Time for an annual overview of things to read (and to avoid!). I started this in December, but it took a while to get around to finishing; and of course, in the meantime, I also finished some more books. Anyway, the start of 2017 was pretty uninteresting, as this involved finishing off the Century trilogy by Ken Follet during January / February / March. It had all the satisfying features of (a) big book(s): you just get more and more into it. At the start I was not so enthused; by the end, I was recommending it to everyone.
City of Man’s Desire by Cornelia Golna
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Mum gave me this to read when I moved to Istanbul last year. She did not exactly promise it would be great, but just thought I might like reading it whilst there. I tried – oh, I tried. I did love the description of old Istanbul, the steps before there were cars, the bazaar, the views. The atmosphere definitely hits home. However, the writing, the plot, the characters, it was all disappointing. I gave up and then re-started two or three times, before officially throwing in the towel about half-way through the book. It has all the ingredients I would normally like; female characters, libraries, archaeology… but maybe my expectations were just too high.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
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This is another book I disagreed on with my great aunt (see The Little Read Chairs last year). This book has won awards, everyone I know loves it, the internet loves it, and so forth, and so forth. However, I was unimpressed with the story-line. It is about two people escaping slavery via, you guessed it, a railroad which runs underground. There was not an incredible amount of character development, and the plot reminded me far too much of other books (and even movies). I feel like it is a difficult one to criticise, because the topic is so serious and essential. However, I do not think this measures up to the classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin or even Twelve Years a Slave, or The Help. These all address issues of slavery and racism, but stand out to me more than the Railroad. The only new feature in this novel was in fact the underground railroad. The issues and characters were not, in my opinion, explored from a refreshing new perspective – which is what I wanted this book to be about.
Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
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Ooh I am really embarrassed to even have to admit I read this. I picked it up together with Blindness (see below) because I thought I might need something lighthearted after reading that (and I did); and I thought my sister might like it (she probably does). This is a story about a girl who used to be very overweight and is now less overweight and making her way through relatively regular teenage life falling for cute boys etc. I suppose the selling point is the struggle with weight and anxiety, but to me this choice felt too marketing-oriented and not very genuine. Altogether a very simplistically written book, not showing a huge deal of literary skill. However, I remember one of the characters describing the other as sunshine. Being and smelling like sunshine. And that is just a really beautiful description.
Satellite by Nick Lake
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Browsing Waterstones for the latest Buy 1 get 1 Half Price sci-fi, I picked up Satellite. This is about a group of children born in space, facing the possibility of going to earth for the first time. They obviously take on a range of problems, from physical to social. The book is not all that well-written and I was able to poke in way too many plot-holes, which is why I am a little hesitant to recommend it. However, the plot, albeit punctured, was surprising. This is one of those books that is quite difficult to put down, because more and more of the story is unfolded, more makes sense, more mysteries are solved, more questions answered. I love that kind of reading.
The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James
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This was the other half of the Buy 1 get 1 Half Price sci-fi. This is about a girl who lives on a space-ship flying toward the New World all by herself. Again, it was not very well written, with a good collection of plot-holes, and included several chapters of really cringe-worthy fan-fiction ‘written’ by the main character. However, the story had several really interesting realistic touches that I loved. The character struggles with her period and acne, in space. She communicates with Earth in very delayed messages (not magically instantaneous like in most sci-fi). And, she is not a genius who can operate a giant space-ship by herself with a sprinkle of astronomy on top and physics on the side. This makes The Loneliest Girl different from other books.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
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Someone on Book Tube recommended reading this, so I thought I might as well. It looked like an easy read, but not a waste of time. This is exactly what it was. The book covers some very serious and important topics (namely, racism and police violence), described from a local teenager’s perspective (slang and bad spelling included). The spelling thing was really tiring by the end of the book. However, the characters were well developed (for the length of the novel anyway), not to mention interesting. I cannot say it is my new favourite book, or that it made me feel anything really deep – but I appreciate the insight it provides, and it was a good read.
How To Speak Any Language Fluently by Alex Rawlings
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Now for some more educational / non-fiction reading. Everyone learns languages in different ways, and have different methods that suit them best. That is why teaching languages in schools, to large groups of pupils, is almost impossible. Alex promises to help you work out your way to learn a new language, so that is an appealing premise. However, the thing with the hype of online polyglots is that they need to advertise a trick that really comes down to determination above anything else. Alex tries to identify different types of learners (vision, audio, etc.) and makes helpful suggestions for each, and also gives some insight into his learning schedules. I found all this a very helpful reminder, for my own efforts, but it certainly did not help me speak Any Language Fluently. For one, no one will 100% identify with a particular learning style (even when combining different ones); and, more importantly, I was after learning Arabic, to which the huge hurdle is the different script. The book offers no guidance to dealing with script immersion. In addition, I would like to learn two languages at once. Arabic and Gaelic, and again, there is no guidance on studying more than one language at a time (it did say Any Language, right? Am I wrong to carry that forward into Every Language?). Perhaps these situations are too specific, and I was trying to find answers I should not have been looking for, but I thought it was worth noting. I do love Alex (follow his Twitter account!), so I would not see this so much as a criticism, but more a request for a Part 2.
Motherfoclóir by Darach O’Séaghdha
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Obviously the title of this book is brilliant, not to mention the excerpts on the back and cover. I was sold. This is a very interesting read, really teaching about Irish language from multiple perspectives in a both beautiful and entertaining way. However, two small points of critique: B (a native speaker of Gaelic) pointed out to me has has never heard of most of the words mentioned, plus, he had to sit down with me and pronounce most of it for me as I was reading. The book has a very handy intro to pronunciation at the beginning, taking you through Irish names ranging from easy to difficult. However, pronunciation is not mentioned again afterward, and I found myself either having to go back to that chapter or just ploughing on somewhat confused. I feel like the book is directed more at an Irishman living in Dublin who had to study the language in school for years and then rebelled and now pretends it does not exist (this seems to be the standard Dublin attitude); rather than a foreigner trying to pick up a bit of it to begin with. So if there is ever a second edition, more pronunciation guidance please! Otherwise, a fantastic piece of work.
The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan
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The conflict between Israel and Palestine is something that has puzzled me my whole life. My parents have quite specific and strong opinions on it, and my home media does tend to have a slight bias, I think, so I was never exposed to much else. I was to see it from the other side, and from different perspectives; I want to be understanding, and tolerant. I believe that is the only way to keep some sort of a discussion going, and maybe, some day, find something that resembles a solution…? The Lemon Tree is the closest I have come to finding something that offers this kind of insight. For one, it is a very interesting style of writing: journalistic and factual, turned into a novel. The author notes that nothing described is nonfactual; it was all said or done or written, and checked. This, to me, forms a deeply important basis for the whole story – reading it, knowing that it is not based in bias, rumours and hearsay. However, of course this does take a way from a little bit of drama and character intimacy, which does make for a rather difficult read. Difficult, but not dry, or over-complicated. I think The Lemon Tree makes an important contribution to literature on this topic. I do have to say though, I finished reading it, and, personally still felt a slight preference for one side of the conflict at the end.
Worth Dying For by Tim Marshall
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Our housemates have been making fun of us for liking this book, because it is basically Fun With Flags from the Big Bang Theory. Yes I say we, because both B and I read this book and enjoyed it. I guess that says a lot about our relationship. The only criticism I have is that it was perhaps a little too abbreviated. I would have loved a chapter on the Kurdish flag for example. For once, I think keeping it short and sweet was perhaps not the strongest decision. I do not buy books like this to have on my bookshelf, and sound mildly knowledgeable, and win pub-quizzes; I am actually interested in the full depth of nationalism and accompanying symbols. Perhaps I just have to move on to some academic papers next – but then, they do not have as many jokes, or pictures…
Histories of Nations by Peter Furtado
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This book is quite similar to the above, and also comparable to Prisoners of Geography. What I liked, was that each essay was written by a person from / specialising in the country they were writing about. This makes it less odd that bits are summarised or left out, or certain details are included, because it is a lot more personal. I did read a couple of chapters twice, because I had forgotten I had read them though – because it was not that exciting to read. I think that is just me though, not the book!
Barskins by Annie Proulx
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Barskins is meant to cover several generations of a family (and branches of the family) involved in the tree trade, from cutting trees up to building ships. It is described somewhere as similar to Ken Follet, but ended up lacking empathy for the characters because their stories end rather too suddenly (and are then overtaken by new characters who have been plodding along in the background and you do not really get to know them either..). Of course I kind of got into it half-way through, and some characters eventually become a little bit more consistent, but all in all I am not sure I feel this one is worth re-reading. If you find this at a charity shop, then go for it, but do not buy it full price from Waterstones.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
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When I picked this up it gave me that familiar feeling of resentment of… ‘young first-time novelist had a great idea and actually manages to get it published despite non-stellar execution’. However, I have to say, the concept was greater than usual, and the writing totally fine, so there’s my lesson in literally judging a book by its cover over with for the year. The Watchmaker is about a telegraphist at the Home Office who ends up making a very unusual friend. I want to say it involves time travel, divination and science all in one, but it is difficult to explain, and if I tried I would give too much of the story away. Anyway, I loved the recogniseable descriptions of London and Oxford, with the sprinkle of exotic countries, unusual but not ridiculous plot, and an additional very cool female lead character. It did not remind me of any other stories. Excellent choice for people who like fantasy novels.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
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This is a book I actually read at the beginning of 2018, but I will include it because I am so late writing this blog post! Sinterklaas gave me this one, and I thought it would make good train reading. The world has ended, again, due to some virus that most but not all people got, and we follow several different characters at different times, pre-, during, and post-apocalypse. The emphasis is on theatre, art, music and literature – topics often ignored in post-apocalyptic novels and movies. I would say it is just a cheap way to tell the same story again, but; the characters are diverse, interesting and relatively well-developed, and the author includes really nice little details, such as a quote from Star Trek Voyager (‘survival is insufficient’), and the observation that it is odd to no longer see airplanes in the sky. I am not a big fan of theatre, and was relieved to find out it was not a novel quoting Shakespeare every other page (although it does happen!). As with Satellite, this novel keeps you reading, uncovering answers, and new questions, and so forth. And I do love that this subtly questions what life is all about. Just surviving is not enough.
Blindness by José Saramago
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Occasionally I do read a classic. I picked this one up to intellectually balance out the Jennifer Niven. I would almost not recommend reading it, because it is so thoroughly disturbing. The images Saramago conjures up really are haunting. The breakdown of society, in this case, is caused by a blindness that gradually affects nearly everyone. This is a type of post-apocalyptic story, with, for once, a surprising and deeply thoughtful ending.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
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As well as A Closed and Common Orbit.
Becky Chambers is hands down one of my favourite new novelists. The best thing about finishing a book you love has to be spotting ‘part 2 coming soon’ on the final page – and I am already very eager for part 3 to appear as well! Like The Watchmaker, I was a little bit sceptical at first. As you can see above, I like picking up terrible sci-fi novels to read on the train after a long day at work. I figured it would fit that category – but I was wrong.
I started reading The Long Way at the hairdresser’s in Holland, because it was light and fit into my bag easily. The first page was not impressive. It gives a standard character set up, describing appearance, a bit of background, etc., rather unnaturally, as it usually goes. However, it then takes off, describing a very cool spaceship, an interesting universe, fascinating alien characters, not to mention, I do like it when the sci-fi lead gets to be a woman. There’s just something… unique about the set-up. Personalities are described sufficiently for the reader to care about the characters, the science has enough detail to sound believable, there is a space exploration as well as culture exploration aspect. I like details such as involving different languages, and talking about computer code. All in all, this just ticks all the boxes for me. Plus – my sister loved it too; and we have very different tastes in books.
The second novel can be read stand-alone, which is a feature I appreciate. It is written differently, and from different perspectives, which is a really nice thing to see from Becky Chambers. It is so easy for authors, even fantastic ones such as J.K.Rowling and David Mitchell, to become one-trick ponies. This kind of writing keeps me excited to find out what will be next. At first I thought maybe I am biased; some books just suit some people more than other. However, if my sister and I can find agreement, then it has to be good right? Just give it a go and let me know what you think.
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors and this was his first novel, so it is about time I got around to reading it. Picked it up at an Oxfam shop in August… and have not gotten very far with it. I think that is mainly due to the first chapter / character, which just did not especially appeal to me; there was an upward curve from then on, but I just keep forgetting about it now! Will continue soon. (Quick 2018 update: I now do research on chemical terrorism, which has suddenly made this novel a lot more interesting to read.)
Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies
The rest of the title is ‘the history of half-forgotten Europe’, which sounds good to me, because I have indeed half-forgotten it and can do with refreshing my memory as well as picking up some new bits and bops along the way.
Column of Fire by Ken Follet
Yes, another volume in my favourite series! I am thoroughly enjoying this. The only thing that has struck me as a little disappointing, is that this one does not focus on architecture, which is a feature that really lifted up the other books in my opinion.