Category Archives: Reading

Reading recommendations from 2016

Looking back on the year’s reading, below are a few recommendations from books I’ve loved in 2016. The majority weren’t originally published this year and one which I’ve been lucky enough to read in advance is published in 2017. They’re all brilliant books and as usual it feels impossible to rank, so I’ve listed in the order I read them:

do-no-harm
Do No Harm
by Henry Marsh (W&N, 2014)

Life, death and brain surgery: a searingly honest account of Henry Marsh’s life and work as one of the UK’s most foremost neurosurgeons. This came with oodles of hype and lived up to every ounce of it. Heartbreaking and inspirational.

speak-by-louisa-hallSpeak by Louisa Hall (Orbit, 2015)

One of those novels that deserved far more attention than it seemed to receive. The multiple narratives span several centuries, from a young Alan Turing to a creator of artificial intelligence now serving a prison sentence, tied together by the voice of a discarded AI who has learned about humanity through the stories she has absorbed. 

wolf-borderThe Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Faber and Faber, 2015)

An eccentric landowner decides to reintroduce wolves to his estate in the north of England. This is a beautiful meditation on nature and landscape, and the most evocative writing I’ve come across about pregnancy. Hall’s language is always divine, and the final images of this novel have lingered with me all year.

house-of-journalistsThe House of Journalists by Tim Finch (Jonathan Cape, 2013)

Dark humour abounds in this tale of a house for refugee journalists seeking sanctuary in London, having fled from oppressive regimes around the world. I loved the clever use of narrative that pulls together the different characters’ stories, and the novel’s themes feel ever more pertinent since it was first published in 2013.

the-boat-nam-leThe Boat by Nam Le (Canongate, 2009)

The opening of this collection, which takes a character with the author’s name attending a writing workshop in Iowa, subverts and satirizes the expectations of what a Vietnamese-born Australian writer should write about, and stakes the writer’s claim on the short fiction form. Seven marvellous stories located around the world in an explosion of startling imagery.

central-stationCentral Station by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon, 2016)

Fractured novel exploring the lives and loves of a cast of characters living in the shadow of a future space station in Tel Aviv. Tidhar creates a wonderful tapestry of moods and emotions with some extraordinarily powerful scenes such as a robotnik soldier’s memories of war. Hope to see this on some awards lists next year.

dear-thiefDear Thief by Samantha Harvey (Vintage, 2014)

In the middle of the night, a woman begins writing a letter to her best friend who disappeared over a decade ago. A gloriously written exploration of betrayal and forgiveness and one of the best depictions I’ve read of the complexities of female friendship.

 

the-thing-itselfThe Thing Itself by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2015)

Roberts combines philosophy and thriller in this clever, entertaining and enviably stylish exploration of Kant and the Fermi Paradox. The central narrative is interspersed with often heartbreaking accounts of characters caught up in the ramifications of the thing itself, and wonderfully written throughout. An absolute joy.

dreams-before-the-start-of-timeDreams Before The Start of Time by Anne Charnock (47 North, 2017)

Charnock’s third novel is a beautifully nuanced exploration of future developments in fertility science. The science underpinning the narrative is subtle and unobtrusive, allowing the novel to shine on the neuroses of its large, three-generational cast of characters as they struggle to come to terms with the decisions of their parents. As with her previous novels, Charnock is marvellous at communicating a huge amount in a short space. Look out for this in April next year.

2015 Reading: The Year in Review

I set myself a goal of 40 books for 2015 and I’m at 43 at the time of writing. I’ve read some fantastic books, old and new, this year – here’s a few recommendations:

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven lived up to the hype. I was drawn in by the concept: a post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespeare company, but what has stayed with me is the exquisite characterization and before-and-during transitions as the catastrophe unfolds. I don’t think I’ve seen a bad word about this book.

mechanique coverAlso set against a post-apocalyptic landscape, I adored Genevieve Valentine’s steampunk Mechanique. Hands down the best circus-themed novel I’ve read.

Anne Charnock’s debut novel and Kitschies finalist A Calculated Life is a quietly mesmerizing coming-of-age tale which lingers after the reading. The (unrelated) follow-up, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, has just landed on my doormat and I can’t wait to get to it over Christmas.

EscapeFromBaghdad-CoverPromo21Another brilliant debut was Saad Hossein’s Escape from Baghdad!, a rollercoaster of a novel whose post-invasion Iraq setting is combined seamlessly with a hunt for the secrets of immortality. The dark humour emphasises rather than detracts from the seriousness of the underlying text. Surely one for next year’s Kitschies lists?

prettymonsters_kellylinkTwo revelatory authors for me this year were Sarah Hall and Kelly Link, neither of whom I’d read before. I was blown away by the writing of Hall’s The Carhullan Army. At once fierce and lyrical, this is a dystopia which packs a huge punch in a short space. Her latest novel, The Wolf Border, is first on my list for next year’s reading.

Kelly Link’s collection Pretty Monsters left me green with envy; a note-perfect example of the use of the fantastical in contemporary settings. I’m really looking forward to her latest collection, Get In Trouble, currently out in hardback.

karenjoyfowler_weareallYou can’t really write about Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without giving the game away, but suffice to say I adored this: the self-aware narration, the careful consideration of moral conundrums, the humour and the tears. Gorgeous.

Ali Smith’s How To Be Both is published two different ways: I read the 15th Century painter Francesco del Cosso’s story first, followed by George’s present day narrative. This beautiful meditation is my favourite of Smith’s work to date.

hamid_howtogetfilthyrichMohsin Hamid is an author I’d been meaning to get to for a while; I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist and immediately afterwards bought How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the latter of which had me in tears at the end. Hamid is a superb stylist, able to convey volumes in the tautest of sentences.

In science fiction, I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson: a structural and philosophical delight.

Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium was an incredibly clever use of narrative structure, and beautifully written to boot.

newman_icecreamstarSandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star left me somewhat divided: this 900+ pages epic is worth the read for the voice alone – the use of language is searingly good – but its relentless bleakness and somewhat meandering plot left me struggling a little towards the end.

I’d been challenged to read Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, which I went into a little apprehensively, having no idea what to expect, and ended up enjoying immensely.

atwood_stonemattressI’m still waiting for the paperback edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, but her new collection The Stone Mattress served as a perfect reminder of what a superlative writer Atwood is. Addressing the ageing process with wit and grace, this is dark humour at its best.

Hilary Mantel is another writer I need to read more of: her memoir Giving Up The Ghost is sharp, satiric, a linguistic joy and utterly heartwrenching.

I took Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum on holiday and was blown away to discover it was her debut novel. Like another of my favourite writers, Jennifer Egan, Atkinson has a wonderful gift for combining humour with serious subject matter; this was a joy.

egan_thekeepLastly, I used up my Jennifer Egan credit finishing the last of her backlist, The Keep. Towards the end I had one of those moments of sitting bolt upright and declaring out loud, ‘Damn, but Egan is such a ridiculously clever writer’. And she is. I’m now desperately waiting for whatever comes next from this phenomenally good novelist.

All in all, 2015 was a pretty brilliant year for reading. Here’s to 2016!

Book recommendations – early 2015

A few quick recommendations from recent reading:

guest_cat_cover-v2
The Guest Cat
by Takashi Hiraide

This was my first read of the year, and with cats plus Japan it pretty much had my name on it. Quiet, thoughtful, a mystery that still has me wondering, and some truly delightful descriptions of cats and cat behaviour.

 

StationelevenUKHCStation Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

I’d been looking forward to Station Eleven for months and I was so happy to find it didn’t disappoint. It’s exquisitely plotted, and most importantly wonderfully characterized. I’d been hooked by the description of the post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespeare company, but in the end what has stayed with me most is the before-and-during the breakdown scenes, the moments of realization for those characters, Miranda standing in front of the mirror saying ‘I regret nothing’. A gorgeous tapestry of a novel.

mechanique coverMechanique – Genevieve Valentine

Mechanique is another book that had been on my to-read list for a while, and another one that didn’t let me down. Steampunk circus, an inventive narrative style that slowly unveils the hearts of the performers and the dark truths that lie at the centre of their troupe, this fabulous novel explores mortality, desire, ambition, and the beauty of flight.

calculated life coverA Calculated Life – Anne Charnock

I was first alerted to A Calculated Life via last year’s Kitschies shortlist. This is a story beautifully and simply narrated, the language economical but evocative, and it remains compelling without ever resorting to sensationalism. A coming-of-age tale exploring what it means to be human, it kept me gripped to the end.

EscapeFromBaghdad-CoverPromo21Escape from Baghdad! – Saad Z Hossain

I zipped through Escape From Baghdad in under 24 hours, which says a lot as I’m generally quite a slow reader. For a start, it’s great fun – Hossain’s writing grabs you from the opening line:

“We should kill him,” Kinza said. “But nothing too orthodox.”

From this point on the action doesn’t let up, as three unlikely companions navigate alchemists, immortals and deadly intrigue against the backdrop of post-war Iraq. There are some extremely dark moments, and the humour is correspondingly so (see the torturer who complains he hasn’t been given sufficient time to do his work) but when Hossain wants to make a point he allows the prose to breathe and the emotion to come through. One not to miss.

 

Reading recommendations – summer 2014

Some recommendations from the last few month’s reading – wonderful books all:

A Woman in Berlin – Anonymous

I stumbled across A Woman in Berlin in the history section of the beautiful Scarthin Books in Derbyshire – one of those oh this looks interesting moments that reminds you to browse bookstores more. The diaries of a German woman – a journalist in her pre-war career – during the final phases of WWII, it chronicles the Russian invasion and sacking of the city of Berlin. It’s a rare first-hand record of the civilian experience of defeat, and the history of its publication is equally fascinating – the first German-language edition in 1960 received such negative reactions that the text was withdrawn, and it was only in 2003, following the anonymous author’s death in 2001, that it saw print again. With its subject matter of rape and sexual collaboration for survival, this is not the easiest read, but what stays with me is the voice of the narrator; the resilience, the dry humour and lack of self-pity, the will to survive. I was especially struck by the author’s reflections on the returning soldiers. The myth of man, she says, has crumbled – ‘That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex’ – an observation which sadly was not to be proven in the post-war era, but makes this even more of a relevant read today.

tale for the time beingA Tale For The Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

A Japanese schoolgirl writes a diary which in the aftermath of a tsunami washes up on a remote coastline in Canada in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. I loved the premise of this. Nao’s diaries are instantly engaging (so much so that I missed her initially during Ruth’s chapters); inspiring and heartbreaking all at once. As Ruth becomes immersed in Nao’s diary, the novel expands to reveal the fascinating histories of Nao’s family, including her ‘anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun’ great-grandmother Jiko, her kamikaze pilot grandfather Haruki #1, and her post-Dot Com Bubble computer programmer father Haruki #2. Exploring the dynamics of power and bullying, Ozeki examines what it really means to be a hero.

hired manThe Hired Man – Aminatta Forna

I was blown away by Forna’s memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and her novel The Memory of Love. The Hired Man is outwardly a quieter novel, but one that creeps up on you with increasing power. Protagonist Duro creates a slow-burn narration, flitting between a seemingly peaceful present, and the darker memories of the past, as the secrets of a Croatian town in the aftermath of civil war are gradually uncovered.

harry augustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has an outwardly simple premise: narrator Harry lives, and dies, and lives his life over and over again, each time retaining the memories of his previous lives. The way it is told is gorgeously intricate. I loved the circular narrative, the employment of form to echo theme, as the book moves back and forth through Harry’s lives, with some playful and at times truly dark historical visitations. The relationship between Harry and his one-time student Vincent is fascinating; as are the philosophical debates eschewing from that relationship. This is a great read from start to finish.

girl in the roadThe Girl in the Road – Monica Byrne

Two journeys are at the heart of The Girl in the Road – Meena, fleeing from India across the Trail, an energy-harvesting floating bridge which crosses the Arabian Sea. And Mariama, a young girl crossing from West Africa to Ethiopia, bewitched by fellow traveller Yemaya, who she worships as a goddess. There were so many things I loved about this – the wonderfully-rendered near future setting; the way the two characters’ journeys intertwine through stories and mythology; the fierce, at times savage voice combined with a gorgeous use of language. I also liked the way it touched on issues such as race, class, sexuality and mental health, whilst not foregrounding any of these; the narrative always comes first.

bad characterA Bad Character – Deepti Kapoor

Kapoor’s A Bad Character explores a very different Indian setting. Sometimes after reading something particularly epic it’s a joy to really focus down, and Kapoor’s novel is exactly that: a distillation of a relationship. Poetic, evocative, burning with suppressed desire and sexuality, it’s told in a series of staccato vignettes by a young woman in Delhi whose name we never learn.

Helen-Macdonald-H-is-for-HawkH is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

If you read one thing this year, read this. Macdonald’s deeply empathetic memoir encompasses two narratives: it’s the story of how she trained a goshawk in the aftermath of her father’s death, and the story of the troubled writer T.H. White. It’s a book about nature and a book about struggling with grief. By turns exquisitely poetic and unflinchingly raw, Macdonald explores what it means to be wild and what it means to be human, and the at times perilously precarious bridge between the two.

Reading recommendations – spring 2014

It’s been a while since I posted about recent reading – but I’ve finally got round to some recommendations from the first half of this year.

NW – Zadie Smith

Taking the Willesden area of London as its epicentre, NW follows the intersecting lives of a group of Londoners, at the centre of which is the intriguing relationship between once-and-ostensibly-still best friends Leah and Natalie. Each section is stylistically, experimentally different, but I particularly enjoyed Natalie’s narrative. Despite Natalie’s struggle to reconcile the shift in her lifestyle and identity, and a voice that seems designed to distance the reader, Natalie somehow ended up being the most relatable of all the characters. I loved the sense of London, and the cultural references which are cleverly embedded, if at times a little too oblique. On a related note, I was excited to read that Smith is reputedly planning to write science-fiction. Her short story Meet The President! in the New Yorker may be a taste of things to come – something to look forward to.

God’s War – Kameron Hurley

It felt like I’d read a lot about God’s War a long time before I got round to actually reading it, despite a general tendency to avoid reviews as much as I can until after I’ve finished a book. Originally billed as bug-punk, I just wasn’t expecting God’s War to be my kind of thing, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found myself hugely enjoying the book. It’s a fast-paced narrative (the much-quoted first line grabs you by the teeth and it doesn’t let go from there on), but character always trumps plot for me, and much of my enjoyment was in the superbly-rendered character of bounty hunter Nyx, and the shifting dynamics between her motley, multinational crew. For a far more eloquent review take a look at Nina Allan’s thoughts over at the Arc blog, but in brief – if, like me, this isn’t the kind of thing you’d usually pick up – do give it a go. You may be surprised…

The Violent Century – Lavie Tidhar

I’ve been a big fan of Tidhar’s work since reading the superb Osama, and despite not being especially well-versed in the superhero genre, I had no doubt that I would enjoy The Violent Century. And I did, very much so. It took me a while to settle into the short sections and clipped prose, but the style comes into its own as the narrative moves back and forth through past and present, and conflict echoes after conflict. Tidhar is by now a dab hand at integrating pulp culture, historical figures and events, and in this The Violent Century is no different, by turns irreverent and deeply haunting.

The Adjacent – Christopher Priest

There’s a wonderful analysis of The Adjacent in Adam Roberts’ 2014 Clarke Award round-up over at Strange Horizons, but suffice to say this has all the classic trademarks of a Priest novel – multiple selves, magicians, counterfeits, creepy and inexplicable happenings, world wars and intricate plot devices. The narrative moves between various settings, visiting WWI, WWII, a near-future Islamic Republic of Great Britain which is blighted by climate change (the description that stayed with me is of a building that appears “clamped” to the ground to withstand the storms), and at one point hopping across to the Dream Archipelago of previous works. As always, the complexities of the plot are belied by the clear and eloquent prose. One of my favourite passages was towards the end, as the protagonist is watching a series of Lancaster planes take-off from an aircraft hangar, which was so beautifully rendered you can practically hear the engines and smell the gasoline.

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

There’s so much to say about 2666 it’s difficult to know where to begin. For a start, it’s over a 1000 pages long, an epic undertaking that’s taken me three months to read – but it has been worth the investment. There are five parts to the novel, which was published posthumously and may or may not have originally been intended by the author to be published as five separate novels: The Part About the Critics, The Part About Amalfitano, The Part About Fate, The Part About the Crimes, and The Part About Archimboldi. Despite its length, the prose tends towards sparse rather than bolstered with description. It’s a maze of a novel, packed with narratives embedded within narratives, stories leading off at random tangents, down levels upon levels of digression, but somehow always leading back to the original pathway or protagonist/s.

Bolaño’s classic themes of writing/the writer and violence are ever-present. Over the course of 2666 he takes us from the landscape of literary criticism in Europe to the scene of serial killings in Mexico and back in time to the German writer Archimboldi’s experience of World War II. I struggled immensely with The Part About the Crimes. This section forms a centre piece which all of the other narratives reflect back on. It takes the form (in as much as Bolano adheres to form) of a police procedural: a fictional account of a real-life proliferation of unsolved serial rapes and murders of women, which occurred in Mexico in the 1990s. Bolaño’s fictional Santa Teresa is a stand-in for the border town Ciudad Juarez. The 300-page section is utterly relentless as a read, not because the violence is gratuitous (indeed, much of Bolaño’s power lies in what is not said – for example, the detective reflecting on a woman who suffered five heart attacks before she died – we are left to imagine exactly what manner of torture brought on those heart attacks) but in the sheer volume of deaths, the often clinical style in which this section is narrated, and the brutal reality of the lack of justice for these women, which we are never allowed to forget.

It’s an extraordinary work and I’m glad to have read it; equally I’m glad to have finished it. I will definitely be reading more of Bolaño’s work, but not just yet.

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

After an epic 3-month read I raced through Americanah in a week. I’d been looking forward to Adichie’s latest since it came out in hardback last year, and the novel proved a delight. The back cover blurb describes it as a love story, but although the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze forms an underpinning narrative, Americanah is primarily about identity, belonging and growing comfortable with the person you are. Ifemelu is a forthright, complex character; the social observations on race and culture are cleverly drawn and at times very funny. With a writer’s (and SF) hat on, I was very interested to see how Adichie portrayed the experience of adjusting to a different culture. Ifemelu’s childhood and adolescence in Nigeria feel familiar, even though – as a British reader – her experience is not familiar; whilst when she reaches the USA, the American experience feels strange and disorientating. It is only once Ifemelu reaches America that comparisons are made with back home, and when she returns to Nigeria there is a shift again, and her perceptions change as she readjusts once more. Overall, this is a thoughtful and highly enjoyable read.

Just started reading: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara.