Most reading I do happens on trains. Trains to university, different cities, different countries, into town because I hate cycling over the bloody hill, to see friends, visit family, go to job interviews, and so forth, and so forth. In primary school I basically just read all day because I had nothing else to do and in secondary school I also read all day even though I should have probably been focusing on German grammar. I did read a couple of books in German though. However, at Uni life became more busy and more interesting and I did not have (or make) as much time to read any more. Until 2016! I have devoured a huge pile of books this year – some amazing, some disappointing – and I thought it might be worth sharing my thoughts in case any of my readers (mum, sister, anyone they link this to) are looking for holiday reading or last-minute presents.
Normally I have a keen sense for picking good books, however, this year something went a little bit wrong. It just goes to show how useful membership of your local library can be, because wow I feel like I wasted a lot of money. Feel free to disagree obviously, I would love to hear what you did like about those books. I am not a professional reviewer and I am certainly not in the business of destroying enthusiastic, lovely, authors. Plus, Google would quickly provide you with expert reviews if that is what you are after. This is just my little summary. So, let me start with the books I found underwhelming and then work my way up to those that I could not put down.
Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
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The Guardian describes this book as a ‘chilling masterpiece’ and of course Edna O’Brien has a long track record which speaks for itself. However, this is probably the book I enjoyed reading least this year. The character development was rich and interesting, but each character merely gets its own disjointed chapter; chapters which end far sooner than they should. Just as you get the hang of who the characters are, and develop an interest in reading more – there is nothing. I am sure this was done on purpose, but I am unappreciative nonetheless. In addition, the main theme the book addresses is far too complex and significant to be integrated into such chapters and also too large to fit into such a short novel. This is not to mention the story was strange, creepy and weird – but not necessarily in an intriguing way. The subjects range from herbal medicine and healing massage… to an incredibly graphic abortion scene. The reason I picked up this book is because the boy working in Waterstones told me I would love it. (Why?!) I went back to the store several months later, tracked down this boy, and expressed my frustration and disappointment in his recommendation. Visibly shocked, he admitted he never actually read it himself. Cruel life lesson: do not trust bookstore staff. They are just as commercially minded as the M&S next door. That said, I shared my confusion with my aunt in London, who said she loved this book. She reads a lot more than I do – often the same books – and usually selects excellent publications; so perhaps my aunt and the Guardian are right, and there is something I profoundly misunderstood here… However, I do not want to underestimate my own ability to understand literature and read between the lines, so perhaps this is simply one of those books that can go either way with the reader.
Nod by Adrian Barnes
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This book sounded so good. The premise is this: for some mysterious reason, the majority of the world loses the ability to… sleep. The narrator is one of the few people left who can doze off and he observes the breakdown of society around him. Very interesting, I thought. However, the story remained too much of a mystery. Almost nothing was explained and there was no big build-up to a satisfying revealing ending. When you introduce the idea of such a unique apocalypse, I feel like you have to delve into it, truly. The characters were fine, the world-building was fine; the length was fine; I just expected so much more. There were probably some Biblical references that did not have the impact on me that the author may have intended – but that said, Adrian Barnes writes with a minimalism that attracts me, and that makes me want to read more. Tragically, the novel is a reflection on the fragility of his own life and struggle with terminal illness so I am not sure there will ever be more…
When the Floods Came by Clare Morall
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The idea of dystopia or apocalypse very quickly attracts me to a novel. I like reading stories in which reality and fantasy meet. I might be miss-summarising this, but I think that in this book global warming took the overhand, sea-levels rose, no one studied Dutch dike technology, and all of the UK flooded. The novel is set in an abandoned Birmingham – and having been to Birmingham, I already began picturing the situation before even starting to read. However, it was not well-written. The author begins with an extremely cliché scene of the main character describing what she looks like and her personality is just kind of generic (perfect, some well-selected flaws, nice hair). The apocalypse and how the world works do receive some attention, which I liked. For example, China plays a big role in how things work and therefore the main character sensibly majored in Chinese and she works as a translator. Cool. However, the story, the plot, and so forth, were not very good. There were several obvious, massive plot-holes, plus the entire ending made no sense whatsoever and felt like it was rushed. In this case I do not feel like I missed any deep references, because I am pretty certain there were none.
Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
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This is another completely unexplained apocalypse (I really hate it when there are no details, can you tell?). In this case I was drawn to the novel because it focuses on a team of archaeologists stuck on Greenland, combining two of my favourite things! Chapters are divided between different characters, some receiving significantly less narration time than others. The first narrator is a PhD student who joins the excavation as a relative novice. I quickly thought: I could have written this; followed by: maybe I could have written this better. Never a good start, when you make your reader fancy they could be a novelist. I enjoyed reading this book because it did describe the excavation quite well and I could not necessarily detect huge mistakes (apart from excavators sitting on the edge of the trench; do not do that). However, there were some unnecessary ancient-world dream scenes (those never appeal to me)… and of course this mysterious apocalypse business. This book did have a satisfactory ending however. I would recommend this to archaeologists who are looking for something relate-able. I do not want to give anything away, but it is a very realistic reflection of the isolation of excavation and difficulty of communication. On the other hand, it did not nearly include enough alcohol consumption for it to actually qualify as realistic.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
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This is the book I finished reading most recently. I was a little unsure when I picked it up at Waterstones, but the girl at checkout ensured me it should be good, quickly followed by a friend who promised the same. The book won the Arthur C Clarke award and I can see why. It tackles a massive 2 millennia long narrative and manages to cover it without leaving too many holes or questions and without leaving major character development behind. That said, the novel was still way too short for the time-span it covers and the characters did not receive enough time on the scene for the reader (me, anyway) to start caring. I did not really mind what happened to anyone and in fact saw most events coming several chapters beforehand. This project was, I think, too ambitious. I wonder if the author did not give himself enough time to work it out further, or whether he had an especially unfortunate experience with an editor whom made him cut way too much. This was a long, big book to start with – but it should have been twice as long to feel the impact of all these described centuries. He made a great beginning, at explaining alien life and world-building. However, I missed some details. For example, why is it that every alien culture gets given religion – but not holidays? There is a difference between broad historical outlines and the lives that people (or other) really live. Once again, I feel like this is a story with so much potential, which was sadly left largely unrealised.
Moving on to a slightly different category: collections of stories by authors I already know I love.
Grimm Tales by Philip Pullman
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What a combination, the fairy-tales collected by the brothers Grimm and Philip Pullman. Philip Pullman gives gives quite accurate, clean, literal versions of the stories (as opposed to, for example, dedicating an elaborately embellished novella to each), which, as an academic and historian, is something I appreciate. He explains the choices he made in a little postscript in each case, also naming original sources (as far as he could find them). There are two reasons I did not give this more stars: first, the simple writing style, which, as I said, I liked, was not in any way shape or form related to Northern Lights, which is why I like Philip Pullman; so, in other words, anyone could have written this, but because he did, it sells better. Second, it is, of course, simply a selection of short stories; and previously-known stories at that. While this is obviously the nature of a re-telling of the brothers’ Grimm collection, it also means there was nothing new and exciting. Perhaps my ranking should be split in two: five stars for this wonderfully well-written edition of traditional fairy-tales; less stars for the absence of that could-not-put-it-down quality one looks for in books.
Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman
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The problem with collections of stories… is that some are going to be more breathtaking than others. I do not really need stories inspired by Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who; I think those are characters that swooshed by me in my childhood and I do not hold them as dear as others. However, I love Neil Gaiman, and he does do a very good short story. If you have read a couple of his books, you might recognise some elements. I was especially looking forward to the little American Gods addition at the end (although, I have to say, I was underwhelmed). At the same time, he is such a versatile writer… He can employ different plots, characters, settings and styles without it feeling forced or out of place. These stories came forth from all sorts of publications – books, websites, magazines – and all kinds of situations. He explains all this in a sort of prelude, which I probably read three times. My favourite story in the collection was And Weep, Like Alexander about with the author writes “it has long been a puzzlement to me that none of the inventions we were promised … ever arrived”, which is something I ponder all the time myself.
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
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This is the third and final collection of stories I read this year. Many of these overlap, which is something really not necessary for a collection, but an element I enjoyed nonetheless. This meant I did not forget what I was reading and had to come back to it day after day, rather than, for instance, picking it up here and there every other week or so. It is instantly possible to recognise who wrote this and the characters were as interesting as I was hoping they would be. My favourite tale was Torching the Dusties which features an elderly couple roaming about a very realistic nursing home which quickly escalates into a scene only Atwood could have imagined. The only problem is that each of these stories, especially the last, could have been a novel by themselves and I was unhappy to see some of them end rather abruptly. Some people enjoy this in a short story of course, but personally I prefer if it can stand on its own a little bit better.
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
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This is the only work of non-fiction I read this year. I picked it up because, well, firstly because I am a cartographer, but primarily because I thought it might relate to my work in London and help me phrase things a little bit more clearly. I was completely right. I found this a very insightful overview of the world’s geopolitical problems. It was not too summarised or simplified; it gave a good, clear introduction to the topics at hand and I feel like any sensible reader can use this to continue along their own line of investigation. Of course there were some subjects I missed and some I which I thought could have been given a little more attention; but I am sure everyone will have their own thoughts about that and obviously the book could be expanded endlessly if Marshall were to take that into account.
All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
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Another random choice from Waterstones, while I was standing in the checkout queue! This time a much more fortunate one though. This is such a delicate and beautifully written story. The main characters are not only interesting – I felt close to them. It is quite magical, I think, when an author can make that happen. There were no such clichés as standing in front of a mirror describing their appearance; in fact, one of them cannot see at all. The story is set during the war, which is a theme written about far too often in my opinion… but this novel actually gives a fresh and unique perspective. It is about different methods of communication, across borders, cultures, abilities and time. It features writing and even museums. The only thing is… I was not especially keen on the ending. It is difficult to describe without giving it away. A small part of it was too abrupt. If that had sit with me better it would have had five stars.
Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
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Oh I am not sure how to describe Ken Follett. I really love the Pillars of the Earth series. It is historical fiction, but not the pretentious kind where the author pretends to know everything and you as unassuming reader just have to accept they are right (when most the time they frustratingly are not). I enjoy the accuracy of details such as architecture and the ambitious length of the books. At the same time, these novels feature stereotypical love stories. Like soaps, but in historical novel form. People get married, get pregnant and die all over the place. It is not necessarily very good or very original. But oh – I love it anyway. It is so easy to read and to keep reading. Novels do not always have to be complicated and thought-provoking; refreshing, renewing or difficult. Some novels are exactly what you want to read before going to bed – and that is what Ken Follett does best. It took me ages to start this new series and to get into it. I re-read the first chapter three times and was not very impressed. However, when I finished all the other books in my giant 2016 pile I figured it was time to try again. I made it to chapter 5 or 6… and then kept reading. I probably read a thousand pages in under a week – and this is not a very casual, light book to carry around in a hand-bag! As I mentioned, it is set during World War I which is much less exciting to me than medieval Italian architecture… but it does feature the British suffragette movement. I am ready for part two now!
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
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Over the course of the last two or three years I have gotten to know David Mitchell’s novels. I started with Cloud Atlas – I think it probably featured in Waterstones because they made it into a movie? It just looked interesting so I thought I might give it a try. I absolutely loved it and became a David Mitchell addict very quickly. The reason I start my love story with this novel is because it is the one I liked least. It was still good! Just not as good as the others. I do not read biographies and this novel was too autobiographic for my taste (purely my own fault – it is quite clearly advertised as such). It (understandably) did not have the magical, amazing fantastic historical time-travel through different dimensions that the other books have. Some features of these novels do repeat here as well (a notable mark of Mitchell’s work is the repetition of characters throughout different novels) but it was simply about a boy, in a school, in a village, and not much of a plot at that. Note this however: it is the only David Mitchell book I could detect in my aunt’s bookcase. The aunt with very good taste in books who also loved Little Red Chairs.
Slade House by David Mitchell
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Moving on to a more ‘typical’ David Mitchell story. This book was much shorter than most the others he has written, but it by no means felt too short. It was a well-contained and thought-out story. Kind of about a haunted house, I suppose? I do believe that is how the book is described and it possibly does not evoke the right ideas about it. It is not like a haunted house at a fair… or a haunted house taken from a horror movie. I think this book probably makes a lot more sense if you read Bone Clocks (see below) first. There is repetition not only of characters but also of ideas. Each character is relateable in some way and despite the short length of the chapters (they get a chapter each) I feel like I was given enough time to get to know them. It is so satisfactory when a book can accomplish this much in few pages. I can only applaud David Mitchell.
The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
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I waited a long time before reading this, because it was the last one. Terry Pratchett was such a wonderful writer and I am glad I have a couple of books left to read still. The Tiffany Aching series is, I feel, aimed just a little bit towards younger readers, but as an adult (if I can call myself that) I found it no less enjoyable. I recently tried to watch the new Big Friendly Giant (Roald Dahl) movie and felt that yes, perhaps, it was a little more magical when I was younger. Not Tiffany Aching though: just as magical, regardless of age. I am not sure how to summarise the story, except that… something happens, and Tiffany has to go sort it out. It is set entirely in the Chalk, which I liked reading more about. I just cannot believe this was the last one. I cannot believe he is gone.
Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
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Onward to my favourite David Mitchell book thus far. It features a very relateable but villainous Oxbridge student (not the first chapter; later on) and some ingenious time travel. Normally I reject novels, series or movies centres around time travel because it is overdone and not very interesting. However, the way David Mitchell jumps around time is very different. I am a little bit unimpressed with the magical esotheric side of things because it does give the novel a more unrealistic feel than I would prefer, but it is woven into the real world with such subtlety, and so rarely (until the end scene) that I can definitely forgive it. As with all of his books, some themes and characters make a comeback, which I think are nice little easter eggs for the dedicated David Mitchell reader. (That said: I hope this does not go on for another twenty books, because the novelty does wear off.) This story was so cool and unique. I loved it. I look at it now, and even though it is a long book… it feels like it was so much longer. Really, an adventure contained by pages and expanded in my own imagination. Furthermore, there is no Twilight-like cheesiness and there are no Eragon-like clichés in there. It is definitely in my top list of books of all time.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
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As I wrote already, I admire how Neil Gaiman can write such different stories. Neverwhere is difficult to compare to American Gods for example, but they are both great novels. Beforehand, I wondered whether American Gods might be too much of a hidden critique of American society. Something I would have to read slowly and attentively, cracking my brain to find the references here and there. While there were certainly underlying messages, it was a lot easier to read than that. The story flows naturally and I can imagine it as a series or a movie (which I believe is being worked on?). The characters are out of this world, but placed into this world, which makes for a very surreal roller-coaster of events. The central idea of the book is that all these characters exist because people believe in them, which is very true of course. Except in this case, they are not invisible, they are there, really, truly, to interact with. It also goes so (so) far beyond America, involving almost all world religion with allusions to ancient mythology which I just loved scouting out. This is such a good book and if you have not read it yet, you really must. I am not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading it.
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
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While I have made my way through most of Margaret Atwood’s books by now, I managed to find one more to tick off my list. This is a 2015 publication so you can see I was right on top of that. In this particular dystopia, society has fallen apart due to (I think) fighting over oil and other such modern problems and the main characters find themselves roaming the streets and living from a car. Then they discover about a place where you can have everything: a nice house, a nice job, nice people – for half the year. The other half of the year you voluntary go to prison. The prison is not so bad either, the point is just that there you do not have a choice in what you do or how comfortable you are. You have to spend some time doing all the things that are necessary to maintain your nice other-half-of-the year life. I thought this compared a lot to the jobs Western Europeans think they are too good to do, and thus get Eastern Europeans to come do for them… and then somehow expect no complaints. No idea if that is what Atwood was going for, but I thought it was a rather brilliant critique of modern society. I remember the back cover of the book advertises the main characters and their problems more than this social concept (they have some marital problems and it involves a lot of kinky sex) which is a little misleading, because it sounds a bit generic while the novel most certainly is not.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
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This was an author I had not heard of before, which, as you can see above, can be a risk. The book sounded and looked (appropriately…) strange, but something spiked my interest. I enjoyed finding out how the plot unfolded, peeling away mysteries and answering (and raising!) questions, so I am not sure how to describe it. Let me just mention one of the central problems the main character encounters: how to deal and especially how to communicate with a culture completely alien to yours. His attempts to convey his thoughts and beliefs go straight past the ability of the others to understand, and the ways in which he attempts to address this made me completely unable to put the book down. I think I went for a walk in the forest without putting it down one day. As I wrote before, I love it when sci-fi meets real world and this was not another basic attempt at doing so; it was utterly strange and captivating. Not in a bad, creepy way, but totally wonderful.
Are there any books you think I should read? I do read things other than historical fiction, fantasy or sci-fi; that was just a 2016 co-incidence. Genres I like less are autobiographies and classical Dutch literature, and I have never felt like reading the Millennium Trilogy or the Game of Thrones stuff. I am a big fan of classics such as Catcher in the Rye and philosophers such as Kant or Goethe. I just did not happen to read anything new in that direction the past year. Let me know if you have suggestions!
P.S. Can you tell I have a Waterstones loyalty and stamp card?