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Layla’s Top 10 lovely recent LGBTQ+ reading list for Pride

Given that Pride is to be a virtual event this year, I thought I’d do a virtual celebration of ten of the LGBTQ+ books I’ve recently read and loved.

I’m not going to delve too far into the classics of the canon, because so much has been written about these books, for example here. But I thought I’d bring together the top ten LGBTQ+ books I’ve enjoyed reading the most over the last few years. In no particular order, here they are – I hope you’ll enjoy some of these as much as I did. Feel free to comment below with your suggestions for me!

If you care about intersectionality and enjoy personal growth…

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It’s a novel about intersectionality: sexuality, class, gender, race, ethnicity and so much more. Our main character is wonderful. Juliet is a young queer Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx who secures a summer internship with her idol: the Portland-based white lesbian author of a blockbuster feminist book. The juxtapositions pile on. And it’s one of those ‘growing summer’ books. I felt like I was there with her.

If your life is missing a queer historical sci-fi mash-up…

Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy is about the Arthurian legend and it is full of quirky imaginative ideas. Rather than living once within a legend, Arthur is reincarnated incessantly until he finally saves humanity. Merlin accompanies him each time. In this book, set in the future, the latest incarnation of Arthur is a young queer woman living in a spaceship. This book is absolutely bursting with fascinating ideas, with LGBTQ+ themes, with thought experiments in what would happen if one big corporation controlled everything, with legends and history, with genocide… there is a lot in here – do not underestimate it because it’s so uncategorizable.

If you are fascinated by jazz, Scotland, and gender assumptions…

Trumpet by Jackie Kay is about the life and death of a fictional jazz artist Joss Moody who lived as a man but, upon his death, it was revealed that he had been biologically female. The book is told through the memories of his wife, son, colleagues and others. It’s a beautiful book.

If you enjoy writers writing about writers – and want to feel charmed…

Less by Andrew Sean Greer is about a mediocre writer who, upon being invited to his his ex-boyfriend’s wedding,  decides that rather than accept or reject the invitation he will simply be unavailable due to accepting all the random author random invitations around the world that pop into his inbox. Lovely book.

If you like beautifully-written books where diverse characters are connected…

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is last year’s Booker prize-winning book about women and race and sexuality and gender and south London. Sometimes you read something that just feels special. This is that book. It follows multiple women’s narratives, all linked in pleasing ways, and it gives insight into how these different people experience life. It’s funny and sad and happy and interesting and complicated and full of every kind of love.

If you’re up for presidential speculation, royal japes and a saucy romance…

Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuisto is one of my go-to happy escape books – and in fact that’s what it was written for. After the last US elections; the author says she decided to jump into a fantasy land where a very liberal female president is in the White House, complete with gay son (who has a love-hate relationship with a royal prince from the UK). This book gives every impression of being very silly, but the writing is sharp and the plot compelling. It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s interesting, and it’s heartwarming. I loved this. Suspend disbelief and go for it.

If your life is missing a well-written lesbian romp that makes your own life feel a bit dull…

In at the Deep End by Kate Davies is a page turner. A young woman in London, leaving a dull relationship with a man, reinvents herself as a lesbian and has a flawed but passionate affair as she explores London’s lesbian scene and its characters. It’s sexy, it’s interesting, it’s really properly laugh-out-loud funny. Reviews talk of the lesbian Fleabag, or of Bridget Jones. Very enjoyable. Just been nominated for the Polari prize.

If you’re in the mood for a good coming of age tale with cellos…

Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale is about growing up gay in the 1970s, improbably seduced by the glamour of playing the cello; it’s also about growing old, facing illness and loss; it’s about love; and it’s about how your past shapes you. It’s beautifully written.

If you fancy a bit of historical feminist young adult fiction…

Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls is a young adult book following three young Suffragettes. I’ve never read this aspect of history from this particular angle. It was fascinating to meet these women from different backgrounds and watch them evolving emotionally and politically and see what happened to them. It was really interesting, it was touching, and it included a charming first lesbian romance.

If you’re ready for something completely different…

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson is remarkable. It’s historical fiction about Mary Shelley; it’s a future dystopia about sexbots and AI; it’s about gender; it’s about immortality… Mostly it’s about how to build different types of bodies, and what that means on a personal and societal level. Like (and not like) Once and Future, it’s a genre-defying thought experiement. It is unusual, it is unputdownable and love it or not, it is crammed with genuinely interesting ideas. It’s a bit of a triumph.

Happy reading! And happy Pride!

Read your way through COVID-19: Layla’s book suggestions for self-isolation and quarantine

Readers, this is the moment we have been training for. Aspiring readers, this could be your reading equivalent of Couch to 5k. With COVID-19 keeping us indoors and removing many of our usual entertainment options, books are calling to us. Some of us can dash to our local bookshop and stock up. We can still (for now) support bookshops via delivery of lovely paper books that arrive and make us feel like it’s our birthday. We can summon books virtually in various ways. We can virtuously read our existing TBR (to-be-read) piles. Either way, reading enables us to travel mentally when we’re physically grounded.

But what to choose? What book calls to you in a coronavirus age? Dear reader, I have some suggestions in 4 categories: feel-good delights; pandemic dystopias; dystopias that make you think that at least the moon isn’t crashing into the earth; and a some out of this world books to just escape the whole planet.

For those of us who have heard quite enough about illness and anxieties and doom and fancy a happy escape:

Sourdough by Robin Sloan is delightful. This is a quirky and unusual tale of a Silicon Valley woman who comes into possession of a culture to make sourdough bread of a special kind that transforms her life. It’s a tiny bit magic realism-ish. It’s just really unusual and (I was then compelled to read Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and its sequel Ajax Penumbra by the same author, and I adored them too.)

The Rosie Project (and its two sequels) by Graeme Simsion is so charming and engaging. It’s about a male professor of genetics who is brilliant with objective matters but struggles to make emotional connections. He tries to bring the two together with results that are funny, interesting and compelling. The books are about how he changes and grows. The characters are an absolute delight.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer is about a mediocre writer who, upon being invited to his his ex-boyfriend’s wedding,  decides that rather than accept or reject the invitation he will simply be unavailable due to accepting all the random author random invitations around the world that pop into his inbox. Lovely book.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson was published in 1938 and it’s about a downtrodden governess who finds herself suddenly having a very unexpected day. (If this is your sort of thing, can I also suggest Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico – and that one, which is also delightful, has 3 sequels).

Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuisto is my current go-to happy escape book, and in fact that’s what it was written for: after the last US elections; the author says she decided to jump into a fantasy land where a very liberal female president found herself in the White House, complete with gay son (who has a love-hate relationship with one of the royal princes from the UK). This book gives every impression of preparing you for a trashy book, but it’s really, surprisingly, good. The writing is sharp and the plot compelling. It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s interesting, and it’s heartwarming. I loved this. Suspend disbelief and go for it.

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce is set in WWII London and is the epitome of charming, about a woman with a career and the decisions she makes, and the impact of the war on normal life in London. It’s also very funny.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is absolutely remarkable. It’s about a young woman who encounters a potential alien sculpture, vlogs about it, and becomes social media-famous. The book is about that fame and its impact. It’s also about the potential alien sculpture. And the main character is interesting. This is a fast, easy read of the type you’ll skip a meal to finish. Intriguingly it’s by the brother of famous young adult writer John Green.

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer is really a book for young teenagers – but it’s also a lovely read for adults. Two girls find out their fathers are dating and are horrified when they’re sent to the same summer camp to make friends. The whole thing is written in letter form and it’s lovely and interesting and funny and quirky.

In at the Deep End by Kate Davies is at the other end of the spectrum. The main descriptor I can think of is ‘a romp’. A young woman in London, leaving a dull relationship with a man, reinvents herself as a lesbian and has a passionate affair that is both crazy and relatable. It’s sexy, it’s interesting, it’s really properly laugh-out-loud funny. Reviews talk of the lesbian Fleabag, or of Bridget Jones. I enjoyed it.

For those of us who want to disturb ourselves with potential futures for a post-pandemic world:

There are lots of books on this topic, but these are amongst the ones I’ve loved most:

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is the quintessential virus dystopia – a deeply engaging, complex story about a post-pandemic world. It is so interesting to think about the aftermath, and what is important, and what makes a good life. This book is excellent.

A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen has just recently been published in a ghoulishly timely way. 70% of the US population has been killed by a virus. This book starts when the remaining world is starting to gather itself. It focuses on an interesting set of people who come together during the book and start moving towards a new future. It’s pretty good.

The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James is set in London after pretty much everyone in the world has died following a virus. The main protagonists are the two youngest people in the world, destined to be the last people on Earth. Which is such an interesting concept in itself. The plot of this book is unexpected (well, to me), and the tone is tender and intimate. It was sad and lovely and optimistic, and a speedy read.

For those of us who want to read a different type of dystopia to comfort ourselves that there will always be many potential risks in this world:

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson has the sun dying, and the Earth is slowed down to give humans enough time to make Mars habitable. It’s an epic book, spanning the lives of the protagonists and across the globe. It’s complex, interesting, and recommended.

Emily Eternal by MG Wheaton also has the sun dying. Emily is an artificial consciousness designed to be like a human. When her development is interrupted by the unfortunate news that the sun and thus the world is dying, she commits herself to saving humanity. Which sounds like a big story but it is intimate, and filled with both adventure and romance. It’s outstanding and brimming with ideas about what it means to be a human.

The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sherriff is about the moon veering off course, drawing slowly closer to the earth, and finally crashing into it in 1946, as described by a Hampshire schoolteacher. Compelling, and such a brilliant voice. Loved it.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute is one of the most haunting and human descriptions I’ve read of a possible end of the world by nuclear fallout. This one is the most depressing book on this list. But it’s also really good, and really interesting.

Just get me off the planet!

Dawn, Adult Rites, and Imago by Octavia Butler are three books in a really brilliant trilogy. These books are so fresh, so interesting, so inventive, and so imbued with ideas that for anyone with a passing interest in books about space, but more importantly in other ways to live, the nature of relationships, and what it means to be human (or not human) they are essential.

Another almost equally glorious trilogy with a similar theme (though also very different in tone and technology) is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. It is so brilliant, again about what it means to be human (or not human). Unmissable.

SevenEves by Neil Stephenson is 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 think about it all the time.

Just a few suggestions from things I’ve enjoyed in the past few years. Enjoy your reading, whatever you choose. It’s a glorious pleasure and you finally have time to do more of it than usual. I’m planning to go for it. Feel free to leave me suggestions, now you know what I enjoy! (Oh look, this blog was a selfish attempt to get reading recommendations all along, designed as an altruistic guide to augment your coronavirus reading list – rumbled).

Layla’s 2019 Review of Books

I notice this is my 7th year writing my Review of Books. As ever, this has been a year of reading that has spanned the voracious devouring of books… and periods where it took me weeks to finish a single novel. But by the end of the year I’ve read 87 books, which isn’t too bad at all. It’s also been an interesting year for new ways of identifying books. I do a lot of Googling for top new books of the season; I also read the Bookmarks magazine. I went on the Cheltenham/Times literature festival at sea. And for my birthday my wife took me to Bath for a ‘Mr B’s Book Spa’ – a delightful experience where I got to talk to a bookseller all about my reading tastes over tea and cake, curled up in an armchair, then left with more cake while she hunted down a pile of books she thought I might like. I started sceptical, but in the end I bought most of them and enjoyed many of them.

Book of the Year: The Farm by Joanne Ramos

I went through lots of angst trying to decide what my favourite read was this year. I have really, really loved a lot of books. And it’s interesting because I didn’t know it at the time, but one book has really sat with me, I’ve not seen it on enough major lists of top books, and you know what: I’m going to make my book of the year The Farm by Joanne Ramos. This is a really unusual near-future story that feels so close to today that perhaps it really is happening now. It’s about an elite farm/ ’gestational retreat’ where women are paid to be surrogates to rich people who can’t or are disinclined to carry their own babies. It’s about class, race, gender, immigration, economics, fertility politics, inequality, relationships, and capitalism, all brought together in a very compelling story told from more than one perspective. The characters are beautifully drawn and nuanced. Nobody is a villain, but many act villainously. It’s full of suspense, humanity, humour, and questions about women’s choices. It’s a comment on our values and the way we are building our society. It’s a must-read.

Best in Contemporary Literature

Winner: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

There were so many contenders for my contemporary literature book of the year that I can almost sympathise with the big literary drama this year that was of course awarding the Booker Prize to two authors. I wasn’t a fan of the approach. The problem was that we’d all been waiting decades for Margaret Atwood to write a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and when she finally did write The Testaments presumably everyone felt obliged to give her the Prize. The problem was, The Testaments wasn’t brilliant, in my view. I mean, it was very good. I really liked the angles it took – how the world of Gilead and some of its villains came to be; and how it was viewed both from the outside and from someone born within. But it really didn’t feel as good as its co-winner, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo which was a really brilliant book about women and race and sexuality and gender and south London. Sometimes you read something that just feels special, and I feel annoyed on the author’s behalf that she had to share her prize, especially with someone who wrote something with tons of razzmatazz surrounding it that slightly overshadowed Evaristo’s must-read book.

Another semi-blockbuster I really liked was Grandmothers by Sally Vickers. I really enjoyed the study of navigating this grandmother-grandchild relationship, and the really interesting study of these women’s complicated relationships with their children’s parents, and how access to beloved grandchildren can be snatched away without recourse. I also really loved Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson (which also falls into the historical fiction, LGBTQ+ AND dystopia categories). This book is remarkable: it’s a genre-defying thought experiment. It’s about Mary Shelley; it’s about sexbots; it’s about AI; it’s about trans people; it’s about immortality… Mostly it’s about how to build different types of bodies, and what that means on a personal and societal level. It’s a little bit ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, with the characters settling into philosophical soliloquies a bit too often (which I suspect is what kept this one off the Booker shortlist), but this is unputdownable and crammed with genuinely interesting ideas. It’s unusual, and it’s a bit of a triumph. I’m still thinking about it. It was my runner up for contemporary book of the year.

There were a few other blockbusters this year that left me a little cold. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, was a tad annoying as it has two stories that I knew were somehow connected and I spent much time trying to figure out how. When I finally did, the link wasn’t very satisfying/convincing… Essentially, a young woman has an affair with an older author modelled on Philip Roth. And an Iraqi-American economist is held at Heathrow Airport for no real reason other than his race. I think this book is about the asymmetries in how different people are treated based on certain characteristics, and about how we understand each other despite our differences. Interesting but a little disappointing after the hype.

So was Sweet Sorrow by David Nichols, a coming of age tale of a working class boy who finds himself getting involved in a drama group and with its posh participants, and what that all means for him and them. I usually love a book about people on the cusp of grown-up life, examining how a person ends up going in a particular direction. And this one wasn’t bad, exactly. But I just felt emotionally uninvested in what happened to this boy. In fact I found the book a bit annoying (which is apparently not the cool thing to think, as the reviews were great). A better example of this genre in my opinion was Expectation by Anna Hope, which I loved. Also a coming of age story, this time following three girls into adulthood to see how the decisions and experiences they faced shaped their lives. It’s about friendship and navigating the entry to grown-up life; it’s about disappointment, different types of family, the children question, and about what makes a good life. It’s nuanced and interesting and feels true and relatable. I suppose that’s also what True Places by Sonja Yoerg is about, though I didn’t really like this book much. A dissatisfied housewife encounters a girl who grew up in the woods, throwing the values and behaviours of her family, and how they became what they now are, into disappointing contrast. The premise was okay, it was readable, but it wasn’t of the quality to vigorously recommend…

But don’t worry: there were some other coming of age books I particularly enjoyed this year. The stand-out might have been The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni. This book will make you think of John Irving, who must be an inspiration for this author’s style. It’s about a boy with ocular albinism, i.e. red eyes, who is branded a devil by his classmates (and by some unfeeling teachers). It’s set in his childhood, and in his adulthood. I loved Sam, and it’s mostly about friendship and love and faith. Another charming read, probably intended for a young teen audience but one to grab from their shelf, was To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer. I love Meg Wolitzer, so I took a look and it was really lovely. Two girls find out their fathers are dating and are horrified when sent to the same summer camp to make friends, and the whole thing is written in letter form. It’s brilliant because it sounds like a revolting cliché but it’s so lovely and interesting and funny and I cared about these people so much. Finally, in the coming of age category, those of us who loved The Rosie Project had of course been anticipating the third in the series, The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion, and it was a great relief to find it equally delightful as the preceding two. This one focuses on the protagonist’s relationship with his 11-year-old, potentially-autistic son as they attempt to help each other navigate the world. Like the other two books it is funny, gentle, kind, and the plot is rather compulsive.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez was one of the surprises of my reading this year. The book is about a woman writer mourning the death of her best friend, with all the complexity of feelings of not quite having the ‘official’ mourning status of his wives; and of taking over responsibility for his huge, grieving, and elderly dog. The book is genuinely funny, it is insightful, it’s tender, and it is written in quite an unusual tone. The book talks about flaneurs and I think that’s what it’s trying to do. Strolling around grief, happening on random thoughts. Again it’s about trying to find meaning in life. It’s also about writers. And grief. And people’s intimate relationships with dogs. It’s a bit of a masterpiece, really. Hard to explain though.

And finally, skating in at the end of December, Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson was finally published and it was just as brilliant as I’d been hoping. I loved his previous book, The Family Fang. The story was so eccentric and the characters were so great. I’m happy to say Wilson has done it again. The story feels a little smaller this time, but it has everything I could want in its absurdity, from a girls’ boarding school to two children who literally catch on fire when they’re upset. I read it pretty much in one glorious go.

Best in Historical Fiction

Winner: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

A book that really stayed with me this year was Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Maybe I loved it more because I read it in Lyme Regis, where it is set. But it’s one of these perfectly constructed books that just fill you with delight. It’s based on the true story of the impoverished Mary Anning who had a gift for finding fossils and was the talent behind most of the UK fossil finds claimed by rich men in the 19th century; and it’s also about her friend Elizabeth Philpot, a less-gifted fossil enthusiast, spinster, and mentor of sorts. The relationship between them is one of the best parts of this rather magical book; so too is the examination of the social and religious mores of the time and the impact of understanding what the existence of these fossils might mean. It’s fabulous.

I’m not usually especially into historical fiction, but one of my other top books this year was The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. This one is about an English woman who marries, moves to Depression-era Kentucky with her disappointing new husband, where she incongruously becomes involved in running a packhorse library. I really cared about these characters and what happened to them – it felt unputdownable. It all got unexpectedly dramatic in the last third. But I loved it. And You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr was incredibly bleak but also involved hope; it’s a mix of horrible things the British did during the second Boer war, and horrible things done to young effeminate boys in modern-day South Africa. This feels like an important book, and showed me part of British history about which I knew very little.

I also dabbled in the very specific genre of typist-to-the-spies literature this year, which is not my usual enthusiasm. Transcription by Kate Atkinson was one of those must-read blockbusters I liked but I didn’t love. It’s set in London during the war, where it’s about a spy who was monitoring fascist sympathisers, and then a piece after the war, where I quite enjoyed the BBC setting – I have no idea if it’s true that post-war, lots of spies moved into the BBC. I liked the concept though. But I overall probably preferred The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott which is about the publication of Dr Zhivago by the US intelligence services – and a love affair by Dr Zhivago’s author and the woman who inspired Lara in the book. I cared a lot about this book, and the lesbian romance storyline was an unexpected treat. (I also saw Maggie Smith in A German Life which was about being typist to Goebbels, which was a fascinating German-facing version of this niche genre, and Tokyo Rose, an outstanding new musical which featured Japanese-American typists in Tokyo during WW2!)

Finally, The Ocean Liner by Marius Gabriel is not exactly a true story, but it is based on historical facts and is one of those compulsive reads that you can’t resist staying up too late to finish. It centres on the passengers of a transatlantic ship all fleeing Europe for various reasons during the war: Jewish cousins fleeing a concentration camp, a young Nazi, composers Stravinsky and Toscannini, and the Kennedy family, with a focus on their daughter Rosemary, whose fate left me sobbing (especially when I read the afterword, which advised me that the very slightly happy conclusion for her was fiction and it was really all just misery).

Best in LGBTQ+ literature

Winner: In at the Deep End by Kate Davies (but Once and Future, Red White and Royal Blue, and Frankisstein must ALL get honourable mentions!)

It’s always exciting to know an author, but then also risky, in case you read their book and don’t like it and have to think of something nice to say. So what a glorious surprise was In at the Deep End by a friend of mine, Kate Davies. The main descriptor I can think of is ‘a romp’. A young woman in London, leaving a dull relationship with a man, reinvents herself as a lesbian and has a passionate affair that is both crazy and relatable. It’s sexy, it’s interesting, it’s really properly laugh-out-loud funny. Reviews talk of the lesbian Fleabag, or of Bridget Jones… it’s hard to categorise this but perhaps it’s the book lesbian relationships have been waiting for.

You wait ages for a hilarious LGBTQ+ book and then two come along at the same time. I have already read Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuisto twice and I’m not above reading it a third time. The author wrote this book in response to Trump being elected president in the US. She decided to jump into a fantasy land where a very liberal female president found herself in the White House, complete with gay son who has a love-hate relationship with one of the royal princes from the UK. This book gives every impression of preparing you for a trashy book, but it’s really, surprisingly, brilliant. The writing is sharp and the plot compelling. Again it’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s interesting, and it’s heartwarming. I loved this. Suspend disbelief and go for it.

I’m going to talk about Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy and The PlanetFall series by Emma Newman under the category of Books set in space, Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson under contemporary literature, and You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr under historical fiction, but they all also belong in LGBTQ+ literature and I loved them. Though despite sharing these different categories, they are very, very different.

Oh and yes, I re-read Oy Vey My Daughter’s Gay by Sandra McCay. Yes, it’s about me. Written by my mother so I wouldn’t dare to review it.

Best in end-of-the-world fiction and other dystopian literature

Winner: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

We all know that this is one of my favourite categories so of course there are lots of books in here. And that’s even after giving space-set books its own category. This year’s dystopian reads have been really quite fascinating. I’ll group them by premise:

End of the world by catastrophe: Often the end of the world comes because of some space-related calamity such as a problem with the sun, or a nuclear bomb. The books in this category were some of those I rated highest this year. I really loved Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. The sun dying, but the author takes the fascinating approach of slowing the Earth compared to the rest of the universe. Which leads to one of the most fascinating terraforming efforts I’ve ever read about. The characters are fantastic – complex, interesting, and I cared about them a lot. It’s an epic book, spanning across the lives of the protagonists, across the globe, and more. It’s actually the first in a trilogy but I couldn’t get past the first few chapters of the second one which was ridiculous given how much I loved reading Spin.

As though one time-slowing book wasn’t enough, I also read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. This time the characters are very much aware of the slowing and it gives a fascinating, if not jolly, vision of what life might be like if days were elongated. I was very much compelled. Emily Eternal by MG Wheaton was also really brilliant – probably my AI book of the year. Emily is an artificial consciousness (she vigorously does not identify with artificial intelligence), designed to be like a human. When her development is interrupted by the unfortunate news that the sun and thus the world is dying, she commits herself to saving humanity. Which sounds like a big story but it is intimate, and filled with both adventure and romance. It’s outstanding and brimming with ideas about what it means to be a human.

I’ll also put The Last by Hanna Jameson in this category, though the catastrophe in question is nuclear. Our protagonist happens to be staying in a Swiss hotel while it happens. About twenty others also survive, but then it transpires one is a murderer. I usually hate whodunnit books, but I couldn’t resist the premise, and I couldn’t put it down, especially when they leave the hotel. The protagonist had lots of nuance and I thought it was excellent.

End of the world by disease: Interestingly two of my favourite end-of-world-by-disease books this year went for the premise of sleepwalking. I really enjoyed The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker where a sleepwalking disease infects people associated with a college in small town California. I about equally enjoyed The Wanderers by Chuck Wendig where apparently-random people start sleepwalking together to an unknown destination, though in this case the non-sleepwalkers start getting infected by a virus and dying. I started out liking The Dreamers more, but The Wanderers turned out to have a far more interesting premise. No spoilers.

Even more interesting than the immediate crisis, in my view, is a look at life post-apocalypse. That’s why I loved The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James. Set in London after pretty much everyone in the world has been killed by a virus, the main protagonists are the two youngest people in the world, destined to be the last people on Earth. Which is such an interesting concept in itself. The plot of this book is unexpected (to me), and the tone is tender and intimate. It was sad and lovely and optimistic. And intriguingly it felt like the prequel to another book in this review (though they are unrelated) but I can’t say which for fear of providing spoilers. I wonder if any of you will spot it.

The Program series (The Program, The Treatment, The Remedy, The Epidemic, The Adjustment and The Complication by Suzanne Young) was one of the most enjoyable young adult dystopia series I read this year. (If you enjoyed The Sky series that I recommended last year, this is this year’s version of that!) There’s an epidemic of teen suicides and society has responded with The Program, a way of admitting at-risk teens to an institution where they undergo a procedure to remove the memories that make them susceptible. The series is fascinating in the way that it takes the perspectives of different teenagers with different roles in this world, and then brings them all together. I usually hate when a series suddenly abandons its main protagonist and goes in a different direction but this was a brilliant choice. The Program is not going to win the Booker, but it was really compulsive young adult reading full of genuinely interesting ideas.

I had never fancied the Maze Runner series (Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure by James Dashner) but I knew it was really famous and popular with Hunger Games enthusiasts and I was in the mood for, I know, yet another young adult dystopian trilogy, so I decided to bite the bullet. And sure, it was pretty good. I was compelled. Not exactly my kind of thing, but it was imaginative and well done.

End of the world due to climate change: The best book in this category that I read this year is The Wall by John Lanchester. The premise is that everyone in Britain has to spend two years guarding the Wall, which is a horrible and potentially deadly experience. The reason I rate this book so highly is its atmosphere. It’s an unusual book filled with an atmosphere of menace and tedium and desperation that floats above the less-well-developed storyline. It feels like a piece of art. Another climate-related book was The Flow tetralogy (Flow, Break, Drift and Source by Clare Littlemore), a moderately interesting young adult dystopia series about a teenage girl growing up in The Beck, a small community constantly threatened by floodwater (and potential invaders) in a drowning world.  When she moves from her posting in agriculture, she inevitably gets more of an understanding of the darker elements of her little world. Not high literature. Pleasant enough.

Fertility-focused dystopias

The books in this fertility category are largely focused on solutions to infertility. The Farm is of course my overall book of the year – see the top of this blog. I also loved Expiration Day by William Campbell Powell where, left without children, civil unrest is halted by the invention of android children. It’s about identity, humanity, and societal values. It’s rather fascinating. And I thought the ending was apt. I liked less The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rodgers about the implications of a teenage girl deciding to make a personal sacrifice to play a role in saving the world. The book isn’t especially well-written but the concept feels very of-the-moment. This is about fertility, not climate, but it’s about teens taking action where adults lag and it’s thought-provoking.

I suppose The Testaments by Margaret Atwood may fit in this category too, though I’ve already covered it in the contemporary category.

Marriage-focused dystopias: I loved reading We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia. It starts in a fancy high school/finishing school where the girls prepare themselves to marry into rich families as either wives or mothers. The main protagonists find themselves caught between their own comparative prison/privilege and their desire to make their world a better place. The book is pretty compulsive and it’s quite unusual in some of its ideas. And it’s the first in a duology, so of course there’s a cliffhanger ending. Another book starting in a girls’ boarding school is Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young. To be honest, that one was a bit of a disappointment. Again, it’s focused on preparing girls for marriage, but there’s a twist. I’d better not say. It was fun to read but the real disappointment was that it wasn’t as good as The Program series, also written by this author. The Chemical Garden trilogy (Wither, Fever and Sever by Lauren Destefano) focuses on another teenage girl, Rhine, who lives in a society where all diseases have been eradicated, but in doing so, all females die at the age of 20 and males at 25. There are few workers, society has broken down, and then Rhine is kidnapped to marry a rich boy. This trilogy was clearly a little bit trashy… but at the same time, embarrassingly compelling.

Dystopias where society just works differently: I reasonably well enjoyed All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis where the premise is that once you’re sixteen, every word is copyrighted and you have to pay for each one you use. Families get into terrible debt, but one girl comes up with a fix: stop speaking at all. This doesn’t go well for her. The world is well-built but the characters are a bit one-dimensional. I didn’t really enjoy The Method by Juli Zeh. Set in a world where every citizen has the responsibility to be in optimal health. The protagonist’s brother is apparently convicted of a crime and for one otherwise successful scientist, her pursuing this against the authoritarian regime precipitates her downfall.

Best in space-based books

Winner: The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal

I love a space-based book and there were several stand-outs this year. There was a brilliant series called The Lady Astronaut series (The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky and The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal). This series could fall under both the end-of-the-world category AND the timeline changes category, but it’s so much more. It’s set in an alternate reality 1950s when the space programme is sped up by an extinction-level asteroid strike. The aim is now to get people living on other planets in a world where most of NASA has been obliterated. Mathematician Elma York is a glorious protagonist. Unlike so many sci-fi books, she is a grown-up: married to a lovely husband, smart with an established career, and a religion (Judaism) and she is deliciously complex and interesting. The books look at race, gender, and other forms of inequality through a really fresh lens, and the plot and characters are compelling. I can’t wait til the next in the series, coming in 2020.

I have been sad that Becky Chambers finished her Small Angry Planet trilogy last year, so what a treat to get to read her new To Be Taught, If Fortunate novella. It was excellent. Partway through a long term study mission to distant habitable planets, the crew finds fewer reasons to look forward to their return to Earth. It’s a beautiful study of humanity and exploration. It’s just too short. I’m insatiable for Becky Chambers stories.

But in the absence of any more Becky Chambers stories, I thought another outstanding space book was Do You Dream of Terra-Two? By Temi Oh, which pleasingly also appeals to my enthusiasm for boarding school books.  Earth is dying and six teenagers are trained to make the twenty-three year journey to a far-off habitable planet, supported by a veteran crew. This book is all about their relationships and emotional experiences. I’ve seen criticisms that not a lot happens, or that the science is unconvincing, but that’s not really what this book is about. It’s about coming of age, and about who we are in different contexts. I loved it.

Another very good book about visiting distant planets is Semiosis by Sue Burke. I wasn’t at all sure about this book, but grew to admire it. It’s about moving to another planet where there’s already lots of life, and humans finding their place in it. The fascinating thing about this book is that it moves through six generations of humans on this planet – it’s about how their values and priorities and approaches evolve, and how they learn to live within this alien ecosystem. It was really interesting.

A very different but enjoyable series is Planetfall (Planetfall, After Atlas, Before Mars and Atlas Alone by Emma Newman). I liked the first one best, where people are living on a new planet as part of a religious pilgrimage. The next books explore what life has been like on a futuristic Earth (not great), and living on the Moon too. And all sorts of criminal and religious and capitalist intrigue starts to ensue. It all becomes a bit too much of a thriller for my liking, but you might like that.

I semi-liked The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbuth where an ad man is commissioned to attract people to colonise Venus (which has little to recommend it). I enjoyed the premise a lot, but it all got a bit too thriller-y for me. It’s about consumerism, essentially, and it’s filled with interesting ideas. If you don’t mind a crime vibe, you might love it.

Another book about consumerism, also straddling space and fantasy and LGBTQ+ categories, is the rather brilliant Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy. It’s about the Arthurian legend. It turns out that Arthur is reincarnated incessantly until he finally saves humanity. Merlin accompanies him, though ageing backwards. In this book, the latest incarnation of Arthur is a young woman in space, accompanied by a teenaged-looking Merlin. This book is absolutely bursting with fascinating ideas, with LGBTQ+ themes, with thought experiments in what would happen if one big corporation controlled everything, with legends and history, with genocide… there is a lot in here – do not underestimate it because it’s so uncategorizable.

Best in books involving timeline changes/alternate realities

Winner: Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

This is a bit of a wide category in terms of the books I’m bringing together. I think my favourite was Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen, a book about time travel, as used by intelligence agencies in the future, and the effect it has on an operative who gets stranded for decades in the 1990s, starts a family, then gets ‘rescued’ away from them to the year 2142 where he’s only been gone briefly. It sounds all sci-fi/crimey but it’s really about love and family and what matters to you. The premise is really intriguing and it’s filled with interesting and well-developed relationships. Another really fascinating read was Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, set in a Tokyo coffeeshop which allows you to travel back in time, within certain parameters. It feels a little Murakami-ish in both its tone and premise, but perhaps a little more grounded and elegant, and the interwoven stories are compelling. This is a book about relationships, regret and hope. I really liked it.

On the other hand, Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan is set in alternate-reality 1980s London and is uncharacteristically a bit rubbish. This was mostly amusing to me as McEwan said in an interview that he had essentially invented the genre of artificial intelligence in sci-fi. And it reads like he did no research into this rather brilliant genre. It’s about a perfect robot man with artificial intelligence and his relationships with his ‘owner’ and the owner’s girlfriend. It’s about what makes us human. It is surprisingly devoid of sympathy or interestingness. Its disappointingness is particularly prominent when you compare it with something like the genuinely amazing Frankisstein (see Contemporary Fiction).

Best in Fantasy

Winner: Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman (only if you’ve read His Dark Materials)

I don’t really like fantasy. I make an exception for Philip Pullman. He disappointed me this time – but only because I was so ready to be delighted. For anyone who loved His Dark Materials, it’s not really possible not to be into this sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust. It’s just frustrating that Pullman has succumbed to second-book-in-a-trilogy-itis. The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman was good and fascinating, of course it was. But it’s pretty much just dedicated to setting the scene for book three. And it’s almost unremittingly depressing. Lyra is often horrible, which is hard for a beloved protagonist. And it just randomly ends unexpectedly with no real story arc and certainly no resolution and lots of issues of the day awkwardly crammed in. Let’s just hurry towards the third book, Philip, and we’ll say no more of this. In the meantime, I loved both Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North which are novellas from the same series but I’m claiming them as books I read, especially as I read them while in Oxford, having received beautiful hardback gift editions of the books for Christmas. I especially loved the latter as we finally learn the backstory for Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison.

Another weird category of book that might fit into this fantasy genre is Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron. It’s about coming of age and grief after the death of a parent; it’s also about angels and adventure. I found it hard to suspend disbelief to get behind this, but I did quite enjoy the characters and it being set in Edinburgh. One for younger readers, I think, but there’s some interesting stuff in this book.

And speaking of books really not written for an adult-aged audience, The Split Worlds series (Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name, All is Fair, A Little Knowledge, and All Good Things by Emma Newman) is the sort of series I’m so embarrassed to have read that I considered leaving it off this list. But clearly for all its ridiculousness I paid for and read all five books in the series, so I’d better just own it. I will quote the premise from Goodreads: “Between Mundanus, the world of humans, and Exilium, the world of the Fae, lies the Nether, a mirror-world where the social structure of 19th-century England is preserved by Fae-touched families who remain loyal to their ageless masters.” And of course there’s a teenage girl who moves between the worlds and tries to find meaning and safety in her life. It wasn’t excellent (unlike Newman’s Planetfall series, which is why I picked this one up). But if you like fantasy, go for it. It’s quite compelling, in its way. And I liked reading it while in Bath.

Dream-like, season-focused fiction

I don’t really know what to call The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. It’s about the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter on an Finnish island over the course of a summer, and then as they grow older. I couldn’t tell if they were actually the same person, or what was going on. It was lyrical, and very landscape-focused. I could see it was excellent though I didn’t really love it. From summer to winter, I also read The Ice Palace by Tarej Vesaas. Again left with feelings of ‘errr what was that about?’ It’s about schoolgirls and life and death in a remote village in the Norwegian fjords over winter. These two books, quite dream-like, felt like they were about something I didn’t quite get. They felt like they belonged together. I’m not going to say which was best – I have no idea.

Best in children’s literature (or adult books by children’s writers)

Winner: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart 

It’s very much a children’s mystery-type book, but The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart is eccentric, quirky, interesting, exciting, and incredibly gripping, and worthy of a look by adults. The characters are extremely well-drawn and the whole thing is imaginative, the tone is lovely, and it essentially celebrated four smart and talented orphans on a mission to save the world. It’s likely to appeal to the same audience as A Series of Unfortunate Events. I put To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer in the Contemporary literature category but it could also fit here and it was brilliant.

I had a mini-Noel Streatfeild binge. I re-read Ballet Shoes, which was as glorious as always. One of my favourite children’s books ever. I read Party Shoes which I realised I’d never read and it was probably the worst Streatfeild book I’ve come across: very disappointing. I also wasn’t especially enthused by Parson’s Nine. And then I thought I’d try one of her adult books and picked up It Pays to Be Good and it was fascinating. It was like an adult version of Ballet Shoes, but bleak and cynical instead of charming and optimistic. I didn’t love it, but I loved getting to read it.

Best in autobiography

Winner: Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic

It was annoying that Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic wasn’t available on Kindle because I really wanted my mother to read it. It is a brilliant, sensitive, funny account of the immigrant experience, of leaving Yugoslavia’s civil war for suburban Australia. It’s about being an outsider and finding your place in the world. It’s delightful.

I also quite enjoyed Spinning by Tillie Walden, an autobiography in graphic novel format about being a competitive ice skater coming of age and trying to find her identity. I was left cold by Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain which should have been brilliant, but in reality was just some vignettes. Interesting insight into a posh world and a sad one, of course, but didn’t seem to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

Non-fiction

Gosh, did I really only read one non-fiction book this year? Apparently I only recorded one anyway: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, which was very interesting in helping me understand the complex roots of racial inequality in Britain, including in my own neighbourhood. Oh and I got my first non-fiction book published this year! I was only one of several authors, and it’s more textbook-ish than literary, but I’d better give a shout out to Urban Mental Health by Dinesh Bhugra, Antonio Ventriglio, Joao Castaldelli-Maia and Layla McCay.

Rankings

Here are all the books I read this year, ranked with the simple criterion of how much I enjoyed reading them; within each rank category, they are ordered in the order in which I read them.

Five star

In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? By Temi Oh

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuisto

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer

Emily Eternal by MG Wheaton

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Expectation by Anna Hope

Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Grandmothers by Sally Vickers

Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Four star

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

Spinning by Tillie Walden

The Last by Hanna Jameson

The Program by Suzanne Young

The Treatment by Suzanne Young

The Remedy by Suzanne Young

The Epidemic by Suzanne Young

The Adjustment by Suzanne Young

The Complication by Suzanne Young

Planetfall by Emma Newman

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Before Mars by Emma Newman

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

The Ice Palace by Tarej Vesaas

The Ocean Liner by Marius Gabriel

The Wall by John Lanchester

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Semiosis by Sue Burke

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

The Quiet at the End of the Universe by Lauren James

Expiration Day by William Campbell Powell

Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Three star

Parson’s Nine by Noel Streatfeild

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rodgers

The Method by Juli Zeh

Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron

Wither by Lauren Destefano

Fever by Lauren Destefano

Sever by Lauren Destefano

Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

After Atlas by Emma Newman

True Places by Sonja Yoerg

Sweet Sorrow by David Nichols

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis

Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbuth

Flow by Clare Littlemore

Break by Clare Littlemore

Drift by Clare Littlemore

Source by Clare Littlemore

It Pays to be Good by Noel Streatfeild

The Death Cure by James Dashner

The Secrets we Kept by Lara Prescott

Two star

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman

Any Other Name by Emma Newman

All is Fair by Emma Newman

A Little Knowledge by Emma Newman

All Good Things by Emma Newman

Party Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

One star

Again, I have not awarded anything one star. I do a decent amount of research before reading any book, so I rarely find something unexpectedly appalling. I confess I did stop reading about 15 books this year – not usually because I found them bad, but because I for some unknown reason just couldn’t get into them, or because they were so far from my taste that I wasn’t able to enjoy them. I’ll remain silent so as not to prejudice you.

There’s also my guilt list: another 20 or so books I bought and intended to read by the end of the year but I have not… The shame. Luckily I share my Kindle account with my wife and mother so that at least someone’s enjoyed them (in many cases one of them has already chastised me for my poor judgement in not reading them yet!) But hooray: there’s always 2020!

Layla’s 2018 Review of Books

I can’t believe that the end of 2018 has raced up so speedily, and with it my largest ever number of fiction and autobiographies – I read 86 books this year. It was an odd year: I’d just moved back to London from Tokyo and Hong Kong and my feelings of dislocation discouraged me from reading in the first few months. Then I sorted out job, hobbies, and other responsibilities and just as I got rid of all my spare time, I started reading again with a vengeance.

 

Book of the year

Winner: It’s a tie. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami and Sourdough by Robin Sloan.

It’s a tough one. There was no one clear stand-out book of 2018. But the slight front runner is Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami. I love Murakami but at times I’ve been frustrated by his recurring magic realism cat metaphors. This book feels like a new phase in his writing: it’s sharp, smart, thoughtful, universal, and really interesting. Especially if you like art, or relationships. It was a real page-turner and I cared about it so much. The premise is that an artist’s wife decides to leave him for another man. Our protagonist finds himself lost, living in a famous Japanese artist’s house on a secluded mountain trying to figure out the rest of his life. He becomes involved with an eccentric old man and a young girl, and a strange hole in the garden. He seeks answers and in saving them, finds himself. I know, a very Murakami-sounding plot. But it was great. I only resent it because it came out in Japanese while I lived in Tokyo but wasn’t translated for ages and my Japanese wasn’t good enough to feel part of the zeitgeist.

Another book that has really lingered with me is Sourdough by Robin Sloan. This is a quirky and unusual tale of a Silicon Valley woman who comes into possession of a culture to make sourdough bread of a special kind that transforms her life. It’s a tiny bit magic realism-ish too. It’s quite wonderful. (I was then compelled to read Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and its sequel Ajax Penumbra, also by Robin Sloan, and I adored them all. But Sourdough does have something special.)

There are at least eight other books jostling for this accolade. But I’ll discuss them in subsequent categories.

Best in contemporary literature

Winner: Normal People by Sally Rooney

I read a lot of much-anticipated books by big names this year. Normal People by Sally Rooney is a special book – a subtle, understated triumph which leaves me struggling to explain why it’s so good. It’s about two teenagers whose different life experiences impact their emotions, social experiences relationships and lives as they grow up, circling each other. I can’t explain it. But it is luminous and I felt somehow changed after reading it. Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is probably her best yet, and randomly, my first time reading about early women divers in New York which I loved. It’s a sweeping tale of drama and intrigue and relationships. And it’s excellent.

There was lots of buzz around The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. It’s about a family of siblings who learn their death date, and about how that affects the way in which they each choose to live. It’s a book that is equally full of ideas and beautiful prose and compelling characters. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer was an epic treat about growing up and being a woman and the meaning of friendship – if you have an interest in either publishing or international development you’ll especially enjoy parts of this. And gosh, I absolutely relished Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, which brings her back to form with two stories, set in the same American town in 1871 and 2016, where both protagonists resist the prevailing beliefs. I especially loved the female scientist in the 19th century who features strongly in this book, and the Darwinism debates. Irresistable. Moon Palace by Paul Auster had a similarly compelling span of time but this is more of a family saga, if an unusual one. The main character is brilliant.

On the other hand, Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale was glorious – about growing up gay, about the cello, about becoming. I can’t quite tell whether I loved this more, or Love is Blind by William Boyd which oddly sit in the same category in my head. Love is Blind is about a Scottish bachelor who becomes a piano tuner and lives in various places around the world. This might have been the book that wins the prize for making me cry the most at the end. Both of these books were major contenders for my book of the year.

Then there were the quirky reads. The Hunters by Kat Gordon is really good – it’s a coming of age book that’s been dubbed ‘The Great Gatsby, in Africa’. Which is an intriguing premise, and it delivers. If you read this, pay attention to the first couple of pages, which come back at the end but I’d forgotten about them to my detriment. A great read. Last year I was really into the series of fiction by famous authors based on Shakespeare’s plays. This year I read one of these, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. It’s based on The Taming of the Shrew, which I never liked due to its anti-feminist themes. This contemporary version is very clever, interesting, a bit of a page-turner. Finally, a shout out to the funny, sardonic novella My Purple-Scented Novel by Ian McEwan which is a must-read. Especially if you like books about writers.

Best uplifting books about reading

Winner: The Librarian by Sally Vickers

For some reason, this has been a specific category in 2018. I already mentioned the delight of both read Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and its sequel Ajax Penumbra by Robin Sloan, but there was also Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland and The Librarian by Sally Vickers. Which was the best? Probably The Librarian. But if you like one of them, you’ll likely like all of them. I also rather enjoyed Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman which is a collection of her essays about different aspects of being a devoted lifelong reader.

And more general feel-good reads

Winner: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

I hear ‘up-lit’ is ‘in’ this year. Certainly I’ve always appreciated a feel-good book and this year has held some treats. I think the best was Less by Andrew Sean Greer. A man, a mediocre writer, hears his ex-boyfriend is getting married and decides that rather than accept or reject the invitation he will simply be unavailable due to accepting all manner of author random invitations. Smart, funny, and altogether delightful. I’d probably also put the aforementioned Sourdough by Robin Sloan here. Also the immensely charming Dear Mrs Bird which is set in wartime London and couldn’t be lovelier, about a woman with a career and the decisions she makes, and the impact of the war on normal life in London. It’s also very funny. I ate up a book set in my own neighbourhood called The Lido by Libby Page. It’s about love and loneliness and what makes a good life, all through the perspective of the lido swimming pool near my flat. I love a book where the neighbourhood feels like a character. It’s quite special. You should probably read it. Also Happiness for Humans by PZ Reizin which is about romance and artificial intelligence, and is lovely. Other really enjoyable ‘up-lit’ includes Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, a charming read about being older and about life and love and friendship. Slightly lower in quality but still enjoyable was The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert, Aged 19 Going on 91 by David M Barnett – it’s about a young student who feels lost and finds herself through living in a nursing home. Don’t like the name though…

Disappointing contemporary fiction reads

I read The Idiot by Elif Batuman and found it interesting but ultimately irritating and self-indulgent and droning, which was annoying because I usually like university-set books and books about language. Also, The Hour I First Believed was the first book I’ve ever actively disliked by Wally Lamb – and the only book this year that I started but just couldn’t finish. It’s about the Columbine massacre. I keep wanting to like Ali Smith’s ‘seasons’ series, but I just couldn’t really get into Winter.

Older fiction I enjoyed

I really really liked The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham which feels like it could have been written a lot more recently. It’s about an unfaithful wife and her punishment, and it’s set in China, and it’s just full of interesting plot turns. I also got very into a charming trilogy, Mrs Harris Goes To Paris, Mrs Harris Goes to New York and Mrs Harris, MP by Paul Gallico. If you’re a Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day kind of reader, you will enjoy these too. In the first one, a poor charlady in London decides she wants to go and buy a posh dress in Paris – and so she does. An absolute delight. I also personally enjoyed An Old Captivity by Nevil Shute though it is mostly about logistics of flying to Greenland, and a little too much about magic at the end. I read Daphne of Fitzroy Street by E Nesbit which I noticed got poor reviews but if you’re the sort of person who appreciates a transition-from-boarding-school-to-adulthood coming of age tale set in Bohemian London, this could be for you too! Finally, I read Dracula by Bram Stoker and was unimpressed (but did manage a comedy set on the topic, so it wasn’t wasted reading effort).

Best in space books

Winner: Dawn, Adult Rites, and Imago (a trilogy) by Octavia Butler

I am a big fan of this category and this year brought me a glorious treat in a really brilliant trilogy that I can’t think how I missed: Dawn, Adult Rites, and Imago by Octavia Butler. These books are so fresh, so interesting, and so imbued with ideas that for anyone with a passing interest in books about space, aliens, but more importantly in other ways to live, the nature of relationships, and what it means to be human (or not human) they are essential. Reading this amazing trilogy may have been my happiest week this year. They are that good. Speaking of books set in space, I’d been waiting for more than a year for The Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. The third in her trilogy is not her best, but it’s still pretty good. She is bursting with ideas and this book has plenty of them. Read the other two first. Then you’ll have to read this one whether you want to or not. I also read The Humanarium by CW Tickner which is a bit silly but I like the premise of humans being tended in glass tanks (also that the author note said the author is a gardener who was inspired to write it based on his work). And I read Artemis by Andy Weir which isn’t a patch on his The Martian but it was still fun.

Best in dystopias and speculative futures

Winner: I Still Dream by James Smythe

There are a few types of dystopias. In the version where civilisation is ending and survivors must survive and reconstruct, a front runner is In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster. It actually took me a while to get into this book, but once I did it was amazing. It’s funny when you’ve read a million books on this sort of theme and then encounter a really literary one. Top quality, chilling, funny, interesting, sad, politically-relevant, and generally makes you glad not to be trapped in a failing city. I read a few other books in this category and they were okay but not as great: Survival: After it Happened by Devon C Ford, The Death of Grass by John Christopher, and The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.

Dystopias where society is constructed according to a specific premise

Most of my dystopia reading this year was more about different ways in which society may be constructed, with a particular premise that changes how people interact. The blockbuster in this category is of course The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, which was a re-read for book club. It was good, but it felt like a book of two halves. I loved the first half – failing city, so a new premise is created where citizens of a gated community spend half the month in prison and half the month in a nice town. It all becomes a bit surreal and silly in the second half, like Margaret Atwood is just having a laugh. Another book that was a bit blockbuster-y was of course Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Despite having zero interest in video games, I loved this book. It was exciting, it was interesting, the world was very well built, and the characters were great. It was also very much better than the film, but the film was also good. What was fun was watching the film, understanding the back story from the book, and appreciating why certain directorial decisions had been made. Or maybe that was just me. I felt embarrassed at loving The Sky quartet by JW Lynne because as I read I could tell that these were perhaps not the most literary of books. But what an interesting premise. And how luxurious to become immersed in an interesting world and have it extend over four books. A nice strong female lead. Maybe a bit formulaic but no less enjoyable for that.

#metoo Dystopias

The #metoo movement spawned some relevant dystopias this year. The most anticipated of which was probably Vox by Christina Dalcher – it’s about restricting women’s voice by literally counting the words they’re allowed to use per day. It wasn’t quite as great as I hoped it would be but it’s a solid read in the Handmaid’s Tale camp. Also of that ilk, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas is about outlawing abortion and it’s fairly good. But in this category the book I most enjoyed was Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill. It’s about women designed and bred to please men, taking this to new limits that are chilling, and say interesting things about today’s world. It’s also set in a boarding school, which I know is extra-tempting to myself and many of my fellow readers. It’s young adult-ish dystopia in tone but its literary merit is slightly elevated beyond that formulaic genre in my view. Not quite as enjoyable but also interesting is The Future for Curious People by Gregory Sherl which considers what to do if you have the opportunity to see how your romantic relationship (and life) will turn out in years to come if you stay with that person. It’s a bit silly, but still thought provoking.

I read several other dystopias in which one thing in society is changed and that thing affects the organisation of that society – and usually involves a protagonist standing up to that society. They were all ok but none were brilliant. In the case of Breathe and its sequel Resist by Sarah Crossan, oxygen is rationed, with the rich able to buy more, with interesting societal consequences. In The Generation by Holly Cave people are genetically profiled to tell them exactly what their medical history, and other genetic features such as sexuality, will be, affecting their relationships and life choices. In Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien the poor people outside the gates of a city have to give some of their children to the richer city until a midwife rebels. In 84K by Claire North all crimes are given a monetary value that must be paid – and if that’s not possible, people essentially become indentured slaves. And in This Time of Darkness by HM Hoover society lives underground – the poorer you are, the deeper and less nice your abode. All are interesting, but none really excited me. Except perhaps The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew which is set in modern-day England with the premise that Germany won WWII which was really quite interesting, told from a young adult perspective

Social media speculation

The insidious world of social media is taken on in different ways in different books I read this year. H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker and Fluence by Stephen Oram are both about worlds that measure your social media engagement, judge and punish/reward/categorise you based on it. H(A)PPY is a bizarre one, playing with format and prose style in a way I’m not convinced works but might have been better if on paper format rather than on Kindle. Fluence was more standard, but not of the highest literary merit. I didn’t really enjoy either of them. On the other hand, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green was absolutely remarkable. It’s about a young woman who encounters a potential alien sculpture, vlogs about it, and becomes social media-famous. The book is about that fame and its impact. It’s also about the potential alien sculpture. And the main character is interesting. This is a fast, easy read of the type you’ll skip a meal to finish. Intriguingly it’s by the brother of famous young adult writer John Green. Whose book Turtles All the Way Down I read this year, and it was excellent and interesting.

Lovely Artificial Intelligence books

I love books about artificial intelligence and this year brought me two lovely ones: I Still Dream by James Smythe, which is also a coming of age story, and Happiness for Humans by PZ Reizin, which is a romance book in a way. Both are brimming with ideas and they’re a lot of fun. I Still Dream is probably the better book, but Happiness for Humans is lovely.

Time Travel books

I find books about time travel interesting, and read three this year. I only really loved Kindred by Octavia Butler, which takes our African American protagonist from the 1970s back to the days of slavery in a ways that’s fresh, thoughtful and compelling (and distressing). I quite enjoyed Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates where the premise is that in the future if you displease the society of the time, you’re sent back to 1950s Wisconsin for rehabilitation. So it’s a coming of age/college book in a way. I didn’t really enjoy Paris Adrift by EJ Swift but if you really love time travel, you probably will like it.

Young Adult books I enjoyed and did not

Winner: Pulp by Robin Talley

I never quite know whether to just put Young Adult into the general contemporary fiction category but some felt particularly young-adult-ish so here we are. I really liked Pulp by Robin Talley which is about lesbian pulp fiction, or really about the changing social experience of being a lesbian in the 1950s versus present day America. It’s rather good and recommended. As I said, Turtles All the Way Down by John Green is another interesting book in this category. One by Sarah Crossan was good if you want to read a short book about conjoined twins and cry a lot at the end. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is Harry Potter fan fiction and I found it hard to find much to enthuse about here… I re-read Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet (trilogy) by E Nesbit when I felt the need for something comforting and they were as nice as I remembered them in childhood. And there was a new release of Noel Streatfeild’s Christmas Stories which were exactly as lovely as a Noel Streatfeild fan might expect.

Pick of the Autobiographies

Winner: Spaceman by Mike Massimino

I read a few great autobiographies this year. My first book of the year was Spaceman by Mike Massimino. He is a fantastic writer – funny, relatable, and fascinating. If you have any interest in space, or just in working very hard to achieve a goal, this will be a winner for you. And my last book of the year was Becoming by Michelle Obama which has been a huge blockbuster and pleasingly is also rather good. An inspiring tale of starting off in inauspicious circumstances, but rising up. I read The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy which was about being poor during the week and posh at the weekends – an intriguing premise. Another good education-themed blockbuster was of course Educated by Tara Westover about living with a fundamentalist family who didn’t send her to school, and then her finding her way in the world. Really interesting read. Reminded me of the fictional Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller which I also read this year and was quite good. On the autobiographies not themed around education quite so much, I loved Logical Family by Armistead Maupin, whom I got to see reading it. For any Maupin fan this is an obvious must-read. Likewise, I saw David Sedaris reading Calypso and then enjoyed his autobiographical essays as much as ever. I was less enthused by Far From the East End by Iris Jones Simantel which I read randomly as it was on my Kindle – possibly purchased by my mother?

Rankings

Here are all the books I read this year, ranked with the simple criterion of how much I enjoyed reading them; within each rank category, they are ordered in the order in which I read them.

5 stars

Spaceman by Mike Massimino

Logical Family by Armistead Maupin

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore by Robin Sloam

Ajax Penumbra by Robin Sloan

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris, Mrs Harris Goes to New York and Mrs Harris MP by Paul Gallico

The Librarian by Sally Vickers

The Lido by Libby Page

Moon Palace by Paul Auster

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Happiness for Humans by PZ Reizin

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Dawn, Adult Rites, and Imago (trilogy) by Octavia Butler

Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

I Still Dream by James Smythe

Love is Blind by William Boyd

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Noel Streatfeild’s Christmas Stories by Noel Streatfeild

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Becoming by Michelle Obama

 

4 stars

The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy

Artemis by Andy Weir

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

This Time of Darkness by HM Hoover

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

An Old Captivity by Nevil Shute

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Sky quartet by JW Lynne

The Hunters by Kat Gordon

The Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert, Aged 19 Going on 91 by David M Barnett

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

One by Sarah Crossan

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet (trilogy) by E Nesbit

Daphne of Fitzroy Street by E Nesbit

The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew

My Purple-Scented Novel by Ian McEwan

Pulp by Robin Talley

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Educated by Tara Westover

Ex Libris: confessions of a common reader by Anne Fadiman

 

3 stars

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Future for Curious People by Gregory Sherl

Far From the East End by Iris Jones Simantel

Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien

Survival: After it Happened by Devon C Ford

Breathe by Sarah Crossan

Resist by Sarah Crossan

Paris Adrift by EJ Swift

Winter by Ali Smith

The Generation by Holly Cave

The Humanarium 1 and 2 by CW Tickner

84K by Claire North

 

 

2 stars

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

Fluence by Stephen Oram

 

1 star

None. I worry I’m being either too nice, or too wedded to ensuring a book has good Amazon reviews before committing to reading it… I think my quality control methods have been pretty good this year.

 

 

 

Layla’s 2017 Review of Books

In 2017 I read 64 books – almost exactly the same number as last year, though I had periods of several weeks where I read little, and other periods when I read constantly. I do wonder whether social media and other digital distractions have been interfering with my ability to really focus on reading and accounted for the gaps over the past year. But nevertheless, I did some interesting reading in 2017, including a lot of science fiction, along with lots of new fiction, some classics, and assorted others. First I’ll talk about the books, then at the bottom of this post I will list all the books I read in 2017, arranged into ratings of 1-5 (where 5 is excellent). Behold: your reading inspiration for the year!

Best book of the year

2017 has been odd for not really having a stand-out book of the year. I ranked 18 books (28%) at 5 stars, but it’s hard to pick the absolute best. Since I have to, I will be decisive and say The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. This is a wonderful novel set in Switzerland after WWII. It’s about family and friendships and love, and the decisions we make, and their impact on the people around us. The characters are beautifully drawn, and I recall shedding some tears while reading this book.

Disappointment of the year

While not intrinsically a bad book, I was rather disappointed by Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. I read Love, Nina last year and loved it. And so many people told me that her next novel, Man at the Helm, was even better. They described being in floods of laughter throughout. And sure, it was amusing at times. But I hardly laughed out loud, and it seemed to have lost that freshness of tone that was so intrinsic to Stibbe’s first book. Plus, I can never really get behind books that are primarily focused on ‘finding a man’… I grudgingly bought the sequel, Paradise Lodge, and enjoyed it a little more, probably because the ‘finding a man’ narrative took a back seat to a more engaging, quirky coming of age story. Embarrassingly, I didn’t realise it was actually a sequel til halfway though. Also, everyone except me seems to have loved Tin Man by Sarah Winman – I have no idea why I couldn’t get into it… And having loved the Silo trilogy, I was disappointed in the bleakness and lack of sympathy in Sand by Hugh Howey.

Blockbuster books

In the young adult section, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas got a lot of publicity this year – and for good reason. Focused on the challenge of race in America through the eyes of a teenage girl in New York, I read it at the start of the year and it has stayed with me and affected how I think. I was also impressed by Autumn by Ali Smith, which gave me the unusual experience of reading a book that is anchored in the UK right now. This must have been written at speed and it has an interesting format that conveys mood very well – though it’s not exactly jolly. And La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman absolutely lived up to expectations as a brilliant, thrilling prequel to The Golden Compass. But for me, the most exciting books this year have improbably been the Hogarth Shakespeare series where beloved authors have reimagined Shakespeare’s plays as modern novels. I say improbable as this is a concept about which I’d ordinarily have had grave suspicions. But I couldn’t resist reading Hagseed by Margaret Atwood, based on The Tempest. It was gloriously written, engaging, original, and edge-of-the-seat fascinating. I loved it. So then I tried New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, based on Othello. And it was maybe even better! In the coming year I’ll be reading the rest of them: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (The Winter’s Tale), Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson (Merchant of Venice) and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (The Taming of the Shrew) are all out already; Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear are being published in 2018.

More offbeat books

I’ve been charmed by some lovely quirky books this year. I loved Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn, which is funny and charming and a little silly, imagining the Queen taking a day off from her duties. It will appeal to those who liked An Uncommon Reader… My other favourite was Calling Major Tom by David M Barnett about loneliness and connections and coming of age at different ages… and about random decisions that can literally send you into space. It’s heartwarming and delightful – I distinctly remember both laughing and crying out loud. Another big charmer on similar themes (though less about space) is the delightful Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Also very interesting was The End of the Day by Claire North, who wrote The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. This book is pretty similar in some ways but a bit wittier, with an inventive premise that death employs a human harbinger. It’s not charming, but it’s gripping and thought-provoking.

Classic author treats

I loved re-reading A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute while I was actually in Alice Springs this year. I concurred: it’s a ‘bonza town’. And one of my favourite books of all time. I finally tried my first Barbara Pym. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym is one of those refreshing, funny, charming books about spinsterhood and humanity. And I picked up The Parasites by Daphne DuMaurier on the strength of a recommendation on Facebook that it was A Swish of the Curtain for grown-ups. Not sure it exactly was, but it was interesting, written in intriguing  collective tones, about three siblings who shared famous showbiz parents and are now making their own way in the same sort of world. Quite thought provoking.

Dystopias

This was the year of the dystopia for me. I went dystopia mad. I couldn’t get enough of them. And they very much fell into two camps: the ‘literary’ dystopia, and the ‘young adult’ dystopia, some of which felt a little more of a (trashy) guilty pleasure than a worthy read (but were no less compelling for it!).

In the category of worlds where population has been almost wiped out by something or other, the theme this year (with the exception of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison) seems to have been longish-term survival after the event, rather than a focus on the immediate aftermath. I was excited to finally read The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey, the long-awaited sequel to The Girl with All the Gifts. I liked it almost as much. I re-read On the Beach by Nevil Shute which I still think is one of the most haunting and human descriptions of a possible end of the world by nuclear fallout. Another apocalypse-by-nuclear-fallout I read was A Gift Upon the Shore by MK Wren which had its flaws within the plot but was a very compelling meditation on what’s important in rebuilding a world. I also got round to reading Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and while I was suspicious of a civilisation of spiders providing half the narrative (the other is set on a human space ship), my only ‘space-set book’ on the list was actually one of my highest quality sci-fi reads this year. I also quite enjoyed When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall because it was set in Britain and gave a fairly unusual but realistic vision of a rather grim future world. As mentioned under disappointments, I did not really enjoy Sand by Hugh Howey, which is a far-sequel to the Silo trilogy, set in a world covered by sand that has buried cities and was just a bit depressing.

Moving along to worlds that have adapted to new technology and other futuristic demands, this was the premise most popular with the coming of age sci-fi trilogies I read this year. The Testing trilogy by Joelle Charbonneau was one of those worlds where people are kept down and isolated into districts, Hunger Games-style, but every year a few of them are invited to the capital to participate in something that sounds good but is violent and bad. The first book was quite compelling, but the sequels started to decline in quality. The same for the Gender Game series by Bella Forest where men and women are separated into different towns that do not mix, which I really enjoyed at first, though the quality fell so quickly I stopped at book 3 of 7. I preferred The Girl Who Dared to Think trilogy, also by Bella Forest, where civilisation is based inside skyscrapers, controlled by a computer, and success depends on positive mental attitude. Which is perhaps the modern-day version of The World Inside by Robert Silverberg which I also read this year, and found fascinating, both in terms of concepts and also the way in which it’s told, each chapter through the eyes of a different tower resident. Further harnessing technology (and punishing those who don’t conform), Replica by Lauren Oliver was about clones, Flawed by Cecelia Ahern was about physical perfection, and The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (not young adult, and falling more clearly into the literary fiction camp) was about what happens to those who fail to find a romantic partner by a certain age.

The only book I read in the category of alternative reality this year was United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas, imagining a world where Japan had won WWII. It’s a fascinating concept but it was quite violent – not really my thing. Something else that’s not my thing is fantasy. I only read The School for Good and Evil trilogy by Saman Chainani as it’s been getting a lot of press in the young adult market and I was intrigued. Two girls are plucked from a village of fairy tale readers to train respectively as the hero and villain of future stories. The trilogy was a frustrating mix of really nice progressive and inventive, quirky ideas… and tediously maintained stereotypical gender roles that felt incongruous and annoying. But it was an exciting page-turner throughout.

RATINGS

Here are my ratings of the books I read in 2017 on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the best in my particular opinion.

Rating: 5

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Hagseed by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth Shakespeare series)

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Hogarth Shakespeare series)

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Curtain Up by Noel Streatfeld (re-read)

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Calling Major Tom by David M Barnett

The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeld (re-read)

The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey (sequel to The Girl with All the Gifts)

On the Beach by Nevil Shute (re-read)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

The End of the Day by Claire North

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (re-read while in Alice!)

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

All These Wonders by The Moth

 

Rating: 4

Oranges are not the only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (re-read)

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Autumn by Ali Smith

When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Dirty White Boy by Clayton Littlewood (re-read)

A Gift Upon the Shore by MK Wren

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (re-read)

The Parasites by Daphne DuMaurier

Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe (sequel to Man at the Helm)

Flawed by Cecelia Ahern

The Girls by Emma Cline

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Harmony by Carolyn Pankhurst

The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

The Girl Who Dared to Think by Bella Forest

The Gender Game by Bella Forest

The School for Good and Evil by Saman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil 2 by Saman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil 3 by Saman Chainani

Borrowed Spaces by Christopher deWolfe

Replica by Lauren Oliver

 

Rating: 3

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen

Cousins by Sally Vickers

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Marvelous Misadventures of Ingrid Winter by JS Drangsholt

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

Requiem by Lauren Oliver

Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau

Sand by Hugh Howey

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

The Girl Who Dared to Stand by Bella Forest

The Gender Secret by Bella Forest

 

Rating: 2

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

The Rift by Nina Allan 2/5

The Gender Lie by Bella Forest

 

Rating: 1

None

 

Onwards: to 2018!

 

 

Layla’s 2016 Review of Books

In 2016 I read 65 books, and reviewing my rating system, it looks like I rather enjoyed most of them! First I’ll talk about the books, then at the bottom of this post I will list all the books I read in 2016, arranged into ratings of 1-5 (where 5 is excellent). Behold: your reading inspiration for the year!

Best book of the year

The Unseen World by Liz Moore was much anticipated after Moore’s outstanding novel Heft. And it absolutely delivered: this is a book about families and love and artificial intelligence. It’s smart and thought-provoking and touching and very well done indeed.

Disappointment of the year

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue was one of the new releases I looked forward to most. But compared to her other lovely, complex books, this one just seemed a bit flimsy and trivial, with a lightweight story that wrapped up in a far too convenient manner and didn’t seem to signify much.

Blockbuster books

Most of this year’s blockbusters lived up to expectations: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier was fantastic and a must read. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood was also compelling (though I’m never totally sure I like short stories), and The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver, while not perfect, has me thinking about the ideas within Shriver’s economic dystopia months later. The Power by Naomi Alderman was also an intriguing dystopia that imagines the consequences of women having power that renders them the dominant gender, and was really interesting though a bit too violent for my liking. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler was one of those luxuriously sprawling books about family and relationships. (Okay, it was published last year but I only read it this year). Finally, I liked Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, but not as much as I felt I ought to.

More offbeat books

Some slightly more offbeat books may not have generated an anticipatory buzz but were still amazing. When I encountered The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet I was completely charmed and compelled by the world building and character building of a multi-species universe traveling through space in a way that somehow felt more ‘literary’ than ‘sci-fi’ though I know lots of people dispute that genre separation anyway. I desperately wanted to read more of this world, and I was in luck: a sequel was in the works. While awaiting it, I read the full Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series, but despite its similar worlds, I remained staunchly unsated. When Chambers’s sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, was finally published, I was so delighted: this book is as good or perhaps even better than the first one. It doesn’t just follow on from the plot, but explores a whole new set of ideas,  mostly around artificial intelligence – perhaps a theme of 2016… Becky Chambers is a big talent and if you even slightly enjoy science fiction, don’t miss it. Also thrilling was Arcadia – world building in the past, present and future, time travel, and all of it tying together in brilliant ways. This is a smart book that I enjoyed a lot. I’m intrigued that one can read it via an app in an almost choose-your-own-adventure way. Haven’t tried that myself. When She Woke was another fascinating dystopia, focused on women’s rights and how to punish people for crimes beyond a jail sentence. I couldn’t put it down. And if you want another dystopia, Crosstalk may have a slightly trashy vibe to it, but is a hard-to-put-down, almost-present-day dystopia addressing telepathy, empathy, and our culture of smartphones and increasing communication. Meanwhile Landfalls was based on a historical voyage and was inventive, interesting and told the tale of an ill-fated voyage from the perspective of the different people on board the ship. I found this both a great and an annoying technique – but it’s worth reading. The New Woman, about a transgender person transitioning from male to female in her 50s, is an important and well-written book, and I found it unputdownable. If you are looking for a plane or beach book, you’ve found it. Slightly more lightweight but another good plane book is My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologies – but avoid the sequel, Britt Marie Was Here, which I found a big disappointment. Love Nina is another lightweight but compelling read for the holidays, in the form of letters from the London Review of Books editor’s nanny to her sister.

Classic author treats

Why had I never really read much Nevil Shute? Clearly a ridiculous omission from my reading lists all these years. I’ve previously loved Trustee from the Toolroom and On the Beach, but had not explored further. So I had a Nevil Shute feast this year. A Town Like Alice and Pied Piper were two absolutely glorious books. If you haven’t read them, consider this an urgent call. No Highway and In the Wet were also very good. I’d skip Round the Bend. Also in view of Brexit this year, I read the prophetically topical Rule Britannia by Daphne du Maurier which I thought was fascinating: published in 1972, it’s a dystopia where Britain is no longer part of the EU. And I couldn’t resist a delightful re-reading of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

LGBT books

I was interested to come across The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is a coming of age book about a gay girl in Montana. Much of it is set in a boarding school (where the miseducating takes place as they try to convert her to heterosexuality). It is an intriguing contemporary-feeling young adult book that I found quite unusual. In terms of gay male-themed books, The Lost Language of Cranes was another delicate, compelling coming out story, this one set in 1980s New York City. I’ve already mentioned the outstanding The New Woman and Kitchen as really interesting  books about transgender people I read this year; another was the excellent Trumpet, which I re-read for book group. The same book group had me re-read Tales of the City, a classic that gets better every time I read it.

Books about Japan

Since I moved to Japan, I have been particularly compelled to read books on that theme. My favourite of all was perhaps Hokkaido Highway Blues, a very entertaining road trip book about an English teacher hitchhiking from south to north Japan, and learning much about Japanese culture through the people he meets. Texan in Tokyo was fairly similar in theme and tone, though done partly in the form of a graphic novel. In terms of more classic literature, The Artist of the Floating World was outstanding: a personal look at the repercussions of the second world war in Japan, while The Housekeeper and the Professor is gloriously charming and surprisingly about relationships for such a mathematics-based plot. Kitchen is the first Japanese book featuring a transgender person I’ve read and it was really interesting, though not my favourite. The Haruki Murakami books I read this year (two of his first plus Sputnik Sweetheart) were fine but did not thrill me. Neither did Strange Weather in Tokyo which was, well, mostly quite strange. But I did find Woman in the Dunes a creepy and intriguing little dystopia that is not like anything I’ve read before and definitely worth a read.

RATINGS

Here are my ratings of the books I read in 2016 on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the best.

Rating: 5

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson

My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologies by Fredrik Backwan

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Arcadia by Iain Pears

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

Landfalls by Naomi Williams

The Unseen World by Liz Moore

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

The New Woman by Charity Norman

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Rule Britannia by Daphne DuMaurier

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Rating: 4

Everland by Rebecca Hunt

Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

Texan in Tokyo by Grace Mineta

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

This must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling and others

In the Wet by Nevil Shute

Secret Language by Neil Williamson

No Highway by Nevil Shute

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Unwind series by Neil Shusterman (5 books)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Tales of the City by Amistead Maupin

Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Love Nina by Nina Stibbe

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Rating: 3

Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami

Pinball by Haruki Murakami

My Life in Orange by Tim Guest

The Repercussions by Catherine Hall

Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams

Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams

The Family from One End Street by Eva Garnett

Britt Marie was Here by Frederik Backman

Reader, I Married him by various authors

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Bilgewater by Jane Gardam

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Round the Bend by Neville Shute

The Reader in the 6:27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Rating: 2 and 1

None. Wow: either I had a particularly great reading year, or my standards have slipped… I haven’t rated any of my 2016 books 2 or 1.

Gender balance

Of the 65 books I read, 53% were by women and 47% were by men.

Onwards: to 2017!

 

 

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?