Friday, 29 January 2016

Worst of 2015

As I was once taught by Merlin in Disney's The Sword the Stone, opposites make the world go round, and having shared my best reads of 2015 with you last week I can only restore balance by telling you the ones I did not enjoy. It's a shorter list than last year so I've obviously chosen my books more wisely this year, but just as controversial in some places...

 The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger (1951)
I’m probably going to get a lot of stick for this, I know, but the truth is, I didn’t like it. I read the whole thing, and came to the conclusion that – as I have always suspected – I read this at least 10 years too late. On one hand, I could sympathise with Holden’s fear of the unknown, his desperation to be taken seriously as an adult, his nostalgia for childhood. On the other, I found him whiny and a constructor of his own misfortune. Maybe he reminded me of me as a teenager, and that’s why I didn’t get on with it: perhaps I recognised too much of my teenage self in Holden, and didn’t like what I saw. Or maybe he was just a really annoying, moody little so-and-so with too much entitlement and not enough compassion for anyone besides himself and Phoebe, I don’t know. But sorry, Caulfielders – I’m not a fan. I am, however, a fan of this tweet:

This was the first of several disappointing books in 2015, particularly given Watson’s shocking debut Before I Go to Sleep, which was nigh unputdownable and still gives me the willies. Naturally, after reading such a stonking good thriller, I was pretty excited about getting my hands on a second offering. However, this tale of a woman investigating her sister’s murder quickly became bogged down in unnecessary red herrings, difficult-to-follow twists and unremarkable, unlikeable characters. The biggest crime it committed though, was to be forgettable: there was nothing, in my opinion, that made this book stand out for any reason – so much so, I had to look up the blurb in order to remind myself what the book was about. Hardly a glowing recommendation. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
Before I get into my reasons for including the immensely popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my Worst-of 2015 list, I just want to say two things: firstly, I enjoyed a lot of this book. Secondly, it was my first audiobook, and I struggled a bit with the format, which I admit did have a negative impact on this book. Now that’s out of the way, I can get onto my main disappointments: for example, the very gripping and interesting main story – of Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander’s investigation into the messed-up Vanger family – was buried into the middle of the book, flanked on either side by a lot of filler. The first third was spent establishing that Blomkvist was a rogue journalist who had been out-manoeuvred on a damning-but-unprovable article he’d written, and that Salander was as messed up as she was proficient in hacking. I’m no writer, I’ll be the first to admit, but I don’t think it should take a third of a book to establish your principle characters. Then there was the bizarre ending that took up the last third – obviously Larsson was setting up for another book, but it took a long time to wrap up and involved what seemed to be a very un-Salander-esque act that jarred with how I knew her as a character. Finally, I took umbrage with a ‘character-building’ episode involving Salander. It was, in my view, entirely gratuitous and yet another example of an author using assault as a means to show the strength or courage of a character, whilst simultaneously cementing another’s evil. I recognise it's important to discuss rape and not shy away from it in media, but in this case it just came across as a vehicle to demonstrate Salander's strength and difficult life, and having her brutally attacked can't be the only way to do that.

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach (2015)
The premise of this YA novel was, to me, promising: when the news breaks that an apocalyptic meteor has a 30% chance of hitting the earth, five teenagers re-evaluate their feelings towards life, love, friends and family as they deal with the possibility they may soon all be dead. It should be a refreshing take on what can be viewed as a tired genre – most apocalypse novels tend to focus on the immediate aftermath, with some stretching a bit further forward, sometimes leaping back, but this one focuses solely on the weeks running up to the will-it-won’t-it meteor either hitting or missing the planet. However it quickly devolves into now-or-never romances, parental rebellion and general sticking-it-to-the-man. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but I had hoped it would be a bit less John Green.

The third in my little triumvirate of 2015 Disappointments, this was a huge one for me - I was looking so forward to it, so maybe (as I've done before) my expectations were just too high. I won’t go into too much detail here because I already reviewed this, but essentially I felt this story of a young girl kidnapped by a man claiming to be her grandfather posed too many questions that went unanswered.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Best of 2015

2015 was a really good year for books - I read less than in 2014, but enjoyed more of them, so I figure it balances out. It was actually quite hard to pick my favourite finds of last year - it started out as a huge list - but I've whittled it down to the these seven, which I would recommend to everyone and anyone. Yep, fewer than last year, and the year before that - I'm getting more discerning in my old age.

It’s no coincidence that two of the four books I read twice in 2015 were Erika Johansen’s Tearling books – they’re utterly fascinating, with The Invasion of the Tearling having only the slightest of edges on its predecessor (in my opinion). It’s ostensibly about a young queen, Kelsea, reclaiming her throne from her corrupt uncle and waging war on his seemingly-immortal ally, but there are many more facets to this story than such basic fantasy fare and it is certainly a lot darker and uglier than I expected it to be. I’ve not found another novel this year that blindsided me so much, in that it defied every expectation without disappointment. The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s got the strong female protagonist of Throne of Glass, mixed in with the murky morals and power-struggles of A Song of Ice and Fire, finished off with a dash of The Handmaid’s Tale – quite a potent mix, I’m sure you’ll agree.

H Is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald (2014)
The only wholly non-fiction title on this year’s list is one I almost certainly would not have read, given that I’m generally not a fan of non-fiction, and (until I read this) I had precious little interest in birds of prey and how to train them. Nevertheless, I was drawn to it early last year because I heard that it was mostly about the author grieving for her father after his sudden death, and – at the time of reading – I knew I was about to lose a close family member. Whilst I can’t say I expected any tips on how to handle grief (something I’ve been privileged enough to not experience often), the subject matter did strike a chord that normally would not have existed, and was an unexpected source of comfort, as well as knowledge. MacDonald does not sugar the pill here – she can be quite stark - but her impeccable writing and a knack for striking phrase makes this an honest but beautiful book to read.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky (1999)
What I love about this book is the gentle optimism: Charlie, the titular wallflower, is a shy freshman with a lot to be sad about – his best friend committed suicide before the beginning of the book, his favourite aunt has died, and Charlie himself is suffering from an unspecified emotional trauma. Yet his befriending of the older siblings Patrick and Sam shows him that he has something to offer to the world, that life can be lived wholly and happily, despite what it might throw at you. It’s a novel full of heart and feeling, carefully eking out its secrets for maximum impact without ruining the overall redemptive feel. Comparatively, the only book to make me feel as bittersweet in recent times as Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (2012)
I make no apologies for this inclusion. Yes, it’s a picture book for children. Yes, it’s only 40 pages long. That doesn’t make it any less entertaining or clever, and there are several books I have read this year that were much, much longer and much less interesting than this. A bear has lost his favourite red hat, and so goes asking around his woodland pals if they have seen it without much luck. Hope is lost, and the bear is desolate, until a deer helps him recall a rabbit that was acting rather suspiciously… It’s really quite dark for a kids’ picture book, and it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of the reviews on Amazon mention that whilst some children don’t think much of it, the adults certainly do. Personally, I think it’s hilarious, beautifully illustrated and very clever.

I’d been warily circling this novel for some time before I read it: my recently discovered love of crime novels had lead me to it, as had the tantalising pull of a novel researched and written with the assistance of Harper Lee, but its status of ‘true-crime’ put me off (I’ve never been a fan of those kind of books). Eventually though, with the urging of an author I admire, I took the plunge and immersed myself in the novelisation of the true, brutal murders of Herbert Clutter and his family in Kansas, 1959, and the subsequent hunt for the killers. This is a confusing book to read: on one hand, everything – including blatant suppositions and questions on the truth of certain events – is presented as fact. On the other, the story-like narrative makes for compelling – and distancing – reading: it’s all too easy to forget that these are not characters but real people, real murderers and real victims. I read this compulsively, constantly having to remind myself to not take Capote fully at his word, and spent several hours after finishing reading about Truman Capote, the Clutters, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. 

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (2015)
This is the only audiobook on this list: I’m still tentatively listening to them, but on the whole I find that unless I’m allowed to pay as much attention to them as I do a print or ebook, they can be forgettable and confusing (not to mention more expensive). This, however, bucks the trend, and I do have a theory on this: the author was the narrator, which meant she had a deeper understanding of how the novel should be read than any other voice-actor. She knows the characters, the dialogue and the world better than anyone else, and that shines through in her narration, making it a pleasure to listen to. Even so, the tale of a girl called North, her bear and a floating circus in a world swallowed by water would be beautiful no matter what format you experienced it in.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mantel (2014)
This came out towards the end of 2014, and swiftly became one of the most talked about books of 2015 with good reason. Set in the immediate weeks before, and the years after, an apocalypse, there are comparisons to be made with Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy - not least Mantel's chillingly casual turn of phrase. However, her approach is refreshing in that her vision of a post-apocalyptic world spreads much further forward in time than you might expect – instead of focusing on the immediate aftermath, the survival instincts and the tentative attempts at rebuilding society, her attention is on a society already rebuilt (albeit rudimentary) and functioning. The main action is in the vein of a thriller, with a troupe of Shakespearean actors incurring the wrath of a so-called Prophet on their travels around settlements, but the bits that really hooked me were those casual, almost Atwood-esque references to the terror of the plague, which I'll end this post with: 

"Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city."