Category Archives: Random musings

Three coming of age books ‘beyond the rye’

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silo Series by Hugh Howey

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

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

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

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

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

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

Among Others by Jo Walton

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3/5

What I read in 2014

I set out to read 100 books in 2014. And oh dear, ladies and gentlemen, I did not succeed. I managed 70. On the other hand, knowing I was aiming for 100 meant I read significantly more than in 2013. I rated them all out of 5, based subjectively on my perceptions and reading experience re quality and enjoyment.

The top 18 books I read in 2014 (5 shoe rating)

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Girl who saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Room by Emma Donoghue

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer

The Bees by Laline Paull

Euphoria by Lily King

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

The Martian by Andy Weir

Every book I read in 2014, in reading order, rated out of 5

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy 4/5

Light Boxes by Shane Jones 3/5

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells 3/5

Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie 4/5

The Outward Urge by John Wyndham 3/5

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin 4/5

Astray by Emma Donoghue 4/5

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett 5/5

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride 4/5

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd 5/5

We Are Water by Wally Lamb 4/5

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman 5/5

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman 4/5

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman 3/5

TransAtlantic by Colm Toibin 3/5

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin 4/5

Flora by Gail Godwin 4/5

Close Range by Annie Proulx 3/5

The Colour by Rose Tremain 5/5

Daughters of the River Huong by Uyen Nicole Duong 4/5

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue 4/5

Bark by Lorrie Moore 4/5

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd 5/5

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 5/5

Wishin’ and Hopin’ by Wally Lamb 4/5

Mastering Public Health by Geraint Lewis 3/5

The Moon King by Neil Williamson 4/5

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante 2/5

The Girl who saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson 5/5

The Museum of Lost Literary Souls by John Connolley 4/5

Making Sense of Critical Appraisal by Olajide Ajetunmobi 3/5

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer 5/5

Perfect by Rachel Joyce 3/5

Room by Emma Donoghue 5/5

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt 5/5

The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey 5/5

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer 5/5

Safe area Gorazde by Joe Sacco 4/5

The Girl who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow 4/5

The Bees by Laline Paull 5/5

We Were Liars by E Lockhart 4/5

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami 4/5

The Provincial Lady by EM Delafield 4/5

Euphoria by Lily King 5/5

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green 4/5

East of Eden by John Steinbeck 5/5

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler 5/5

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters 4/5

The Provincial Lady Goes Further by EM Delafield 3/5

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley 5/5

Oy vey, My Daughter’s Gay (in draft)

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer 4/5

The Provincial Lady in America by EM Delafield 4/5

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell 4/5

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut 4/5

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani 4/5

The Humans by Matt Haig 4/5

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion 3/5

Echo Boy by Matt Haig 4/5

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell 5/5

Love, Ellen by Betty Degeneres 3/5

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell 4/5

Tokyo on Foot by Florent Chavoulet 4/5

The Library by Haruki Murakami 4/5

Six Stories by Clayton Littlewood 2/5

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell 5/5

My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy by Grace Buchele Mineta 4/5

Prep by Curtis Sittenfield 3/5

Academy Street by Mary Costello 2/5

The Martian by Andy Weir 5/5

In 2015 again I plan to try for 100 books in a year. And a better attempt to review them on this blog! If you have any recommendations, let me know in the comments section. And wish me luck!

My 2014 book challenge(s)

Happy new year! And with new year comes a new book challenge, of course. I jealously watched my lovely wife devouring 100 books last year, and I wanted in on the fun, to stop missing out on books she raved about, and to do that I must double my reading rate. Yikes.

I also realized I’ve really enjoyed some speculative fiction and sci fi, but have hitherto assumed sci fi is something that is not for me. I’m going to kick through the mental barrier and read some classic sci fi this year.

Finally, I’m conscious that people rave about various non-fiction titles which I never get around to reading. I then feel frustrated at missing the zeitgeist (and not being able to make clever comments at dinner parties). So my 2014 three-part uber-reading challenge awaits:

– Read 100 books

– Of which at least 10 are non-fiction (proper non-fiction literature, not how-to manuals, textbooks, or anything like that!)

– Of which at least 10 are classic sci fi

Here is my bedside table TBR pile awaiting me:


Ladies and gentlemen, let the reading commence!

Guest Blog: Wife’s Top 10 Books of 2013

Having been mentioned so frequently in yesterday’s blog as the source of excellent book recommendations, I finally succumbed to Layla’s suggestion that I do a guest blog of my top ten books of the year. Flattery gets you everywhere…

It’s been horribly hard to narrow it down to a top ten, since this has been my best year for reading for as long as I can remember – due not least to a challenge from the lovely Thomas of My Porch to see who could read 100 books first. (To my chagrin he won, but I had a lot of fun anyway.)

The first book I read this year, I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe also has the first spot in my list of top ten books of the year. I loved Charlotte as a character, and even more I loved seeing a slice of American life – an a Ivy League university – that I’ll never experience.

The second book that makes it into my top ten is Rose Tremain’s The Colour. It’s the story of a couple’s emigration to New Zealand at the time of the gold rush (along with the husband’s mother). I love her writing (her book Sacred Country is probably one of my top 50 favourite books of all time) and very much enjoyed reading both this and Music and Silence this year. But The Colour wins out for me because of the book’s ability to really communicate obsession and because of the complexity of the relationships. And I like a pioneering book…

Which leads me very nicely onto my third book of the year: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. Published this year, I do not understand why it hasn’t received more attention. Again with a strong interesting female character (I’m starting to notice a pattern here!), it’s the story of a Quaker girl’s emigration to America in 1850 at the time of the Fugitive Slave Law. But more than that, it is a story about an English girl becoming American but keeping some of herself. And it is a tale of complex compromises. If you read just one book off this list, I would make it this one.

My fourth book is very different: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. It’s hard to explain how touching and interesting this book is without making it sound a bit sentimental – which it isn’t. Ultimately it’s a book about friendship – our main character is an teenage epileptic science nerd who befriends an aging American Vietnam War vet. The tragi-comedic undertone reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and I would guess that those who like one will probably like the other.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene is my fifth book and probably needs little introduction to most of you. I’m not quite sure what made me finally get round to reading it – other than a job will come up at our Embassy in Havana around the time I leave here… But I completely loved it (though am not absolutely sure the book convinced me that a job at the Embassy is necessarily for me!). For those who haven’t read it, it’s political satire and thriller combined, with characters so vivid that I felt I should invite them over for a cup of tea.

My sixth book is The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris. I just loved this for absorbing me in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community that I’ll never be able to access myself. I really cared about the choices the characters made – almost unable to read on when they made the “wrong” choice. Despite being on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK, this also hasn’t received as much attention as I think it should. (And so if you are going to read two books off this list, this should be your second!)

My seventh book is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It’s a story of a number of overlapping lives, all affected by a walk that a man does on a tightrope between the Twin Towers. I loved it for showing me 1970s New York, for McCann’s ability to make stories converge and for his ability to make me care a lot about a character in just a few lines.

My eighth book of the year is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I can’t think why it took me so long to catch up with the rest of the world and to read it. It’s speculative fiction of the best kind and I was unable to do anything other than read once I picked it up. It’s about the role of women, the role of Government and what compromises a society – and an individual – can be talked into for their own protection. It’s completely dazzling.

My ninth book of the year is a cheat: it is the Madaddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood (a cheat because I ought to choose between the three or give them three spots on the list of top ten – ah well, it is my list so I shall cheat if I wish). I’d been deterred by Layla who originally read Oryx and Crake and wasn’t an enthusiast (she has now entirely revised her position as her review shows!) but was lured in nonetheless because The Handmaid’s Tale was so good – and because of some persuasive blogging by Thomas. As complex as Dickens, as compelling as a thriller and as thought provoking as a philosophy lecture, this trilogy has it all. I possibly liked the last, Maddadam, the best but even as I typed those words I thought of all the reasons why I loved the other two just as much. Certainly, Madaddam was one of the only books to make me cry in public (twice) this year.

Since I have got into the routine of cheating, my last spot will go to The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald AND The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt jointly. They do have something in common: a flawed character who may (or may not) be the architect of his own doom. They are also the two books which spring to mind when I think of the phrase “tour de force”.

Best re-read of the year goes to Dickens’ Great Expectations and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. And my worst book of the year goes without question to Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens. Nonetheless, it has been an excellent year’s reading.

Roz reading 2

(This is my lovely wife reading at a floating temple in Burma/Myanmar – Layla)

What I read in 2013: a list and some graphs

In 2013 I challenged myself to read 50 books. And I am very satisfied to have read 52 – that’s one a week. So before I progress to my intimidating 3-point uber-challenge for 2014, I shall keep you in suspense, and first pause to glory in the full list of what has been a delightful year of reading. I didn’t have my blog at the start of the year so after each book I will retrospectively rate them all on a star scale of 1 – 5, 1 being rubbish and 5 being brilliant, listed in the order in which I read them. And then a little graph interlude afterwards, where we shall lament my poor taste in choosing books… All comments and particularly recommendations based on these tastes will be most welcome!

1. Heft by Liz Moore *****
2. Tunneling to the center of the earth by Kevin Wilson ***
3. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan *****
4. Pyongyang by Guy Delisle ***
5. Calling Dr Laura by Nicole Georges **
6. The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler ****
7. I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe ****
8. Shenzhen by Guy Delislei ****
9. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce ****
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky ****
11. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett ****
12.  Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster *****
13. This Much I Know Is True by Wally Lamb *****
14. A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale ****
15. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card *****
16. How it all began by Penelope Lively ****
17. The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence ****
18. The first book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz *
19. Web by John Wyndham ***
20. A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson ***
21. The 10 o’clock Question by Kate de Goldi ****
22. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker ****
23. Where’d you go Bernadette by Maria Semple *****
24. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford *****
25. I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson *****
26. The 100 year old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson *****
27. When you are engulfed in flames by David Sedaris *****
28. Me talk pretty one day by David Sedaris ****
29. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe *****
30. Maggie and Me by Damian Barr *****
31. Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay ****
32. Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson ****
33. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier *****
34. The marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris ****
35. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki **
36. Instructions for a heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell ***
37. Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown ***
38. Life after Life by Kate Atkinson *****
39. May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes *****
40. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis ***
41. Bridget Jones Mad about the boy by Helen Fielding **
42. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward **
43. Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver ***
44. Exerpts from a Hot Pink Notebook by Todd Brown ****
45. A Cure for Dreams by Kaye Gibbons ***
46. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood *****
47. The year of the flood by Margaret Atwood *****
48. Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood *****
49. Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem *
50. How the Garcia girls lost their accents by Julia Alvarez ***
51. The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham ****
52. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt *****


I am choosing not to be concerned that I cannot be fully trusted to find enjoyable books when left entirely to my own devices… I shall just assume that I would have come to many of the wife recommendations if wife had not got in there first (as she was smugly and alarmingly reading at double my speed this year). Onwards and forwards to the books of 2014!