Layla’s 2015 Review of Books

BOOK OF THE YEAR

SevenEves by Neil Stephenson – an amazing epic (with a time span giving new meaning to the word epic) in a meticulously realized dystopia. The end of the world is nothing new for fiction… but I’m not sure I’ve ever read much of the long view of what happens generations afterwards. This book is not perfect, but it is crammed with ideas, and I don’t think a week has gone by since I read it without me thinking of it.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving – I nearly burst with excitement at the prospect of a new Irving, especially one billed as the ‘next Owen Meany’… but it was really just a lot of chat about the main character’s medication, lions, ghostly women, and a ton of significant events and metaphors that were either too pretentious or facile for me to get. It is well-written, but I was bored by this book and sacrilegiously glad when it was done.

SUMMARY OF THE BOOKS I READ: READING INSPIRATION FOR YOU IN 2016

It has been a funny year for reading. I went through phases of voraciously devouring books, and other phases where I took weeks to finish a single book. But looking back, I read 54 books and they were a mixed bag.

NEW-ISH LITERATURE

Blockbusters

The only book on the Booker shortlist that really tempted me was The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota – this is a fascinating, sad insight into the plight of young men from India coming to England in search of fortune and happiness – and how that isn’t always what happens. It’s a book about humanity in its different forms. I also really liked the author when he read from it at the Booker shortlist event in London. Another outstanding book, also by an author I loved hearing from at an event (though this time in Washington DC), was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. This intriguing, exquisitely written book imagines old England just after Arthur as a place rather different from reality, and centres on a delightful older couple as they journey to reclaim mysteriously lost memories. A really worthwhile, unique, and rewarding read. I found Funny Girl by Nick Hornby, about a Blackpool lass trying to break into comedy in London, to be charming, compelling, and indeed funny. Another anticipated book was Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving. See my ‘disappoint of the year’ above for details. I was also disappointed by the sequel to Life After Life – A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson was okay, but it didn’t do much for me.

Slightly more offbeat

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, about a year working for JD Salinger’s publishing house, was far more charming and compelling than I’d expected. Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley was also a nicely written, engaging read, about a ‘clever girl’ who gets pregnant when she’s young, and the sequelae to that. Family Life by Akhil Sharma gave a bit of insight into life in an Indian family though I seem to remember it being a bit depressing. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (not that new, but was assigned reading on a holiday I was on this year) was lightweight but charming, about a man who runs a bookshop which is always an attractive theme. I went to a Booktopia event (by the people behind the podcast Books on the Nightstand) so read a few books by authors who spoke at that event. Thus The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez which was fab (Mexican family move to Delaware, don’t have a very good time, but good discussion of the contemporary American immigrant experience). I also read Fram by Steve Himmer – a sort of magic realism Arctic sort of book. Didn’t really know what to make of it, but it was interesting… (and I liked Steve).

SCIENCE FICTION WHERE THE PROTAGONISTS ARE (MOSTLY) YOUNG

Of course I continued to fan my zeal for science fiction, particularly dystopias, and this was a great year for that. I discovered the silo series by Hugh Howey and very much enjoyed Wool, Shift and Dust, about humankind surviving underground in a society within a giant silo while the world above is poisoned. I also discovered the Life as We Knew series by Susan Beth Pfeffer, which surprised me in its excellent and engaging depiction of life on earth after a moon-related disaster. I adored Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel – a deeply engaging, complex story about a post-pandemic world. And I was really interested by Speak by Louisa Hall, about artificial intelligence and the risks of becoming too attached to your robot – I didn’t enjoy the way the narrators jumped around though. My least favourite sci fi book was probably The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer (interesting ideas about drug lords running countries, growing clones for parts, etc, but it all gets a bit too depressing). And of course I couldn’t resist a bit of John Wyndham – I adored The Midwich Cuckoos.

All of the above are told mostly from the perspective of teenagers/young adults. Sort of in-between was the surprising and compelling The Silent History by multiple authors. What an interesting book, and not just in its multi-author conception. It looks in a pseudo-factual, reporter-ish way at a rapidly expanding phenomenon of children who are unable to speak, and how society interacts with this. It’s not often you find books that are really bubbling with ideas and social commentary. I liked this book.

SCIENCE FICTION WHERE THE PROTAGONISTS ARE (MOSTLY) ADULTS

As for sci-fi about grown ups, I discovered Neil Stephenson this year. Snowcrash, about a future where corporations exist instead of countries, there’s no real law, and people exist online, is an intriguing, meticulously built world, even if I didn’t particularly warm to the high-peril, save-the-world type story. But I absolutely adored SevenEves also by Stephenson, a story about the survival and evolution of humans, taking place over thousands of years after the Earth’s destruction (by another moon event) – see my ‘book of the year’ above for details. Of course the most anticipated adult-focused dystopia book published this year may have been The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’d read her previews on Kindle, and heard her talk about it, so I knew what to expect from this tale of an ‘ordinary’ couple seeking refuge from a dystopic world in an apparently ideal one, with a few strange – and of course alarming – quirks. I wanted this to be A Handmaid’s Tale. Alas it was not. It was good though, and worth reading, but I didn’t think it was great. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North was a better, more interesting read than the Bone Clocks (people who are continually reborn over many generations), while The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber was a less good (but still pretty good) version of The Sparrow (Christian missionaries meet aliens on far away planets). Sliding down my list of enjoyment, I didn’t really enjoy The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson, despite its promise about extrapolating from how we live and narrow our lives on social media by separating people into affinity groups, which I think is an interesting commentary. The Forever Watch by Ramirez David was full of promise, following a woman on board the Noah, a space arc saving humankind from an earth disaster – but the writing wasn’t great, and it just went on and on far beyond my caring about it. I had to google it to even remember it from my list! Neither was I a big fan of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, another apocalyptic take – it was a bit macho or something… I don’t know. But to be fair, the writing itself was pretty good.

AN ADULT READING YOUNG ADULT FICTION

I read a bit of young adult type fiction, the best of which may have been Wonder by RJ Palacio (a great, unusual, and gloriously engaging school story about how a boy with facial disfigurements affects his peers – its sequel Auggie and Me is of a similar excellent quality) and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (middle-England coming of age), and my least favourite was The Wanderers by Richard Price (but if you like books about teenage gangs in New York, this may be for you…). I read two books about young girls sent to boarding schools for emotionally damaged children – what are the odds? I really liked Among Others by Jo Walton, about a sci fi fangirl with a bizarre family situation, but you have to have a certain tolerance for magic… Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer of The Interestings fame was a really interesting read, and I suppose I’d better not give it away but suffice to say it also involves a bit of magic. An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns, both by John Greene, were okay but didn’t thrill me. Katherines was slightly better. And some more trashy style (but still enjoyable) like Greyhound by Steffan Piper (young boy from dysfunctional family makes long trip alone on Greyhound bus), while too trashy to really be that enjoyable was The Fever by Megan Abbott (school students become hysterically infected with a weird epidemic), and Landline by Rainbow Rowell (calling from a particular phone connects woman to the past).

CLASSICS

I squeezed in a bit of classic English literature. I adored Trustee from the Toolroom by Neville Shute, about a very ordinary man having an extraordinary adventure in a very English way. I enjoyed Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I was rather delighted by the surprisingly feminist messages in An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. And I delighted in The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins, about strange happenings around a marriage – I read it mostly because I was in Venice, where it is largely set, but it was absolutely compelling.

BOOKS ABOUT JAPAN

Given I’m about to move to Japan, I’ve been reading a bit around that. Not counting my delightful Japanese textbooks, I’ve enjoyed some books by foreigners (‘gaijin’) about their experiences living in Japan. My favourite may have been Tune in Tokyo by Tim Anderson, a witty, interesting, quirky account of his time teaching English in Japan and what life was like for him in Tokyo. I quite enjoyed My Japanese Husband Still Thinks I’m Crazy by Grace Buchele Mineta, a sequel with cartoons about a Texan’s ongoing culture shock in Tokyo. A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia was okay though not as engaging. I also read some Japanese-based literature, and The Thousand Lives of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell was intriguing, fascinating, and instructive about times before Japan was open to the West, though I found some storylines more engaging than others.

RATINGS

Here are my ratings of the books I read in 2015, all of which are how much I personally enjoyed a book, out of 5:

Rating: 5

SevenEves by Neil Stephenson

SnowCrash by Neil Stephenson

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The Thousand Lives of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Trustee from the Toolroom by Neville Shute

The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Wonder by RJ Palacio

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Tune in Tokyo by Tim Anderson

The Silent History by multiple authors

Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rating: 4

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Among Others by Jo Walton

Wool, Shift and Dust, all by Hugh Howey

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

An Abundance of Katherines by John Greene

An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

Speak by Louisa Hall

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins

Rating: 3

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer

My Japanese Husband Still Thinks I’m Crazy by Grace Buchele Mineta

The Forever Watch by Ramirez David

Fram by Steve Himmer

Greyhound by Steffan Piper

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Paper Towns by John Greene

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia

The Forever Watch by Ramirez David

Rating: 2

The Wanderers by Richard Price

Packing Up by Brigid Keenan

The Fever by Megan Abbott

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Rating: 1

None. Phew.

SO WHAT’S NEXT FOR 2016?

I can’t wait to start reading in 2016. I already have a few books I’m excited about lined up for reading: Everland by Rebecca Hunt, Pinball by Haruki Murakami and the Iron Heel by Jack London, all Christmas presents. If you have any suggestions of what I might like, please do comment at the end of this blog. Happy new year, and happy reading!

Post-apocalyptic rebuild in Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

As you all know, I’m a sucker for an end-of-the-world dystopia but not for a while have I found one quite so compelling and so real. We start out at the theatre, where a movie star named Arthur dies in a shocking ‘tragedy’, just before the Georgian flu starts to spread, a global pandemic with a rapid, 99% death rate. It makes you think: what sort of death is tragic?  What really matters? What is humanity without its trappings? How lucky was Arthur to die when the world was still in order?

I’ve seen reviews criticising the ‘world building’ in this dystopia but in my opinion that is part of its beauty: we never really get an overview of what’s happened to the world. Instead we experience this new world order, or disorder, from very personal, provincial points of view, flitting between people with tenuous links to Arthur, in a way that emphasises how small the world might feel without mass communications and long distance connections. We know we’re only hearing about a tiny snapshot of the post-flu civilisation. And that’s okay. 

If I have two criticisms about the realism of this world, I wonder at remaining humankind’s lack of capitalist tendencies and practical skills. But in general this felt real, I felt in the action, I loved several of the characters and after reading quite a lot of gung ho action dystopias of late, it was nice to find such a nuanced balance of compelling plot, charismatic characters, contemplative thoughtfulness, and a healthy helping of nuanced symbolism (the book title refers to the art that eschews mass replication, yet outlasts both technology and superficial celebrity and touches the hearts of two key characters). The book is really more philosophy than action – but don’t let that put you off.

In conclusion, I’m not sure I’d do well at the end of this particular world, but I rather hope I end up in an airport with my wife. This is one of my top reads of the year so far.

Rating: 5/5 shoes

Review: Fram

Fram
Fram by Steve Himmer

It’s not often I read a book and think ‘hmmm, that was quite odd.’ And yet with Fram I couldn’t quite figure out what to make of it. It is very much a book of two halves. I developed huge fondness for the main character, Oscar, a man whose obsessive love of the concept of the north pole (charmingly abbreviated by his longsuffering wife to PF, or Polar Fever), and his unquestioning bureaucratic dedication mean that Oscar has his dream government job at the bizarre Bureau of Ice Prognostication, complete with its ridiculous, meticulous processes and shroud of secrecy. He has a dream marriage too; however it is at risk of going sour. But then Oscar finds himself sent north on a secret, inexplicable mission fraught with peril that anyone with less bureaucratic dedication might find perturbing… Oscar is brilliant. I loved the first half of this book. But with his bizarre mission to the north pole, or somewhere like that, I started to love it a bit less. I got impatient reading it. There were questions that were never answered. I flicked through some bits about a hunter that I didn’t quite get. It all turned into a strange sort of adventure which was entertaining, a bit inexplicable, and ultimately either hopeful or hopeless. I heard Steve Himmer speak about the book (and he was brilliant) and when asked about how it ended, he refused to reveal his intent. So whether pessimism or optimism… apparently that depends on the reader. Having heard him speak just before I finished it, and knowing his intent, this left me in a state of angsty lack of resolution.

Rating: 3/5 shoes

View all my reviews

Three coming of age books ‘beyond the rye’

What exactly is a coming of age book? A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued to attend a discussion class at Politics and Prose (lovely independent bookshop in Washington DC) to consider three ‘coming of age’ books ‘beyond the rye’, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and The Wanderers by Richard Price. The class was run by author James Grady. 

I have a massive soft spot for coming of age books, so proved a feisty student. We had an interesting discussion about whether ‘coming of age book’ and ‘novel about children’ were synonymous and indeed whether we adults favor the more pretentious-sounding genre to justify our childish reading choices… In fact other than books where the kids are frozen in eternal youth, like the Famous Five, I personally find it hard to think of many novels starring a child character which couldn’t be characterized as ‘coming of age’ – can you? That transition phase as a child experiences and learns things that mould them from innocence and simplicity into their grown up selves is to me the most fascinating time of life to read about – that pluripotent time where anything could happen, when their life could still take any direction. I love how such a universal process always feels so unique and yet resonant. There’s rarely a coming of age book I don’t manage to enjoy (especially, I confess, if it takes place in a dystopia). 

And yet, my experience at this class made it clear to me that I very much prefer the coming of age stories that focus on girls, or gay boys (of which I’ve probably read hundreds), to the violent, posturing, and foreign-feeling boyhood world in which these three set books took place (one of my few forrays into this domain). I admit I didn’t enjoy any of them much except Black Swan Green which was wonderful. There was indeed that horrible stereotypical schoolboy violence but there was a fascinating backdrop, sensitively-rendered relationships, a stammer which almost felt like a character in its own right, and there was charm and joy and quirk. The English countryside was well-depicted but still, gender simplification as it may be, I finished it thinking “gosh, I’m so glad I’m not a boy!”

Next I read The Wanderers, about gangs in the Bronx, and I had the same thought a thousand times over. It was so infused with violence I almost found it too stressful to read, even though I could tell it was very well done, in a sort of West Side Story way. 

I’d been particularly looking forward to Dandelion Wine as I always have high hopes of Ray Bradbury,  but then found it so self-consciously dull I soon ended up skipping it altogether. 

A strange little batch of reading but sometimes it’s nice to find myself obliged to read something I otherwise wouldn’t. I think it’s good to know what else is going on in the land of coming of age before I settle down with my beloved The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeild – which, on three thousandth reading, is a glorious antidote to gang warfare. Even though the characters don’t change all that much, I’m still calling The Painted Garden a ‘coming of age book’ to comfort me that I’m not just reading a children’s story. Ahem… Anyone want to stop me?

The Silo Series by Hugh Howey

One sentence plot: The world’s air has been poisoned long ago; the only survivors live underground in a silo. 

In the mood for a nice new dystopia for holiday reading, I happened across Hugh Howey’s Silo series (Wool, Shift and Dust) and I was hooked. Each of these books is over 400 pages making this a real epic read, but very much an easy read, and pretty consistently compelling (though some friends disagree!). 

Essentially we have the standard dystopia formula of people living in some socially very different evolution from our present day society following an unspecified disaster with the population going along with the rules enforced by those in charge, til some lone person wants the truth, and a better life, and starts asking questions. What is fun about this trilogy is that after the first book it’s told from two different sides, the dystopic world we have met, and another dystopic world that’s linked in fascinating ways… 

I felt the world of the silo was very well crafted and full of great detail. The characters were interesting and relatable and generally well drawn. At times this was a compulsive page turner. I particularly enjoyed one of the main characters, Juliette, and liked that gender is a fairly irrelevant fact in this world. There are a lot of very good characters, some less compelling. The writing is more than competent (though not expecting a Booker Prize nomination for this one). But really I most appreciated the well-imagined plot. Despite being written in serial form, it comes together very well. I admit to pulling a couple of very late nights just to find out what happened next. 

I could find out, because there’s a sequel, Sand. Can’t decide if I like the sound of it, but I expect I’ll cave and not regret it. Good dystopia, Howey!

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

One sentence plot summary: A Mexican family move to Delaware after their daughter has an accident that leaves her with brain damage, and they find a community in this foreign country. 

Do you ever feel you’ve had a run of reading things that were… just okay? Well thank goodness for The Book of Unknown Americans for breaking my rut of pleasant mediocrity. 

Maribel’s parents reluctantly leave their lovely Mexican home behind in hope of accessing the special education they hope will help their daughter after an accident that leaves her with brain damage. They end up living in a depressing apartment block in Delaware where Maribel’s father braves a depressing job while Maribel’s mother Alma tries to make a life for them all. 

The book is primarily about this family’s story, but interwoven is the story of the other immigrant families living in the apartments. The narrative, which is beautifully done, moves between Maribel’s family members and, as Maribel makes a friend of Mayor, those of his family across the hall. Their voices are charming and compelling and real. Every so often a short chapter flits to another apartment dweller, building up a sensitive, nuanced, happy and sad and very human picture of how each individual ended up converging in that Delaware building that they’ve all unexpectedly found themselves calling home. It’s smart and reflective. 

Don’t relax, because worse things happen than you might expect. But the message of the book seems to be that life isn’t about blame, recriminations, or dwelling on the might-have-beens and what-ifs. And ultimately, that’s an uplifting, hopeful thought. This book is very well done. 

Rating: 4/5

Among Others by Jo Walton

One sentence summary: After surviving an incident involving magic, that killed her twin sister, 15-year-old Morwenna’s love of science fiction books help survive her boarding school and build a new life. 

I like coming of age books set in boarding schools. I like books about reading. But I’m not sure I like books about fairies and magic… This book is a combination of these, and in the end I did quite enjoy it. But would I recommend it? Not sure. 

When we meet her, Morwenna has fled her home in Wales, where her mother was mentally/magically dangerous, and is placed with her estranged father in a posh English boarding school. They bond over a shared love of sci fi, but thanks to his never-explained bizarre social situation, she finds herself sent to a boarding school where she overcomes the town/gown divide to make friends who also love science fiction books. Oh, and some talking to fairies, and a bit of magical peril. 

What was confusing about this book to me was the seemingly random magical bits inserted amidst a fairly standard and enjoyable coming of age story. Some parts are all a bit too neat (the people she meets become perfect friends); other parts are insufficiently neat (OMG the aunts may be trying to steal her magic by piercing her ears, you say? Errr… Why? Are they magical too? Mysterious family suicide… Why are there no answers or elaboration?) And then the end: eh?!

I kept wondering if the magic bits were supposed to be metaphors but I’m not convinced – I think they were intended to be taken as read. Maybe… I liked Morwenna, I enjoyed her detailed book enthusiasm (if I knew more about 70s science fiction literature it would have been even better, but not necessary to enjoy). I even enjoyed the relationships she made between the other characters. But I found it hard to suspend disbelief and embrace the magic, personally. 

Rating: 3/5