Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 book list

It's been a good year in reading, even though I haven't been doing so much blogging. As always, this is the list of books I've read all the way through for the first time this year. I don't include rereads, but then again I don't think there have been many... Links to books I've mentioned on the blog, * for my top picks, and a summary post coming later for those of you who don't like reading through lists. There are a lot I haven't mentioned on the blog, but for many of those I've added some short notes.

Some themes from the year's reading:

War- from WWI (A Very Long Engagement) to child soldiers in Nigeria (Song for Night) and the experience of everyday life in war-torn Iran (Persepolis), war dogged my reading this year. While it was diverse, reading this year (and planning for next year's reading) has really brought home how big the influence of the world wars has been on Western literature. Oh, and I dislike war more than ever. 

Fairy-tales- I talked about this earlier this year, but I sought out a lot of fairy-tales this year, inspired by reading The Bloody Chamber, which I followed up with some originals in the form of The Grimm Reader. Mostly retellings, with a short focus on the Twelve Dancing Princesses thanks to Wildwood Dancing, I also bought a few new fairy-tale collections (not represented on the list). Probably the most unusual fairy-tale retelling was Deathless, set in WWII Russia and based on Koschei the Deathless.

Steampunk?- I also sought out fantasy set in the 19th century, after reading Cold Magic and A Matter of Magic (collecting Mairelon the Magician and The Magician's Ward) close together. Not sure if what I was looking for was steampunk exactly, but it's hard to describe. Maybe a fantasy-of-manners? Something that picks up the social structures of the 19th century rather than the technology. That said, Cold Magic is not exactly that either... So maybe I'll settle for saying quasi-Victorian fantasy settings.

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins The sequels to The Hunger Games, which I wrote about back in 2010- fast paced and addictive reads
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson A nice read about an life in an English village and a late-in-life romance
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark Strangely sinister coming-of-age story set in a girls' school around a charismatic teacher
Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood Set in the underworld of 1930s Berlin, the basis for Cabaret
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson American Gothic tale of a family living in their crumbling house on the outskirts of an unsympathetic village. Classic unreliable narrator
Saraswati Park - Anjali Joseph The quiet lives of a middle-aged couple living in Bombay and the coming-of-age of the nephew who comes to live with them
House of Many Ways - Diana Wynne Jones Fun sequel from one of my favourite fantasy writers, even if it doesn't quite live up its predecessors, Howl's Moving Castle and Castle in the Air
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters Dickensian tale of love between orphans girls in Victorian England, full of twists and turns
On Beauty - Zadie Smith I love Zadie Smith's stories of class and race in the contemporary world, this one is set in American Academia
The Tattooed Potato and other clues - Ellen Raskin 
The Good Master - Kate Seredy Tales from Kate Seredy's childhood in pre-WWI Hungary, told for children. Like a Hungarian version of the Little House books (with fewer pioneers) 
Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones A retelling of Tam Lin by Dianna Wynne Jones, sounds fantastic! And is good, although a little incoherent towards the end
The Road Home - Rose Tremain Enjoyed this book about immigration in the UK, until one incident which made me less sure of it
* Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons I had a lot of fun with this book about a 'modern woman' setting out to modernise her cousins and their ancient farm, the no-nonsense heroine is great 
Chiggers - Hope Larsson
The Neon Court - Kate Griffin Really enjoy Kate Griffin's fast paced urban fantasy
Memory- Margaret Mahy
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe - Penelope Lively
* White Cat - Holly Black Fascinated by the set-up of a family of criminal magicians, I was still wary of this book, but the smart con-man hero, the world and the plot were all so engaging, I loved this
Lord Edgeware Dies - Agatha Christie
Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot - Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermere All these Patricia Wrede books are enchanting, this one is written as a letter game, with two writers exchanging letters to build this epistolary novel set in a magical 19th century
Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch Flawed but mostly fun crime/fantasy books with a sometimes funny, sometimes irritatingly slow magician's apprentice/policeman hero
Moon over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch
A Red Herring Without Mustard - Alan Bradley 
The Murders at the Rue Morgue - Edgar Allan Poe Billed as the first detective story and a predecessor of Sherlock Homes, but of more historical than readerly interest
Willful Creatures - Aimee Bender Fantastical, strange, but somewhat cold short stories
Notwithstanding - Louis de Bernieres A nostalgic look at the English countryside and English eccentrics
Soulless - Gail Carriger Picked this up looking for a fantasy-of-manners, turned out to be more steampunk-paranormal-romance
The Door in the Hedge - Robin McKinley Short story retellings of fairy tales, as well as new fairy tales
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender 
The Likeness - Tana French A sequel I liked even better than its predecessor, Into the Woods, Tana French always keeps me on the edge of my seat, scared but intrigued 
Deathless - Catherynne M. Valente Started off a bit disturbed, but this book won me round, it is a fairly dark fairy-tale retelling set in WWII Russia. Still not quite sure what to think of it
After Dark - Haruki Murakami Bearing a lot of similarities to number9dream, but shorter (and written first, I should point out), really enjoyable novel of Tokyo night-life along with a touch of the supernatural/uncanny
Liar - Justine Larbalestier
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman - Margaret Drabble A collection of short stories from Margaret Drabbles writing career, focusing on different women
The Good Thief - Hannah Tinti A rollicking great Western with orphans, con-men/thieves, vengeance and sordid pasts. Recommended.
Red Glove - Holly Black The sequel to White Cat follows in the same vein, throwing up more questions and even more problems for the hero to navigate
I Shall Wear Midnight - Terry Pratchett
10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2011 - Various Writers It was free!
Two Doors Down - Annie M. McCartney 
Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi Graphic novel (or rather, graphic memoir) of the author's childhood in Iran- really interesting look at Iranian history and what it's like growing up in turbulent times
Cold Fire - Kate Elliott Sequel to Cold Magic, with much high tension and joy for me
Necropolis - Catharine Arnold Interesting, if bitsy, history of burial and burial grounds in London
Skim - Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki Coming-of-age story set in a girl's school in Canada (graphic novel). Found the hints of student-teacher relationship a little off-putting
The Floating Admiral - Various Brings together G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and other Golden Age detective writers to write one story, a chapter each. What's not to like?
Murder is Easy - Agatha Christie
Fever Pitch - Nick Hornby
Full Dark House - Christopher Fowler I heard these were more Crime/Fantasy books- but they're not exactly fantasy, although they're certainly not realistic. They are quite fun, not to be taken seriously
Seventy-Seven Clocks - Christopher Fowler
The Water Room - Christopher Fowler
Claudine in Paris - Collette Could not like this, felt somewhat seedy and didn't really like the narrator, but I know that other people think they're fun- I think part of it is that I just really dislike father-figure romances. 
The Easter Parade - Richard Yates Known for his depressing stories, this is a depressing story of two sisters who choose different paths in life but both end up miserable. I know that sounds dismissive, but really it is good and takes in the changing choices available to women in the middle of the 20th century
The Pastor's Wife - Elizabeth von Arnim So funny and yet so sad at the same time, this made me incredibly glad to be alive today rather than 100 years ago. Liked the first half best, the POV of the main character just seemed less believable towards the end, too naive
The Girls of Slender Means - Muriel Spark
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - Winifred Watson Would have been a lovely book if not for the racism. Still manages to be quite fun and zesty as a portrayal of friendship between women and second chances, at least in parts
Goodbye To All That - Robert Graves
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs Incorporating found photographs, this didn't start off as I was expecting, but was quite sinister and strange, before moving toward a more familiar fantasy narrative. But sinister in all the right ways. Hard to put down.
The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes Thought this was about the unreliability of memory, but after reading it I think it's more about the unreliability of the narratives we create about the past and ourselves. If that's so different. 
ETA Hark! A Vagrant - Kate Beaton Almost left this out- a Christmas book of comics from Hark! A Vagrant, a webcomic I always enjoy (literature! history! pop culture! laughs!)

Monday, December 19, 2011

reading around the world round up

Another end of year post as promised! Albeit a little late. I am officially declaring my reading round the world challenge done! Although I did end up cheating a bit... Reviews of earlier books here. Here's what I read (with brief reviews of books I haven't mentioned earlier):

AfricaSong for Night by Chris Abani (Nigeria). I thought this was cheating, so added The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif (Egypt) (also kind of cheating, since it is set in Egypt but written in English).

I'm counting The Map of Love because I felt like I ended up learning a lot about Egypt by the end. The book is split between the turn of the century and the present day (when the book was written in the late 90's), following two parallel love stories which bridge the East/West divide and are linked by family history. It also deals with Egyptian politics and identity, and the relationship between Egypt and the West. The first love story was a bit idealised, but I still found it compelling and moving. Their story is told through diary entries, uncovered by their ancestors Isabel and Amal, who then piece them together to retell it. Amal's brother and Isabel make up the current day love story. I found their love story less compelling for a number of reasons, mainly because I didn't really feel it was given much room, and since the narrative centres on Amal rather than Isabel it felt a bit like a sideshow. But the main point of the book is not the love story, but the politics and the history of Egypt.

Reading about Egypt struggling for independence against a military (British) force, and the competing forces within it striving to define its identity, felt incredibly timely in the year of Tahrir Square. Reading about America's involvement in the Middle East and its reactions towards terrorism felt very relevant on the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. While I tend to find books that are focussed on politics hard to get through, the grand sweep of this story and the context it gave to current affairs really made this a great read for me. And while I say this with some trepidation, given that it is a work of fiction, but I felt like I learnt a lot and gained a better understanding of world events afterwards (though is an area I don't know much about, so I was starting from a low base)! At the end, most of all I was left wondering: have things moved forward since this book was written? Or does it demonstrate that we are stuck repeating the same historical cycle? I think we will have to wait and see...

AsiaThe Pillow Book by Sei Shongagon (Japan). 

Some others: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
After Dark by Haruki Murakami (Japan)

AustralasiaTruth by Peter Temple (Australia). 
Some others: Memory by Margaret Mahy (New Zealand) 

EuropeA Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot (France).

Some others: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (UK)
Claudine in Paris by Colette

North AmericaFreedom by Jonathan Franzen (US). 

Some others: Easter Parade by Richard Yates (US)
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (US)

South AmericaThe Captain's Verses by Pablo Neruda (Chile). Feeling like this was cheating, I also read Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru).

Who Killed Palomino Molero? follows two police officers investigating the murder of a young Peruvian man nearby an army base. With the wealthy white army officers falling under suspicion, all sorts of racial and class tensions come into play. This book sets up its premise and then starts to undercut your expectations, so that your doubt increases more and more towards the end. There are clearly a number of forces in play, powerful men that are trying to protect themselves, as well as prejudices. But these take a number of forms, and this book plays with your ideas by the end.

It's hard to say much more, because I don't want to talk about the ending and I don't know that I can offer any great insights. But if you've read this, please mention it in the comments! Would love to hear what you thought.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

blogging in december

Ah, December. The month of end-of-year lists, wrap ups and frantic Christmas shopping. And of course looking forward to next year. So in the end-of-year spirit I am looking to post several year wrap-ups, including a final post on my reading round the world challenge and my yearly booklist post. But to start off, plans for next year! Which is perhaps a back-to-front way of doing things...

This year my blog has been sorely languishing, and while I can't guarantee that I will be more diligent in posting next year, I do have some plans to pep it up a bit. Over the holidays I am hoping to do a bit of a template re-jig, weed out some of my older posts and just generally make things a bit more presentable. So changes ahoy!

My other plan for next year is to take part in Simon at Stuck-in-a-Books A Century of Books challenge.
The original challenge calls for reading a book from every year of the 20th century, but since I know that I get through far fewer than 100 books in a year, and I want to allow myself a lot of freedom in my reading choices, I will just be reading a book from each decade of the 20th Century. The plan is to read, and blog about, a book from a decade each month, starting in the 1900s. Hopefully there will be more blog posts than that, but I'm hoping this will get me writing. Plus it sounds like a lot of fun! Now to decide which 1900s book to read... Suggestions welcome!