My Reading Year

It’s been a good year for reading. I’ve read almost twice as many books as last year (60 compared to 31). I’m not entirely sure why this is but I know I have not felt as enthusiastic about reading for an awful long time. There are a number of reasons for this.

The biggest reason is probably the kindle. I’ve got used to using it now and I have found that you can get some excellent books at a very low price. As well as some free classics. It has made it so much easier for me to read on the go.

I made a decision quite early on with the kindle that I wasn’t ever going to pay full price for a book on it. There were two reasons for this: one, I felt that if I was paying 6.99 for a book, I wanted to have the flesh and blood thing in my hands and two, it was pointless to pay full price when you could get very good books for 2.99 or less. This has changed the way I buy books for the kindle and it may seem a little odd. (Certainly, it is not the way I would think in an actual book shop.) But it has meant that I have experimented more and found some excellent authors into the bargain. (Josh Lanyon, Simon Lelic and Patrick McCabe spring to mind.)

The other main reason is I started to use the recommendations on Goodreads to help me choose. This has led me to many new authors – in fact more than 50% of the authors i have read this year have been new to me. I feel like I have climbed out of a reading rut and am very excited by the thought of what I will read next year.

I’d also like to thank the Eclectic Reader Challenge for helping to fire my enthusiasm. This led me to read genres I wouldn’t normally think of and helped me to broaden my reading horizons. I managed to do the challenge twice which was pleasing and I am already thinking about what I might read for next year’s challenge.

As for the best books I’ve read this year, I’d have to say The Road by Cormac McCarthy was a favourite. A devastatingly bleak version of the future that seemed all too possible. The bleakly sarcastic world view of Charlie Brooker was another excellent read – I can Make You Hate is a collection of his columns and articles from over the last few years. And very entertaining it was too. Food for thought, definitely.

I’ve included a list of all the books that I’ve read this year along with their ratings from Goodreads. I’ve included links to the ones that I’ve reviewed.

Adventure

Detective Fiction

Dystopia (By which I mean, a story set in a world of the future which is similar to ours but with certain details changed or exaggerated.)

Erotica

Family Drama

  • Empty Mansion Empty Heart – Everett Beich 1/5
  • Where Angels Fear to Tread – E. M. Forster 3/5
  • The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf 3/5
  • I’m the King of the Castle – Susan Hill 3/5

Historical Fiction

Horror

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury 4/5
  • Glamorama – Bret Easton Ellis 4/5
  • Under the Skin – Michael Faber 3/5
  • Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin 4/5
  • The Butcher Boy – Patrick McCabe 4/5
  • The Island of Doctor Moreau – H G Wells 3/5

LGBT

Literary Criticism

  • Margaret Atwood – In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination -currently reading

Memoir

Satire

Science

Science Fiction (By which I mean a story set on a different planet or universe with great advances in technology.)

  • The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks 3/5
  • An Alien Heat – Michael Moorcock 4/5
  • Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut – 4/5

Short Stories

  • How it Ended – Jay McInerney 4/5

Supernatural

  • A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens 4/5
  • The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson 3/5

Travel

Young Adult

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Published in 2013 – The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan

I wasn’t really sure what to read for this category as, in terms of genre, it could be anything really. The last book I read for this category was Levels of Life by Julian Barnes so I knew I didn’t want it to be a memoir. I came across The Painted Girls on a Goodreads search and decided it was suitably different from everything else I had read for the Eclectic Reader Challenge.

download

It took me a while to read it, partly because it was the summer and I was not travelling to work every day, partly because it took me a while to get into it. The novel tells the story of the van Goethem girls in Belle Epoque Paris. Marie, the middle daughter, models for Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen in order to gain extra money for a family permanently poverty stricken, while also dancing and aiming for the stars. However, life is not ready to carry her in this direction.

There has been much praise for this novel and it does have some good features. I liked the interspersing of newspaper articles and scientific treaties with the girls’ narratives, along with reviews of the art shows where Little Dancer is shown. This helps to give a period feel and added to the oppressive atmosphere. Also, reference to the ‘science’ of physiognomy – whereby it was judged you could tell what a person was like from their features – that was popular at the time, adds to the narrative as Marie is fearful that her own features make her a potential criminal and helps to contribute to her downfall.

9781594486241_custom-5864569c19efa3014fe4122c5fd149e320b924c9-s6-c30

Less successful, I feel, were depictions of Antoinette’s relationship with Emile Abadie which end with her prostituting herself in order to raise money to follow him when he is shipped off to New Caledonia. Emile is a brute – and a bit of a characiture, if you ask me -and even after he has been implicated in two murders, Antoinette still protests his innocence and dreams of her perfect future. When she does eventually realise the truth, her change of heart was equally unconvincing. 

Some reviews of The Painted Girls on Amazon complained that it was too depressing. Now, I am ready to admit that I am a miserablist and quite enjoy reading things that are considered depressing. Life would have been tough for the sisters and with the mention of Zola and L’Assommoir, the reader is given a clue to the downward trajectory of the girls’ lives. However, Buchanan moves away from the naturalist aspirations of Zola. Marie wonders why the heroine of L’Assommoir is fated by her lowly beginnings and it seems to me that Buchanan wished to give the sisters a different fate. However, for me, the happy ending seems a little too pat, a little unlikely.

Maybe it is just my lack of romance. I know I would have been happier had the ending been less so. In the end, I found that the narrative highs and lows were equally unconvincing. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate this book but I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. The descriptions of the ballet and of Marie modelling for Degas show exactly how tough the ballet world was and are perhaps my favourite part of this novel. Unfortunately other events were neither as touching or as well-written. 

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Romantic Suspense – Awaken – Katie Kacvinsky

This genre caused me problems the first time round and this time I decided to leave it until the end as I just couldn’t decide what to read for it. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am not a romantic person and I do not like romance films and novels very much. I was amazed to find that I loved Come Unto These Yellow Sands by Josh Lanyon (which I read for this genre last time round) so much. In fact, I was contemplating reading another Lanyon or something similar. But I had tried to make the books I read for each category as different as possible this time round. And it is called the Eclectic Reader Challenge after all. So I found myself trawling through lists of dreadful sounding books on Goodreads, unable to make a decision.

In the end, I asked for help from the Goodreads community and Awaken was recommended to me. It sounded interesting and certainly better than anything else I’d looked at so I decided to go with it. After all, this is the point of reading communities, to find books you would never previously have read.8665876

This book is set in a future where everyone lives through their computers and never has actual physical contact with anyone. In fact, many people never leave the house. It touches on many things that I have blogged about myself such as reading a book rather than a kindle and the thinness of online communication compared to face to face communication. Maddie, the heroine, is one such teen who is liberated from her safe online world by a group of teenagers who meet face to face, dance to actual music and go to cafes. They also protest against the controlling online digital world. So far so good.

As ever, though, the R word troubled me and I felt the love story detracted from the main story and slowed the action down too much. Even worse, I found the gendered roles stereotypical and a little depressing. It occurred to me that this is probably why I found the romance between Josh Lanyon’s gay characters easier to deal with. They didn’t fall into typical roles. In this story, Madelaine is supposed to be independent and strong, yet she cannot live without the impossibly handsome Justin even though he is arrogant, distant and talks in polemic all the time. He put his job above everything and believed he knew what was best for everyone. She fell easily into the idea of saving him from himself and breaking through all his barriers. I failed to see how it could be worth her effort.

All in all, I enjoyed the main plot about overthrowing Digital School and some good points were made about the importance of face to face communication but the romance was unconvincing and sometimes it felt like I was being hit over the head with a sign saying online communication is bad, the points were that lacking in subtlety. Overall, six out of ten.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – New Adult – The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

I bought this book when the movie came out with the intention of reading the book and then seeing the movie. In the end, I did neither. It has been on my to-read list since then. So it seemed perfecphoto-14t for the Eclectic Reader Challenge category of New Adult.

The book is series of letters to an unnamed person addressed simply as friend. They detail the ups and downs of Charlie’s life as he starts High School describing events and people with a warmth and naivety that was mostly charming. He is shy, awkward and has little grasp of social etiquette. He is befriended by a group of older misfits and through them goes to parties, takes drugs and learns about sex and relationships. While his voice was convincing, I think that I’d have enjoyed it more if I was nearer his age. I found myself feeling a little impatient with him, the way adults do with teenagers but for the most part I was keen to read on and find out what happened to him.

It is apparent quite early on that Charlie has psychological issues relating to the death of his Aunt Helen and he swings between depression and optimism throughout the book. Details are gradually revealed giving the reader clues to what the issues may be. However, the final reveal – I won’t give it away for those who have not read it – felt a little underwhelming. Not that it wasn’t a serious issue – it certainly justified Charlie’s issues – but that it wasn’t explored very deeply, was almost brushed off with an ease that seemed unlikely.

This book is often compared to The Catcher in the Rye and, in some ways, it is an apt comparison. Both Holden and Charlie are caught in cycles of behaviour that they seemed destined to repeat and both have distinctive voices. However, ultimately I prefer The Catcher in the Rye because it is darker and less twee. I found the end of The Catcher in the Rye devastating as so little progress has been made in Holden’s journey of discovery. I don’t know why but I find this easier to relate to then the sweet optimism of Charlie’s last letter.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Humour – I Can Make You Hate – Charlie Brooker

I’m quite an angry person. I don’t mean that I go out and start fights or anything like that but intellectually, it is definitely my default position. The news, the abundance of stupid people on the TV, the growing gap between mainstream and genuinely alternative (rather than the mainstream MCfly version of alternative), all of these things and more are capable of making my blood boil. In this sense, Charlie Brooker’s I Can Make You Hate was the perfect book to read for the humour category of the Eclectic Reader Challenge. This book is very very funny but it is also incredibly angry. And understandably so.

I knew what to expect from this book. I’d read Brooker’s columns before – particularly when he used to write Screen Burn for The Guardian and of course, he is now on TV fairly regularly. He already ranked as one of my favourite angry people (along with Ben Goldacre, Mark Kermode and David Mitchell). You know the sort of people who are passionately and endlessly angry. Like when reading Kermode, there were numerous times when I felt as though Brooker had crawled inside my head and read my thoughts. Although, obviously, he expressed them with a lot more verve and potty humour then I would have managed.

Brooker’s bile is wide-ranging. There is political comment – in my mind, David Cameron will always be a foal swallowing lizard now – cultural comment on TV, video games, music and film, as well as coverage of the Royal Wedding and the Olympic preparations. Nothing escapes Brooker’s gleeful voice of angry destruction. He manages to cut photo-10through the bullshit of modern life with remarkable clarity. And while he can come across as an angry man on a rant and clearly does want to shock people out of their complacency, he manages to avoid saying things that are just offensive and not funny or pertinent; a knack that seems to have escaped Frankie Boyle.

I would recommend this book for anyone who thinks that modern life is a bit rubbish. Believe me, by the end of reading this book, you will know exactly who to blame.

GLBT – Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013 – Rent Boy – Gary Indiana

I read Resentment by Gary Indiana when I finished my MPhil in 2001. I really enjoyed it and I vowed to read more of his stuff. So here I am, 12 years later, finally getting round to it by reading Rent Boy for the Eclectic Reader Challenge.

The narrator, Danny, is a rent boy, as you might expect but also a waiter and an architecture student. He also goes under a number of different names. Danny is the name he goes by in the series of letters that make up the novel. The narrative voice is very entertaining – Danny is intelligent and funny, both about his clients, the other rent boys he knows and the social situations he finds himself in .

As you might expect, there is a lot of sex in this book and a lot of it is quite explicit. It isn’t, however, all that sexy. Danny’s world is not a glamorous one and he does not spare the reader some of the seedier details.

When Danny gets involved with a scheme to rob rich people of the kidneys they are not using, you just know that things are not going to go well for him and fairly soon he is up to his neck in trouble and having to leave New York at an urgent pace.298753

In the end, he gives two possible endings to this scenario, both of which involve him on the run. It is difficult to say which is true. We also discover that Danny isn’t his real name either. The final lines of the novel are devastating and poignant. Danny says “I have no real name. I live where nothing has a name, and the rest is silence.” The person he is writing to is never revealed but it seems they are no wiser than the reader as to who Danny actually is.

I really enjoyed this. It was funny, full of biting social comment and gritty descriptions of the underbelly of New York. I’ll try and make it less than twelve years before I read another Gary Indiana novel.

Venus in Furs – Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – Translated Literature – Eclectic Reader Challenge

I wanted to read something a bit different for translated literature for the Eclectic Reader Challenge and this had been on my to read list for a while. I’ve read De Sade before (although a long time ago) and I thought it would be interesting to read the author who had given his name to the opposite end of the spectrum to De Sade. I can’t help wondering how you would feel having such a thing named after you (in case you don’t know, the term masochism comes from Masoch’s name). Do you suppose he knew, did it happen in his lifetime? How would friends and family react to that?

The book itself was not really what I was expecting. It is not particularly explicit and the protagonist’s Severin’s beatings are not particularly graphic. That said, this was published in 1870 and was considered shocking at the time, particularly, I think due to the idea of female dominance and cruelty and Severin’s willingness to submit to it. venus

There are some parallel’s with Fifty Shades of Grey (although this is considerably better written). Severin is in love with his venus, Wanda and adores her so much that he is willing to submit to her every whim and become a slave. They sign a contract outlining the exact nature of their relationship. Interestingly, it is Wanda who seems to have the most misgivings – at least at the beginning. Severin is more than willing to be her slave.

Unfortunately for Severin, Wanda becomes infatuated with another stronger man (in a particular stroke of cruelty, she allows him to beat Severin, marking the very end of their relationship).  It seems that being allowed to be so cruel has killed any love she had at the beginning of the novel.  She finds that she wishes to submit to her new lover whom she loves with a greater passion.

Is this suggesting that this willingness to submit is a part of love, something that is present in all of us but which shouldn’t be acted on? Certainly, I like the way that roles seem more fluid in this book than in Fifty Shades of Grey and also unlike between Christian and Anastasia, it is Severin who wishes to submit who asks for Wanda to fulfil his dreams and Wanda, the dominant one, who has to be persuaded. This certainly made me less uncomfortable than the sexual politics in Fifty Shades.

This wasn’t a great read – it wasn’t terrible either – but in terms of historical interest and cultural significance, I’m glad to have read it at last.