Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 book list

Time for a round up of books read in 2012! As always, rereads are not included and I've linked books I've reviewed/mentioned elsewhere to the blog post in which I talked about them. Favourites are marked with a *.

I seem to have read a lot of crime fiction again this year, of all different flavours, and one book of crime non-fiction. Usually I dislike true crime, but this was about the Somerton Man mystery, which I find fascinating, so that is an exception. My blogging was mostly dominated by my Century of Books challenge, which provided one of my favourite books of the year- Swann's Way. My other favourites included some fantasy and Northanger Abbey. Anyway, here is my (annotated) list!

The Tiger's Wife - Tea Obreht
Domestic Violets - Matthew Norman
Kind of male chick-lit? I ended up very much disliking this book, the protagonist was infuriating.
Starlight - Stella Gibbons
Not quite Cold Comfort Farm. Much more strange.
A Room with a View - E.M. Forster
The Man who was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton
The Man of Property - John Galsworthy
Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits - Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson
Nocturnes: Five stories of music and nightfall - Kazuo Ishiguro
Ten Second Staircase - Christopher Fowler
Take Two at Bedtime - Margery Allingham
Two stories from a Golden Age mystery writer.
Regeneration - Pat Barker
Really enjoyed this story of WWI psychiatry and shell-shock and Siegfried Sassoon.
*Swann's Way - Marcel Proust
Into the Beautiful North - Luis Alberto Urrea
I read this because of Emily at Evening All Afternoon's wonderful review
White Corridor - Christopher Fowler
I am Half-Sick of Shadows - Alan Bradley
Passing - Nella Larsen
Friends with Boys - Faith Erin Hicks
I read this because I started reading the webcomic which is now no longer fully available I think, and I thought it was charming
Wonderful Town: New York stories from the New Yorker - ed. David Remnick
Bryant and May Off the Rails - Christopher Fowler
The Voice of the Violin - Andrea Camilleri trans. Stephen Sarterelli
More different crime flavours! This time it's Italy, and a detective who has to deal with police corruption and organised crime as well as murder
Miss Pym Disposes - Josephine Tey
Back to the Golden Age detectives
Love Lies Bleeding - Edmund Crisp
*Cart and Cwidder - Diana Wynne Jones
How could I not love this book, which combines two of my favourite things- Diana Wynne Jones and a story about a family who travel in a cart and tell stories in the towns they pass through
Drowned Ammet - Diana Wynne Jones
The Shape of Water - Andrea Camilleri
The Victoria Vanishes - Christopher Fowler
Blankets - Craig Thompson
Another graphic novel/memoir about growing up, faith and love
*War for the Oaks - Emma Bull
Apparently one of the earliest urban fantasy books, unlike my usual urban fantasy reads this is set in the US (not London), and it's about music and fairies and it is great
Bryant and May On the Loose - Christopher Fowler
The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
Kraken - China Mieville
Back to the more familiar (to me) urban fantasy territory of London, as usual Mieville is grotesque and often terrifying and always a good read
Faithful Place - Tana French
The Path to the Nest of Spiders - Italo Calvino
The Autograph Man - Zadie Smith
The Three Loves of Persimmon - Cassandra Golds
I found this story (fable?) of the loves of the florist Persimmon a bit overwritten- maybe it's just that I am not keen on fables
The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje
A boy's journey from Sri Lanka to England, the friends he makes, the adventure he has, and his understanding of where he belongs
Embers - Sandor Marai
Engleby - Sebastien Faulks
The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
Bring up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel
Cybele's Secret - Juliet Marillier
Whispers Underground - Ben Aaronovitch
I think this series is improving, and I definitely enjoyed this installment. Urban fantasy crime novel set in London, it has so many things to like about it
The Forgotten Garden - Kate Morton
Melodramatic family saga of secrets and drama
Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler
Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
Above Suspicion - Helen McInnes
A spy romp against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, which lends it a degree of seriousness. Read because of this fantastic review from litlove
On Literature - Umberto Eco
Love - Angela Carter
Narcopolis - Jeet Thayil
Umbrella - Will Self
Broken Harbour - Tana French
The Lighthouse - Alison Moore
The Fault in Our Stars - John Green
I've heard a lot of glowing reviews of this book, and it didn't disappoint, a funny and moving story of terminally ill teenagers and love. 
Swimming Home - Deborah Levy
The Summer of the Bear - Bella Pollen
Bryant and May and the Memory of Blood - Christopher Fowler
King, Queen, Knave - Vladimir Nabokov
Unnatural Habits - Kerry Greenwod
The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng
The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende
The Coffins of Little Hope - Timothy Schaffert
Last Night in Montreal - Emily St John Mandel
The story of a girl who keeps disappearing, and a boy who wants to find her. I thought this was very good, but the ending was a little disappointing.
*Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
I hadn't read this before this year, but it is just so hilarious! There are so many brilliant quotes. I was inspired to read it by Sarah Rees Brennan's parody (they are always so fun)
Black Heart - Holly Black
This is a fantastic YA fantasy series, with a smart conman hero operating in between the world of organised crime and the law enforcers.
Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man mystery - Kerry Greenwood 

This afternoon I am heading off to a New Years Eve party to celebrate the end of the year with some friends (and food and drink), so I don't think I'll be adding anything to this list today. I hope you all have a wonderful New Year and a great 2013!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

1980s - the house of the spirits (1982)

This is a frustrating review to write, because I had just finished writing it, pressed 'save', went to my dashboard and it had entirely disappeared. It's taken me weeks to rewrite, because I do hate starting from scratch again. It's especially difficult because the review I had written finished off with something like: "this is a difficult book to write about, because I had a strong emotional reaction to it". So maybe I should just work backwards from there.

I had a very strong emotional reaction to the book because the events at the end of it were so horrific- basically it covers Pinochet's rise to power (in fictionalised form), and the characters in the book were so heavily affected by it, especially the narrator, Alba. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende focuses on a family in Chile in the 20th century. They're a wealthy family, and the patriarch is involved in conservative politics, but the rest of the family (including the matriarch, Clara) tend more towards socialism and have links to the socialist party, and are therefore at risk from Pinochet. The tensions in the family (and by extension within Chile) lend a lot of drama to the book. Clara and Esteban's different outlooks on life cause great rifts between them, but despite the tensions there is also a lot of love in the family. Alba, Clara and Esteban's granddaughter, is largely brought up by Clara but loves both her grandparents, and the book is her chronicling of the family's history.

While I was emotionally attached to the characters in the book, I struggled at the start to read through the chapters about Esteban Trueba, the grandfather. His main characteristic is his anger, and though in many ways his anger is understandable, when he starting raping the young servant girls it got pretty hard to sympathise with him. While the book is largely driven by Alba's love for her grandfather, it's also very clear that she doesn't always approve of him, and she doesn't usually take his side, which adds an interesting dynamic to the book. 

But one thing which I really noticed was how well the magic realism and family saga genres work together. Something about the telling of family histories, which often end up embellished and are bound to be partial, works well with a little bit of the fantastic for me. I think in this book the earliest parts of the story are the most fantastical, and since those parts are set at around the turn of the 20th century, a time which always seems a bit strange and sepia tinted to me, the magic blended nicely into the imagining of history. I know Allende is not the only writer to use these two genres together, it's a similar blend in 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and maybe it is actually quite common? I haven't really read enough to know. All I know is that I thought it worked well as a way of telling a family saga story, and though I started off reading this book feeling that I was not in the mood for magic realism, I ended up enjoying it.


Clearly I am a bit behind with my century of books, I still have one decade to go and only a couple of days left in the year! The 1990s might be a bit late I'm afraid. I will be writing up my annual list of books read, and picking out my favourites, soon, but the 1990s post is likely to come in 2013. I also have a new challenge planned for next year, so I will post about that too.

I'm also a bit behind in wishing everyone a happy Christmas! I hope you had a good one and have a happy New Year as well.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

the rest of the booker

I may have finished a while after the winner was announced, but I have made it through the Booker shortlist! Part 1 here. Now to round up the rest of the Booker books:

I may have finished a while after the winner was announced, but I have made it through the Booker shortlist! Part 1 here. Now to round up the rest of the Booker books:

The Lighthouse - Alison Moore
Without knowing much about it, I was really looking forward to reading this book, it just piqued my interest. Unfortunately, I didn't end up enjoying it as much as I'd hoped. It felt a little hollow to me, kind of lacking in emotion or narrative force I suppose. I did like how Alison Moore built up the story by replaying the same events in Futh's life over and over with slightly more information, from his memory while on holiday in Germany. It wasn't so much that secrets were revealed, more that the characters were built up a bit more, and the use of scent as a trigger for memory was used effectively, though signposted through Futh's job in creating perfumes and even the character name of Ester. Ultimately, despite the layers of memory, the book couldn't overcome it's hollow-ness for me, and it left me a bit flat.

Swimming Home - Deborah Levy
I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book, and when I read the first page I prepared to be unimpressed, but it ended up being perhaps my favourite. It has a lot of familiar elements- it's about a wealthy couple (a famous poet and his famous journalist wife) who go on holiday with their daughter and some friends, but have their holiday interrupted by a young woman who is charming but possibly mentally unstable, and a big fan of the poet. But by the end these things were turned on their head, or at an angle, changed slightly and altogether rounded out. I read a review/blurb for this book that talked about the things that are left unsaid, and I think that's an accurate way of talking about it- it's a book that's shaped by silences. There are things that are never explained fully, but you see the shape that they leave and that is enough. I ended up really enjoying this book, and if I didn't already know who won, this might have been the one I would have cheered for.

The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng
This book made me have one of those moments where I realise how much history I don't know. In this case, it's the history of Malaysia. The story is told in flashbacks- to the period after WWII, and back to WWII itself, but there are also echoes of a broader history, with colonialism and migration the ultimate backdrop. The main character is a Malaysian-Chinese judge, Yun Ling Teoh, who recalls her relationship with a Japanese gardener who she came to know through wanting to build a memorial garden for her sister, who died in the Japanese internment camp they were both held in during the war. It's fascinating (and sometimes devastating) material. Even after studying WWII in the Pacific in high school there is so much that I don't know- it was like reading When the Elephants Dance (a book about WWII in the Phillipines) from that perspective. The themes (war, enmity, colonialism etc.) were thought-provoking and the writing was mostly very good. But there were jarring moments too- most significantly the relationship between Yun Ling Teoh and Aritomo, the Japanese gardener. This book leaves a lot unsaid, but it left the nature of their relationship unsaid to a point that I didn't even realise they had one, until it was revealed in a way that jarred me. The relationship between two Japanese pilots during the war was much more moving to me, and the depiction, while understated, worked a lot better. Overall there was a lot to like here, but also a few moments where I thought it fell down, which meant that in the end it would not have my Booker vote.
In the end, I think my vote would go to Swimming Home by Deborah Levy. But the actual winner was Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, and that's fine with me, she's a great writer and the only thing I really have against the book is that it was a sequel to a previous Booker prize winner. I'm kind of impressed with the wide range of books that get shortlisted- there's a lot of variation in style and subject matter, a lot of experimentation and all in all an interesting bunch of books.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

lists of books

Lists seem to be an ever-popular feature of the book world, from Awards shortlists to lists of books read through the year (yep, both of those have appeared on my blog). There are an infinite variety of lists to choose from, such as lists that tell you a bit about a person (like Simon at Stuck-in-a-book's 'My Life in Books' series) or books are about topics (like this Christmas-gift version at Booksellers NZ), but the most controversial are the 'Best-of' lists. Some people hate the idea of imposing a ranking on books, some people like to use them as a jumping off post for thinking about their own favourites (see Book Snob's take on Stylists list of must read's) and sometimes they are just good for inspiring reading choices (or Christmas shopping). So for your enjoyment, I found a list of all the best of lists of the year (i.e. I think someone posted it on Twitter but I forget who):

Largehearted Boy's 'Online 'Best of 2012' book lists

One of the lists that I enjoyed is Nancy Pearl's Picks for the Omnivorous Reader.

Do you love or hate 'best of' lists, or are you somewhere in the middle?