My year in books

On the one hand, I comprehensively failed to halve the size of my to-read pile, whether by number or by volume.  I started the year with 115 books to read and ended up with 85.  On the other hand, this is the first year I’ve made a meaningful dent in it.

I finished 69 books in 2018 – neither my best nor my worst.  I had a couple months where I couldn’t concentrate to read; and February was essentially taken up with The Wise Man’s Fear (which, for the record, I enjoyed a lot, but not nearly so much as the first book in the series).

I read a lot of superb books this year, some I’d go so far as to call life-changing.  Every time I thought I’d read a book that couldn’t be topped this year, I’d find I was wrong.  Highlights, in roughly chronological order, are:

The first book I finished this year was Hild by Nicola Griffith, the fictionalised story of the early life of Abbess Hilda of Whitby, which was marvellously evocative of place and time, and a gripping story into the bargain.  Apparently there will be a sequel which I await eagerly.

I see that in February I also managed to read Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, a generation ship story with an antebellum South style of slavery, and I was absolutely convinced my life could not get any better.

Two months later I was proved wrong when I read Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, a Canadian book following a woman from her childhood in Africa through to slavery in the Carolinas and eventual freedom in Canada, Sierra Leone and Britain.

And yet again shortly after with Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, which is a road story  in the tradition of As I Lay Dying but is so much more beautiful and heart rending than the source material (and I love Faulkner).

I finally got around to The General in his Labyrinth and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  I actually preferred the former – the prose is beautiful in both, but the characters in the latter are all horrible people.

Going through my list, just about everything is worthy of mention, but I will single out two more: Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End.  It was one that I thought I should read because it was nominated for awards and sounded vaguely interesting, but, while I didn’t love it, gave me a lot to think about and it stuck with me for weeks.

Lastly, Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia was also full of food for thought.  Most of the stories here are of exceptional quality and a lot of them are written by First Nations writers or informed by native myths and I’m beginning to get a handle on what post colonial Canadian narrative can be like.

I do hope to resurrect the blog regularly this year but I’m not committing to writing about every book I read.  Chronic fatigue has been kicking my arse the worst its been for years, though, so who knows.  Either way, don’t expect a lot of updates in January – in order to make room, i am finally going to tackle The Seven Pillars of Wisdom next, along with Peter F Hamilton’s Salvation because I’m putting on an event where he’s reading in 3 weeks.



On hiatus

My physical health and Real Life (TM) are kicking my ass for the foreseeable future, so with a heavy heart I’ve taken the pile of books to be reviewed that have been sitting on my desk for far too long and filed them.

Normal service may or may not be resumed.

I will continue to post short drive-bys on Twitter (@jodireads)

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

I may live under a rock, but even I was aware of Gillian Flynn, though really only of Gone Girl, and the film didn’t inspire me to read the book.  Recently the television adaptation of Sharp Objects popped up on one of my streaming services.  I felt it got off to a slow start but the last half was binge-worthy and menacing and malevolent as all hell and I downloaded the book as soon as the last episode finished.  My impressions of the book are therefore necessarily coloured by my having just watched the TV version.

Camille Preaker, a reporter on Chicago’s fourth largest newspaper, is sent by her editor to cover the murder of two pre-teen girls in her home town, Wind Gap, Missouri.  Camille left Wind Gap to go to college and never returned, but her boss thinks people will talk to her because she’s local.

When she arrives, the second girl has disappeared but not yet been found.  After an unpleasant homecoming, she finds that nobody wants to talk about events.  Very shortly the body of the second victim is discovered.  Camille strikes up a sort of friendship with the detective sent from Kansas City to investigate on the basis they’re the only “non-locals” around.

It soon turns out this trip is really bad for Camille – she self harms, and she drinks, as a direct result of her mother being emotionally abusive.  In addition to the possibility that she might implode, there’s a real possibility that she might be getting too close to the killer, and her family could be literally as well as emotionally toxic.

This is a fairly short book (it was expanded to an 8 hour serial with the addition of several sub-plots) but it’s extremely effective.  Wind Gap oozes menace.  I could feel the heat and humidity and the barely-below-the-surface sense of hostility.  I felt the dysfunctionality of Camille’s family as a cloying, oppressive thing.

I do read a lot of pulpy thrillers, but you don’t usually get this level of atmosphere, of sheer *wrongness* of people and places with this kind of book.  I do recommend it.


Winter Song by Colin Harvey

Colin was a local writer but he died before I got involved with the Bristol SF&F scene.  I have inevitably ended up with copies of his books.

In Winter Song Karl, a lone spacefarer, is fired on by a mystery ship and he has to land on the nearest inhabitable planet.

Inhabitable turns out to be a relative term – the planet was halfway terraformed before the Formers pulled out, leaving behind a population that originally came from Iceland, so they are a pretty hardy bunch. They have organised in the same way as medieval Icelandic society worked.  (Harvey spent a lot of time in Iceland to do research; medieval Iceland is something I know a lot about and he doesn’t get anything egregiously wrong and anyway it’s a far-future analogue thereof).

It’s a precarious existence, and Karl is not entirely welcome, a state of affairs amplified by the fact that before he ejected, his ship’s consciousness downloaded into Karl’s brain, something it was never meant to do.  Eventually things are worked out but in the early weeks Karl presents as having a split personality.

All he wants is to get off this rock and get back home to his family.  To do this he has to trek across a hostile winter landscape to a ship which pre-dates the Icelandic colonists and hope that he can contact the outside world.

Even though this book has several of the sci-fi/fantasy tropes that I normally don’t get on with (mainly the travelling.  So much travelling), I quite enjoyed this.  The characters and the plot were engaging enough to keep me wanting to know what happened next, and there are some really fascinating concepts – the best of which is that where the Formers believed in terraforming planets, there was a rival faction which believed in adapting people to the planets they found.

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

The author was on Radio 4’s Start the Week when the book came out (some time ago).  It sounded good and I was in the vicinity of a Foyle’s that happened to have it in stock.

It was being sold as the story of three Muslim women of different backgrounds studying at Oxford – a devout Muslim, a secular Muslim and one who had rejected religion.

It’s actually almost entirely about Peri, a woman from a lower middle class family in Istanbul.  Her father is secular and her mother is religious.  Peri falls somewhere in between but much closer to her father’s position.  When she leaves for Oxford in 2000 secularism is still the default position in Turkey.  The story is split between Istanbul in 2016 and Peri’s childhood and time at Oxford (2000-2002).  We know that Peri didn’t finish her degree but came back to Turkey and got married, but not why.

The first person she meets in Oxford is Shirin, from the Iranian diaspora who has lived all her life in the West.  Through Shirin she becomes fascinated by a charismatic and controversial professor who teaches a seminar on “God”.  There is also Mona, a devout woman who is also a fierce feminist.

When the three decide to share a house together it does not go well, but there are external elements trying to stir up trouble, as well as the women’s clashing personalities.

There’s a lot going on here on top of the study of a somewhat typical for her time Turkish woman’s experience. The book is largely also about how Turkey has become more religious over the last 20 years.  Anyone who has been in academia will recognise the professor who abuses his power and manipulates people, and the inevitable backlash (with some major overreaction thrown in).

I enjoyed the first half but kept finding that half an hour was quite enough to read at a time (that is usually only the case with me with non-fiction or something very difficult that I need to process).  It does get a lot more gripping as Peri grows up and moves to Oxford, though.

This is another one like The Essex Serpent – I liked it very much, but I didn’t love it.  I did like it more than The Essex Serpent – it was more engaging and it had the added bonus of broadening my horizons to look at a different culture, as well as something near to my own culture through outside eyes.  I definitely recommend it.

The Quorum by Kim Newman

A less well known work of Newman’s published in 1994 I picked up in a charity shop some years back.

Essentially, Faust for the 90s.  Three young men sell their souls in 1978 and how it plays out over the years.

Not one of Newman’s better works.  I mainly struggled because the three who made the pack have such similar names (it’s the punch line of how they came to be friends at school) that I couldn’t tell them apart. And everyone was dogpiling on people who were making money in the media, especially on cable TV, at the time, which as a newcomer to the UK I felt was unfair even then.  (Because it was mostly bitching about people not knowing their place).

The demon figure is obviously, even then, a thinly veiled Rupert Murdoch who crawled out of the primordial ooze of the Thames.  Obvious and deserved, but doesn’t really add anything to anything.

Usually if I collect books by an author I will keep even the occasional dud as I am a sad completist.  This is actually going straight to the charity shop.

The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey

Despite the fact that I absolutely adore The Girl with all the Gifts and am in general a huge fan of Mike Carey, I kind of missed the publication of this novel set in the same world.

That’s a world where there’s been a plague which has affected almost all of humanity where a fungus basically turns people into zombies (“hungries”).  In this, a team of scientists, including an autistic 15 year old boy, have been sent out from Beacon, where the remnants of humanity in Britain are gathered, to collect samples placed around Britain by a team that disappeared years earlier.

On top of contending with hungries, they don’t get along well, one of the scientists becomes pregnant in the first weeks of the mission, and their lives are being played with in a power struggle back at Beacon.

Like The Girl with all the Gifts, this is a zombie story that will scare the crap out of you (hungries are fast when they smell prey) but also give you a serious case of All The Feels.  The characters are all complex, real people.  I found this one took longer to get into (Melanie’s story grabbed me right from the start; in this case I think I was over-thinking where it fits in to what we know about this world).

If you haven’t, you should definitely read The Girl with all the Gifts.  And when you have, you should read this.

Niagara’s Ghosts II by Kyle Upton

Another one from the huge pile of unread local folklore books my parents sourced on their travels.  Another one that wasn’t too bad – the author is a tour guide at Fort George near Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario who has led the fort’s ghost tours for many years, so it’s a collection of every spooky story associated with the place.  Unfortunately he added a chapter at the end about general spooky stuff in the area so it lost focus.

Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

I read this shortly after it came out – someone lent it to me because I read Sandman.

I impulse bought the 25th anniversary edition in a comic shop a couple years ago because I thought I should revisit it.

I wasn’t really aware of who Dave McKean was the first time around; I have a much better appreciation of his artwork now, and it absolutely stands the test of time.

The rest, not so much.  I keep trying to like Batman-themed stuff, but it always falls flat.  This comes closer because of the haunted-house element, but, well, I didn’t even get all the way through reading the original script with commentary at the back, because I just didn’t care.

Also, note for older visually-impaired folks – Even wearing the right glasses I struggled to read the Joker’s dialogue.

I will be keeping this because of the very pretty pictures, but it was a trip down memory lane I didn’t need.

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

I *love* Margaret Atwood’s writing, pre-ordered this one and received it on publication day, but the reviews were such that I only got around to reading it last month.

It’s a collection of nine short stories.  The first three are linked, about ageing writers/artists thinking about how they ended up where they are and examining bad behaviour from back in the 60s and 70s.  It’s low-key stuff, but really funny.  The third, Dark Lady, features a pair of characters with the fewest redeeming features ever committed to paper.

Lusus Naturae is a good old-fashioned gothic creature feature.  I liked it a lot.

In the Freeze-Dried Groom a shady antiques dealer meets his match when he bids on one storage locker too many.  Also fab.

I Dream of  Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth revisits characters from my favourite Atwood novel, The Robber Bride.  Enjoyable, yes, but I’m not sure how necessary it is to the canon.

The Dead Hand Loves you is also about ageing writers and a pact they made back in the 60s finally coming unravelled.  It’s worth noting that the successful writer from this, as well as the one from the first three stories, are writers of genre (horror here and fantasy earlier) that the rest of their circle look down on.  It’s clear that Atwood thinks they’re the chumps, not the successful genre authors.  I liked it, but mostly got excited because of the reference to the goth girls who idolise the horror writer.  “Hey, Margaret Atwood knows about goths”.  And then I realised she lives in the Annex so, duh.

Stone Mattress is about revenge served up cold, in every sense of the word.  This is the story that I loved.

Torching the Dusties is a near-future number where a radical group of young people have decided that old people have taken too many of the world’s resources for too long and got really militant about it.  Scary and hilarious all at once.

This collection starts out less than grippingly, but overall is absolutely worth your time.