January-May 2015 reading

150-BreakfastAtTiffanys Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

An interesting and gorgeously written study of a young woman with a childlike wandering spirit and a prodigious talent for making people fall in love with her, two attributes guaranteed to wreak havoc in the hearts of the men she encounters. Even if readerly distance allows us to see a few more of Holly’s flaws than these men tend to acknowledge, it is hard not to miss her a little bit after the story has come to its quietly beautiful end. Added bonus: the book is slightly less racist than the film. Added bonus number two: most editions include three short stories at the end, which are worth sticking around for, particularly A Christmas Memory.

150-OnWriting On Writing by Stephen King

I was rather confused about what this book was before picking it up, so perhaps I can clarify: it starts out with memoirs recounting interesting incidents from Stephen King’s life – fragmented, because as he states he didn’t want to include the boring bits. (It wouldn’t be King without something horrific, and in this section the horror mostly comes from various medical procedures he has undergone – if you’re squeamish about needles, you may want to skip the chapter about his visit to the ear doctor.) Then comes a separate, somewhat larger section where he gives writing advice, on for example how to use adverbs (preferably extremely sparingly, lol), how to develop the habit of writing every day, and where in the writing process you should start thinking about theme. It’s mostly subjective stuff, but it’s certainly interesting to hear opinions from someone so successful.

150-JonathanStrange Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

A wonderful, sprawling story about a bunch of English gentlemen who call themselves magicians, in an alternate history where magic used to exist but seems to have faded almost entirely from human knowledge. In the fashion of a nineteenth-century novel it moves quite slowly, and is a massive doorstop of a book, but the sort of doorstop you can get lost in; the footnotes and historical details make the most unlikely things feel chillingly authentic. There were points when I felt as though I was reading a new Harry Potter, which is a compliment I can’t extend to many books. There’s something about the combination of vividly drawn characters, the slow reveal of a mysterious magical world, and the sheer boundless imagination and unpredictability of the story, that fills me with inexpressible glee. Probably my favourite book I’ve read for at least a couple of years.

150-WeAreAllCompletelyBesideOurselves We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This book was not remotely what I expected. Yes, I expected (from what little I’d heard about it) that it would be about the amusing peculiarities of a family, and it was indeed about that. But, as the narrator points out, everyone may think their family is weird – but hers is that little bit weirder. The reveal of this is one of the bigger “wait, WHAT?!” moments I’ve experienced lately – so if you can go into the book knowing as little as I did, I’d recommend it. It’s fiercely intelligent, witty and philosophical, but also unflinchingly dark and angry. If I have a criticism it’s that the ending seems to come out of nowhere, but I can forgive it that, because overall it doesn’t take the easy way out on the moral dilemmas it raises.

150-SoYouveBeenPubliclyShamed So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

This book was both aggravating and reassuring at the same time. Aggravating because it contains so many examples of online mobs being vicious and disgusting, individual people being petty and unreasonable, and the tabloid press being their usual despicable selves. But at the same time, Jon Ronson’s tone reassured me that I’m not alone in finding public shaming and bullying, even of people who “deserve” it, deeply unpalatable. Numerous times I’ve had to take a break from the internet or unfollow people on Twitter because I was finding myself more annoyed by people whose side I thought I was on than by the transgressors they were attacking. This book at least makes me feel like this isn’t some failure on my part: perhaps I shouldn’t strive to be more blind to my own side’s flaws, more prone to tweeting out acerbic put-downs and less empathetic to other points of view.

150-TheMiniaturist The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

This book took a while to grab me. At first it has definite shades of Rebecca (one of my favourite books), as the protagonist Nella arrives at the Amsterdam home of her new husband only to find an unsettling house filled with secrets and whispering characters. But it takes a definite turn about a third of the way through, and becomes something else. I suspect it is an angry book, since it contains things the author probably wouldn’t have written about if she weren’t angry, and that made me warm to it a lot more towards the end. It is lovingly crafted and melancholy and has a rather distinctive and interesting style, albeit one that tripped me up for a couple of chapters before I got into the flow of it. (Note: it may be worth mentioning that the Kindle version also has an unfortunate abundance of typos.)

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