Reading Round-Up for 2017

23852555108_0cc7d49f48_k

Here’s my Goodreads year with covers and links to my “reviews” (I have become worse at reviewing books every year, and occasionally it’s just something like, “excellent read”, useless for both anyone looking at the reviews, and me looking back in future years with no memory of that particular novel).

My goal was to read 60 books, and I read 75 – this increase is due to my return to work after maternity leave. The plus-side to my long trip to work is having time to read on the bus, and listen to audiobooks while driving.

Wonderfully interesting statistics!

  1. My reading this year was 40% fantasy and science-fiction – a fairly steady percentage maintained in recent years, I think.
  2. Romance as a genre was 16% of my reading, which has dropped since 2015, because I didn’t have a co-worker making me read a terrible and long series of erotic novels.
  3. I read one entire series of 7 books this year – the Expanse series by James SA Corey. I read the first, Leviathan Wakes, in January, and the most recent, Persepolis Rising, in December, the month it was released. It’s a completely addictive, high-stakes sci-fi series, and my enjoyment of it was only enhanced by also watching the first two seasons of the TV show. I had a very Expanse-centric year.
  4. My average rating was 3.3 stars out of 5. Unacceptably low! I need more 5 star reads next year.

Best childhood flashback

I loved Susan Cooper’s classic Dark is Rising sequence when I was younger – it’s a series of fantasy novels inspired heavily by British mythology, beautifully written and with the most wonderful solemn portentous feeling. The Dark is Rising is the second in the series, but is a fine place to start, and takes place over the Christmas period – so is an excellent seasonal read (although more appropriate if one is in the Northern Hemisphere, I imagine).

Best Chalet School book

Since 2008 I have been making sporadic attempts to read the entire Chalet School book series – the books of the series that I read as a child were some of my favourites, but the entire series is immense, spanning some 60-odd books. In 2017, I read another 6 of them, making my way up to around book 55. I’m going to stop there – the quality is certainly declining, as you would expect, and the quirks and repetitions of Brent-Dyer’s authorial style become wearying rather than charming. The best of the lot I read in 2017 was Jane of the Chalet School, which was unexpectedly fresh and enjoyable. This is a rather pointless recommendation because obviously you shouldn’t read Jane of the Chalet School unless you’ve read at least some of the earlier and far superior books in the series.

Best historical romance

You know when you feel in the mood for a book that’s going to make you feel uplifted and merry and filled with a wonderful and probably entirely unjustified warmth towards your fellow human beings? The book you want is one of Rose Lerner’s historical romances, which are all so sweet and cheerful (without being shallow or saccharine). My favourite of hers is Listen to the Moon.

Best fairytale adaption

T Kingfisher’s (aka Ursula Vernon’s) The Seventh Bride has the most delightful narrator’s voice – sensible and good-humoured and charming. If you find yourself in an adaption of a Bluebeard-style story, I imagine that being good-humoured and sensible probably give you a better chance of survival.

Best novel about communal living

I am always down for novels about all sorts of communal living – kibbutzes, communes, terrible Amish romances (did you know that was a thing? It’s a thing), dystopian novels where everyone lives in a compound, that sort of thing. Kevin Wilson’s A Perfect Little World is a lovely book about a scientific experiment in which ten couples raise their children communally, and the various ramifications of that experiment. One of the things I particularly liked was the main character, Izzy, who is a very young mother, and how we see her grow into motherhood. It’s a very moving, thoughtful novel.

Best novel about animation (yes, these categories are very arbitrary) 

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators was an amazing rollercoaster of a novel, about two animators working together on very personal projects. There was so much in this book about friendship and the creative process, and it is both immensely funny and heart-breaking – a brilliant piece of work.

Advertisements

At the Chalet

Chalet School covers

The Chalet School books are a series of 59 children’s novels by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, published between 1925 (with The School at the Chalet) and 1970 (finishing with Prefects of the Chalet School). I had several of these books when I was young, and read as many of the others as I could find in our little local library. I loved the boarding school stories genre, but the Chalet School books were my favourites.

The timeline of the books roughly follows the years in which they were written. The school is founded by Madge Russell in Tyrol in the Austrian Alps in 1925. The Chalet School in Exile, published in 1940, involves encounters with the Nazis and the school moving to Guernsey (and then, in 1941, to Wales). In 1954 with The Chalet School and Barbara, the school moves back to Europe, this time to Switzerland, and remains there for the balance of the series.

Living in tropical northern Australia, the world of the European boarding school was so exotic as to almost amount to secondary world fantasy. The strictures of life at the Chalet School – the days on which the girls could only speak French and German; the hurried morning routines where each girl had to bathe, strip their beds, and say prayers before breakfast; the solemn nature of “prep”, where homework was completed en masse under prefect supervision – were oddly alluring. Boarding school is a place free of parental supervision, and yet with its own labyrinthine internal structures and rules. The characters’ freedom to determine whether they would keep those rules, or experiment with breaking or bending them; to find their own place in the school community, is part of the appeal of the genre.

There is a wealth of writing on the world of the Chalet School books online. The World of the Chalet School discusses among other things the Chalet School as an educational institution and the moral themes of the series. I also love LH Johnson’s wonderfully funny reviews of many of the books, such as this one of Althea Joins the Chalet School, the penultimate book in the series published in 1969:

“It’s no secret that quality dips substantially towards the end of the Chalet School series, and Althea is emblematic of that shift. Following the now traditional format of ‘new girl attending the school’, we witness Althea’s eventual and inevitable integration into a true Chalet Girl during the first half of the term. The Borg-like overtones of the Chalet School at this point in time are hard to escape, and resistance is truly futile.

There are moments in this book which are truly legendary, and not in a good way. Whilst the actual quality of the writing has slipped, the tendency to ‘throw a maelstrom of incidents into the plot that make little to no sense’ has not. As a result of this, we get to witness a genuinely jaw-dropping moment where, and please note this is not hyperbole, Miss Ferrars manages to leap from one speeding motorboat to another. Frankly it’s an incident which sells the entire book.”

In 2008, prompted by a fit of nostalgia, I started re-reading the Chalet School books from the beginning of the series. I made it to around book 23 or so (Carola Storms the Chalet School) before succumbing to weariness. Too many Chalet School books read in quick succession ensure that the flaws of the series become all too apparent. This year, awake in the middle of the night with a baby, I took up where I left off, starting with book 30 and continuing up to book 43 (my collection is unsurprisingly incomplete, given the length of the series, and I’m missing many volumes between books 30 and 40.) They’re perfect midnight reading while breastfeeding; short, easy, and comforting. Brisk walks are taken in the mountain air, social dilemmas are solved over Kaffee und Kuchen in Jo Maynard’s garden, series of very unlikely disasters happen (avalanches! car accidents! infectious diseases! sometimes all in the one book) and are resolved.

I’m taking a break again from re-reading, partly because I started getting more sleep and wanted to read books with a bit more substance again, and partly because I wanted to avoid Chalet School burnout. One of my favourite tropes is the oft-repeated “new girl at school” plot, when new girls are brought kicking and screaming (mostly metaphorically) into the fold and emerge reborn as “real Chalet School girls”; morally upright little cogs turning within the school community. Jo neatly summarises this principle at the end of Ruey Richardson, Chaletian, “You’ve become a real Chaletian – someone who can face the hard things of life as well as accepting the pleasant ones. Someone who’s going to be some good to the world and her fellow human beings.” It’s all very soothing. May we all go out and be of some good to the world.

Reading Round-Up for 2015

DSC_7385

My reading mojo officially returned in 2015, for the first time since having a child in 2012, and I finished 86 books. This comes just in time for me to have a second child during 2016. Hopefully Baby No. 2 is less of a shock to the system and it won’t take me as long to remember how to read again.

Look! Here you can see the covers of all 86 books prettily laid out with links to their pages on Goodreads and so on.

Some very thrilling percentages that are of interest only to me and people genetically related to me who find all my activities fascinating because they are legally required to do so:

  1. I rated 40% of the books I read 4 stars and above.
  2. Romance/erotica (both the historical and contemporary variety)replaced speculative YA as my light and relaxing genre of choice, and made up 19% of my reading for the year.
  3. Fantasy and science fiction still made up a large chunk of my reading – 40% – although I would guess this is slightly less than previous years, as I feel like I read more contemporary fiction this year.
  4. I read a couple of reasonably long series this year:
    1. Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series (4 novels so far)
    2. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries (8 novels so far)
    3. Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series (4 novels so far – this is really appallingly written erotica which I don’t recommend, but which was strangely addictive).
    4. Pretty much everything written by Liane Moriarty, which are all stand-alone novels, but it sort of felt like a series because I was reading them one after the other and they’re stylistically similar (6 novels so far).

A few stand-out books from 2015:

Euphoria by Lily King is an excellent short novel, loosely based on events in the life of Margaret Mead, and centres around three anthropologists working in PNG in the 1930s. It is quite a sombre book, but just stunningly written. One of my favourites for the year.

The Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein is one I really enjoyed but it does feature a gentle rambly sort of pacing which may not be to everyone’s taste. It works perfectly with the theme of the novels though, and they were such a pleasure to read.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty was one of my favourite contemporary novels, which managed to pull off a narrative that was both funny and light-hearted, as well as darkly serious (dealing with various types of abuse).

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan is a gorgeously surreal fantasy, filled with beautiful imagery. On the opposite side of the fantasy spectrum, An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet feels very earthly and grounded, exploring the lives of its characters with a wonderful depth and seriousness.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin is a more traditional other-world fantasy, and it is both wonderful and quite horrifying. (If death-of-children is something you avoid in fiction, this is not the book for you.)

The Race by Nina Allan is four interlinked novellas which form a novel-length work, and is really wonderfully done – all four stories are excellent, and the way they link together is fascinating.

As at 5 January 2016, I’m already reading three books at the same time, so I’m well on the way to getting through another 80 or so books this year. Depending on how disruptive Baby No. 2 is, anyway. I am optimistically and no doubt vainly hoping for an excellent sleeper this time around. Please politely smother your derisive laughter and wish me all the best in this endeavour.

Reading Round-Up For 2014

I finally reversed my downhill reading trend! I read 85 books in 2011, 61 books in 2012 and a mere 24 books in 2013. What the hell happened in 2013 – I think I watched a lot of TV.

Anyway, these numbers are finally on the rise again as I read 66 books this year. A lot of them were really great books as well – according to my handy statistics provided by Goodreads, I rated 5 books with 5 stars, and 30 books with 4 stars. That’s around 53% of the year’s reading that I would rate as pretty fantastic. Another 36% were 3 stars, which are pretty decent reads, which leaves a very small 11% of books that were a bit ordinary or awful.

My goal was to read less YA and trashy urban fantasy this year, and pleasingly this seems to have resulted in reading a greater proportion of excellent books.

I had a few great new author discoveries this year. Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt mystery novels were some of my favourite books of the year – brilliantly surreal novels. Ariana Franklin wrote a series of historical mysteries set in 10th century England, and I loved all three that I read – starting with Mistress of the Art of Death. Max Gladstone writes really fantastic noir-ish fantasy novels about dead gods and necromancers, like Three Parts Dead.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is probably my favourite book of the year, if I had to pick one. It’s a very difficult to summarise novel, but is excellent and deservedly much-awarded.

Lexicon by Max Barry was a really thrillingly exciting neurological-sci-fi-thriller (that’s a category, right?), won an Aurealis award, and is a great read.

My favourite rollicking feminist romance of the year was Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War. I may have only read about three, but that one really is a great book.

Best self-published sci-fi thriller I read was SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game, which was a really well-crafted and fast paced novel. Probably the best self-published book I’ve ever read, actually.

Nicola Griffith’s Hild is an incredibly dense, detailed novel set in 7th century Britain about a girl called Hild, who would become St Hilda of Whitby. It’s wonderful, with beautiful use of language, and Griffith’s imagined Hild is an amazing character. It’s a very self contained book, but only takes you to Hild’s… late teenage years, I think? There will be at least one sequel.

If you want to read some spectacularly original epic fantasy, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs is fantastic. And on the other side of the SFF spectrum, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, about life 15 years after a devastating epidemic, was bleak and beautifully written.

It was actually quite difficult to choose stand-out books; I imagine this was due to the statistics above (53% awesome books and all). I received a couple of lovely books for Christmas, so I’m starting off my 2015 in fine style (and with actual physical books, which is an enjoyable change – the vast majority of my reading these days is e-books).

Recent reading

Tansy Rayner Roberts writes very convincingly about the wonders of regency romance, and Peter M Ball is very convincing about Anna Cowan’s Untamed. I read both Untamed and Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy and enjoyed them very much – both very well written, engaging, feminist romances. Untamed struck me as a little more experimental with the tropes of the genre than The Countess Conspiracy, in terms of subverting gender expectations.

The first two books in Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series, about Adelia the doctor from Sicily who solves mysteries for King Henry II, are both fantastic. Adelia is grumpy and determined and the most wonderful character. The only thing I didn’t particularly enjoy about these books was terrible things happening to children, but occasionally moments of wincing didn’t detract from their general wonderful-ness.

Lexicon by Max Barry won an Aurealis award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2013 and I thought it was fantastically original sci-fi. Listening to The Writer and the Critic podcast be rather more critical of certain plot holes made me realise in retrospect that some things didn’t hang together, but it was still a book I would recommend.

On a more general fiction front, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland is a very enjoyable novel about… well, sisterhood and families and marriages. I really like Sittenfeld’s writing.

I was really pleased to see We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler on the Booker shortlist, as I loved it when I read it earlier this year. I looked over the other books on the shortlist, and plan to read J by Howard Jacobson, and How to be both by Ali Smith in the next few weeks.

Compound eyes

1. I have actually taken some shots with my macro lens recently that I’m quite happy with. Like the photo of the fly above – I like its crazy compound eyes and its little yellow fuzzy chest. I still find working with the limited depth of field pretty challenging, but I’m getting more shots that seem decent. Breaking news: taking photos regularly seems to improve your ability to take photos. Amazing. I’m as stunned as you are.

2. I recently sped my way through Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, a pair of wonderfully surreal mystery novels by Sara Gran. I want more Claire DeWitt, and am settling for reading one of Sara Gran’s earlier books instead.

3. I am baking things out of a new cookbook at the moment, Short & Sweet – so far I’ve made a basic white bread, sesame & date biscuits, and some way too sweet chocolate biscuits. (If I think that something is far too sweet, trust me, it is far too sweet.) Next up is a parsnip & ginger cake, because parsnips were ridiculously cheap at the fruit and veggie store, and I bought a large bag of them while vaguely thinking of that recipe. I discovered when I got home that it only calls for about 150 grams of parsnips so I will be browsing around for something else to do with the rest of them. A stew or something, I expect.

4. In between making new recipes from Short & Sweet, I want to try these Prune and Caraway Scones over at The Wednesday Chef. In that post, she writes a little about explaining to people why you like to cook, and I related to the description: “Whenever people ask me why I like to cook, when so many people find it stressful and complicated, I wonder how to put into words that feeling. You know what I mean, right? The sense of providing your loved ones with edible comfort and happiness?…” Prunes. Scones. Edible comfort and happiness. They sound lovely. I’m not sure they would appeal to either Edward or the husband though, which is a slight drawback. I need more people to ply with baked goods.

Belated Book Round-Up for 2012

I read less in 2012 than I have in a long time, for obvious reasons – infants are not conducive to uninterrupted time with a book. 61 books in total – in comparison, I read 85 in 2011, 70 in 2010, 135 in 2009 and 183 in 2008. Apparently you get less free time that you don’t feel the need to do anything but read in as you get older. Who knew.

Best new authors of the year were KJ Parker and Frances Hardinge. KJ Parker writes vaguely speculative (only in the sense of their time and place) novels which are wonderfully written and generally horrifically depressing. My favourites were The Folding Knife and The Hammer, both the sort of novels where you finish reading and then sit around glowering for a while and contemplating the hopelessness of life. I enjoy books like that, in limited doses. Frances Hardinge, on the other hand, writes fantasy YA novels, and I do wish she would write a novel for adults, because her YA novels are just stunning – gorgeously realised, detailed worlds and the most wonderful use of language. I think I read almost everything she’s published, and my favourite was The Lost Conspiracy.

Other excellent books of the year – Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, which a book about wartime that will make you weep hysterically (good times, good times), and The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, which is a terrifically exciting (urban? somewhat) fantasy.

Worst books of the year were the usual selection of dreadful fantasy books, which I should really be more discerning about. Goals for 2013 – to avoid said dreadful fantasy books, to read more books than 2012, and to read some of the books I own that have been sitting unread on my bookshelves for several years.

CBCA Book Week: Memories of Reading

Tansy is celebrating the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book Week by writing about her childhood in books, and invited others to join her. I was in dire need of some sort of impetus to do some writing – sleep deprivation does not assist with any sort of creative venture.

My mother has kept a large crate full of my childhood books, in anticipation of future grandchildren – before Edward was born, she brought down a small bundle of them, and I enjoyed flicking through them, remembering the stories and my pleasure in them when I was small. I think my parents read at least one book to me every night, and I taught myself to read before I started school (probably in order to read more). Some of my most vivid childhood memories are about books – either the stories themselves, or traumatic incidents like The Time I Dropped My Book Behind the Bus Seat.

I taught myself to read before I started school, and I have very vivid memories of many books I read at that age. We have received quite a few books as gifts for Edward, and I’ve enjoyed looking through them, remembering reading them when I was young – classics like Who Sank the Boat, Possum Magic, Peepo and a collection of all the Beatrix Potter books. I can’t wait to read Ted the story of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, and The Tale of Two Bad Mice – they were two of my favourites. I had a dollhouse (populated with a family of miniature bears), and I loved the two mice rampaging through the dollhouse, outraged that the food laid out temptingly on a table is only made of plaster.

I had vague ideas previously of the sort of child I would like to have, the things I would want them to do with their lives. Now that Edward is here, his own determined energetic self, I realise that I don’t care at all what he does with his life, as long as he is happy. But I would like him to enjoy books – to enjoy having storytime with me and his father, seeing him learning to read himself, and choosing his own books to bring home from the library. Reading for pleasure is such a large part of my life, and I do so want to share that with him.

What I’m reading

The evenings are getting quite chilly (well, chilly for south east Queensland) and we’ve been lighting the wood stove, much the cats’ delight as they lie as close as they can to the heater without actually bursting into flame.

I recently raced my way through Mira Grant’s Blackout, which is the final book in her Newsflesh trilogy. The trilogy is a near future where a virus brings the dead back to life as zombies. Both Feed and Deadline, the first two books, have been nominated for Hugo awards, which I find a little bit inexplicable. Perhaps not for Feed, as I thought that was a really good tense political thriller, but Deadline certainly veered into far more pulpy, mad science territory. Blackout continues as more of the same, and had too many flaws for me to rate it highly, despite the fact I really enjoyed reading it.

I also recently finished The Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, which was a cute and funny romance, and in a completely different vein, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, a rather long and sprawling epic set in North Korea which I think could have done with a little editing, and suffered a bit from “ooh, look how weird North Korea is”.

I’m partway through a couple of memoirs/books of essays on motherhood – Anne Enright’s Making Babies and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. While I’m finding them interesting, and Anne Enright’s is amusingly enjoyable, I think pregnancy is the wrong time to read them, just because I think you need to have experienced motherhood in order to appreciate them. What I’m looking for, I think, is some sort of indication of what it’s all going to be like – but I get the feeling that’s something you’ve got to discover for yourself. I think I’ll stick with my more practical books – I have enjoyed Kaz Cooke’s Up the Duff and Kid Wrangling, and after reading the recommendation by Karen on Far Flung Four, I’ve ordered a copy of Robin Barker’s Baby Love. (“Is that a whole book about how to love a baby?” asked the husband.)

What I’m reading

Secondhand

I visited the secondhand bookstore in Mapleton with Naomi on the weekend (I find it terribly hard to just walk by secondhand bookstores without even taking a little look) and bought a few things:
War Crimes by Peter Carey, which is a collection of short stories I read last year and loved. I’m fairly sure it’s out of print, and I wanted my own copy.
The Dark Room by Minette Walters, because I enjoy her crime novels/thrillers.
Behold, Here’s Poison by Georgette Heyer, because I recently read and really enjoyed Cotillion, one of her Regency romances, and wanted to try one of her mystery novels.
Half the Day is Night by Maureen McHugh, because Culturally Disoriented put McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang on her list of Eight Great Science Fiction Books for Women, and I’ve been wanting to read something of McHugh’s since reading that list.

Audio

I’ve been listening to a lot of audio books recently, and it seems to have kickstarted my reading again for the year. What with driving and cleaning and the logistical challenges of transforming a junk room into a baby’s room (ie. where does all the junk go), I seem to have had more time for listening to books, rather than sitting down and reading.

I read the first book in Dan Wells’ trilogy about a teenage sociopath (who is trying to avoid turning into the serial killer he thinks he’s destined to be) a while ago, and recently listened to the second two as audiobooks. They’re not great choices for audiobooks, at least not to me – hearing someone narrate horrible deaths and torture quietly into your ears is a bit unpleasant. But they were enjoyable well paced thrillers with a supernatural bent, albeit just on the edge of my acceptable level of horror (which is not all that high).

I then listened to Cotillion, my first Georgette Heyer book (and a much more relaxing choice for an audiobook, being a fun and jolly romance with matchmaking and hijinks) and I’ve now decided that I must read more of Heyer’s books. Cotillion was tremendously enjoyable in a fun-and-jolly-romance sort of way.

At the moment I’m listening to The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a book I’m reading for a bookclub and therefore know nothing about (apart from the fact that it’s set in North Korea). I’m about halfway through, and at the moment would tentatively describe it as “epic literature” – but who knows what direction it’ll head in before it ends.

Ordinary, Everyday Reading

And as for normal books-on-paper, I just finished (and wept over) Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, which features women pilots and spies in WWII and is about female friendship and integrity and bravery and is just a really wonderful book – the Book Smugglers’ review tells it much better than I could.

I’m also reading (not on paper, but on Kindle) Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, which is a fairly brutal sci-fi novel with bounty hunters that begins like this, which if you’re me sounds fairly irresistible:

“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.

Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.”