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!

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