Archive for ‘Books read in 2012’

January 4, 2013

Looking forward, looking back

Looking Back:

The Strange Horizons 2012 in review piece is now up here. In my little section I recommend Stella Gibbons’ Starlight, Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, Nick Jackson’s Secret Life of the Panda, Jessica Langer’s Postcolonialism and Science Fiction, Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land, Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass and Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts as SFFnal books that are likely to stay with me from this year.

I’m not sure how I managed to delete a bit on Alan Garner’s Boneland but that too was one of the highlights of my year in reading. Boneland is such a tricky book to get one’s head around and I’m still not sure if I can claim I actually liked it. But there was so much to it – the sort of reading experience that involved multiple rereads and stalking around the room muttering to oneself and pulling other books off the shelves and making notes on everything.

Other high points of 2012 included Thanhha Lai’s astonishing Inside Out and Back Again, Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles, Antigonick, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, Anna Kavan’s Ice, Zachary Mason’s Lost Books of the Odyssey (these were the only two not published in 2012, I think) and Zadie Smith’s NW. Also Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav and Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, which I wrote about together for my National Geographic Traveller column here. I loved reading and writing about the stories shortlisted for the Caine Prize (I’m particularly fond of my defense of Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial”, shunned by everyone else), and I hope to do that this year as well.

2012 was a year of rereads including Tove Jansson’s Moomin Books, Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper and most of the Swallows and Amazons books. I’m glad I did this, but I’m going to make a conscious effort not to spend too much time on rereads this year.

 

Looking forward:

Having said which, hilariously, I promise to return to my big Antonia Forest series reread soon, with a piece on Peter’s Room.

In my last post I mentioned a number of 2012 books I hadn’t been able to get around to reading. I’m looking forward to all of those this year. 2013 releases I’m particularly excited about include Anne Carson’s Red Doc (a sequel to Autobiography of Red!) and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I’m also going to make a bigger effort this year to read more Indian writers as well as other chromatic writers, having realised that only about 10% of the authors I read are non-white. For the rest– we’ll see?

January 1, 2013

December Reading

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.

December 7, 2012

November Reading

Things I read last month:

 

Caroline Stevermer, Magic Below Stairs: This is set in the same world as Stevermer and Patricia Wrede’s collaborative Sorcery and Cecelia novels but it’s Stevermer writing alone. It feels both younger and more slight than the  earlier works, but it was enjoyable anyway.

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: I wrote about this here.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: I began to write up my notes from this particular reread and about 2000 words later (more than half of which I subsequently deleted) gave up and went to bed. But that’s a forthcoming post, I suppose. It is still the best of Tolkien’s works, though I’m in a minority for thinking so.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat: I reread this, it was very funny. That is all.

Sam Thompson, Communion Town: I wrote about this here.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home: I wrote about this here.

Terry Pratchett-as-Felicity Beedle, The World of Poo: This is a book about poo in the Discworld. So while it includes information on what cow and dog excreta looks like, it also tells you about gargoyle faeces. It’s beautifully designed to look like an old-fashioned children’s book (I wonder how many of Pratchett’s fans even grew up with old-fashioned children’s books? I didn’t). But it’s more a parody of a book than a book itself- though we can debate the line between the two until I agree that it it doesn’t really exist.

Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath: I wrote about this for the Left of Cool column, which will be on the blog in a couple of days.

Grace Burrowes, Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight: I love Burrowes’ three books about the Windham brothers because they do something that most regency romances do not- they create worlds in which men have genuine relationships with the people around them. I’m less enamoured of the Windham sisters books where that sense of familial closeness and just being part of a society is missing; I don’t know whether this is because I have lower expectations for the depiction of male characters. Which is to say that Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight is a perfectly decent romance novel, but that’s about it. With Burrowes, that feels like a disappointment.

Andy Runton, Owly: The Way Home and The Bittersweet Summer: My fondness for owls is a bit of a joke among friends and family. This was a birthday present from a friend. It’s absolutely wonderful and warm and glowy and did things to my heart.

Sarah Caudwell, The Sirens Sang of Murder and The Sibyl in Her Grave: I had forgotten many wonderful things (though not, tragically, the identity of the murderer) about The Sirens Sang… – though I remembered the delightful helicopter rescue attempt at the end of the book I had little recollection of the excellent story-within-a-story. The Sibyl in Her Grave, on the other hand. I said in this piece that it was darker than the others, but I’d not realised quite how dark it was. What a bitter, heartbreaking end.

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum: I had many serious things to deal with this month. I reacted to them by taking refuge in books I know. I had a craving for Agnes Nitt so I read all the Discworld books with her in them, then read the rest of the Witches books (except Witches Abroad, because I’d reread that earlier in the year) and felt a lot happier about the world.

Agatha Christie, The ABC Murders, Nemesis, Taken at the Flood, The Secret of Chimneys, Dead Man’s Folly, One Two Buckle My Shoe: See above. I then moved on to whichever Agatha Christie books I could find lying around. I remembered who did all of them. I had forgotten how dismissive every other character in Nemesis was about rape, however. I wish I hadn’t had cause to rediscover this.

 

November 9, 2012

October Reading

Adalbert Stifter, Rock Crystal: Almost a short story and close to a children’s book. I’d never read Stifter before but if this translation (by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore) is anything to go by he’s quiet and polished and a bit amazing. I wish I’d left this for Christmas.

Jeff Noon, Channel Sk1n: I’m just surprised I managed to resist buying and reading a new Jeff Noon book for weeks after it was published. The last time that happened (in 2002, I think) I was in school, in the middle of exams and bought the book anyway and promised I wouldn’t read it yet and found myself tearing the house apart to find where the parents had helpfully hidden it. Um. The book itself I wrote about here.

M. G. Vassanji, The Magic of Saida: Reviewed for the Hindustan Times, with a longer version posted here. The very short version: I was unimpressed.

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered and The Shortest Way to Hades: I gushed about the Hilary Tamar series in one of my Left of Cool columns and also mentioned the first book in one of my National Geographic Traveller pieces (out in December, I think). Can it be that I am carrying my Caudwell evangelism too far?

Alexander McCall Smith, Portugese Irregular Verbs: McCall Smith is best known for his Precious Ramotswe books, detective novels set in Botswana. I’m not a huge fan of the series, and I’m made a little uncomfortable (possibly unfairly? I don’t know) by the white guy writing African setting/black woman as main character aspect of it all. I’ve quite enjoyed his Isabel Dalhousie books (set in Edinburgh) despite the fact that, as a friend complains, he tends to treat his forty-year-old protagonist as if she were middle-aged. (My friend is forty). I do like the gently mocking Von Igenfeld books though. I read Portugese Irregular Verbs because of its last chapter, an extended parody of Mann’s Death in Venice (Clever readers will notice a theme in this month’s reading and may deduce from it the topic of a future NatGeoTraveller column). But then at the end McCall Smith ruins it by explicitly invoking Mann’s story – in an unsubtle hey, you know what this situation is kind of like? manner. I was a bit surprised by how much this annoyed me, but it felt like a contract had been broken.

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Is it okay if I think this is overrated?

P. G. Wodehouse, Leave it to Psmith: This, on the other hand, is perfect.

Anna Carey, Rebecca’s Rules: The sequel to last year’s The Real Rebecca. Anna is a friend and I’d probably be well-disposed towards her books in any case, but I enjoyed the first and I liked this one even better. This despite her having created the most irritating teenage boy I have encountered in fiction or in life in a long time. And her choosing not to tell us Paperboy’s name (Anna, how could you?)

Nicholas Blake, The Morning After Death: no.

Ian McEwan, The Comfort of Strangers: This is an incredibly effective book, in that it made me feel physically ill the first time I read it (and I assume that that was its intention). I managed to avoid nausea this time round, but it’s still horrible and powerful.

Various, The Nightmare Factory: Wrote about this here, was not that impressed.

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?: I have very strong feelings about this book and I’m still struggling to articulate some of my dislike. Subashini’s excellent review at Popmatters hits most of the same points though.

Amanda Quick, Mischief: Reread so I could write a thing about alternate histories. Have so far not written a thing about alternate histories. It is very funny though.

Lavie Tidhar, Osama: This is uncomfortable (that random awkward moment with the trans character near the beginning, really?), but also smart and otherwise pleasing. And it just won a world fantasy award – i.e. a model of famous racist H.P. Lovecraft’s head. I wrote about it here.

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice: I’m not sure it makes sense to class Death in Venice as a novel here; my copy of it is in an edition with multiple short stories by Mann. Then again, it’s probably as long as Rock Crystal – incidentally, Mann is supposed to have been a big Stifter fan. I’d last read Death in Venice in school; while I still thought it was wonderful this time around, I found it much harder to immerse myself in the mood of it. I’m not sure if that means I’ve weakened as a reader.

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy: Review (and separate rant about the politics of fat in the novel) to follow. It’s not very good.

Maud Hart Lovelace, Carney’s House Party: This is the second of the Betsy-Tacy (or related) books that I’ve read, and while I quite enjoyed both I’m not sure I’ll be seeking out more. Still, it’s nice when characters in books act like grown-ups about relationships, so there’s that.

 

Also in October, I became 27. This was less life-changing than you might expect.

October 5, 2012

September Reading

As ever, a list of the books I read last month.

 

Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier, Team Human: I wrote about this here. I’m not sure you can read Team Human outside the context of the debates within which it situates itself, and I’m not sure if that is a flaw. Within said context, it’s smart and engaging, and I enjoyed it.

Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: One of the methods I employed to put off reading Boneland (see below) was to read things that seemed likely to be connected in some way to it. As Armitage explains in the introduction, he chose to focus on preserving the alliterative quality of the poem rather than a more literal translation. As a result, his version is a pleasure to read out loud – even when I was in places where this would have been alarming I was mouthing the words as I read them.

Alan Garner, The Stone Book Quartet, Red Shift, and Boneland: My continued project to procrastinate over reading Boneland – I reread The Stone Book Quartet and Red Shift instead. I wrote about Red Shift here, and at some point in the unspecified future I’d like to think through the failed relationships in this book and in The Owl Service. I was unprepared for how much more The Stone Book Quartet affected me this time than on my first read some years ago. As for Boneland, I’m rereading and trying to write about it, but. Imagine being as good at what you do as Alan Garner. I can’t imagine anything is going to be better than it this year.

Janice Pariat, Boats on Land: One of the more widely anticipated books to come out of Indian publishing this year. This is a collection of short stories, most of them set in and around Shillong. My review should be out this weekend; on the whole, I really enjoyed this.

Elsie J. Oxenham, The Abbey Girls Win Through – Rosamund’s Castle (books 17-27 in the Abbey Girls series): These were published over the decade immediately preceding the Second World War. I’ve read most of the Abbey books in the past – though I’m not a huge fan, I’m terribly susceptible to long series – but I’m working on a longer piece that made me curious as to how they deal with the war. They don’t, much. Perhaps the later books in the series (the last was published in 1959) might be of more help.

Anushka Ravishankar, Moin and the Monster and Moin the Monster Songster: Anushka’s a former colleague and she and my ex-boss Sayoni Basu have just started their own publishing company for children’s and YA fiction, called Duckbill. Anushka is also a well-known children’s author, and one of the books Duckbill are publishing is a reissue of her 2006 book Moin and the Monster along with a new sequel. I avoid reviewing people I know personally (though please know that these books are great fun) but I’ve interviewed Anushka for the Duckbill blog, and that ought to be up on their website soon. We are very erudite.

Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon, Pride of Baghdad: Reviewed here. I was disappointed in this; a bit too simplistic, some dodgy politics, and rape-as-character-development, all of which severely undermined the effect of Henrichon’s excellent art.

H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness: A work-related reread, and a welcome one. I’d forgotten how frequently Lovecraft compared the scenery to Roerich’s art – I tend to think of him as being all about the monsters. I’d also forgotten how much I also love Roerich’s Asian paintings.

Francis Spufford, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination: Work-related again. Spufford is wonderful and this is such a lovely, intelligent book.

Nicholas Blake, The Worm of Death and The Case of the Abominable Snowman: Both very enjoyable, but not the best of the Strangeways books I’d read.

A pygmy goat

E. Lockhart, The Ruby Oliver series: About halfway through the month I turned into a teenaged girl. This is really the only explanation I can offer; that, and the fact that these books are adorable and funny and also pygmy goats.

 

September 5, 2012

August Reading

Here is a list of what I read last month.

 

Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath: I stretched my reread of these two books out over the month, in preparation for Garner’s conclusion to the trilogy. In many ways these are Garner’s weakest novels; I have no idea what to expect from Boneland (at the time of writing this my copy still has not arrived); I only know that it’s going to break my heart.

Jack Vance, Dream Castles: The second of Subterranean’s early Vance collections. I’ll be reviewing this elsewhere.

William Mayne, A Grass Rope: I wrote a bit about this here. It’s beautiful, and I’m reminded that I really should try and collect all the Mayne I can.

Adam Roberts, Jack Glass: Firstly, the best cover art Roberts has ever had – after a series of really excellent covers (Swiftly, Yellow Blue Tibia, New Model Army, By Light Alone). Secondly, there is a character called Aishwarya, which is a feature that drastically improves any book. Jack Glass does this clever thing where it combines golden age SF with golden age crime fiction, and the result is something that feels familiar but really isn’t. Martin Lewis suggested yesterday that By Light Alone is going to be cited frequently in the next few years. I think this is true, but I’m also beginning to sense that all of Roberts’ work in recent  years fits together as a sort of unified whole in terms of its engagement with genre and the world. I’m interested to see both where he takes this next, and how this body of work as a whole will be studied/referred to in the next decade or so.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi, Rabbit Rap: I’ll be reviewing this elsewhere.

Anna Kavan, Ice: I wrote a bit about this here.

Jean Webster, When Patty Went to College: Webster’s best known for Daddy-Long-Legs which is either (depending on how old you were when you read it) a sweet, romantic story about a young girl falling in love with the guardian who manipulates her and deceives her about his identity or a really creepy story about a young girl falling in love with the guardian who manipulates her and deceives her about his identity. I’m both charmed and skeeved out by it; I prefer her Dear Enemy, which has intelligent adult characters getting to know each other in non-creepy ways. When Patty Went to College is an earlier work, and it’s rather dull. Patty is, within the book, one of those bright, attractive characters who gets away with thoughtless behaviour because she’s just that charming. Which is all very well, except she isn’t particularly charming. This means the whole thing is rather laboured – and when she Learns Her Lesson and resolves to be better in future it seems likely that she will be getting even less attractive.

Earl Der Biggs, Charlie Chan Carries On: I read this for an article I was writing on cruise ship murders. I was expecting to have issues with the race aspects of the book – while I’m aware that the author was liberal by the standards of his time,  those standards tended to be pretty low. I cringed frequently at Charlie Chan’s hilarious broken English and ‘oriental’ wisdom, and wouldn’t it be nice if the idiot sidekick had been a white guy? On the other hand, I do like that Chan manages to be intentionally funny and snarky even with the har har orientals can’t speak English subtext. Plus having read a book in this series means that a random reference in an Antonia Forest book makes more sense to me now. So there’s that.

Carl Hiaasen, Skinny Dip: For the article mentioned above. Hiaasen’s an odd one for me – I see (or think I do) and respect what he’s doing stylistically but it has never entertained me on any level. It’s not him, I think, it’s me.

John Mortimer, The Third Rumpole Omnibus: Because I was reading “Rumpole at Sea” for the article mentioned above, and the rest was just there and it was a nice afternoon and.

Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile: For the same article. I must get around to posting these pieces on here.

Nilanjana Roy, The Wildings: It’s possible that I’m terribly biased because Nilanjana’s a friend. But The Wildings is one of my favourite books of this year. With every excuse to be it is rarely twee, there’s an abundance of terrible punnage, and it’s in equal parts touching and dark and funny. I love that Aleph chose not to market it as a children’s book, yet I hope children will read it and be properly terrified by some of the Shuttered House scenes. To compare this to Watership Down seems too obvious, but it’s the closest thing I can think of.

Georgette Heyer, Frederica: Beth of Beth Loves Bollywood invited me to join a Georgette Heyer book club. I ended up not participating as much as I’d like to, but it did give me a chance to reread Frederica, which is always a glorious thing to do.

Valerie Krips, The Presence of the Past: I read this for academic reasons and can’t imagine that my notes would be of any interest to anyone but me. But I enjoyed it greatly, and am on the lookout for more work that discusses British history in children’s literature, if anyone has recommendations.

Jack Vance, Araminta Station: After reading Dream Castles I felt the need for more of Vance’s SF. So the Cadwal Chronicles now, and I think I’ll move on to some of the random lesser works (perhaps The Grey Prince?) next.

Eloisa James, The Ugly Duchess: I’m beginning to come around to the idea that Regency romances are not actually set in Regency England. By which I mean that the authenticity critique is pointless; characters will talk about events that take place in ‘fall’, there will be historically implausible (so I’m told; but I don’t wish to underestimate anyone’s ancestors) sex, women will regularly be allowed to do things that only very lucky/exceptional women would have got away with at the time, and things like slavery don’t really exist. There are probably some parallels with steampunk here. I also find interesting the tacit agreement among many of the writers in the genre that it is the same world – there’s a level of intertextuality that is fascinating. The other comparison I’d make is with the Lovecraftian mythos, but there’s a whole other essay there and about a paragraph of it is already sitting in this blog’s drafts. Anyway, l enjoyed this new Eloisa James book, and its occasional Americanisms and historically unlikely fashion did not bother me in the least.

Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow, Confluences: I wrote about this in this weekend’s column, and will post a link here when I put it on the site.

Anne Carson, Antigonick: I spent a good part of July and the first half of August with this book in my head. I wrote about it here, but it hasn’t felt like enough. A wonderful book, and a beautiful object.

August 16, 2012

July Reading

I read some books in July:

 

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, The Silver on the Tree: It’s been a few years since my last read of this series, and I’m so glad I found the time to do it this month. Last month I talked about how well the first book in the series works as a standalone. For obvious reasons this is untrue of the rest; with the second book in the series the sunlit feeling of the first is gone. Of all the series Greenwitch and The Grey King were the ones I remembered best before this reread. Having finished it I think they’re still my favourites. Both are imbued with this tremendous sense of melancholy and remoteness. It’s another matter that my reread of the series clarified for me what I’m going to be doing with my life for the next couple of years.

Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad: Another reread, mostly because I had a free afternoon and wanted to spend it in bed with a book. Is it sacrilegious to complain that Pratchett is a little too preoccupied with the power of stories? I don’t think there’s been a Discworld book that wasn’t about this in years – though Witches Abroad certainly does it well.

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November: I embarked upon a reread of the Moomin books a few months ago. Moominvalley in November does not actually contain any Moomins; it’s about the valley in their absence. Lovely, quiet, melancholy. Not my favourite of the series (that’s Moominland Midwinter) but then, all of the books are wonderful.

Jan Morris, Last Letters from Hav, Hav of the Myrmidons: I’d read the first of these before, and thought the placing of the city in our own history was brilliant. Rereading it I was struck this time by how cleverly it works as a travelogue. In part I think this impression is enhanced by Hav of the Myrmidons, in which “Jan” is forced to engage politically with the city and its history in ways that could be avoided in the earlier book. Together I think the two work brilliantly.

Christopher Priest, The Islanders: Like the Hav books, The Islanders is a travelogue-of-sorts of places that doesn’t exist. It’s in that capacity that I’ve written about the two of them together (those of you who read the Indian edition of The National Geographic Traveller will be hearing all about this in September). But The Islanders is crying out for other readings as well, and I’m itching to go back to it and explore other angles. It’s non-linear, has multiple layers of unreliable narrators, is part murder investigation part love story, has a horror story right there in the middle; it’s a joy to think about..

T.H. White, Mistress Masham’s Repose: I wrote about this here.

Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo: I wrote about this here.

Carolyn Mackler, The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things: Mackler’s protagonist is a teenaged girl who is overweight. I’d heard a lot about this book and how it deals with the issues around fat, and on the whole I think it does a better job than mot things. A strong, cleverly done coming of age narrative, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Lorna Hill, Dancing Peel: Somehow, during the course of an otherwise quite ordinary childhood reading, I managed to miss all of the Sadler’s Wells books. As a result this was my first Lorna Hill book. Presumably the Sadler’s Wells books would be more to my taste (I hear intriguing things of this character Sebastian?) but Dancing Peel did nothing for me.

Georgette Heyer, The Unknown Ajax: In which Heyer talks a bit about class and has a character be deliberately gauche in the face of high society snobbery. But then it turns out he’s rich and went to Harrow, so there’s really no conflict after all. Not likely to cause a revolution then, but funny enough that I’ll forgive it that.

Rahul Roy, A Little Book on Men: I wrote about this here.

Grace Burrowes, Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish: I’ve probably said everything there is to say about Burrowes over the last few months. Though I find myself wishing we could have one romance heroine who doesn’t really really really want to have children. That’s not so much to ask, is it?

Eloisa James, When Beauty Tamed the Beast: I’ve been enjoying James’ series of fairytale reinterpretations (I think The Ugly Duchess is out this month). This isn’t my favourite in the series, but as its inspirations include House and Malory Towers and there’ a manservant called Prufrock, there’s enough in there to keep me entertained. Other literary/popcultural references include one to the Sarah Gorely books which are so important a part of Julia Quinn’s fictional Regency London. And there’s a scene near the end when the Beauty (not the Beast) has to have all her skin sloughed off that reminded me of an Angela Carter short story (“The Tiger’s Bride”, I think).

Willem Elsschot, Cheese: I wrote about this here.

John Mortimer, Rumpole and the Primrose Path: There are days when Rumpole is necessary. This is the last Rumpole book, and I was occasionally a bit disoriented by how recent it felt with its references to things like ipods (I feel like I’ve said this about one of the other late Rumpole books before). But still, deeply comforting and great fun to read.

July 13, 2012

June Reading

Once again I’m late with this, and we’re almost halfway through the month. It will be immediately obvious that I have not been impressive in the last few weeks; not at writing about books and certainly not at reading.

 

Alethea Kontis, Enchanted: The first thing I’ve read by Alethea Kontis. This is a clever  mashup of just about every fairytale trope there is- families that come in sevens, woodcutters, princes turned into frogs, people called Jack, balls at which royal men choose their brides. It’s smart and charming but perhaps a little too busy – there’s so much plot (including hints of some really intriguing back stories) that the characters are rather shortchanged, and it all gets a bit muddled. This makes it hard to be fully invested in the romance or the more sinister aspects of the story. So charming, but a bit of a mess.

Joan Aiken, The Kingdom Under the Sea: Joan Aiken’s always good, but I’ll admit I bought this mostly for Jan Pieńkowski’s gorgeous art. This is a collection of folktales, often quite dark (in that deadpan style Aiken has). Aiken’s retellings, though good, are never quite as strange or engaging as her original work, but I enjoyed this anyway.

Sarra Manning, Adorkable: Sarra Manning’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me is one of my happy places. I like her other books for grown ups as well, but I’d never read any of her YA until this. I found myself reluctantly really liking it, after a start to the novel that really didn’t lead me to expect this. I’m going to have to read Manning’s other YA novels now.

Julia Quinn, A Night Like This: Not likely to be my favourite Quinn book. This was a fun evening’s read but Quinn’s greatest gift is her lovely frothy dialogue, and this just felt rather heavy.

Loretta Chase, Scandal Wears Satin: Not likely to be my favourite Chase book either. A weak Loretta Chase book is still a few degrees better than a strong book by most other authors, but this really isn’t turning out to be a great summer for me, Regency romance-wise. (Has a Chase hero ever been quite this annoying, or am I getting intolerant in my old age?)

Grace Burrowes, The Virtuoso and Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal: I spoke last month about Burrowes and how her male characters are unusually close for the genre. That sense of community continues through to The Virtuoso, but it’s less present in Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal. I’m not sure what it means that her female characters (since last month I’ve also read Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish) are so much more solitary than her males. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m used to female communities in literature and so it’s harder to spot? Either way, she’s one of the more interesting Regency writers I’ve encountered in the last couple of years, and I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox: I was very impressed with White is for Witching when I read it a year or so ago. Mr Fox is better.

Christopher Logue, All Day Permanent Red: When Logue died a few months ago I promised myself a reread of his poems based on the Iliad. Of the three volumes (War Music, Cold Calls, All Day Permanent Red), this is the one I’ve been least familiar with. That has changed in the past month; I’ve returned to it and read it over and loved it. In hunting it out I also ended up rearranging some of my books so that I know have a little Greek shelf (with all the attendant dilemmas over what belongs where) which I must somehow prevent myself from turning into an Anne Carson shrine.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities: Perhaps the best thing about my job is that occasionally I can turn rereading Calvino into legitimate work. I hadn’t read the Invisible Cities since school. There’s nothing I can say about it that won’t make me sound stupid, but I have been made happy.

Susan Cooper, Over Sea Under Stone: I don’t know why I suddenly needed to reread The Dark is Rising sequence, but I did. Over Sea Under Stone is in many ways the lightest of the series – it’s only after the genuinely menacing second book that you get a sense of the vastness of it all. I’ll be speaking more about the series next month, presumably (I finished rereading The Grey King today) but just reading it on its own, OSUS is such a good children’s book. I love the early chapters in which the children Ransomeishly explore the Grey House, and the touches of genuine terror (at night among the stones at Kemare Head, that moment where what the children thought was a tall rock turns out to be one of the enemy) are more effective than just about anything I can think of.

Mervyn Peake (illustrated), Grimm’s Household Tales: I’m a bit confused about this collection. Yes, clearly these are stories collected by the brothers Grimm, but there’s no mention of a translator, reteller or editor. Peake himself is only credited as the artist. It’s a beautiful book though, and Peake’s illustrations are less sinister than they sometimes are, but enough to remind you (if anyone even needed reminding at this point) just how weird some of the hausmärchen can be.

June 9, 2012

May Reading

Bit later than usual, but here is what I read in May. I have a horrible suspicion that I’ve left something out.

 

Drew Magary, The End Specialist/ The Postmortal: The last of the six books on the Clarke award shortlist, and the one that I finished on the day the winner was announced. I wasn’t very impressed with this one – I quite enjoyed it , but it felt strangely inoffensive in the end. Perhaps I would judge it more generously if I had not read it in the context of a major awards shortlist. One expects these books to be remarkable in some way and all of the others (except perhaps Hull Zero Three) were – though in the case of the Sheri S. Tepper book I could have done with a little less remarkable. The Postmortal isn’t stylish enough to stand out as Literature, nor is it original or fully thought-out in ways that would make its sciencefictionality particularly interesting.

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars: I’d never read anything by John Green before, but I thought this was rather excellent. It’s a love story, but its protagonists are both terminally ill. I can only speak as a TAB person here, but I think Green gets a lot right. Despite the infinite potential for a plotline like this one to go wrong The Fault in Our Stars rarely falls into mawkishness, and this is its biggest strength. If this seems rather lukewarm praise, it’s worth considering how few books, presented with characters who would fit so easily into tropes, manage to make of them something like actual people.

Grace Burrowes, The Soldier: I’m a very conservative reader of the romance novel. I know exactly what sort of stories I want, and I read little else. So when I read Burrowes’ The Heir last year I was rather startled. Burrowes writes Regency Romances, but they don’t feel like anyone else’s Regency romances. In many ways they seem deeply improbable (though considering my idea of ‘authentic’ Regency behaviour is almost entirely from Georgette Heyer please feel free to ignore me) and there are occasional Americanisms that jar horribly for me (“fall” for “autumn”). What makes up for this for me is how Burrowes’ men depart from the archetype of romantic hero. She gives her men something usually provided only to women in fiction – close-knit groups of friends and family who are openly, unashamedly affectionate. In The Soldier men can cry together – in The Virtuoso, which I read yesterday, they are comfortable with tactile affection, things like resting a head on a friend’s lap. Perhaps Burrowes’ books are set in an alternate universe in which men are encouraged to have supportive, loving relationships with each other; I would not grudge such a universe the season “fall”.

Jessica Langer, Postcolonialism and Science Fiction: I’ll be reviewing this elsewhere, but I thought Langer’s book was a solid beginning for an area in which there doesn’t seem to be that much academic work, despite the obvious analogies to be made between science fiction and empire. If I have a real complaint (I had lots of tiny ones, argued out in the margins) it’s that it is broader than it is deep – for an introductory work this is probably useful, but there’s less to get one’s teeth into.

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Peter Duck, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post, Coot Club, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Secret Water: My exposure to this series was patchy as a child, and this was the first time I’d read the books (the first eight – I don’t have the rest) in order. It’s probably a good thing that I stopped there,because the next in the series appears to be the extremely racist-looking Missee Lee. But the ones I read were wonderful – I can think of very little more recent children’s fiction that is quite as interior as this- it seems to have rather gone out of fashion. ‘Perspective’ usually just gets used to mean ‘point-of-view’; here things are magnified or made smaller in accordance with how the child characters (and Ransome prefers to get inside the heads of the youngest children) see them. Looked at purely at the level of plot these are rather silly countryside holiday stories, but they really are much more than that.

Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam, Srividya Natarajan, S. Anand, Bhimayana: I wrote about this at length here. Gorgeous art, clever politics; I am very much in favour of this.

Kishwar Desai, Origins of Love: I wrote about this here. Not a very positive review.

Pamela Cox, Malory Towers continuations/St. Clare’s fillers: I’ve mentioned this before (probably in the context of Sweet Valley Confidential) but the most interesting thing to me about a sequel to something written years after the first/by a different author is how it works as a critique of the thing it is based on. Hence my interest in Pamela Cox’s riffs on Enid Blyton’s two major school series. I’ll be writing about what I found in a few days.

Jo Beverley, An Unlikely Countess: My second Jo Beverley book, and I am a bit underwhelmed. It was a pleasant, fun read but that’s about it. I know a lot of people are very enthusiastic about Beverley, so I suspect I may just be reading the wrong books. Recommendations are solicited.

Sarah Wendell, Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels: I wrote about this in last week’s column and will be linking to it as soon as it is posted on the blog. I loved Wendell’s first book, with Candy Tan, but this felt like it was going nowhere. I am unimpressed.

Daisy Rockwell, The Little Book of Terror: I reviewed this at length for the Sunday Guardian and will post a link when it’s up. Rockwell’s book is made up of her art and a few essays; it’s very slim and I am completely ignorant about Art (I know what I like! she says, defensively). And yet I spent more time editing that review down than writing it, and I didn’t say half of what I wanted to. There’s so much here.

Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death and There’s Trouble Brewing: I’ll be writing about the Nigel Strangeways books elsewhere, but know that they are a delight.

Herge, Flight 714: I wrote about this (and was a bit silly) here.

Shalom Auslander: Holocaust Tips for Kids/Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown: It’s probably cheating to include what is basically a pair of very short stories here, but I did write about it.

 

May 6, 2012

April Reading

Here is what I read in April.

 

Tove Jansson, Tales from Moomin Valley, Moominpappa at Sea, Comet in Moominland: I continue to reread the Moomin books, they continue to be warming, complex, human things.

Sophie Kinsella, I’ve Got Your Number: I had to read one of the Shopaholic books a few years ago for a class, but had never read anything else by Kinsella. This was charming and fluffy and exactly what I needed on the day I read it. A bit too content with some of the cliches of the romance novel, but then it is a romance novel, so.

Jack Vance, Lyonesse: The Green Pearl and Madouc: I reread the first Lyonesse book, Suldrun’s Garden, in March. I also randomly yelled at people on the internet and called them philistines for describing Vance’s work as less than perfect. Someone has to keep reminding people how great these books are, and I’m willing for it to be me.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce,  Dimsie Moves Up Again and Dimsie Intervenes: I read a Dimsie book last month and thought it was rather more self-aware and funny than I remembered. That must have been something of a one-off, because I saw no signs of that here. Despite this, these are some of the better traditional school stories. Someday I really must read the full set.

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again: I wrote about this for a column. I have little to add to what I said there- Lai’s book is just really, really good.

Lavie Tidhar and Paul McCaffrey, Going to the Moon: Lavie Tidhar writes a children’s book and it is adorable. Jimmy has tourette’s syndrome and coprolalia and someday he hopes to travel to the moon. Most of this is gorgeous – I love the way in which the unacceptable words Jimmy occasionally uses are highlighted in the text; this simultaneously makes them stand out and makes them not a part of the narrative, not real words (because words aren’t just sounds – they’re meanings that are meant and here we segue into a discussion of Embassytown?). Plus I rather like the paradox of the children’s book that most children would never be given to read because of all the swearing. My one concern is the equation of coprolalia with Tourette’s; from the little I know about it quite a small number of those with Tourette’s also have coprolalia, yet it tends to be the aspect of the syndrome that gets discussed and written about the most. For obvious reasons I suppose. Which isn’t to suggest that coprolalia should never be depicted, just a concern about imbalance.

Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island: For a piece on shipwreck fiction. Though Verne’s characters are really balloon-wrecked. I loved this; the Nemo backstory, the improbable competence of everyone (let’s build a foundry! let’s make blasting powder! let us train this ourangutan to be our servant and dress him in a comical white suit!); that this is one of Verne’s more realistic stories says a lot.

Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson: Pineapples.

Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman, Why We Broke Up: Another one for the column. I wrote about this here.

Jo Beverley, A Scandalous Countess: My first Jo Beverley book. I’ll be reading more; my love for interlocking series of regencies has ensured this. It wasn’t Loretta Chase-ishly brilliant, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Sheri S Tepper, The Waters Rising: Next time I attempt to read the whole of the Clarke award shortlist I will try not to schedule a trip to another city for the same week. Tepper’s book took me longer to get through than all of the other three (I’d already read Mieville’s and Rogers’  books) combined. I tried to make sense of it here. I failed.

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three: When I’d finished Hull Zero Three I described it on twitter as “competent”. Maureen asked if I was “praising with faint damn”, and in a way she was right. Competent may not sound like high praise, and there’s nothing particularly innovative or special about Hull Zero Three. But there’s a pleasure in seeing a thing done well, and I think this book is. It’s not overlong, it manages (particularly in its early stages) to conjure up a claustrophobic feeling that is exactly right for the story. I don’t think it could ever have won the Clarke, but I enjoyed it far more than some of the other books on the shortlist.

Charles Stross, Rule 34: This, on the other hand, was a more serious contender for the Clarke award. I could imagine it winning the award, but I also absolutely hated it. I hope to get into why in a future post, about it’s been a while since I’ve had this kind of bone-deep dislike for a book. Clearly a book with many positive attributes, as other reviewers have pointed out. But I don’t think I’ll be reading Stross again unless I commit to reading other shortlists.

Madeline Miller, Song of Achilles: I wrote about this for this weekend’s column, so will link to it when I can post it on the blog. But I thought very well of Miller’s retelling of the Patroclus-Achilles relationship. I worry that the novel isn’t quite the right form for something like this and there are sections that simply don’t work, but on the whole this is lovely. I was a little underwhelmed by this year’s Orange Prize shortlist, so it’s nice to have something to champion.