfectly good short story on its own but didn’t need to be here. A lot of things didn’t need to be here; most of Redshirts felt to me like a short story stretched out over a few hundred pages.
Jenny Overton, The Thirteen Days of Christmas: Apparently this is a lot of people’s Christmas book of choice. It is not mine. It’s gorgeously told, but it made me really uncomfortable, in ways for which a separate post is probably necessary.
Georgette Heyer, The Masqueraders: I was working, and someone on twitter was like “you could be rereading The Masqueraders” and it was a revelation and I did that instead. Why has no one made this into the delightful movie it should be?
Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her: I suppose one can’t fault this book for a lack of honesty. The author has said in the past that he “wasn’t really encouraged to imagine women as fully human” growing up, and it’s clear that this is true of his character Yunior as well. We know this, we walk in expecting it. And then Yunior occasionally says things like “I didn’t lift a fucking finger in our apartment, male privilege, baby”; and the book plays with this sense of Yunior not as an ignorant chauvinist created by the culture around him, but as someone who is aware of and uses the language of feminism to his own advantage. And I’m thinking about Díaz’s own public persona (I’ve never met the man) of just being incredibly right and quotable in interviews and speeches, to the point that (as I’ve inarticulately discussed with a friend) having a crush on Díaz interviews is a thing, separate from one’s feelings about the writer himself. Not sure what I’m getting at here, except that this is all (predictably) more clever, and yet potentially even more problematic (there’s that undergraddish word again) than it seems.
Rajesh Devraj and Meren Imchen, Sudershan (Chimpanzee): This is excellent. Graphic novel set in Bombay with talking animals (this has been a big year for talking animals on the subcontinent) in the movie industry. Sadly, Sheroo the Wonder Bird does not make an appearance. Sudershan (Chimpanzee) is bleak and funny and oddly touching, and Meren Imchen’s art is pretty good as well.
Robin Sloan, Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore: As with Redshirts I could not escape the feeling that this was really a short story; it appears that it started off as one. I haven’t read the short story yet (here, apparently) to compare the two yet. One of my reading notes here suggests a possible connection to Junot Díaz – I was reading This Is How You Lose Her at the same time. Díaz makes casual references to “back when the X-Men still made sense” and compares people to Frazetta art; obviously TIHYLH is not about growing up an SFF fan in the ways that Oscar Wao is, but it takes place in a world where these are the metaphors that the author and the reader are expected to understand. This is true of Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore as well. It’s SFF because it involves alternate histories and secret societies and non-existent fonts and technologies, and it happens to have a few main characters for whom particular works of fantasy function as important markers of things, or are talismanic. But I’m not sure that it’s about SFF, or if it is the bits that are about SFF aren’t the interesting things about the book (incidentally this is also how I feel about Jo Walton’s Among Others). Other thoughts: imagine using another company the way Google is used in this book. And this exchange:
“I did not know people your age still read books,” Penumbra says. He raises an eyebrow. “I was under the impression they read everything on their mobile phones.”
“Not everyone. There are plenty of people who, you know—people who still like the smell of books.”
“The smell!” Penumbra repeats. “You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell.”
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather and Thief of Time: Hogfather’s a traditional Christmas reread. This year I decided to go on and read the next Susan book because I like Susan. I have nothing to say about these books except I don’t understand Thief of Time‘s apparent belief that chocolate holds some mystical power over all women.
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Trials for the Chalet School: Imagine reading this as a child and thinking that this was a reasonable way to treat a) disabled people b) people with different beliefs to one’s own. This book has always annoyed me, even though it contains the immortal scene in which we learn that Mary-Lou has never (brief pause for pearlclutching) met an unbaptized person before!
Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods: I haven’t yet read DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, despite the urging of many people who love me. Lightning Rods feels like a completely different sort of book, but it’s proof enough that DeWitt is a great writer. It has an utterly ludicrous premise, but that is the point- it is cringeworthy and magnificently funny.
Zadie Smith, NW: Imagine J.K. Rowling writing all the accents in this book. Most things that are worth saying about NW have probably already been said because everyone who seemed likely to read it probably did read it before me, but I was overjoyed anew on every other page by Smith’s sheer skill with language and how it should sound. There were bits I read aloud, there were bits I highlighted for no reason other than sheer happiness. One of the best things I’ve read this year.
All of this means that in 2012 (unless I have miscounted somewhere) I read 229 books. Of these, if I include books co-written or co-edited by women, 134 were by women – which is roughly 60%. I’d be more pleased with this if it wasn’t a direct result of my reading romance fiction and school stories in clusters of about ten books at a time. More alarmingly, only 25 of these books (as far as I know- if I wasn’t sure of an author’s race I haven’t counted them) were by people of colour; just over 10% of everything I read. That’s not an impressive record.