imyril tackles a guilty conscience - 2013

Books off the Shelf Challenge

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imyril tackles a guilty conscience - 2013

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Edited: Dec 3, 2013, 7:04pm

I recall telling myself for several years in a row that I wasn't allowed to buy any more books unless I finished reading all the books I already owned. Or at least all the fiction. Of course, I don't have that sort of willpower (especially in the face of second hand bookstores or the latest novel from a favourite author). And then I got a Kindle.

I've got some time on my hands at present, so I've been getting my LT up to date and realising with some horror just how many books remain TBR. It's getting silly. So I thought I'd join the gang here and have a go at reducing the guilt - physical books first, as I've got plenty of bitspace left for Kindle editions...

Challenges need targets, so I'm going to aim to read half by the end of the year. Given I'm starting with a pile of 57 and I typically read 50 books a year it's doable, but it's pretty unforgiving of rereads, non-fiction and Kindle distraction. Tell you what - I'll at least tackle half of them. If I really can't make myself finish Orhan Pamuk or Moby Dick, at least I'll have tried, right? :)

Wish me luck :)


Books taken off the shelf so far:

1) Michel Faber - The Courage Consort
2) Emma Donoghue - Room
3) Nick Hornby - How to be Good
4) Saladin Ahmed - Throne of the Crescent Moon
5) Mike Shevdon - Sixty-one Nails
6) Neil Gaiman - The Ocean at the End of the Lane
7) Sheridan Le Fanu - In a Glass Darkly
8) A. S. Byatt - Ragnarok
9) David Mitchell - Ghostwritten
10) Philip Pullman - Grimm Tales
11) Patrick McCabe - Winterwood
12) Paulo Coelho - The Alchemist
13) Sarah Waters - Fingersmith
14) Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl
15) Anna Goldsworthy - Piano Lessons
16) Jeff Noon - Falling Out of Cars
17) P D James - Children of Men
18) Stanislaw Lem - Solaris
19) Paul Hoffman - The Left Hand of God
20) Michael Marshall Smith - Everything You Need

My full reading list for 2013 lives over here:

Edited: May 29, 2013, 12:52pm

1) Michel Faber - The Courage Consort

Okay, I'm cheating here as I've read most of it previously (it was republished, short one story, as The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, which I read earlier this year not realising that I essentially already owned a copy) - I'm giving myself an easy start before I pick up anything weighty!

I have a real problem with two of the three novellae included in this volume (those I had read previously): the writing isn't up to Faber's usual standard (The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps is particularly jarring) and all the characters feel short-changed. The historical / ghost story in Steps has huge potential, but the modern-day characters are whingy, navel-gazing, self-absorbed and stilted; the Courage Consort have all the same flaws, but without the saving grace of an interesting ghost story (screams in the night don't count). I think I felt particularly cheated having studied archaeology and loving a good ghost story - Steps should have been a gift to me.

The third (and shortest) story, The Fahrenheit Twins, has also been published elsewhere, but this was my first encounter with it. Thankfully, it's very good - the twins are the semi-feral children of two distracted German anthropologists living in the Arctic. As their parents spend more time on studying the local tribe than on raising their children, the twins create their own mythologies and Bible from the odd pearls of wisdom their mother utters in passing. When she dies, they undertake a physical, spiritual and emotional journey to come to terms with growing up. Surreal, amusing, and many-layered, there's probably a dozen ways to interpret this little gem - in short, it has everything the other 2 tales lack, and makes their shortcomings even more obvious.

May 29, 2013, 12:54pm

2) Emma Donoghue - Room

I'm a little bit nervous about this one - it comes highly recommended by friends I trust, but they also said it destroyed them. We shall see...

May 29, 2013, 6:32pm

I have about 1400 unread books kicking around if that makes you feel better :) Welcome.... you are in good company around here.

May 29, 2013, 7:15pm

Ha! Yes, that makes me feel much better, thank you :)

May 31, 2013, 4:27am

So Room by Emma Donoghue didn't destroy me, although I found it tough going. It's an interestingly-executed story of an urban dungeon, told from the perspective of a five-year-old born to a kidnapped mother and imprisoned in the Room of the title. Dealing with life in Room (and getting you used to Jack's way with words and (necessarily limited) understanding of the world, it then moves on to focus on how Jack (and Ma) adapts to life Outside.

Unlike The Collector, the classic Fowles kidnapping novel told by the kidnapper, there's no black humour here to make it more bearable (although 'Ferdinand' is arguably almost as closeted as Jack). There's rather more humanity, but not a lot to like - beyond Officer Oh, Doctor Clay and Nurse Noreen, there's little hope for the rest of us based on the (limited) empathy and patience of Ma's family, and the willingness of the general population to exploit anything for fame / cash / glory. Sadly, this rings all too true - so unlike other reviewers, I didn't find Room remotely uplifting, but rather bleak.

I think I would have really enjoyed this more as a short story or novella, but I struggled with Jack's language and the story itself over 400 pages. I can completely understand why it attracted award attention, and it would be an excellent bookclub (or study) read as there are so many points for discussion, but it didn't do a lot for me.

Something rather more upbeat and/or diverting next I think!

Edited: Jun 2, 2013, 9:36am

After a brief non-fiction read that doesn't count for the purposes of this challenge (as it wasn't my book), my light-hearted diversion is How to be Good by Nick Hornby.

Sadly, it's irritating me as much as amusing me - very funny, but I hate all the characters. Hohum.

Jun 2, 2013, 9:35am

3) Nick Hornby - How to be Good

Oh dear - not the best way to restore any sort of belief in humanity! Katie Carr is a doctor - so by definition a Good Person - but her marriage to bitter, confrontational writer David has driven her to having an affair. Struggling to get any perspective on what she really wants - other than to be Good, which she can't help but feel she isn't if she's having an affair - she takes it in her cynical stride when David visits a faith healer called GoodNews to sort out his back pain. Unexpectedly, GoodNews' treatment works - but it also changes fundamentally changes David, draining away his anger and creating a liberal Do Gooder to make liberals weep. Now Katie must decide whether she can bear to live with this new version of her husband - and whether there's anything left that she really believes in or cares about.

It's funny, of course - it's Hornby, and that's what he does - but this "novel of ideas" is so overwhelmingly cynical it exhausted me. I couldn't for a moment believe that Hornby believed in David - making the novel the sort of cynical satire that David and GoodNews rail about. Very meta, and arguably very clever, and there's lots to argue about over a pint (or whilst giving away the contents of your cupboards to the local orphanage)... but very little to enjoy - and that's before you get to the even more cynical ending. I can see why the Daily Mail loved it, but it leaves me wanting to go read something sickly sweet or at least utterly different that might restore some hope in there being a point to it all.

So on that note, bring on some fantasy. The world definitely needs saving!

Jun 2, 2013, 9:38am

4) Mike Shevdon - Sixty-one Nails

Faeries in London. That has to count as different, and there's bound to be some saving of something in there somewhere... Any form of Alternative London has to live in the shadow of Neverwhere and Rivers of London, so I'll find out how well Mr Shevdon meets that challenge.

Jun 2, 2013, 12:13pm

>3 imyril:: I'm with you on this one -- not one of Hornby's more enjoyable books, and I felt like you about the characters. It was a relief to read A Long Way Down after that.

Jun 2, 2013, 12:17pm

PS: Also meant to say that I have over 800 books tagged "unread" and I'm nowhere near cataloging everything I own, so I don't think you need to feel bad.:)

Jun 4, 2013, 2:11pm

4) Saladin Ahmed - Throne of the Crescent Moon

I got distracted from Sixty-One Nails before I even started it and read Throne of the Crescent Moon first. Adoulla is fat, grumpy and getting on, but he's the last true ghul hunter in Dhamsawaat, capital of the kingdoms of the Crescent Moon. His apprentice - or assistant - or possibly partner - Raseed is a religious obsessive with a fine line in violence, but no street smarts and no head for incantations, so Adoulla remains unretired and unmarried (as he was taught that he'd lose his magic the day he wed, although it's absolutely fine to sleep with people).

When his former lover's niece is murdered, Adoulla and Raseed go a-hunting and trip over more trouble than they can handle until a feisty shape-changing Badawi girl comes to the rescue. As matters escalate, the trio must also enlist Adoulla's former partners Dawood and Litaz to their aid - and all five are drawn into the conspiracy of the Falcon Prince, a thief with an eye on the Crescent Moon itself.

I wanted to like this more than I actually did. I've been quietly dying to read some fresh fantasy, and this looked like it had the ingredients as well as some hefty recommendations from authors I respect. I like a fantasy world that plays respectfully with non-western tropes and I enjoyed the initial introduction of the world-weary adventurer who wants to lay down arms and grow old(er) and fat(ter) with a well-padded woman. There's also some great incidental world-building (mostly at the beginning), with the Arabian setting shown rather than told for the first couple of chapters.

However, I felt the prose lurched badly off-key whenever it tripped into exposition, and all of the various characters' internal dialogue felt rather forced. Worse, the characters themselves - and especially Raseed and Zamia - felt flimsy (a second dimension? Who needs one of those?) and the romantic subplot tenuous at best (although I'm willing to wear a cynic tshirt here - I'm just not big on love at first sight, especially when it's counter to everything you've seen in a character to date). The novel is ultimately short and punchy - not a bad thing per se, but in this case I can't help but wonder if a bit more time and a few more pages would have given the characters more time to breathe and evolve.

All in all, this wasn't terribly written, but it could have been so much better - and it didn't leave me begging for more, which is a bit worrying for what is clearly meant to be the opening salvo of a new epic sequence.

Hohum. On to Sixty-One Nails!

Edited: Jun 4, 2013, 2:16pm

11> I must resist the inner voice that suggests I am at liberty to go acquire a lot more books for my shelf :)

Jun 10, 2013, 7:11am

5) Mike Shevdon - Sixty-one Nails

Mr Shevdon was tackling a difficult market when he plumped for a faerie urban fantasy set in London. Gaiman still more or less owns alternative visions of London, and Aaronovitch has more recently romped all over it with gleeful aplomb. And it's so easy to get faerie wrong, not least because different readers are looking for very different faeries.

I like my Fey dark, non-human and rather scary. The Bright Court should be terrifying and the Dark Court should be nightmarish. For all their other flaws, I like Feist and Chadbourn for grasping this and running with it.

So Sixty-one Nails had a lot to live up to. It's clearly done enough to convince publishers Angry Robot to stick with it - there are a clutch of sequels now - and Ican see why. London is real (like Neverwhere, a door may not lead where you expect if opened by the right person) and Shevdon embeds his core plot in a fascinating bit of old City ritual, which always plays well. The setting works.

The Feyre are split into seven courts, each broadly aligned with specific talents/legendary creatures, but we only get to glimpse them, and mostly only the banished Seventh Court of the wraithkin, who believe in pure bloodlines, slaughtering halfbreeds and feeding on humankind like cattle. Add psychotic siblings and a penchant for urbane charm and they fit up as a decent dark host. When we do finally glimpse the others, they check in nicely as having a ruthless streak and their own harsh code of justice - so the Feyre are promising.

The thrust of the tale is forty-something year old divorcé Niall, whose fey blood awakens during an unfortunate mid-commute heart attack. Rescued by an elderly (looking) and slightly ambivalent Fey'ree, the question is whether he can dodge the wraithkin long enough to find a Court to adopt and protect him. Niall is our ignorant outsider; we learn about the Feyre because he must, and the device and plot that flows from this work well.

Obviously I've got buts, or I'd have waxed lyrical and briefly. It's decently written, with the occasional plod, but I missed the flashes of wit and charm that define Gaiman/Aaronovitch or the likes of Scott Lynch. In their absence, it's a bit turgid in places, and Niall (in spite of being labelled charming in one scene) is rather dull, lacking a spark to bring him to life. Even when he's shaping up to be a big dam hero, you can't imagine wanting to spend a night at the pub with him.

However, my real beef is the romance subplot, which felt unnecessary, unbelievable and distracting. Niall was a more interesting hero when he was worried about the fact he was still taking his ex-wife's comments too personally; 'fixing' that with a dollop of New Woman sold him short for me. It also clashed badly with my perception of Niall - the basis for the attraction seems lacking; every woman in the book is more intriguing than he is, however briefly drawn.

Definitely a step up from Throne of the Crescent Moon - I wasn't actually grinding my teeth - but I won't rush out to buy a sequel, although I'd pick one up in a pinch in the hope the increased exposure to the Courts in subsequent volumes makes it all shine a bit brighter.

Edited: Jun 25, 2013, 4:11am

Jumping off-Challenge for my next read and picking up Against a Dark Background in honour of Iain M. Banks. It's been many years since I read this and I can't really remember any of it, which is very exciting.

Jun 25, 2013, 4:11am

So it took me rather longer to finish Against A Dark Background than I expected - whilst I really enjoyed it while I was reading it, it wasn't a book that called to me to get back to reading it when I wasn't.

I suspect my next pick - newly-acquired, and being knocked straight off the shelf - will have a stronger siren's song.

So on to The Ocean at the End of the Lane for a helping of Neil Gaiman!

Jun 25, 2013, 3:03pm

Looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it -- the premise intrigues me.

Edited: Jun 26, 2013, 7:06pm

6) Neil Gaiman - The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I half think I should let it sink in more before I attempt to pass comment, but the other half thinks that's a silly idea, and that I don't need to try and interpret or intellectualize my feelings on this book. So I shan't.

I think I loved it, almost but not quite unreservedly (and I can't quite put my finger on what I'm reserving yet, but there's something). I stopped reading the end on the train home as I didn't want to cry in public, although the tears weren't plot-driven emotion, but a deep satisfaction at the successful myth making (much in the same way that the bit of the Night Circus that made me cry wasn't the stupid romantic climax - meh - but the conversation about storytelling in the epilogue).

The tone is beautifully pitched, the childhood voice utterly convincing, and the blending of otherworldly terror with entirely mundane horror is intriguing and chilling (and intriguing because it is the real world situations which chill). The scenes with the child's father were heart breaking. And it can all be made better for our young hero by giving him a bowl of porridge and letting him hug a kitten.

The real success of the novel for me is in the Hempstocks, who channel various archetypes with such down to earth charm and pragmatic no-nonsense that I found them irresistible. My favorite books have - as far back as I can remember - been based on myth or have successfully created their own and given them the resonance and timelessness that comes with that. This novel does that in spades, and makes it feel as real as the setting (Gaiman's childhood England).

I have no doubt it will be one of my books of the year, and I can foresee me having to reread it, Among Others, The Night Circus and possibly Boneland to really appreciate it.

Jul 3, 2013, 7:40pm

7) Sheridan Le Fanu - In A Glass Darkly

Technically, I've only read half of this, but I'm taking it off the shelf anyway as it was a gift of Carmilla (with the rest as a bonus - um). Having been thoroughly disappointed by the lacklustre Green Tea (a man commits suicide after being haunted by a monkey!), with which this collection of short stories and novellae opens, I decided I had no obligation to trawl through any of the others but Carmilla.

Carmilla is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction, in the mould of Polidori's Vampyre, and which would later inspire Stoker. The eponymous Carmilla is a beautiful young woman who is left with strangers at a schloss following a carriage accident. Beguiled by her charms, the residents do not question her odd habits, even when a plague of inexplicable deaths ravages the local peasantry.

Notes on the tale suggest it is as much a commentary on the position of the English nobility in Ireland as a true tale of the supernatural, but thankfully any such sociopolitical intent on the part of the author is (over a century later) sufficiently disguised as to be invisible to all but the most acutely sensitive and well-informed. Thoroughly enjoyable - don't expect anything you haven't seen before, as this is one of the much-copied originals!

Jul 6, 2013, 5:20am

Sticking with the short story anthologies for now and dipping into Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales - although as it's a hardback, I'm multi-threading (when on the move) with a couple of Kindle books (The Horologicon and Starfish) that don't qualify for the terms I set myself for this challenge.

Pullman has an easy touch in the retelling of these classics - although I'm mostly enjoying his notes on each, which give you examples of other versions of the tale / archetypes and some insights into sources and themes. Fascinating.

Jul 8, 2013, 9:06am

The Pullman sounds interesting -- will have to check it out, thanks!

Jul 16, 2013, 9:53am

Ahem, I got distracted again. After a side trip rereading Peter Watts intriguing Rifter apocalypse trilogy (although I skipped the last one - the Desjardins POV doesn't make for pleasant or entirely necessary reading), I'm back on the trail of fresh meat.

I'm still flitting through Grimm Tales and Horologicon when I want something small and sweet, but I'm now tackling Byatt's Ragnarok as part of my ongoing jaunt through the Canongate Myths series and about to get stuck into David Mitchell's debut novel, Ghostwritten. Hopefully I can polish off Ragnarok before I go on holiday later this week, then I'll focus on Ghostwritten while I'm away.

I'm very curious about Ghostwritten - I've only read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet amongst Mitchell's other novels, which I loved, but which I understand is not typical for him. If his grip on prose and style is similar though, we'll get on just fine.

Jul 22, 2013, 7:48pm

8) Ragnarok: The End of the Gods - A. S. Byatt

I keep wanting to like Byatt, and I keep failing.

Equally, I seem to have read a fair few books over the past 12 months that I didn't enjoy in the reading, but which are interesting food for thought.

Ragnarok falls into that category. It's a terrible introduction to Norse mythology, and slightly disappointing even if you are reasonably familiar with it - the prose is beautiful but bloodless, which feels inappropriate.

The framing device - a young girl discovering the myths during WWII - is more interesting, as the myths begin to shape her expectations of the world. This psychological storyline is an uneasy twin to the outline of the mythical world, the tales of Loki's children, the death of Baldur, and Ragnarok itself; ultimately unexpected and asking more questions than it answers. I'm unsure whether it s more or less bleak than I expected. It too is bloodless, distance - there's none of the passion you might expect from association with the Norse sagas.

As with previous Byatt experiences, I'm left feeling a bit like I've been eating vitamins: nutritious, but not very enjoyable.

Jul 27, 2013, 8:26am

9) Ghostwritten - David Mitchell

This is my second dip into Mitchell's work, and while there are some commonalities with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Ghostwritten - his first novel - is a rather different beast. Nine stories explore love, loss, greed, self-interest, conscience, curiosity and consequences, spanning the globe and told from multiple disconnected points of view to lead to a rather disillusioned finale.

Mitchell has spent considerable time in Japan, and chooses to set a lot of his work in the Far East. His portrayals feel authentic (noting that I have spent a little time in mainland China nearly 20 years ago, and a little time in HK more recently, so my frame of reference is extremely limited) and affectionate, as do his lyrical descriptions of London, in interesting comparison to his St Petersburg, which feels bland and lacks identity.

However, sense of place remains relatively peripheral to the storytelling, which is largely character-driven (at least until the final story of the peace, when the rather heavy-handed plot stick descends from orbit). The novel is split into 9 short stories with recurring themes and overlapping characters, although the main characters in any given story are peripheral at best in others. The overarching theme of the interconnected world happily feels less like a lecture on cause and effect, and more like a sideways glimpse of a butterfly flapping its wings (although equally happily, that metaphor never features).

The nine key characters - a Japanese cultist; a Japanese jazz buff; an ex-pat lawyer; a Tea Shop owner; a disembodied consciousness; an art thief; a down-at-heel womanising drummer; a quantum physicist; a radio talk show host - are reasonably rounded, with depths hovering just off the page without intruding unnecessarily. However, I found them hard to empathise with or like; my interest in their story felt more academic / intellectual than emotional. Unlike Thousand Autumns, I was not sucked into a rich, deeply felt physical and emotional landscape.

Things in common with Thousand Autumns - Mitchell's willingness to blend mysticism and magic with economics and science, with the narrative here leading from one end of the spectrum in the Asian sequences through to the other with the Western stories, leaving it to the reader to decide whether there's really anything to choose between them. If you can't see it, don't understand it, but know it's there, does it really matter how you explain it? Even the quantum physicist cheerfully indulges her local herbwife neighbour with her unlikely medicines.

The overarching narrative emerges only if you absorb all its parts (every story contributing to each other story) - for example, the art thief's woes are direct consequences of both the disembodied consciousness's actions (sending a Mongolian secret serviceman hurtling west) and the ex-pat's (lack of) action (resulting in the collapse of a mafia trading deal); the strands multiplying, thickening and interweaving more closely the further through the book you get.

The first stories - the cultist and the jazz buff - provide background colour at best, inspiring other characters and providing a soft lead into the slowly escalating story. I found the London drummer the oddest segment; it almost feels like a left-over from another concept, shoe-horned in because it had resonance for the author. The drummer helps us connect some of the other stories by showing us how the strands interweave - but only because other secondary characters tell him about them, a la Basil Exposition - and saves the quantum physicist's life in a random encounter. He is a nexus, with no agency or comprehension - or indeed interest in anyone but himself.

I haven't read Cloud Atlas yet, and this hasn't put me off - from what I understand, the techniques Mitchell is practicing here are perfected there - but this isn't a novel I feel I could / would re-read. It's been intriguing and entertaining in places, but not entirely satisfying, and his conclusion is a little old hat - that's not to say it isn't likely, but it has lost its power to shock or surprise.

Jul 31, 2013, 5:07am

10) Grimm Tales - Philip Pullman

When I first heard that Pullman had tilted at the tales of the Brothers Grimm, I was excited and intrigued because I thought he would have reinvented, made literary, changed them into something new but familiar and enchanting. This is not the case - this collection is a straightforward retelling, and relatively child-friendly (at least as far as bloodthirsty fairy tales go).

The interesting aspect of the book is that Pullman has included notes on each tale - calling out the tale archetype; other similar tales from around Europe; and his own reflections on improvements, oddities, language or other aspects of the story. These are fascinating and pretty much made the book for me (although I was delighted to find my three favourite fairy tales included; as these are not Germanic in origin as I first heard them, I was never sure if they were part of the Grimms' collection).

Overall, an interesting collection if you don't already have a copy of Grimm (I didn't), but probably not worth buying if you do. I enjoyed my read through, although I did struggle (as I expected to) with some of the archetypes and especially the relentless misogyny of storytelling in 19th century (and earlier) Europe. Women eh - we're all witchy crones, evil stepmothers, or faultlessly beautiful daughter-princesses, and we either need a good drowning* or a good rescuing. No wonder I always preferred the Swan Princess to Sleeping Beauty - at least she gets to largely rescue herself and her loved ones, even if she does have to silently marry a prince first.

* or insert any other far more horrible means of execution here.

Edited: Jul 31, 2013, 5:24am

On my next read - Winterwood by Patrick McCabe and while I'm not waving the white flag yet, I'm definitely looking hard at it and thinking about it. I can't remember why or when I acquired Winterwood, and I'm fairly certain that it's not what I thought or expected as I can't imagine what the appeal would have been otherwise.

Here's what I imagine I may have heard: lyrical Irish (ghost? fairy?) tale in a traditional style of the mountain storyteller; blending myth and reality.

Here's what I seem to have: disturbing ramble by a man who may be haunted, may have been abused, or may be schizophrenic and trying to dissociate from his own crimes.

It's more like an angry drunk inspired by James Joyce than a ghost story. There's absolutely literary control and great technique at play, but I feel like I'm reading it between my fingers, shoulders hunched against what awful thing may get revealed. It's a slim volume and I'm halfway through - I just don't know whether I want to push through to the end.

Jul 31, 2013, 7:14pm

11) Winterwood - Patrick McCabe

It was a slim volume. I took a long bath after my run and pushed through to the end.

Plot-wise - Red Hatch, happily married to a younger woman, finds a trip to his childhood home for an article awakens uneasy childhood memories. As Red's life begins to derail, similarities to the tales of charismatic but unsettling Ned Strange, folk hero in his own time in part thanks to Red's articles. Did Ned kill his wife? And a woman in Boston? And abuse and murder poor young Michael Gallagher? What is his relationship to Red's uncle Florian - and indeed to Red himself?

Not a lot to add to my notes above - this is car crash literature, where you know it will end badly and the only question is how badly. The reviewer who found it uplifting is a worry; there's no redemption here, or any hope for a better future as abuse begets abuse and fate is circular and inescapable (only one female character has an ambiguous ending that she may survive, but given her counterpart in the arc was horribly stabbed and mutilated, and the possible survivor simply disappears from the narrative, I have to wonder). I think there are a number of possible interpretations and layers to excavate, from unraveling the elision of the various characters to looking at the social commentary - but it was sufficiently unpleasant I have no real interest in doing so.

It's very well executed and deserves a spot on the English Lit class list (or the darker book club), but I really didn't enjoy this - for subject matter and the inescapably squicky point of view narration.

Jul 31, 2013, 7:47pm

Wow, I hope you get some light and fun happy reads soon! Thanks for telling us about what you've read so far...

Aug 1, 2013, 3:46am

I must admit, I'm looking down my TBR list and thinking there's a reason these have all been gathering dust - there's not much easy left in there! Now that I know I'm slowly emptying the Too Hard bucket, I think I'll go easier on myself about choosing to alternate with familiar and enjoyable re-reads ;)

That said, there is a Sarah Waters and a couple of scifi/fantasy romps on the shelf, which should be suitably entertaining!

Aug 4, 2013, 8:12pm

12) The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho

I've heard so much about this little book, and it has been sat on my shelf a long time. I suppose it was inevitably going to either blow me away or disappoint after the hype - and sadly it is the latter.

The novel(la) is subtitled as a fable, which is accurate - the structure and tone both support this as a young Spanish shepherd seeks advice from a Gypsy regarding a recurring dream and then sets off on a journey to Egypt. Unfortunately, I found it overly simplistic and almost patronising - I don't like being preached to, and I know I kick the traces even harder when the insights are called out in religious terms. This being the case, I think there was no way The Alchemist and I could get along.

I have no problem with the aspirational message about making your own way, fighting for your dreams, and learning to reach outside yourself to hear the lessons the world has to teach you - I just don't have a lot of time for Random Capitalisation and repetition in case I've forgotten the lessons of the previous chapter.

So while at least this wasn't a wildly unpleasant read (hurray!) it didn't do a lot for me or really inspire me to read more of Coelho's work. I'm settling into Sarah Waters' Fingersmith by way of entertaining relief!

Aug 10, 2013, 8:25am

As I am now commuting to work again, I am picking off unread titles on my Kindle more rapidly than the unread titles on my shelf. This week has included The Stranger by Camus and The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist - both of which I thoroughly enjoyed in spite of the challenging subject matter.

Still enjoying Fingersmith on the weekend!

Aug 10, 2013, 10:37am

I loved Fingersmith. There is a BBC (I think) series about it that is quite well done (although it follows the book quite closely so by watching it first, I spoiled myself a little).

Aug 19, 2013, 1:53pm

The commute continues to favour the Kindle, with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry knocked out this week. It's (bitter)sweet and some of the vignettes are funny (it feels like it should be read alongside Watching the English as a primer on some of our oddities), but it wasn't quite what I expected. I don't think I'll rush to read any more Rachel Joyce.

I hope to get some quality time with Fingersmith this weekend after a very busy last weekend that included spending a day in 18th century costume and running 10 miles (thankfully not at the same time!) but sadly had little time for reading in it.

Aug 27, 2013, 8:35am

13) Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

The joys of a bank holiday weekend meant I got lots of quality time with the dirty dastardly Victorians of Fingersmith. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half to two-thirds of it, but found myself losing steam towards the end as it seemed to just go on and on and on.

Susan Trinder is raised to be unusually naive for an orphan in a den of thieves, coddled by her surrogate mother, Mrs Sucksby. Nonetheless, she is persuaded to be part of a long con when ambitious shyster Gentleman conceives a plan to defraud an even more naive heiress, Maud Lilly. Sue takes a position as Maud's maid and the two girls become unexpectedly close - much to Gentleman's amusement - but not enough to stop the thieves going through with their plan to marry Maud off to Gentleman and then lock her up in an asylum. When it becomes clear that everyone is conning everyone else and nobody can be trusted, the girls each find themselves alone in untenable situations.

Given this is a tale about trickery and a plot to lock up an innocent and entirely sane young lady in an asylum in order to steal her money, it is about as dark as you would expect. The thieves are unpleasant, the gentlefolk even more so, and the principal characters as amoral and self-interested as the rest. It remains entertaining, tripping along as it oscillates between the two girls' points of view, until the daring asylum escape.

Once both girls are in London, I felt the novel lost its way a bit, becoming too melodramatic and drawn out (as evidenced by the amount of pages left after the climax). Waters is perhaps more interested in the psychology and moods of her protagonists than she managed to make me be - I think she was trying to stop it looking like Sue had an abrupt change of heart towards the end, which is reasonable, but I also think only needed to go through the contortions because she over-complicated her plot towards the end.

Nonetheless - well-written as usual, well-researched, horrific in its depictions of the Victorian asylum, and a lot of fun.

Sep 1, 2013, 5:28pm

14) The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

I really enjoyed most of this, but have read the very end with a burgeoning cold, which has left me rather meh at the end - I'm fairly sure this is my head rather than the novel (although I understand some other reviewers have shared my problem, so perhaps not).

The book has received criticism for its handling of race and gender, which it largely deserves (I'd say more so with regard to gender issues, but as I'm a privileged white western woman I accept this may be part of my bias). I'm not going to defend the author or novel - I picked it up knowing it was problematic, and it is.

Putting these two issues aside, the novel has a rich dystopian setting in which carbon-fuel deficits, climate change and genetic engineering have cancelled the global economy and left low-lying SE Asia fighting the rising tides and the aggressive seed and bio warfare waged by the Midwestern US food companies. Power is now kinetic - treadle computers, bicycles and elephant-wound kink-springs that store energy to be released on demand later - supplemented with heavily rationed methane for cooking, lighting etc.

I enjoyed the inventiveness of the setting, and it was my fascination with how the politics and economics of this developed that kept me going for much of the novel. I wanted to see SpringLife's idealistic technology play succeed so that I could understand it.

The many-layered politics of royal court, feuding government departments, foreign capitalists, Chinese immigrants, and venal underworld were equally absorbing and ultimately the true thrust of the narrative (in spite of various red herring plots along the way). It's dystopia, so everyone is out for themselves and there's little redemption on offer.

Oddly, I think it was the inevitable cynicism that was ultimately the novel's undoing for me tonight - when I'm not feeling very well I need a dose of joy and hope at the end. I think I'd have found the rather colder, harder conclusion much more satisfying on another day.

Now I'm left wondering what to turn to next - I'm not sure I have any happy fluffy options on my physical shelf at the moment!

Sep 3, 2013, 7:33am

15) Piano Lessons - Anna Goldsworthy

I'm jumping the gun on next year's TBR list here, as Piano Lessons is from my non-fiction pile, which I initially excluded from this year's ambitions. But I was in search of something easy, and it led me to wonder why I arbitrarily decided to split my fiction vs non-fiction, other than to make my total TBR pile look less intimidating :) Foolishness; I am now reading both. I admit to more venal motivations also - this book was a gift, and the givers are coming to stay next week, so I thought I'd best not make it their 2nd or 3rd visit in a row in which I hadn't yet read it!

Disclaimers up front: I'm totally biased against this book. I understand why I was given it - the givers are avidly musical, and know that I play the piano (and my name is also Anna) - but unfortunately I have never been passionate about music (I play badly, and haven't had lessons since I was 14; I never did enjoy practice) and I don't enjoy autobiographies as a rule. If I read non-fiction, I'm seeking to learn something - I'm not typically interested in any one person enough to explore their navels / souls / lives (delete as appropriate). David Attenborough is an exception - Life on Air was charming, but then it's as much about animals and the BBC as about Attenborough, and I'm interested in both those topics...

Piano Lessons does what is says on the tin. A girl from a fairly privileged background who will grow up to be an accomplished concert pianist learns to play the piano from a Russian lady whose teaching pedigree goes back to Liszt. Cue teenage concerns about fitting in at a posh school; getting spots; figuring out what represents enough piano practice; and a lot of metaphorical and interpretative teaching that makes very little sense if you're not into your classical piano. Thankfully it's easy enough to read, so I have zoomed through it, but I can't say I've been converted to music or autobiographies - nor intrigued to go find a recording of Anna Goldsworthy playing.

Apparently it's wonderful if you are a motivated pianist.

Sep 10, 2013, 2:14pm

16) Falling Out of Cars - Jeff Noon

I really wanted to enjoy this one more than I did. I loved Noon's early novels, where the psychedelic lent a unique flavor without obscuring the story. The only one I didn't get on with was Automated Alice (and its terrifying cover!). Falling Out of Cars returns to Noon's mirror world, but if it's an account of the Looking Glass Wars, the signal to noise ratio is too high to tell.

Britain has lost its ability to trust perception, the population swept away in a haze of illusion that may or may not have been caused by the shattering of a mirror. The trademark lyricism is in full flow, James Joyce in a dirty near-future, giving us distorted glimpses of characters, histories, and a quest to restore the mirror's shards - but no certainty that any of these are real. Ultimately, the narrator abandons the narrative, giving us no closure.

There were hints of an intriguing tale here, but by giving us the fragments - and by no means all of them - Noon has created a tantalising, frustrating addition to his works

I still think he's one of our most original and imaginative authors, but I don't think I'll revisit Cars in future.

Sep 20, 2013, 3:21pm

I've had a couple of weeks enjoying Kindle fluff, and accidentally adding some more books to the shelf after I popped into a rather good local second hand book store. So reading apace, but not qualifying to add to this list yet by my rules, as I don't consider Kindling to be taking things off the shelf.

Sep 26, 2013, 6:52pm

17) Children of Men - P D James

I saw the film of Children of Men some years back, and both did and didn't enjoy it. I've been meaning to read the book ever since, and I finally got round to it - and find I'm having exactly the same reaction, even though the novel *feels* very different to the film - although it's hard to put a finger on where the two diverge (clue: it's in the detail, not the broad strokes).

Both versions centre on Theo Faron, a self-absorbed and emotionally distant man in a near-future where the male population has mysteriously become infertile. Related to the supposedly benevolent dictator (the Warden of England), with an estranged wife and few (if any) human connections in his life, Theo is drawn against his will into a small group of subversives who are inspired by a pregnant woman to rebel against the state.

In retrospect, Clive Owen was spectacular casting, because he isn't ever anything but superciliously distant. It's just something about his voice - he sounds like he's sneering. Theo sneers through most of the novel, admitting early that he has spent his whole life avoiding any responsibility for or attachment to others. Unlike Clive Owen, there's no heroic good looks to help Theo out though, and without good qualities or convictions it's impossible to like him.

His story and journey remain intriguing, as does the matter of fact way his Britain is described - partly in asides, partly through his diary entries, and partly through the arguments instigated by the rebels. This is cross-cut with Theo's memories of the days before Omega struck everyone infertile; his marriage, his (now-dead) daughter, his childhood and adolescence with the man now Warden of England - a man as self-absorbed and disinterested in humanity as Theo himself.

Where the film is preoccupied with trust and secrecy, focusing on what forms the second half of the novel (the rebels' flight across England with the pregnant Julian/Kee), the novel is more interested in the inevitable - and inevitably limited - dysfunctions of an aging society, and with questions of privilege, religion, morality and corruption. Heavy with symbolism, it is still very accessible, and a recommended read, although I had issues with 2 aspects of its speculative setting: firstly, that even frozen sperm had become mysteriously non-viable (I link this to the religious subtexts; infertility isn't a virus, it's a test or punishment from God) and secondly, that the Omegas, the children born in the last year before the infertility struck, are different to everyone else. I eventually reinterpreted this to stop it annoying me, choosing to believe they are perceived as more beautiful than everyone else (because they are the last generation, they have a certain mystique) and that their behaviour is negatively shaped by the special treatment they inevitably receive as mankind's last children. Curiously, for a group drawn early, they play very little part in the novel - they are objects of reverence or of fear, and as such Theo avoids them as far as possible.

So why do I struggle to say wholeheartedly that I enjoyed it? I think in part because I hover on the edge of feeling that Theo's story - the rediscovery of hope, and of how it can change everything - was perhaps less interesting than a hundred others that could have been told. I have to think this is a good thing, really; it's a sign of how credible the speculative future feels, that it could hold so many rich veins to tap. Equally, like the film, it's not a pleasant tale and it doesn't end well (although it ends very very differently) - it's intellectually rather than emotionally rewarding (not least because Theo eschews emotion and keeps the reader at bay).

Fascinating stuff. I'm delighted with the apocalyptic / dystopian / speculative novels I've read this year. They have challenged and at times horrified me (I nearly put The Windup Girl down because it cut so close to the bone), but they have given me so much food for thought that my overwhelming reactions are 'I must read that again' coupled with 'there's so much buzzing in my head I want to write essays to give it shape and make sense of it'. Children of Men is a worthy addition to the list.

Sep 29, 2013, 1:10pm

18) Solaris - Stanislaw Lem

I'll just wave a white flag and admit I'm a Philistine. I really didn't get a lot out of Solaris, which I picked up recently in a secondhand bookshop after years of failing to stay awake for more than half an hour of the Soderbergh / Clooney film remake. As it turns out, I could relatively happily have slept through the second half of the book too - it's a fascinating premise (a planet, which may or may not be sentient and/or psychic, creates simulacra of your most closely held memory of another person and sends them to you), but the characters and their dilemmae (is it ok to fall in love with a long-dead lover? Is it ok to murder another being for not being human?) are given less time to breathe than an incredibly tedious history of scientific exploration of the planet. The moral of the story - that we can never be sure we understand ourselves, let alone others or third party forces / aliens / planets - simply doesn't need all this exposition, which undercuts the emotional arc of the novel as well as the pace.

I really wanted to like this, but I think I prefer the version in my head. I might give Soderbergh and Clooney another go (I might even get my hands on the Tarkovsky film), but I don't think I'll be rereading this.

Sep 29, 2013, 1:12pm

As an aside, I think I'm going to miss my target of reading half my unread fiction by the end of the year for the simple reason I keep buying more :) I believe I'll read 12 more books before year's end... but I think I'll still have a large to be read pile to enjoy next year!

Nov 9, 2013, 8:29am

I have been happily reading on my Kindle for the past month (largely things I'd never read before), but am finally picking up something on my physical shelf - Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God. I've heard mixed reviews of this, but I picked it second-hand for practically nothing and after a trio of apocalypse fiction The Dog Stars, American literary chiller The Corn Maiden and other nightmares, and poetic novella Orkney I fancied some fresh fantasy.

Nov 13, 2013, 4:24am

19) The Left Hand of God - Paul Hoffman

I don't think I've been so disappointed since reading Newton's Nights of Villjamur. While Hoffman's prose and characterization aren't quite so froth-inducingly awful, they still leave a lot to be desired.

Three brutalized teenage boys escape a monastery using child abuse (physical not sexual) to create hardened soldiers for God. They stumble into the clutches of the Materazzi, the most powerful empire in the region, where they earn the protection of the chancellor / grand vizier and unwittingly provoke a war between the monks and the Materazzi's peerless warrior class. This is not what the book appears to be about from reading the back cover.

I'm going to bullet point here as I don't have the energy for the full blown rant today :)

Specific gripes:

- The blurb is obviously misleading, and appears to describe the series as a while rather than providing an accurate snapshot of this novel. In doing so, it removes all tension or surprise from the Big Reveal of the final chapter, undermining its own cliffhanger. Interesting.

- The setting (presumably a post-apocalyptic Europe) goes undefined and unexplained (presumably although not explicitly on the excuse that the boys are ignorant given their upbringing), and bears little resemblance to the geography whose names it appropriates.This is a particular bugbear of mine, as you can't tell whether it's lazy research or intention; I'd rather see an entirely fictional setting if the 'reality' isn't actually important.

- The main characters are equally sketchily drawn and inconsistent; only sidekicks Kleist and Henri seem remotely genuine, partly because their two dimensions are kept very simple.

- Female characters are literally all marginalised, appearing only to either be shallow, vapid and vain, or to fall in love, or to die. Even the terrifying super hard assassin is introduced only to be killed in the same chapter (having already fallen in love).

- oh my word, show don't tell. The author has to tell the reader everything, as world and characters are so inconsistent that left to show themselves, it would be nothing but a steaming mess (oh wait: it still is).

- The latter chapters are a monstrous exposition that raises the bar in just how boring a war can be.

- Loose ends everywhere - possibly to be picked up in sequels, but left hanging in such a way that they simply feel like the author and editor forgot about them.

I did finish it, because it's dead easy reading (I do half wonder if it's ever classed as YA given the random veils drawn over swearing, sex and implied grimdark; if so, it's still bad YA - this wouldn't excuse its faults) and it's been a busy few days so it never escaped my handbag.

I certainly shan't be reading the sequel (or even looking up a plot outline to see how it progresses) as it was ultimately so irritating and dull that I have no curiosity at all about what happens to any of the characters.

Palate cleansing required!

Nov 13, 2013, 1:00pm

I've got the sample of it on my reader in Norwegian (because of the very haphazard collection of Norwegian language texts I've been able to find in the itunes store). I think it's safe to say I'll read some other crap YA in Norwegian before I decide to read this one. Right now being crap doesn't strike a book from my TBR list, my Norwegian comprehension isn't good enough for good books yet.

Hope your next is better.

Nov 13, 2013, 2:06pm

>44 fundevogel:: I can recommend the mystery novels by Anne Holt (former Norwegian minister of justice). I particularly like the series featuring Hanne Wilhelmsen (starting with Blind gudinne). My Norwegian is nothing to write home about but I manage these and they're interesting.

Nov 13, 2013, 6:10pm

Thanks for the recommendation. I've bookmarked Blind Gudinne. :)

Dec 15, 2013, 5:30am

So, I've taken 20 books off the shelf since starting the challenge, a bit shy of my target of 28 and not actually halving my unread fiction as I've acquired more along the way :)

My SantaThing arrived this morning, which I thoroughly recommend to any of you who haven't given it a go - my SantaThing had done a fabulous job of picking 3 books that I'm excited to read and don't own, only one of which I've read before and been meaning to get a copy of (Fahrenheit 451, which I read for English Lit when I was about 12, and have been wanting to revisit).

I will of course do some reading over the holiday season, but I think I'll also do some mulling about how I structure my reading challenge for next year!

Dec 24, 2013, 5:07pm

20) Michael Marshall Smith - Everything You Need

The first (UK) collection of MMS short stories, What You Make It, is one of my favourite books and my all-time favourite collection of short stories, so this boutique collection from small-volume publisher Earthling had a lot to live up to. There's no theme here, and the stories span MMS' career, many having been commissioned for other collections, so there was every chance this would read like a hodgepodge of randomness.

In complete honesty, this collection isn't as strong or as dark as What You Make It, which included some stand-out stories that haunt me to this day. However, it remains an entertaining collection of the offbeat and macabre, peppered with trademark noirish commentary and dry wit. The stand-out for me here is a story called 'Death of the Author', a riff on a theatre trope that has a character go in search of his author (with disastrous consequences), but there's plenty to enjoy throughout (I also rather liked a tale exploring the fascination - and dangers - of other people's grocery deliveries).