Books I’ve Read

Since writing rambly paragraphs about books I’ve read has become one of the key features of my blog, I thought I’d make a page where I can store all my rambly paragraphs in a more ordered way, for example alphabetically by the authors’ surnames. Twist: that page is the page you are on right now!! Enjoy.

bookstarBooks that I thought were outstandingly good are now marked with a gold star. That doesn’t mean some of the others aren’t good too, so please read the words I wrote!

rereadicon1And this icon means I’d already read this book at least once before, so that may inform my perspective on it.

A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T V W Y Z

A

150-HalfOfAYellowSun Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi – Half of a Yellow Sun

The civil war in Nigeria is a conflict I knew so little about that I had to look it up to confirm that it actually happened in real life as well as in this book – so if you’re anything like as historically ignorant as me, it’s worth reading just to learn a bit about something rather important that few educators (certainly in Britain) seem to think is worth telling people about. Half of a Yellow Sun is a big, sweeping novel, a portrait of a fiery political situation told through the eyes of three characters from three very different worlds. Their characterisations are vivid, sharp and complex, their emotions often several steps removed from the emotions you might expect them to feel in a given situation. As admirable as this complexity is, the constant subversion of obvious emotions sometimes left me, as a (how shall I put this) somewhat less complex reader, struggling to relate. Only sometimes though. This is definitely up there with a few really great books that I’m annoyed with myself for not appreciating quite as much as I wanted to – but overall I still enjoyed it for its intricacy and intelligence, its humour and sadness. And the ending is pretty beautiful.

150-EenyMeeny Arlidge, M. J. – Eeny Meeny

One of the first audiobooks I’ve listened to in a long time. I have an annoying habit of tuning out of them and having to rewind, so I chose something that seemed like it would be fairly generic and easy to follow. As it turns out, generic barely covers Eeny Meeny. Just about every gritty detective trope ever invented is present and correct here. There’s a brilliant but haunted female cop who indulges in a secret vice because she blames herself for a dark incident in her past. There’s another cop who is an alcoholic, and a few who may or may not be corrupt. There’s a shadowy psychopath playing grisly games with people’s lives. There’s an oppressive, humourless tone that occasionally makes you question why this is the fantasy world you’ve chosen to escape into. I suppose the Saw-like psychological horror of it, when removed from the off-putting gore of those films, appeals to the dark side of my brain. Somehow it kept me engaged enough to finish it, but if this had involved the effort of having to move my eyes, I may well have felt differently.

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Atwood, Margaret – The Handmaid’s Tale

I read this for uni and reread it for book club. It portrays a deeply conservative future society called Gilead, where women like the narrator are forced to work as surrogate mothers in an attempt to counteract a spate of birth defects. This catastrophe seems to have flipped some awful switch in society’s attitudes towards gender: now it is commonly accepted that men can’t be trusted with the sight of female flesh, so women have to cover their bodies and faces; women can’t be trusted with independence, so they are not allowed to read or have money or walk outside alone. With the unflinching intelligence that seems to define her writing, Atwood dredges out the darkest prejudices that probably still lurk in more minds than we care to admit, and in classic dystopian style, creates a world that takes them to their logical, horrifying conclusions. Even if you don’t buy that a society like Gilead could ever really come about — well, first of all, based on historical precedents I would respectfully disagree — but also there is more than enough of our own world in here that it would be complacent not to feel uncomfortable.

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Austen, Jane – Northanger Abbey

My first Austen – and I hope my university doesn’t take back my degree for admitting I skipped Mansfield Park when we studied it. If it makes them feel any better, I regret that now. I was wrong. Based on my fleeting exposure to TV adaptations of her books, I assumed that the people in them were so fundamentally different from me that I’d need to read up on the cultural context of the time and develop some sort of internal translation circuit to make sense of their emotions. But then I picked up Northanger Abbey, got to the early chapter where young Catherine feels awkward about not knowing anyone at a party, and went “oh, hello me”. This is why books are the best thing: you don’t get distracted by what sort of hats people are wearing, you just get to plug your brain right into theirs. And in the case of this book – much more so, I have to assume, than in the adaptations – you get access to Austen’s funny, sarcastic and (by modern standards) refreshingly self-expressive commentary on the social conventions of her time. Now I feel silly about all the years I spent feeling alienated by the society portrayed in her work; it turns out it seemed just as alien to her all along! Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

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Banks, Iain – The Bridge

I’m not a particular fan of using metaphor in place of plot, but my main problem is when narratives turn that way only at the end. I don’t mind when novels are open about their metaphorical intentions from the outset, and when they justify it by, for example, setting the metaphorical stuff inside a character’s mind. When a skilled author (and Iain Banks most certainly was that) takes the risk of going far enough down the rabbit hole of weird interlocking symbolism, the result can be quite thrilling and rewarding – a Cloud Atlas style puzzle box to toy with at your leisure. The Bridge is a bit like a cross between Life on Mars and Brazil, a journey into a complicated and unsettling world of steam power and bureaucracy where it’s not always clear what’s a dream – and what’s a dream within a dream. Even if the way it all fits together confuzzles you, there are enough treats along the way – the cleverly confounding world of the bridge, the hilarious barbarian bits, the ever-lively descriptive style – to make this a journey worth taking.

The Wasp Factory Banks, Iain – The Wasp Factory

Be warned, this is the sort of book they’d make you read in high school, and if you’re me you wouldn’t get it at all because it didn’t intersect much with your naive little world – one of those books where everything is almost comically effed up and depressing, and everyone plays their part in a cycle of cruelty, weakness and appallingly bad parenting. But now, as a sort-of adult, I appreciate it more. The most impressive thing is perhaps that it makes the psychotic, misogynistic, animal-torturing protagonist more comprehensible to us than the apathetic world around him. Stick around for: a final chapter that could serve as the subject of a million essays featuring the word “problematic”, and a brilliantly unpleasant account of being drunk.

The Hellbound Heart Barker, Clive – The Hellbound Heart

Similar to the few Lovecraft stories I’ve read, The Hellbound Heart is content to reveal only slivers of its distinctly unsettling mythology. Sinister, leering forces beyond our understanding lurk just out of sight behind the walls of the world, waiting for any excuse to drag victims off to their realm of disfigurement and myriad kinky torments/pleasures. There are nuggets of gold in the story: the unseen realm is described with enough vagueness to give the reader’s imagination something to do; Barker makes a clever and creepy use of brackets which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before but which I am sorely tempted to steal; and the ending is quite darkly beautiful if not entirely earned. Overall, though, I don’t know that I would recommend The Hellbound Heart. From plot to character to style, it all feels rather slight, like a short story stretched out to the length of a short novel. But hey, at least it’s short, and inventive enough that perhaps you should read it anyway if you’re into oddness.

Tithe Black, Holly – Tithe

A modern faerie tale, in which misfit teenager Kaye moves back to the place she grew up and rediscovers the realm of faeries she used to play with. But it all seems a lot darker now, as conflict rages between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts and the solitary fey caught in the middle. If it sounds like Among Others, I suppose it is a bit, though this is more standard Young Adult fare, complete with a love story I’m probably not qualified to comment on so I’ll just shut up. Despite my love of fantasy, when it is mixed into the real world I often find myself enjoying the real world stuff more. Tithe is no exception – I like Kaye’s world before all the weird stuff kicks off, and said weird stuff is imaginative and vividly drawn, but I was never quite sold on the tricky ground where they meet. I suppose if characters always reacted with appropriate levels of surprise and bewilderment, a lot of fantasy would just be about people quivering and wailing in corners. Somebody needs to write that book some day.

150-SomethingWicked Bradbury, Ray – Something Wicked This Way Comes

The creepy story of a malevolent carnival that shows up on the outskirts of a little American town and begins to exert some dark influence on the inhabitants. It reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman, to the point that I’d be quite surprised if he didn’t read this at some formative stage of his development. It also gave me unexpected flashbacks to reading Goosebumps as a child, though this is definitely more grown-up, and some of the horrors a little more abstract and existential than R. L. Stine’s tended to get. Reading it, I always felt a few steps behind the story, struggling to keep track of what was going on as Ray Bradbury danced around pulling ribbons out of everything like the conjurer he undoubtedly was. Something Wicked is stuffed with brilliant images and ideas, but ironically I may not be quite enough of a grown-up to fully appreciate it.

Brooks, Max – World War Z

Zombie fiction is kinda strange. From my limited exposure to it, I get the sense that works like The Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Left 4 Dead and other things ending in Dead are not just about a zombie epidemic – they’re about the zombie epidemic. It’s like we’ve all agreed it’s going to happen at some point, and a bunch of people are writing stories that slot right into it: historical fiction for a made-up history. This book provides a seemingly exhaustive collection of well-thought-out personal and political stories that span the globe. I really hope that in the film adaptation, the protagonist is still humanity as a whole – that would be a lot more interesting than one handsome white American battling his way through zombies to reunite with his family.

150-HyperboleAndAHalf Brosh, Allie – Hyperbole and a Half

Really, if you want to know whether you should buy this book or not, the best test is to go and read the blog it’s based on. If you find yourself charmed by Allie Brosh’s willingness to look inwards, seek out all the most unflattering elements of her personality like an emotional investigative journalist, and report back with humour, bright colours and a rare, even inspirational level of honesty – buy this book! If you don’t, don’t – but just know that I like you a little less now. You might recognise some elements of Hyperbole and a Half that have become memes (“CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!”), but even those that haven’t are wonderfully quotable. For example: “Are you going into the kitchen? Cool. Go fuck yourself” is a phrase that will stick with me, at least reminding me that I’m not alone while I beat myself up over nothing.

150-TheMiniaturist Burton, Jessie – The Miniaturist

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.)

Storm Front Butcher, Jim – Storm Front

One of those troubling books where the author was younger than me when he wrote it. I was constantly on the lookout for clues to this fact to make myself feel better, but sadly this is a very well structured and enjoyable urban fantasy detective noir thriller thingy. It grips you through the old technique of piling problems upon problems, never resolving one without introducing two more. Poor old yer-a-wizard-Harry Dresden is never allowed a pause for breath without being bludgeoned with a blunt object or attacked by a demon or pounced upon by one of the book’s many femme fatales, so the pace is always fast and pleasingly silly. And you can feel the author setting up a world fit for the many sequels the book already has – it’s one of those series that it’s nice to know is there in case I need something pulpy and fun to binge on.

C

150-BreakfastAtTiffanys Capote, Truman – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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.

Telegraph Avenue Chabon, Michael – Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue interweaves the stories of two families living in Oakland, California, including two men whose record shop is on the brink of going out of business, two disillusioned midwives, two teenage boys experimenting with their sexuality, and an ageing Blaxploitation star trying to escape his criminal past and revive his movie career. It’s nice to read a book that deals with interracial friendship without either glossing over the cultural differences or, worse, making them seem like a huge deal, something deep and unconquerable simmering under the surface of all human nature. Generally the main characters are more worried that they may be racist than actually racist, which feels fundamentally reassuring in a weird way. This is indicative of the book’s restrained tone – we don’t see much in the way of epic confrontations, nervous breakdowns, melodramatic monologuing and so on. Most of the book could be a soap opera if it weren’t so funnily and interestingly written, so sunny and pleasant and filled with rich, colourful language. If you can forgive a few cartoonish moments and a few more that a cynic would see as excuses for Chabon to show off his writing skills, this is a most enjoyable and worthwhile read.

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Chbosky, Stephen – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

A coming-of-age tale which is hard to talk about objectively, because it’s probably either going to hit you like a ton of bricks or sail right past you without making an impact. For me, it was the former. This was unexpected. Early on in the book my cynicism kept chiming in with scathing comments – “oh, of course the narrator is a sweetly naive teenage genius, oh of course he meets a ragtag band of social outcasts who take him in” – but as I got more and more wrapped up in the story, that ugly side of me was left talking to himself in the corner of the room while the rest of me sat with his mouth hanging open, unable to stop reading. There were long passages that hurt to read because clearly they were addressed to me and no one else – though considering the number of people who love this book, I suppose that can’t be the case. How do you build something so powerful out of such simple pieces? It’s not as if Perks is all that original, or all that immediately striking in its style. What it is is an exceptionally kind, open and emotionally honest book, and a friendly reminder that if you really care about the people who care about you, you should try to care about yourself, at least a little bit.

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Clarke, Susanna – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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.

Ready Player One

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Cline, Ernest – Ready Player One

A book about escaping from a ruined world into a virtual easter-egg hunt created by an eccentric dead billionaire obsessed with 80s geek culture … and if that sounds like the ultimate piece of escapism for nerds, that’s because it pretty much is. But as much as that description appeals to me, it still feels like it does a disservice to the tight structure and vivid imagination of this book. There’s a real sense of adventure here, of danger, wonder and magic – a tone somewhere between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Hunger Games, if that makes any sense at all, which it really doesn’t seem to when I put it like that. Trust me, it’s great. And it’s such a massively joyful and unapologetic celebration of geek culture that even I, as someone who often feels too weird and awkward to even be a proper part of the geek community, was practically hyperventilating at certain points. In a good way.

The Hunger Games cover.

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Collins, Suzanne – The Hunger Games

Since it’s the big young adult thing at the moment, and I have an unhealthy love of dystopias, it seemed to make sense to read this. It has some very Harry Potter-esque characters (specifically Haymitch and Effie), and a few (thankfully vague) similarities to the novel I’ve been writing for years. Most of all, though, it reminds me of the creepingly delightful Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson, which portrays an equally brutal world where just because you’re young and innocent doesn’t mean you won’t at some point find yourself being burned alive. Does it say bad things about me that I enjoy this kind of book? Probably. I guess that’s part of the scary thing: you’re always secretly thinking “I’d totally watch the actual Hunger Games if they were on”. No? Just me then? Oh dear.

Catching Fire cover Mockingjay cover Collins, Suzanne – Catching Fire and Mockingjay

The thing I’m most jealous of about the Hunger Games trilogy (aside from it making loads of money) is Collins’s talent for creating powerful symbols and visual moments. These books deal a lot with appearances, performance, even fashion, and the influence these things might have. They also do an admirable job of portraying the darkness of the world while retaining faith in humanity. I sort of wish I’d read this series in time to include it in my dissertation, as it’s a very well-crafted dystopia.

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Connolly, John – The Book of Lost Things

I went into this book sceptical. While I enjoy fairytales, I feel like we’ve reached a point where the subversion of them is the norm, and the truly subversive thing to do would be to write some new ones instead of endlessly repurposing the ones we have. But The Book of Lost Things is an artifact of such power that this criticism melts before impact. It opens starkly, as the young protagonist loses his mother in some of the most painful pages I’ve read in recent memory. From there on, the story is effed up in all the ways you want a fairytale to be effed up, and possibly a couple more. The Crooked Man is a fantastically shudder-inducing villain, and he’s far from the only threat: poor David encounters unsettlingly human wolves, harpy-harpooning trolls, insanely twisted huntresses, massive burrowing beasts and more. It’s all most pleasing if you miss those incident-riddled “point A to point B” adventures in the vein of The Hobbit. At its core is a pretty simple message about the value of love, but most messages are simple when you boil them down far enough; I’ll be quite content if every book I ever write conveys the same message, even happier if one of them does so with as much craft and beauty as this gem.

D

Danielewski, Mark Z – House of Leaves

It’s immediately obvious to those of us who like to flick through books before reading them to get the lay of the land that this is an unusual book. So I approached it like Clarice approaching Hannibal Lecter, knowing it was going to try to screw with my mind. It’s just a bunch of words on pages, I told myself! Then I got to page 26 and decided “Okay, this can be my daytime book”. Despite the fact that it’s undeniably inventive and creepy, I’m not totally sure I like House of Leaves. This may be down to unfortunate timing: certain passages felt like a slog as they reminded me a little too much of reading impenetrably endless theory for my recently finished English degree. But if you’re patient and like weird things, this is certainly one of those.

150-WolfInWhiteVan Darnielle, John – Wolf in White Van

Y’know, another one of those stories about a disfigured boy who runs a play-by-mail choose-your-own-adventure type game called Trace Italian. Wolf in White Van is in that very specific subgenre (if you can call it that) of books which tell their stories in a non-linear way, and which dance teasingly around a central event which took place a while ago but which we don’t really understand until quite late on. (The God of Small Things is another example that jumps to mind.) It’s the sort of book whose implied insidious hidden messages you could probably spend weeks trying to decode if the mood took you. Even skimming it a second time greatly enhanced my appreciation for its subtly poetic language and intricate thematic explorations.

The Writer's Tale Davies, Russell T and Cook, Benjamin – Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who more than I love myself – quite a lot more, in fact – but I still think Russell T Davies was quite underappreciated by fans. Not only was it his passion that revived the show back in 2005, he established a level of quality that was by no means assured before that point, but which people almost immediately began to take for granted. This book, through a series of informal and brutally honest letters, documents his writing process during his last couple of years as showrunner, and for aspiring writers it’s funny, familiar, terrifying and reassuring all at the same time. It certainly makes me feel better about my own procrastination, although on balance I suppose that might not be a good thing.

150-AScannerDarkly Dick, Philip K. – A Scanner Darkly

I think the best way I can describe this book is as a strangely enjoyable exploration of paranoia and uncertainty. It’s no rollercoaster; the plot – relating to the life of a man leading a double life as a drug addict and an anonymous agent investigating, well, mainly himself – sidles along at a leisurely pace, taking in the entertainingly mundane conversations of its drug-addled characters, philosophical musings on identity, and explanations of scientific curiosities relating to the structure of the human brain. Already I can barely remember any actual plot points, but that’s not really a criticism, since I remember it being pretty consistently interesting and funny. I definitely need to read more Philip K. Dick. Also – though it is entirely coincidental that I read them back to back – someone could write a good essay comparing this book to Fight Club. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.

A Study in Scarlet

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Doyle, Arthur Conan – A Study in Scarlet

I had read this already, but happily revisited it for the book club my friends just started. It is a good read, and a great introduction to the character of Sherlock Holmes, though if you’re used to more modern mysteries it may flummox you just because it breaks some of the rules that would later be established in the genre – for example, certain elements that would be crucial to untangling the mystery aren’t introduced until quite late in the book. But the nicely detailed and methodical description of the crime scene lets us feel as though we could work it all out if only we were as clever as Holmes, and the solution, when it comes, is elegant and satisfying. Compared to that of other books from the same period, the language is extremely accessible, and the series is definitely worth reading if you like the modern BBC adaptation of Sherlock, especially since the first episode of that kinda misses the point of the method of murder in this book.

150-EllaMinnowPea Dunn, Mark – Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea is set on a small island whose residents, for reasons too convoluted to go into here, find themselves having to express themselves in an ever-shrinking alphabet. As they do so, their classical letter-writing eloquence is replaced by a different sort of eloquence, as they bend language in all manner of creative ways to get around the new rules. This leads to some laugh-out-loud moments and genuinely ingenious constructions — and a funny sort of slasher movie thrill, as we anticipate which letter may be killed off next. While the island’s slide into tyranny is interesting (beginning with what seems a quirky and inconsequential ruling, ending with neighbours grassing on each other, Nineteen Eighty-Four style), there is not much of an emotional thread, and the ending is perhaps a bit too quick and neat to be entirely satisfying. Still, this is an enjoyable example of what a storyteller can do when s/he makes the very deliberate decision to discard realism – there’s a lot of cool stuff that can only be done without that millstone around your neck.

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Sum: Tales from the Afterlives Eagleman, David – Sum: Tales from the Afterlives

A book I happened to pick up because it was 99p on Kindle, and I’m glad I did. It’s a series of short stories detailing different imagined afterlives. Few of them involve us being judged by the criteria of any existing religion; instead there is an implied new religion to be found embedded in each story. In other words, we could choose to live our lives based on the assumption that any one of these accounts is true; if we believe ‘Metamorphosis’, for example, we may want to spend the latter years of our lives systematically erasing all evidence that we ever existed. If you think you have a good sci-fi idea tucked away in your brain, it’s worth reading this book just to see if David Eagleman has already written about it. Damn you ‘Conservation’! (On a related note, here is another thought-provoking afterlife story, which seems to do the rounds on the internet every so often.)

150-americanpsycho Ellis, Bret Easton – American Psycho

Perhaps more than any other book I’ve read since university, American Psycho feels like an Important Work of Literature: serious and striking, with few concessions to readability, often seeming to make an active effort to push readers away. The meanness and vapidity of its characters, the interminable inventories of what people are wearing, the constant cross-purpose conversations that go nowhere — all these caused me to put the book down early on, coming back to it months later out of a sense of literary duty and a desire not to let it beat me. I knew it also contained scenes of graphic sex, murder and mutilation, and while I didn’t expect to enjoy these, I couldn’t shake the slightly psychopathic thought that they might at least break up the mundaneness. As it turned out, they didn’t make me feel much of anything either — it all just blended together into a jarring, numbing collage, and perhaps that was the point. The main character is certainly interesting (though I can’t help but feel that writing a psychopath is a licence to give any inconsistency the air of an enigma), and the overall portrayal of the culture of Wall Street is about as damning as that culture probably deserves. As a believer in artistic freedom I’m glad American Psycho exists, but for me personally, I’m not quite sure the journey was worth the headache.

150-EmpathyProblem Extence, Gavin – The Empathy Problem

One of those reading experiences where the emotional side of my brain wrestled against the intellectual side, and this time there was no clear winner; I kept finding fault with the book, but I also became invested, almost addicted judging by how I binged my way through the latter half of the audiobook in a day. The world it presents struck me early on as impossibly black and white: evil, uncaring bankers vs. the righteous protesters outside their building. Not terribly at odds with my own views, sure, but I’m at the point now where at least part of me wants books to challenge my comfortable assumptions about people. I suppose it sort of works if you view the story not as an attempt at realism but more as a modern fairytale, or an updated take on A Christmas Carol where a brain tumour plays the part of the ghosts, and cane-twirling Victorian capitalists are replaced by even slimier businessmen who’d be right at home in American Psycho. It’s a strange mix, but as a late coming of age story it has its moments, and I couldn’t help but find the lead character’s awakening sense of humanity quite moving. Not Gavin Extence’s best book, but it still shows off his talent for delving into the human mind from odd but often startlingly relatable angles.

150-TheMirrorWorldOfMelodyBlack Extence, Gavin – The Mirror World of Melody Black

A book whose title made me think it was going to involve some manner of journey into a dark and unsettling parallel world — and it does, though in a psychological rather than fantastical way. The main character’s discovery of the body of her neighbour causes her to question the way modern humans live, beginning with a futile, all-too-familiar, insomnia-inspired online search for a cure to alienation. Before long she is disregarding the rules of polite society left, right and centre, and spiralling into depression. I can see some readers being put off by the subtle and oddly episodic nature of the story, but for me this is one of those cases where the narrator IS the book, and the narrator is memorable, complicated and just pretty great. Recommended at the very least for perpetually anxious, intermittently depressed misfits like me.

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Extence, Gavin – The Universe Versus Alex Woods

I thought the main character in The Mirror World of Melody Black reminded me of me, but that was before I met Alex Woods, who is almost scarily like me on a number of levels. He’s socially awkward! He’s called Alex! He has an unhealthily puritanical attitude towards alcohol and drugs! He’s self-deprecating and constantly bemused by situations! Okay, a lot of these attributes are fairly standard ‘nerdy kid’ tropes, but written in Gavin Extence’s wonderfully relatable style, they were quite striking to me. What I appreciate most of all is that this is a coming of age story that isn’t afraid not to check all the usual ‘coming of age’ boxes. Instead, it checks much more interesting boxes like ‘bonked on the head by a meteorite’ and ‘starts a Kurt Vonnegut book club’ and (here comes one of those scarily-like-me things) ‘is home-educated after dropping out of school due to bullying’. Ultimately it celebrates honesty, kindness, and all the strangeness and mystery of the universe. Which is nice. And it made me cry – which felt natural and familiar but on reflection I can’t remember the last book that did that.

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The Eyre Affair cover Fforde, Jasper – The Eyre Affair

I’m not sure I have the vocabulary to talk about this book, because it’s really unique, in a wish-I’d-thought-of-that way. It’s set in an alternate version of our world, distinguished by casually deployed science fiction elements and amusing differences in its culture’s priorities. In terms of tone it veers from a Monty Python-ish blending of surrealism and satire to Terry Pratchett-esque fantasy to one of those cosy detective stories where people knit and eat Hobnobs and have names like Marmalade Jones. I won’t spoil too much, as it’s a fun rollercoaster – especially if you happen to have studied literature. Also a good antidote to Hunger Games-induced depression.

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Flynn, Gillian – Gone Girl

It all begins, with pleasing swiftness, when a woman goes missing and her husband gets caught up in the ensuing media circus. That’s about all I can say without spoiling Gone Girl. The story takes many twists and turns – the dynamics seem to change almost every chapter – yet it never loses sight of what it’s about: two fascinating, dark, well-drawn characters. It also delves rather intelligently into the ways we pretend, how we try to shape our behaviour to fit with other people’s expectations, and some of the destructive consequences this can have. I found it particularly interesting having just read The Psychopath Test, but it split my book club right down the middle, between those of us who found it a brilliant, addictive page-turner and those who found it so boring they could barely finish it. Never have I been so baffled by people’s reactions to a book, so … be aware that you might hate it, I guess. If you hate awesome things.

150-TheMachineStops Forster, E. M. – The Machine Stops

I won’t lie: I read this partly because it’s short and I needed another book to achieve my Goodreads reading target for 2015. But it had been sitting on my shelf since I was writing my dissertation on dystopias four years ago, so it was probably about time I got round to it. It has that odd combination of qualities that old books set in imagined futures tend to have: a few really prescient aspects combined with stuff that now comes across as rather over-the-top and silly. But the prescient stuff hits home far more than I am comfortable with, especially since that home for me consists primarily of a small room in which I spend most of my time staring at various screens, talking to my friends (and strangers – hello to both!) via technology. Worth a read for those interested in partially fulfilled, concerned-frown-inducing dystopian prophecies.

The Elements of Eloquence

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Forsyth, Mark – The Elements of Eloquence

A fantastic, inspiring and entertaining glossary of rhetorical techniques to make language sing – from alliteration to zeugma (though not in that order). I wish I had read this book years ago, as I now feel I could apply at least a few of the techniques it describes to my own writing – though there are some, as Forsyth notes, that come naturally to people without them even noticing. Particularly impressive is how the author manages to construct a chain of rhetorical examples, one leading naturally to the other all the way through the book – I can only imagine this involved a maddeningly complicated flowchart of some kind. But it pays off, making the book extremely readable, and if you’re me you will set aside all worldly responsibilities to blaze through it. I will definitely go back to The Elements of Eloquence, and may even pick up a paper copy for easier reference. (Also I can’t believe I never noticed the thing about proper adjective order before! What a little curious thing!)

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

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.

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American Gods Gaiman, Neil – American Gods

I’m pretty sure I’m a person who should have been reading Neil Gaiman for years, but somehow I’ve only just got round to him. He’s one of those writers who crams an intimidating number of ideas into a small space, casually glancing off concepts which in other hands would be whole books of their own. American Gods is a weird one, though. I certainly enjoyed the American part – the slightly unsettling small towns, the tacky tourist attractions, the road movie flavour of it all. But I found the Gods part a bit baffling, to be honest. Almost every character speaks in riddles, and even the appropriately named shadowy protagonist doesn’t often stop to question the barrage of barely explained insanity that confronts him at every turn. The ending, especially, gets a bit metaphorical for my tastes, as physical reality fades into the background and people do all sorts of very symbolic-seeming things for no clear reason (don’t ask me why I let Murakami get away with it). Maybe I don’t know enough mythology to untangle it all, or maybe this book is just for people cleverer than me. I’m happy to confirm that Neil Gaiman is definitely one of those people.

150-thegraveyardbook Gaiman, Neil – The Graveyard Book

Don’t think I’m obsessed with Harry Potter or anything, but The Graveyard Book has a lot of Potter about it: a boy grows up in unusual, magical surroundings, has a series of episodic adventures, and gradually learns more about his past and the shadowy man who murdered his parents. Of course, as it is only a single, fairly short book, it doesn’t have quite the same impact, but there is a lot crammed into these eight chapters. I enjoyed the dense, self-contained world of the graveyard, with its underground tombs, weird dream-like other planes and ghostly characters from across the sweep of history. On reflection, a few aspects of the ending strike me as cheap ways to stir up readers’ emotions while checking some generic coming-of-age boxes along the way – but they still gave me a bit of a tingle, so I guess Neil Gaiman knows what he’s doing. I only wish I could get my brain to stop trying to make literal sense of his work, because it does tend to put a bit of distance between me and his beautifully crafted worlds.

Neverwhere

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Gaiman, Neil – Neverwhere

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman invents a world under London which bears the same sort of resemblance to the actual city that the London Underground map does – twisted into different shapes, abstracted, making unexpectedly literal sense of some of the odder station names on the tube network. This is a world of rats and labyrinthine sewer tunnels and people in ragged clothes, scraping out a living in their own vaguely supernatural world, unseen by people above. The story rolls along merrily, sweeping likeably vague and vaguely likeable protagonist Richard Mayhew along with it. We rarely return to the same place twice, as Gaiman seems determined to introduce us to as many surreal sights as possible in the time he has. He is never overly concerned with explaining how things came to be or the rules that govern magic in his world, if indeed there are any rules other than “it has to be weird and cool”. I alternate between finding this enthralling and a little hard to swallow, but overall I’d have had to be quite devoted to depriving myself of fun, to avoid falling under Neverwhere‘s spell.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Gaiman, Neil – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This connected with me more than the other Neil Gaiman books I’ve read. This may be because there are specific details (not the really dark stuff, thankfully) that matched so precisely with my own experience that they reached through the page (well, Kindle screen, to be less poetic) and put me right there in the shoes of the seven-year-old protagonist. As well as featuring a classic Gaiman world-within-our-world (or is our world within their world?), The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautifully evocative of childhood. There is a powerful sense of adulthood as mysterious and full of secret knowledge, which is then dwarfed by a similar but much grander sense about the hidden world the main character stumbles into, which just goes to show that growing up isn’t all that children think it is. You’ll notice I’ve said very little about the actual storyline. That’s because this is one of those stories that feels almost destined to become an iconic and canonical work of fantasy, and if you have the chance to go into it without knowing anything, you probably should take it.

150-SmokeAndMirrors Gaiman, Neil – Smoke and Mirrors

If there’s an unsettling way to blend the everyday and the mythical, Neil Gaiman has probably thought of it. Even his novels can read like short story collections sometimes, as he crams ideas into every available space until I can barely keep up with them all. So in some ways, an actual short story collection is an ideal format for him. The styles contained in Smoke and Mirrors are wildly diverse: there are stories written in iambic pentameter and other forms of verse; there are stories which achieve (for me at least) an almost T. S. Eliot level of incomprehensibility (I’m looking at you, ‘Cold Colours’). And then there are my favourites, which are essentially modern fairytales: ‘Troll Bridge’ and ‘The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories’ spring to my mind as highlights. Also worthy of note is the amount of disturbing, gruesome and sexual stuff going on in these pages, meaning you should only buy this book for your granny if your granny is exceptionally awesome. (In my case this book was a gift from an exceptionally awesome friend.)

The Fault in Our Stars Green, John – The Fault in Our Stars

Hey look! I read something almost timely! See, I’m still down with the kids! The Fault in Our Stars is a book about love and cancer and books. Primarily it is a romance between teenagers, and it is one of the best of those I have ever read, in that at no point did it make me want to hurl myself through a window. This is probably down to the simple fact that Hazel and Augustus have interesting and intelligent thoughts, not just about their own painfully evident mortality but about the universe in general. John Green (who I’ve become mildly obsessed with/envious of after realising he’s the same John Green who does this) skillfully weaves together cynicism about the tropes of simplistically sentimental ‘cancer books’ with philosophy and a great deal of wisdom about everyday relationships. It seemed inevitable that this book would try to make me cry towards the end, and while I somehow (just) managed to resist, it still made me think more than anything I’ve read in a while, and for that reason alone I’d say it is an exemplary Young Adult novel.

150-themagicians Grossman, Lev – The Magicians

A most peculiar book. It contains a lot of what I expected it to contain, and much that I didn’t expect at all. In truth it feels rather like two or three different books smooshed together in a sort of culturally aware exploration of various facets of the fantasy genre. Most obviously it evokes Harry Potter and Narnia, with a dash of D&D and perhaps a pinch of Wonderland. The trouble, for me, is that this makes the world feel inconsistent, to some extent lacking in its own identity, and it’s never quite clear how all the pieces fit together. The characterisations are also odd; Quentin Coldwater, while I think he is intended to be moody, can be dickish in quite a bizarre and jarring way, and some of the others don’t feel fully fleshed out. But I’m sounding a little more negative than I intended, so allow me to pivot: there are some incredibly cool moments in The Magicians, some highly imaginative feats of magic, and some genuinely clever thematic material dealing with what it might mean to be able to do anything, to get what you have always dreamed of and still be unhappy. If heady concepts are what you want from a fantasy and you’re willing to go on a slightly bumpy ride to get your fix, this book may be for you.

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150-ReasonsToStayAlive Haig, Matt – Reasons to Stay Alive

I bought this book a while ago and was saving it as a sort of emergency ripcord in case I ever needed one. When that time came (damn you January), I read it in less than a day. In it, the author describes his experience with intense depression, how it affected his life, and how he got better, at least better enough to come to the conclusion that life is worth living. Interspersed with the memoir style chapters are assorted interludes such as lists of the lies depression tells you and, of course, things worth staying alive for, but even these are extremely personal, and Haig is careful to emphasise that his own experiences may not apply to everyone. On that note I’m not sure this book actually made me feel much better – while I found a lot of it relatable, in places it prodded (unintentionally I’m sure) at some of my feelings of inadequacy – but it gave me a few ideas for other ripcords to try, and my depression wouldn’t really be doing its job if just reading a book could fix it.

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Harkaway, Nick – Angelmaker

A remarkable comic adventure thriller vaguely-science-fiction almost-fantasy novel, whose setting feels so unique that you occasionally have to remind yourself it’s actually set in a version of our world. But it’s the parts of our world we don’t see – undercover government organisations, the (literal) criminal underworld of London, the lairs of impressively evil Bond-esque supervillains, and generally the domain of people otherwise unable or unwilling to fit into normal society, perhaps due to their ridiculous names. Central among them is Joe Spork, son of a notorious/celebrated gangster, grandson of a quiet artisan specialising in clockwork, himself uncertain of which way to go. His inevitable journey of self-discovery begins when a retired spy named Edie Banister decides to use him to set in motion a chain of events that will threaten the whole world in an entirely original and unsettling way. What follows is a rich brew of cheerfully over-the-top characters, imaginative action sequences, witty writing and fascinating, often dark thematic material. Nick Harkaway is definitely a writer to watch and be fiercely jealous of.

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Hawkins, Paula – The Girl on the Train

One of those dark twisty modern psychological thriller mystery things. Yes, it has a hint of Gone Girl, but while that book was about characters so screwed up you could only shake your head and let out a low whistle, the characters in this one are generally screwed up in more relatable ways that allow you to root for them. At the centre of it all – or on the fringes, depending on your point of view – is Rachel, a woman with a troubled past, an alcohol problem and a habit of staring out the window of the train, projecting her dreams of a happier life onto a particular couple she sees every day. As the story goes on things get murkier, secrets come out, threads unravel and tangle together, “aha!” moments proliferate alongside “uh-oh!” moments, and readers are kept guessing until late in the game. Overall The Girl on the Train is a highly satisfying package, cleverly interweaving theme with plot, but it is Rachel’s first chapter, which draws us into the life of a character we know almost nothing about, that has stuck with me the most – a masterful example of a writer doling out information in small, addictive doses.

150-IAmPilgrim Hayes, Terry – I Am Pilgrim

It’s that old tale about a troubled but brilliant person being pulled back into a world they tried to leave behind. In this case he’s a superspy type, enlisted first to investigate an unusually perfect murder and then to foil a deadly terrorist plot. Like many thrillers, I suppose, I Am Pilgrim seems to have a slightly Team America view of the world, particularly when it comes to Arab nations, where the populace are portrayed as simple, unhappy and corrupt at best, terrorists and torturers at worst. Meanwhile, our hero is also not above using some morally questionable techniques when shit gets rough, but these unfailingly go off without too much unpleasantness and, in one case, a victim light-heartedly thanks him afterwards, saying that a spot of torture was probably what he needed to turn his life around. Strange how the grittiest stories can sometimes be the most naive. Setting aside these troubling elements – and I’ll give the book partial credit for acknowledging some of the reasons people may end up doing bad things – it is ambitious and decently written, its climax impressively tense, but I must admit the details are already fading from my memory.

150-emperoroftheeightislands Hearn, Lian – Emperor of the Eight Islands

Comparisons to Game of Thrones get throne (sorry) around a lot at the moment, mostly by people who seem to think George R. R. Martin invented fantasy. But in this case, the comparison (drawn by my very fantasy-literate friend Alanna) is apt. In Hearn’s novel, a diverse bunch of point-of-view characters with various claims to various lands and titles go on long, meandering journeys back and forth across a Japanese-inspired empire, occasionally bumping into each other when they’re not busy being abruptly killed off. Most notably, we follow boy hero Shikanoko as – before our very eyes – he is shaped into a legendary figure by forces largely beyond his control, and at points it’s hard not to wonder if he may ultimately turn out to be the bad guy. The style is simple and elegant, the characters interestingly conflicted, the way magic works imaginative and very distinct from fantasy books with a more western setting – here, magical power seems primal, bound together with death, birth and sex. Another similarity to Thrones: this volume is far from a standalone book, and relies on its yet-to-be-released sequel to resolve most of its plots.

Holloway, Sally – The Serious Guide to Joke Writing

I don’t often like books on how to write: for one thing they usually raise the childish question “If you’re so bloody good at writing, why is this the only book I’ve heard of by you?” But since I’m supposed to be writing sketches for the Beyond Studios Advent Calendar, I thought I’d better at least try to learn to be funny. We’ll see if I succeed, but regardless, I found this book a lot of fun to read. Most useful are the exercises Holloway provides which theoretically allow you to write jokes on any subject – and as she points out, however many bad jokes you come up with, you only need to use the good ones. For example, here’s one it helped me come up with: “Why is a settee called a settee? Because when you sit on it, you’re the sitter and it’s the sittee.” Okay, that one might need a bit of work…

150-agatheringstorm Hore, Rachel – A Gathering Storm

As an experiment, my book club decided to try out the website Blind Date with a Book, and we ended up with this – certainly a book a lot of us would otherwise have judged by its cover. It was described on the website as a mystery, and while there is an element of that, the mystery does not really unfold in stages or keep the reader guessing as you might hope. There is only really one twist, and it comes near the end; what leads up to it is simply an account of the life of a young woman, with a focus on romance and a brief, somewhat out of place diversion into wartime espionage – all given an air of nostalgia and not entirely justified intrigue by the framing device of Lucy Cardwell, in modern times, digging into her family’s history. I didn’t dislike this book – and towards the end there is some minor but welcome subversion of all the wholesome cosiness – but on this occasion the blind date didn’t really prove much; A Gathering Storm is more or less what I would have assumed it was if I saw it in a book shop.

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150-TheHauntingOfHillHouse Jackson, Shirley – The Haunting of Hill House

The opening of Hill House is strong – we get to bask in some quite beautiful language, get to know (and in my case like) Eleanor and her flights of fancy, and are introduced to a promisingly crooked house that seems to ooze potential for horror. But I was a little disappointed from there on. It’s not that I expected modern pacing and in-your-face nightmarish horror a la The Conjuring. I expected subtlety, but not subtlety so subtle that towards the end I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations at all, or much care what happened to them. Perhaps I need to read this book again with my subtlety dial turned up, as other people’s reactions to it make me want to get more from it than I did. It’s a shame, but I guess horror is an incurably subjective genre – it scares you or it doesn’t.

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Different Seasons King, Stephen – Different Seasons

Stephen King feels like a storyteller who always knows what he’s doing, in a way that confounds and intimidates me greatly. All the stories in this collection of four are fascinating – they aren’t really classed as horror stories, but there is certainly something to horrify in each one of them. ‘The Body’ was the highlight for me: it explores the connections between childhood and adulthood, and the distinct strangeness of both worlds. The adventure the main four characters go on very much captures the odd mixture of images, both nostalgic and disturbing, that come with memories of childhood – it’s kinda like the prose equivalent of Boards of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children. The story that was adapted into The Shawshank Redemption is another highlight, and a masterclass in character building to which I’m sure I will return frequently.

150-misery King, Stephen – Misery

The story of a famous author who is kidnapped by an obsessive fan after a car crash, taken to her remote home in the mountains and forced to write a new book to her exacting specifications. I wonder how much of it appeals to me just because it’s about the writing process in all its infuriating, wonderful, soul-crushing glory. There is certainly a lot of insight here – about writing for yourself vs. writing for others, about writing as a reason to stay alive, about the unconscious mind solving sticky plot problems, about the hidden value of uninformed criticism. But surrounding the writing is a claustrophobic psychological thriller with plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle horrors to offer, as poor Paul Sheldon tries to employ the limited toolset at his disposal to find a way out, any way out. And the star, of course, is Annie Wilkes, certainly the most memorable character from any Stephen King book I’ve read, who is by turns scary, sympathetic, funny, clever, stupid, paranoid, trusting, childlike, calculating, puritanical and utterly depraved. I’m sure there are more sensitive ways to depict mental illness, but for better or worse, this book, like Gone Girl, is more than entertaining enough to get away with it.

150-MrMercedes King, Stephen – Mr Mercedes

I would have expected that when a writer as experienced and prolific as Stephen King gets his hands on a new genre, he would want to do something weird and different with it. But instead we get something that feels fairly by-the-numbers: Bill Hodges, a washed up ex-cop haunted by his past, receives a taunting message claiming to be from the Mercedes killer, one of the perps who got away. And of course he goes behind his department’s back in a desperate attempt to solve this one last case and give his life meaning again. The most disappointing thing is the portrayal of the villain, who feels like a grab-bag of psychopath cliches rather than a portrait of an actual human being. King never encourages us to feel what he is feeling, and we are therefore free to dismiss him as a horrible, racist, misogynistic monster. This not only feels like a wasted opportunity, limiting the story to being fairly hollow genre fiction, but it makes spending time in his company not particularly enjoyable. Okay, I’m sounding pretty negative here, but overall Mr Mercedes is a solid enough thriller, with that addictive cat-and-mouse dynamic that always keeps me turning the pages. Just don’t expect anything more.

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King, Stephen – The Shining

Maybe my favourite horror book I’ve ever read. Not so much because it terrified me (though a couple of scenes gave it a bloody good go) but because it’s so crammed with cool creepy stuff that it almost feels like the ultimate haunted house story. Going in, I had only a vague knowledge of the plot: man takes job as winter caretaker at isolated hotel, man stays there alone with man’s family, man’s mind deteriorates, bad stuff happens. But there is more to it than that, apparently more than is in the film too. The history of the Overlook Hotel is deep and rich, the apparitions that dwell there enjoyably malevolent, and young Danny’s psychic abilities add an extra dimension to the characterisations. A couple of nits I couldn’t help picking: the third-person narrator can be pointlessly lascivious towards female characters at times, and there is some stuff involving a man dressed as a dog which I’m not too happy about from my modern, tediously PC standpoint, but at most those are small blemishes on a big, impressive novel, and ones I’m willing to overlook (sorry) for the love of a good ghost story.

150-OnWriting King, Stephen – On Writing

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.

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150-SkulduggeryPleasant Landy, Derek – Skulduggery Pleasant

It’s been a while since I read a book aimed squarely at children, and I picked this up for a bit of light fantasy escapism (and because I was worried that my current novel featuring a walking skeleton might be ripping it off — seriously). It has definite shades of Neverwhere and of Harry Potter: magical things are going on behind the scenes of our world! Evil sorcerers are plotting to obtain ancient artifacts! But there are also some neat original ideas, two memorable central characters and more wit and style than most books aimed at the older YA market. My only worry is that even this first volume of the series burns through a hell of a lot of plot — sometimes too fast for us to feel its full impact, sometimes with an excessive focus on fight scenes. I’m interested to dip into the sequels and see if they develop in a way that appeals to me — I can see that going either way, to be honest.

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Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s strange picking up a book that’s such a classic you feel as if you already pretty much know the story — then you realise as you go along that you actually don’t know it at all, that behind the familiar names and oft-quoted passages, there’s a lot more to it than you’d always assumed. To Kill a Mockingbird is about race, of course, but it’s also about childhood, family relationships, fear, hypocrisy, demonisation and, perhaps most surprising to me, gender. Maybe everyone else knew this already, but Scout Finch is a fantastic example of a character who doesn’t fit where society expects her to, perhaps because her father has done his best to shield her from the corrupting influence of people’s stupid expectations, and … oh no. I think I’m reverting to my university self. I can’t help it, this book is just so crammed with insight. Not to mention it’s still absurdly, crushingly, shamefully relevant to the modern world. I know my endorsement means nothing at this point, but regardless: read read read.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate Lee, Stewart – How I Escaped My Certain Fate

My two favourite stand-up comedians, Stewart Lee and Ross Noble, both make me feel somewhat cheated by other stand-ups. Ross Noble because the vast majority of his material is completely improvised, and Stewart Lee because he devastatingly dismantles a lot of the clichés other comedians use to get cheap laughs. This book continues that work, with accounts of his frustrating journey to get his stand-up career back without sacrificing integrity. There are also annotated transcripts of three of his shows, which really make you appreciate the level of thought that goes into his routines, and the subtle ways he manipulates his audiences. As in his shows, it is not always clear here where the real Stewart Lee ends and his stand-up character begins. He is one of those mildly intimidating people with such strong convictions about what art and culture should be that I find myself wishing I could be so sure about things, pondering whether I should start pretending not to like the things he doesn’t like in order to seem more cultured. I still like musical theatre though.

150-TheLeftHandOfDarkness Le Guin, Ursula K. – The Left Hand of Darkness

As indicated by the otherworldly spires on the cover, this is a proper juicy old-school science fiction novel, of the sort you feel you should read a musty second-hand paperback of – but I bought the Kindle version because that’s the boring future we’ve ended up in. The Left Hand of Darkness follows an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose interplanetary union, responsible for making first contact with the inhabitants of the icy planet of Gethen. The most unique feature of this strange new world is its genderless society, in which people are neither male nor female, but temporarily take on the biological characteristics of one sex or the other for mating purposes. The oddest feature about the book, meanwhile, is that this feels almost irrelevant to the actual events that transpire. The story functions more as a guided tour of Gethen than as a particularly thorough exploration of the themes it touches upon. I suspect that, at the time of writing, even touching upon these themes was pretty radical, and I have to respect Le Guin for that – as well as for her elegant writing style and, of course, the sheer breadth of her imagination.

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150-CompanyOfLiars Maitland, Karen – Company of Liars

An interesting and very readable novel that takes us on a journey through Medieval England, as a ragtag band of people decide to travel together in an attempt to escape the encroaching plague, and another, less earthly threat that begins to stalk them. The most memorable of these characters, aside from the moral but inscrutable narrator, are the exceedingly creepy horror-child Narigorm, and the consistently objectionable, intolerant, hypocritical, whinging, sexist, racist bully Zophiel, who somehow manages to be dislikeable in quite an enjoyable way, and therefore not actually as dislikeable as he really ought to be. As it is set at a time when elaborate superstition pervaded society in place of science and rationalism, this book made me empathise with non-scientific ways of thinking in a way I hadn’t before, and gave me a clearer (whether entirely accurate or not) sense of Medieval England than any history lesson could. Despite the memorable characters and intriguing plot, I think that’s the main thing I’ll take away from Company of Liars.

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Mandel, Emily St. John – Station Eleven

Wonderful isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think of post-apocalyptic fiction, but it fits this book in a very literal way. Station Eleven is full of wonder at our modern civilisation – which in the story has recently fallen to a deadly flu virus – and at the things the scattered few survivors have lived through and lost. It is a winding, non-linear tale about people trying to hold on to bits of the past, fragments of a world that is rapidly fading from living memory into the realm of myth – and at the centre of it all is the Travelling Symphony, a troupe who play music and perform Shakespeare for those other survivors who want a taste of the world that was. The sheer ambition, the interlocking mysteries and the incredible care with which every word has been chosen all remind me of a David Mitchell book, and make me happy to jot down Emily St. John Mandel’s name below his on my shortlist of authors to read everything by. (Side note: the audiobook performance by Jack Hawkins is exceptionally evocative, and will give you shivers like you’re huddled by a big fire in a log cabin out in the snowy woods, even when you’re just popping to Tesco for cat food.)

Wolf Hall

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Mantel, Hilary – Wolf Hall

I haven’t read much historical fiction, which is both a symptom and a cause of my comprehensive ignorance of history. But this sort of vicious circle can only be broken by fumbling around in the dark for a while, and that’s just what I did throughout a lot of Wolf Hall. Much of the story deals with the technicalities of obtaining a divorce for King Henry VIII of England, but the figures involved (including cunning protagonist Thomas Cromwell, jealous femme fatale Anne Boleyn, and the fascinatingly unpleasant utopian dreamer and torture enthusiast Thomas More) make this a good deal more interesting than it sounds. If you can get over the daunting size of the book, the initially confusing use of pronouns in place of the main character’s name, and the fact that about 50% of the characters are named Thomas, Wolf Hall gets pretty intriguing, and some of the descriptions alone are worth the price of admission. It may even be a good way to begin to understand British history, for people who like their knowledge packaged in a satisfying narrative form.

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Martin, George R. R. – A Game of Thrones

I love fantasy. I don’t quite know why. It can take a little effort even to work out what’s fantasy about A Game of Thrones (a lot of the usual “fantasy” elements are confined to old stories and vague superstitions in Martin’s world), but for some reason the mere fact that it’s set in a history other than our own makes it massively more appealing to me. Already I feel bad that I know and care more about the power struggle between the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, Baratheons etc. than about most of real history. This book weaves together short, to-the-point sentences (which I could stand to learn from) into an intricate tapestry that’s consistently unpredictable and exciting. If you like the TV show and are wondering if it’s worth reading the book, my answer is an emphatic yep. If I gave out MoleThrower Book of the Month awards, this would win the one for May 2012. But I don’t, so it can’t. Sorry George. Ah, he’ll get over it.

150-AClashOfKings Martin, George R. R. – A Clash of Kings

The story told in this volume is more complex and subtle than that in A Game of Thrones, and it feels to me that it makes more sense as a novel than as a season of TV. This time around, the viewpoint characters are kept apart to a large extent, placing more importance on an almost impossibly large supporting cast who are more easily developed on the page than on the screen. It moves slowly at first, like the creaking gears of a massive machine, but it is in this book that the sheer scale of both the world and the story become clear: new locations are revealed, all described in beautiful detail; Shakespearean characters hatch devious plots, betray each other and desperately thrash around to escape the impossible situations they end up in; bloody battles are fought; old dark powers continue their slow, spine-tingling return to Westeros. I can’t even begin to imagine how Martin mapped all this out, but presumably he’s keeping a Post-it note shop in business somewhere.

A Storm of Swords

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Martin, George R. R. – A Storm of Swords

Martin’s intimidatingly ambitious fantasy series only grows more intimidatingly ambitious in its third entry. If A Clash of Kings felt a little too much like several related but mostly separate narratives, A Storm of Swords weaves many of them back together in often unexpected ways. I enjoyed the first two books, but this one feels as if it’s firing on all cylinders, burning the fuel provided by the many diverse elements introduced in books one and two. Or perhaps it was me who changed, who finally realised I knew enough about Martin’s world to get by, that I didn’t need to keep track of the names and sigils of all the minor houses to appreciate the story. Either way, this is my favourite so far. Despite being big enough to justify splitting into two volumes, Swords feels tight, almost every chapter acting like a satisfying short story, beginning and ending in exactly the right places. There are too many highlights to mention; the latter half especially is a rollercoaster, crammed with an almost absurd number of twists and turns, not to mention an impressive body count.

The Road McCarthy, Cormac – The Road

One of the bleaker post-apocalypses I’ve visited. No bands of sassy, leather-clad, punky-haired, gun-toting survivors banding together and forging unlikely alliances here. And that’s not all McCarthy has jettisoned: there is no cautionary narrative about the events leading up to the apocalypse; even speech marks and character names are done away with, which lends the proceedings an odd, lonely, distant flavour. Conversations are stark, brief and clipped, occasionally veering towards the dark absurdity of Beckett’s Endgame. I suppose there is some of the Slaughterhouse-Five sense of there being no plots left to tell in this sort of insane situation – no heroes, no victories to be achieved, very little hope of rebuilding society. But The Road‘s protagonists at least have an iron will to survive, even if it’s not always clear why they would want to. It is the small details of their struggle which are the most powerful, and which truly make us ache for them to stumble upon the brighter world we feel they must surely have earned by now.

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Mitchell, David – Black Swan Green

I seem to have been reading a lot of coming-of-age stories lately, and my jumbled thoughts on the genre will hopefully take the form of a larger blog post soon. This book treads some fairly familiar ground, documenting a year in the life of a 13-year-old poet and stammerer, burdened by secrets and self-doubt, as he traverses the tense tightropes of school and family life in the English village of Black Swan Green. But the journey is made memorable by David Mitchell’s inventive way with words, his talent for suddenly revealing unexpected and beautiful truths that have been there all along, and his habit of shattering his narratives into fragments which feel almost like self-contained stories in themselves, but which together add up to something much more enigmatic and affecting. As with all his books, I’d like to go through this again with a highlighter in an attempt to trace all the secret connections, in this case to figure out what exactly is going on with that moon-grey cat…

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Mitchell, David – The Bone Clocks

Had this been my first David Mitchell book, it would have totally astounded me. But having already got my “wow, this is a writer of unworldly talent” moment out of the way, I just enjoyed Bone Clocks a whole damn lot. As in Cloud Atlas, the story is told in six sections, all very different in terms of setting, character and style. We begin in 1984 with teenager Holly Sykes running away from home and stumbling upon something huge and incomprehensible, and as we traverse the other sections we gradually begin to comprehend it. The threads that connect everything are a little less oblique than in Cloud Atlas, once we get past some enjoyable misdirection: at the start of each new section it can take a little while to find the main storyline again. I can see this putting some people off, but I just found it tantalising, and besides, the writing is so good that I could happily soak in it for hours even if it didn’t go anywhere. There’s a great deal more that I don’t want to give away, but if you are in the mood for a big, juicy, mysterious, beautiful book full of vivid language, interesting and amusing characters, grand metaphysical themes, and so many moving parts you could spend weeks taking them to pieces and admiring their intricacies – yep, this is one of those all right.

Cloud Atlas

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Mitchell, David – Cloud Atlas

It’s hard to describe this book without descending into metaphor: it’s a rollercoaster that spends half its duration cranking you to the top and the latter half plunging you back to earth! It’s a beautiful Rubik’s cube with so many moving parts it may never truly be solved! It’s … okay, if you want to be a literal Linda about it, it’s a series of tangentially connected stories told with amazing skill in various styles, but it can feel very much like those first two things I said. If you’re not used to 19th century adventure stories, the first section might feel a little slow, but it gets more accessible to modern audiences as it goes along. The mystery grows as the layers are pulled back, until the merest hint of a connection between the narratives can set your spine a-tinglin’. If you’re like me you’ll reach the end with the uncomfortable sense that you’ve just read six better books than you’ll ever write, tempered only by the desire to read it again and spot more clues. If that’s not enough for you, it contains a hilariously and depressingly accurate account of travelling by train in Britain.

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Mitchell, David – Ghostwritten

I sort of hoped that, as his first published novel, Ghostwritten might give some clue as to how David Mitchell developed the incredible talent on display in Cloud Atlas, marking an early and educational step on his journey as a writer. But nope, the talent is already in full bloom in this funny, globe-spanning, almost Vonnegut-esque epic. Even more than his other books, it blurs the line between novel and short story collection; some of the chapters – the one set on the holy mountain jumps out – feel easily rich enough to comprise entire novels in themselves. But there are some great “aha” moments when we finally see the quiver of connective threads binding the whole together. If I have one criticism it’s that the book is so sprawling, so dense with echoes and imagery, that it’s hard for a mere mortal like me to know quite what to take away from it, other than a general sense that everything is connected. But that just makes me excited to read it again some day, and the first time round it was an extremely enjoyable ride, and exquisitely written. (Granted, that may be the fanboy in me talking; at this point I’d probably say the same about a telephone directory if David Mitchell wrote it.)

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Mitchell, David – Slade House

I often wish that authors would invent new types of supernatural being rather than plucking them wholesale – vampires! werewolves! zombies! – from the collective culture. In his last couple of books, David Mitchell has done an exceptional job of establishing his own unique mythology. Viewed from certain angles, Slade House seems like a classic haunted house story, albeit structured in Mitchell’s signature time- and viewpoint-hopping style, but his horrors possess an underlying logic that satisfies the rational side of my brain more than the vague, indistinct metaphysics of your average ghostie. In embracing the horror genre it feels a little like this author of astonishing power has decided to begin using that power for evil. Well, if it means more creepy delights like this, that’s okay by me. (Note: if you’ve read The Bone Clocks, you might have a little bit more of a clue what’s going on here, but I think picking up Slade House first would make for an equally enjoyable, if different, reading experience.)

V For Vendetta Moore, Alan and Lloyd, David – V For Vendetta

I’ve never read enough comics to fully adapt to them, so I tend to find them disconcerting and hard to follow. To try and fix this, I thought I’d try something I’d already seen the film of, and which also happens to be in one of my favourite genres. Like many dystopian visions, V For Vendetta shares a lot with Nineteen Eighty-Four, though being newer it is more creepily tuned in to the specifics of modern Britain. The characters are largely caricatures who play out clashes between ideologies: fascism, anarchy, justice, chaos, etc. It’s also deeply intertextual – it plays with quotations and scraps of philosophy, and is already making its own mark on the world. I really enjoyed it – it makes me want to read more comics, and just read more in general so I can appreciate its references. I did like the Faraway Tree stuff though. See, there’s something for all mental ages here!

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Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave – Watchmen

I need to read Watchmen again, because for the moment I have nothing resembling insight, only superlatives to lavish upon it. Actually scratch that – I’m not a proper reviewer, I can gush if I want to. The art is stunning, even overwhelming at times, and considering its only path of entry to your brain is through your eyes, it is amazingly effective at conveying seas of noise and long-drawn-out eerie silences. The overall effect of the whole thing is exhausting. Perhaps that’s just down to my inexperience with comic books, or perhaps the world it presents is just a little too frighteningly believable: a world which hovers on the brink of nuclear war while the heroes who were once seen to protect it can only shuffle around New York City reminiscing about the good old days and mourning their lost youth and reputations. Hmm, I may have made it sound dull there, but it absolutely isn’t – it’s astonishing, even or perhaps especially to a superhero sceptic such as myself.

150-DanceDanceDance Murakami, Haruki – Dance Dance Dance

I’d nearly finished this book when I discovered it’s the sequel to another book (A Wild Sheep Chase) which I haven’t read, but the unexplained elements didn’t strike me as out of place, rather feeling right at home within Murakami’s usual dream logic. Talking to a sheep man on a spooky secret floor of a weird hotel? I’d expect nothing less. As ever, I had no idea where the plot was going, or which strands would turn out to be important. At one point I thought it was turning into a murder mystery, but Murakami seems to shoot down anything resembling a recognisable formula before it gets off the ground. This freewheeling style is enjoyable, but also means I never really know what to say after finishing one of his books. At some point I should probably make an effort to read up on interpretations of his work rather than cheerfully bumbling through it like someone admiring the pretty pictures in an art gallery without stopping to look too closely or read the plaques for context. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with pretty pictures for pretty pictures’ sake.

Kafka on the Shore Murakami, Haruki – Kafka on the Shore

After reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I knew I had to go back to Murakami at some point, as he’s one of the few writers who genuinely inspires me to paint pictures in my head of the things he describes, as readers seem to be expected to but I rarely do. Kafka on the Shore recounts two cryptically interlinked stories: the vaguely Oedipal tale of a teenage runaway, and the strange adventures of an even stranger old man. It shares certain elements with Wind-up Bird: awkward sex, lost cats, surreal vision quests and bizarre events from the past whose consequences echo to the present. In a certain frame of mind – if I were trying to write an essay on the book, say – I might find the muddling of metaphor and reality frustrating. Even reading it for pleasure, the art-sceptical part of my brain sometimes chimes in “What does any of this mean? It’s just a load of random weird stuff happening. I could write this” before the rest of my brain sardonically responds “Oh yeah? And it would be this beautiful and disturbing and downright hypnotic, would it? Now shoosh and enjoy the ride.”

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle cover. Murakami, Haruki – The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

I don’t really know how to talk about this one, since no framework I’ve tried to slot it into has really helped me make sense of it. I’m sure people who read a lot of post-post-modern books (or whatever level we’re at now) would scoff at me for my lack of understanding. But I don’t think you have to have studied English to appreciate it in these ways: it’s poetic, it’s evocative, it’s intriguing, it’s addictive, and it’s unlike almost everything else. In some ways it feels like dozens – if not hundreds – of strange intersecting short stories. If the part of your brain that asks awkward questions like “What’s going on? Is this real, or a dream? What was the point of that bit?” ever takes an evening off, that might be a good time to give this book a chance.

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Nabokov, Vladimir – Lolita

Despite the controversy surrounding this book, the thing that struck me most about it was how beautifully and inventively written it is – certainly enough to make me feel guilty about calling myself a writer, and more disturbingly, enough to calm the sense of moral outrage stirred up by some of the early chapters. Before long, we are swept along on a strange journey in the company of pubescent-girl-fancier Humbert Humbert, a man we would be unlikely to have the chance to get to know in real life, and probably wouldn’t want to. But in the safe realm of fiction, we become desensitised to his unique way of seeing the world, worn down by his poetic vocabulary and biting sense of humour. Like a lot of morally ambiguous books, it’s hard to boil it down to any sort of message other than: “people are people, and people are complicated”. But that’s a lesson worth learning more than a few times.

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Ness, Patrick – The Knife of Never Letting Go

Lent to me by a friend who wanted to correct the slightly negative impression I had of Patrick Ness following More Than This. And happily, it worked! I lost myself in this story in a way that’s upsettingly rare these days, but which took me right back to the fantasy books of my childhood. The world, beginning with Prentisstown (a primitive religious settlement where people’s thoughts are constantly audible to everyone else and girls are unheard of), is beautifully realised, the themes (empathy, gender, secrets, religion) are complicated and deftly handled, and the style is much more flavourful than the gritty but bland stream-of-consciousness of so much YA. There are some quietly beautiful moments, but overall it moves about as fast as a book can without making you forget the stakes — there is just enough time, at points, to go “phew, maybe things are finally going to be okay now — OH JESUS CHRIST”. I only hope the rest of the trilogy lives up to it, seeing as the twists and tension and emotion have already been cranked up to potentially unsustainable heights. But having seen now what this author can do, I’m hopeful.

150-TheAskAndTheAnswer Ness, Patrick – The Ask and the Answer

As a rule, series tend to get less colourful as they go along, and such is the case with Chaos Walking, apparently. The sense of wonder and discovery from the first book is largely replaced with an oppressive dystopian darkness; the many and varied locations are replaced with one town and its surrounding locales; and the humour is mostly gone. I’m not entirely fond of this trend, but regardless, The Ask and the Answer is a skilfully woven story, and there is plenty here still to like. The pace remains breathless but just possible to keep up with, the world continues to tease us with its secrets, and even the most loathsome characters become three-dimensional people before our very eyes. (This is of course one of the oldest of all narrative conjuring tricks, but it can still be miraculously affecting to be reminded that every human being is a human being.) To cap it all off, the cliffhanger ending of the first book is surpassed by an even crazier one! Book three will definitely appear here in the near future.

150-MoreThanThis Ness, Patrick – More Than This

There’s a lot about More Than This that I can’t say, but this is how it starts: a boy drowns, then wakes up in a strange, deserted version of a place he used to know. If you’ve read survival-based YA books before you’ll have some idea of what to expect — cobbling together resources in a world of darkness and despair, a simple stream-of-consciousness style — but there is also an enticing sense of mystery to keep you turning the pages. For the first third or so I was desperate to know what was going on, but when it began to become clearer I struggled to find it convincing, and without the core of intrigue to hold it together, my appreciation for the book kind of disintegrated. There are things about it that are commendable (again, I can’t elaborate without spoiling things), but ultimately the style, the logic of the world and the vagueness of the central themes were too off-putting for me.

150-TheFirstFifteenLivesOfHarryAugust North, Claire – The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Lately, in the world of not overly literary literary fiction (book club fiction, if that’s not a pejorative term) there seems to be a glut of books with titles like this: “The Intriguing Noun Phrase of Name Quirkyname”. I tried not to let this put me off what sounded like a cool premise: people who live their lives over and over again, always carrying forward the memories of their previous lives. And I was pleasantly surprised by how convincing and well thought through it all is – how these people have developed systems to take care of each other, to deal with members of their own kind who cause trouble, and to carry messages back and forth through time. My one criticism is mostly a matter of personal taste: in chronicling multiple lifetimes, the book encompasses such a broad sweep of time that it often doesn’t bother to zoom in and give us a close-up view, a sense of place and character, a gut connection to what Harry is living through. This perhaps reflects how the fleeting details of individual lives might come to mean less in such a drawn-out existence, but it also makes it hard for a mere mortal like me to fully relate. Still, the tangled game of cat and mouse that brings the book to a close is both tense and ingenious.

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Orwell, George – Animal Farm

Another reread. This is the story of a workers’ revolution among the animals of Manor Farm, who chase out their human masters and seize control, before slowly realising that this new configuration of power has not resulted in the golden utopia they were promised. Animal Farm certainly deserves its status as a classic: it’s extremely well crafted and makes its points clearly and elegantly. To me, though, the directness of the allegory has always been mildly off-putting, and gives this book a bit of an educational flavour, like something designed to be taught in schools. But perhaps that’s just because Orwell’s follow-up, the magnificently terrifying Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes a lot of the same ideas and spins them into a much more complex and thought-provoking tapestry.

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Palahniuk, Chuck – Fight Club

I was cautious going into this book, because although it seems to be worshipped by a certain section of the population, I got the impression this was largely to do with the theme of masculinity, a theme so profoundly meaningless to me that when people talk about it in the context of real life they may as well be talking about unicorns. Thankfully, there is a lot more going on here than a bunch of guys reconnecting with their inner man-animals through the medium of beating each other up. Each chapter is beautifully, almost musically structured, with verses and choruses, themes and variations, echoes and refrains which provide a satisfying sense of progression even when the plot is unfolding in three different places and times at once. The writing is peppered with striking, meme-ready sentences which provide a clue as to how it accumulated its massive cult following. And yes, there may be a rebellious, even anarchic streak running through Fight Club, but any reader who sees it all the way to its chilling conclusion and still thinks “yeah, we need to do exactly what those guys did” is not a person I will ever understand.

Crime in the Community cover. Peartree, Cecilia – Crime in the Community

Full disclosure: this one was written by my mum. This means it’s hard to be objective, but I found it fun and surprising. It’s rather strange to venture into a world created by someone you think you know incredibly well, and find things there that it didn’t occur to you that they ever thought about. Along with things, of course, that seem completely in character, like frustration with authority figures and dysfunctional children (uh-oh). As well as a subtly unfolding mystery, this book is a catalogue of observations about people, many of them very funny. You can find it on the Kindle store for free, though it’s the first in a series, so be warned that it may act as a gateway drug to the world of Pitkirtly.

150-TheMountainAndTheFlood Perry, Sheila – The Mountain and the Flood

Another novel by my mum, published under her real name this time! It’s set in a dystopian future version of Scotland which achieved independence from the UK then went a bit evil and began cracking down on citizens of English birth. (Guess which side my mum was on in the independence debate?) In the midst of this, a half-English, half-Scottish family living in Edinburgh struggles to remain together, fighting first faceless bureaucracy and later actual people with actual faces. Oh, and while all this is going on, an apocalyptic storm is brewing that could flood most of Scotland. To do the indie book pitch thing: it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four meets The Day After Tomorrow meets Cat’s Cradle! It’s also very entertaining, even the bits I disagree with politically – which, in any case, tend to be superficial things rather than core philosophical tenets.

Write. Publish. Repeat. Fiction Unboxed Platt, Sean and Truant, Johnny B. – Write. Publish. Repeat. and Fiction Unboxed

More insight into the self-publishing world, written by some intimidatingly prolific self-publishing authors. The first of these books gave me the kick I needed to start really taking writing seriously as a career, and think about realistic ways to make money from it, as opposed to the vanishingly faint hope that my first book will instantly catapult me to success. The second details the process of writing a 100,000 word Young Adult book in the space of a month (whaaa), in a most inspiring and instructive way.

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Pratchett, Terry and Gaiman, Neil – Good Omens

An apocalyptic tale in which the forces of Heaven and Hell are portrayed as world-weary, vaguely incompetent bureaucrats endlessly pushed around and manipulated by those up(and down)stairs. This sets the stage for a witty play involving frequent meetings between the mythological (represented by said bureaucrats and four horsepersons of the apocalypse, among others) and the mundane (represented by the inhabitants of the almost-too-wholesome English village of Lower Tadfield). Yeah, this book is definitely very Gaiman and Verry Pratchett, though in terms of style it feels more Pratchett to me – so densely packed with humourous insight, pleasing turns of phrase and clever images that as a writer I go into a state of denial to make myself feel better, thinking “okay, but it can’t REALLY be this well written”, even though it blatantly is.

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Pullman, Philip – Northern Lights

From the very first page of Northern Lights we are wrapped in the rich, darkly intoxicating atmosphere of a world a lot like our own, but different in a few key ways. Most notably, people’s souls are embodied by daemons, animal companions which can shape-shift until their humans reach a certain age, at which point they settle into a permanent form. It’s a brilliant idea, sure to induce envy in any wannabe fantasy author (cough), but Pullman uses it in so many clever ways that you can’t stay mad at him. As plucky young heroine Lyra (along with her daemon Pantalaimon) leaves behind a cushy life in her version of Oxford and sets out to find her missing friend Roger – well, we go with her, in that magical but indefinable way that so few books achieve, and by the time we get to the north we are so embroiled in the ways of her world that what we find there strikes us as genuinely horrifying. Whatever you think of the later books in the trilogy – and they certainly get more divisive as they go – this opening volume is a spectacular masterpiece, and I don’t see how anyone with an interest in fantasy could disagree.

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Pullman, Philip – The Subtle Knife

Whereas Northern Lights is a fairly linear story set in one world and told mostly from one point of view, The Subtle Knife pulls back to reveal much bigger and more complicated things going on, the mere nature of which would probably constitute a major spoiler. This is where the scope of Pullman’s ambition – alongside his hatred for certain real-world institutions – becomes clear. We are also introduced to the second major protagonist of the series, a troubled but good-hearted boy named Will, who is from our world but has that uncanny children’s fiction ability to very quickly accept that he’s just stepped into a realm of daemons, witches, soul-eating spectres and knives that can cut through the fabric of reality. If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that it is very much a middle chapter: up to and including the cliffhanger ending, a lot of what transpires feels like stage setting for book three. But that criticism rings a little hollow when it is almost impossible, at any point, to tear your eyes from the stage.

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Pullman, Philip – The Amber Spyglass

There is more to criticise in The Amber Spyglass than in previous books in the series. The fragmentation of the plot which began in The Subtle Knife escalates here, to the point that it can be hard to piece it all together, even to remember which world everyone is in and whose side they are now on. Characters who once felt real become more ideas than believable people as, in a trend I generally disapprove of, the metaphorical meanings of the story begin to take precedence over the literal events. But these flaws are a perhaps inevitable consequence of the boldness of the themes, and a lot of potential disappointment is balanced by the cosmic scale and the intellectual vigour of the ideas presented. Some people won’t like these ideas. I generally do, although I’m not too keen on the way so many characters converge on the exact same point of view towards the end, finishing each other’s heartfelt lectures on the way things ought to be. Even with all these caveats I find the overall effect quite beautiful, and it’s still refreshing to see a young adult book take such a controversial stance, attacking huge real world institutions rather than just imagined baddies.

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Ronson, Jon – So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

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.

Them Ronson, Jon – Them

Jon Ronson is not one to let feelings of social awkwardness (or the occasional mild fear for his life) get in the way of an intriguing human story. In Them he documents his time spent with various religious extremists, gun enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists and other people generally demonised by mainstream culture. In the process, like many a good author, he demonstrates why “evil” might just be the least helpful word in the English language. We bear witness to such disarming juxtapositions as an Islamic fundamentalist watching The Lion King with his baby daughter, and a branch of the Ku Klux Klan nit-picking over how best to burn a cross. Segments are short and snappy and easy to dip into, but as the narrative progresses it builds genuine intrigue, and you might end up reading big chunks all at once just to find out what head-shakingly strange thing happened next.

150-ThePsychopathTest Ronson, Jon – The Psychopath Test

Like Them, The Psychopath Test is the sort of addictive book I tend to blaze through in a couple of days, its unchallenging language expressing some deeply disturbing ideas. In this case, the idea that psychopaths live among us, sowing seeds of chaos throughout society, but they can be weeded out by means of a series of questions. And alongside this, the equally disturbing idea that this test can be misused in order to make almost anyone seem like a psychopath. There is a touch of the counter-narrative that inevitably seems to crop up in every book like this – “omigosh, what if I’M the psychopath, trying to find psychopaths everywhere?!” – but Ronson doesn’t dwell on it too much. Look out for: the chapter about lack of empathy in the world of reality TV, which somehow manages to be more disgusting than all the stuff about murderers. Good job, guys.

The Name of the Wind

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Rothfuss, Patrick – The Name of the Wind

I’d heard such good things about this book that I couldn’t resist picking it up, despite my fear of reading straight fantasy in case it shows up my own novel. As I feared, there are certain sections that make me go “Awww, that’s sort of like that bit in my book, but way better”; at points Patrick Rothfuss seems to be taking us on a tour of fantasy tropes, going “This is how you do this one well, this is how you make this one interesting”. In some ways the setting feels like a pretty traditional fantasy world, albeit very well realised and rich in cultural detail. One thing that sets it apart is sympathy, a magic system that’s unique in that it … well, it almost makes sense. Unlike the handily vague fireball-flinging nonsense in a lot of fantasy novels (mine included), sympathy has rules which the reader is allowed to learn, so rather than feeling alienated when the protagonist pulls off a particularly badass piece of binding, you say “Ohhh, that was clever, well done!” It’s a great fun book, but if you’re the impatient sort, bear in mind that it is the first of a trilogy that is not yet finished and leaves many a loose end dangling provocatively in your face.

The Wise Man's Fear

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Rothfuss, Patrick – The Wise Man’s Fear

Rather than starting with a bang, this book eases us back into Kvothe’s world quite slowly, but that’s okay. Aside from his wise and charismatic style and his brilliant world-building, much of Rothfuss’s skill is in wrapping us up in the day-to-day details of his protagonist’s life – stressing us out with his troubles, making us cheer whenever he wins some small victory over circumstance – until the fact that we’re not actually him seems entirely irrelevant. In that, it reminds me of nothing so much as Harry Potter. And the slow build-up more than pays off, as the latter half of the book is jam-packed with stunning imagery and moments to make you gasp out loud and prickle with goosebumps. If the third in the series lives up to the first two, The Kingkiller Chronicle will definitely join Harry Potter and His Dark Materials on the list of stories I go back to when I want to be taken on a fantastic journey away from my worldly troubles. Whatever it says about me, stories like these are among my favourite things.

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Rowling, J. K. – The Casual Vacancy

It took me a long time to get into The Casual Vacancy. It’s not that I was expecting Quidditch and Polyjuice Potion – honest! – but it seemed reasonable to expect some of the charm of Harry Potter. Instead, this book felt like a rather humdrum soap opera with a focus on unlikeable characters judging one another. To be honest I may not have kept going, except for two things: a) I had bought the audiobook and decided to let it play in the background while doing other things, and b) it was written by J. K. Rowling who is still probably, by some measures at least, my favourite author. I’m glad I made the effort. The cast may be less colourful and cartoonish than that of Harry Potter, but some – Krystal Weedon springs to mind – are no less vivid and fascinating, if you can get past all the ugly hypocrisies Rowling dwells upon so unflinchingly it feels almost unfair. And in the end, all the mundane, unpleasant, judgemental pieces come together to form something powerful, compassionate and furious. In that way, at least, this book lived up to my expectations.

150-harrypotterandthecursedchild Rowling, J. K. / Thorne, Jack / Tiffany, John – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I have not yet seen this play in the theatre, but I think I can safely say watching it would be a much better experience than reading it. On paper (or Kindle screen) it can feel like questionable fanfiction – familiar characters in new and unlikely situations, presented in an uncomfortably bare-bones style with little of the flavour of a novel. The plot is easy to criticise as more a Greatest Hits of Harry Potter than a true eighth installment, finding convoluted ways to bring in just about every element of the wizarding world you could possibly want to see on stage. This would be thrilling if you were actually watching it, but as I read my main reaction was “oh, I guess that’ll be really cool for the people who managed to get tickets”. Having said all that, there were odd bits that made me remember why I love the series so much. The new character of Scorpius is pretty great. And Rowling isn’t afraid to take risks, portray Harry in a more negative light than ever before, and show Hogwarts from the perspective of people much more socially alienated than him. As a social alien, I appreciated this greatly.

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Sacks, Oliver – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

I’d heard Oliver Sacks on Radiolab (a great podcast about science and brains and stuff – if you haven’t heard it it’s like having liquid epiphanies poured into your ears), and decided to get this book as part of my vague plan to dig a little deeper into things that interest me. The book recounts a bunch of cases involving people’s brains behaving in unusual ways – failing to process sensory data properly, rejecting the memories of events minutes after they happen, even granting their owners the ability to do seemingly impossible things like instantly identify whether massive numbers are primes or not. It’s accessible and fascinating, and makes you think about how much we take for granted, but also how much of that can be taken away while still leaving something to live for.

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Sestero, Greg and Bissell, Tom – The Disaster Artist

This book documents the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which is up there with Troll 2 in the “best worst movie” leagues. The unglamorous portrayal of small-time show business is interesting, but it is Tommy’s combination of eccentricity, passion, anger and vulnerability that makes this account so memorable (if you’ve ever acted in a weird and emotionally manipulative way, some of his lower moments may feel uncomfortably familiar). Sometimes I think any work of this type – be it documentary or memoir-type thing – is just an excuse to talk about people for a good long while, the specific subject acting as a framing device which sheds a lot of its importance once we begin to get to know the fascinating characters involved. So even if you haven’t seen The Room, this book deserves to be read by anyone interested in people – and if you aren’t, why are you reading at all?

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150-HowNotToSelfPublish Trevithick, Rosen – How Not to Self-Publish

As I am gearing up to self-publish my novel, I thought I’d better try to learn a bit about the self-publishing world. Despite the fact that this is not the most serious book on the subject – or the second most serious, or, I would imagine, anywhere in the top hundred most serious – I feel as though it’s given me more of a sense of what to expect than any sombre statistic-filled handbook ever could. The absurd scenarios within capture the vivid and often unhealthy emotions that come with exposing your work to the cruel world of readers, critics, obsessive fans and indifferent family members. The fact that Rosen Trevithick is willing to admit some of these emotions and laugh at them makes me breathe a sigh of relief – perhaps worrying about those things does not make me too immature to cope with the business of being a writer. Perhaps I could fit in with all the other indie authors putting a brave face on their seething jealousies and insecurities. Phew.

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Vaughan, Brian K. and Staples, Fiona – Saga, volumes 1-4

My friend Euan practically shoved Saga into my hands, and I’m glad he did. It’s a big, sprawling, colourful, funny sci-fi epic about two people from opposing sides of a war that has been “outsourced” to numerous planets and moons, who fall in love, have a baby and go on the run. Naturally the authorities from both sides see their love as the most dangerous thing in the entire battle-torn, explosion-riddled universe, and enlist some shady characters to hunt them down. So begins an ongoing rollercoaster filled with complicated, flawed characters, intelligent philosophical musings, and absolutely stunning artwork. In my quest for a theme I eventually settled on lost innocence: the newborn baby whose future self provides slightly jaded narration, the alien species that resemble Earth animals — these lend both humour and an odd pinch of melancholy to many scenes. Prudes’ note: these comics contain a fair bit of gruesome death and some moderately graphic sex, so if you’re squeamish you might run into a few scenes that cause you to … er, squeam, I guess.

Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut, Kurt – Breakfast of Champions

To a greater extent than the other Vonneguts I’ve read, Breakfast of Champions reads less like a novel and more like a guide to the human race written by a bemused, witty and easily distracted alien. It starts strong, with a sarcastic dismantling of the myths surrounding America, and goes on to cover such ground as free will, racism, the futility of all life, and ultimately just what the hell the Creator of the Universe is playing at. Despite, or maybe because of the fact that its actual capital-P ‘Plot’ is so deeply buried within a labyrinth of tangents that it can barely be located at all, this book made me understand certain things about Vonnegut’s style for the first time. At one particularly brilliant point, he breaks the fourth wall and explains why he writes the way he does; on several other occasions I laughed out loud at the gleeful immaturity with which he takes a sledgehammer to the sort of rules they teach you in creative writing classes.

Cat's Cradle Vonnegut, Kurt – Cat’s Cradle

You never quite know what you’re getting into with Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle plays with a bafflingly diverse array of ingredients which interact in chaotic ways to bring about a most unconventional apocalypse. These ingredients include: the oddball children of the mysterious, deceased co-inventor of the atom bomb, a large quantity of new and useful philosophical terms (courtesy of Bokononism, a self-admittedly made-up religion), several fragments of ice-nine (a new kind of water that teaches any other water it touches to solidify into a stubbornly unusable block) and, last but not least, the tropical island nation of San Lorenzo. It reminds me a little of H G Wells in its mingling of dark visions of the future with musings on humanity which make such futures appear worryingly inevitable. I know this is one of Vonnegut’s best-regarded books, but for me it hasn’t yet clicked together into as satisfying a whole as, to pick an unfairly brilliant example, Slaughterhouse-Five. But there’s so much going on, thematically and philosophically, that I already have the itch to revisit it in the not-too-apocalyptically-distant future.

The Sirens of Titan Vonnegut, Kurt – The Sirens of Titan

Having grown up ingesting The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in various forms, it’s hard not to read Sirens as a sort of precursor: wry science fiction (wryence fiction) where dysfunctional people get whisked off to various planets and moons and put in vaguely absurd situations by forces outside their control. In the process it captures some of the random, chaotic, weird beauty of life. Breathtaking imagination is on display, in for example the descriptions of the creatures that live on Mercury, and of the being called Salo; these passages ought to make most writers – myself included and emphasised – slightly ashamed of their own lack of imagination. Also, it’s nice to finally know what my parents were talking about when they used to go on about chronosynclastic infundibula. Nerds.

Slaughterhouse Five

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Vonnegut, Kurt – Slaughterhouse-Five

Vonnegut certainly does know his way around a weird sentence – I learned that much from Sirens of Titan. But in other ways, Sirens didn’t prepare me for this book. Rather than being a funny, occasionally melancholic philosophical romp, Slaughterhouse-Five is tight and sharp and crisp and deranged and brutal – merciless in its quest to hammer home the horrors of life in general and war in particular, chilling in its amused detachment from these horrors. But it wouldn’t be half as powerful without this detachment. Rather than moralising, it peppers us with short little bullets of humour and horror, and after a while it becomes disturbingly hard to tell which is which. Don’t read it unless you’re in the mood to think about death for a while. But you probably should read it at some point.

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Among Others Walton, Jo – Among Others

Often I’m annoyed by fantasy stories that give us the option of believing all their impossible events take place only in one young character’s head – the sideways wink, that cheeky “oh, kids and their imaginations” thrown into children’s films as if the children watching aren’t going to notice. And even though this book is told in the form of a socially alienated 15-year-old’s diary, I didn’t really find myself suspecting that the fairies and magical events she describes were anything but real. Perhaps it’s because the way magic works is original and ingenious and beautifully integrated into the world – or perhaps it’s because the narrator is clever and likeable and odd in some very relatable ways, and I wanted to trust her. Also, along the way, she talks about a wide array of science fiction and fantasy books which, a little like the bibliography of 80s geekdom scattered throughout Ready Player One, might help people like me, who sometimes feel a bit out of the geek loop, to catch up.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray

Brilliant, simple, original ideas are hard to come by. Oscar Wilde had one of them, and the result is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a tragic exploration of a consequence-free life. Conspicuously absent are details about what Dorian actually DOES when he is supposedly indulging in wild excess and vice – I’m guessing these were too riskily risqué for a Victorian readership. As such, it is hard for us to tell exactly whose side we should be on as a modern audience, though Lord Henry’s cruel witticisms which sow the seeds of amorality in young Dorian’s mind can seem less seductive now than they probably did then. Also off-putting are the book’s treatment of class, and certain drawn-out descriptions of faraway things that have little bearing on the story. All in all, though, the book is still interesting for its iconic and genuinely unsettling imagery, its endless paradoxical soundbites and the sort of ending that makes you go “Now, that’s an ending!” (Also, for a bit of context it is well worth reading about Wilde’s life, particularly his trial, to which this book now seems incredibly relevant.)

150-DirtyStreetsOfHeaven Williams, Tad – The Dirty Streets of Heaven

This and the Dresden Files have made me suspect that daft over-the-top urban fantasy noir nonsense may be my guilty pleasure genre of choice. But perhaps that’s selling them short. Dirty Streets certainly has a strong premise, its main character being a tough-talking angel whose job is to present cases, in a sort of metaphysical courtroom dimension, for why the recently deceased deserve to go to heaven rather than be condemned to an eternity in hell. Against this backdrop, things get messy for the excellently named Bobby Dollar when souls begin to go missing; the action that follows is well-paced, the mystery theologically intriguing. That said, there is a fair chunk of junk here too, in particular a love story so unbelievable I was convinced it couldn’t actually be going to happen, and then it did. I guess that’s not much of a criticism though – it’s more like looking at a greasy chip shop pizza and noting that it’s probably not good for you, before you cram it down your throat.

150-ThankYouJeeves Wodehouse, P. G. – Thank You, Jeeves

My first Wodehouse book, but the characters felt familiar straight away, which is probably a testament to how interwoven they are with British culture by this point. If you don’t know, the central characters are rich idler Bertie Wooster, whose good intentions are matched only by his complete inability to translate them into advisable actions, and his valet Jeeves, who seems to know more or less everything there is to know and will patiently bail his employer out of whatever situations he gets himself into. It all feels very innocent and benign, to the point of being naive, and as such it runs the risk of picking up and playing with certain cultural elements from the time it was written, without stopping to ask if they might be harmful. But throughout the book there’s an absolute lack of malice that makes it hard to take genuine offence; it’s something to shake your head at with a slightly disbelieving smile before moving on. Despite the fact I’ve heard all the books in this series are basically the same, I am tempted to pick up another one some time, and let the convoluted plots and winding conversations waste my time in a pleasant way.

John Dies at the End Wong, David – John Dies at the End

This book is a comical sci-fi horror … thingumy which proves that humour does not have to come at the expense of things like tension, empathy, poignancy and fear, and can in fact heighten them. Much of what transpires is disarmingly silly. Supernatural forces are painted as immature teenagers with a destructive streak, but this makes them somehow more terrifying than the solemn and restrained phantoms of most horror stories. The eponymous John is one of the most memorable characters I’ve read lately, mostly because he seems like exactly the sort of person you’d have gone to high school with – almost too ridiculous to be made up. It can also be so politically incorrect that it seems pointless to even point it out – in that way, and in its grotesque imagination, it reminds me more of South Park than of anything else. South Park mixed with a cheap B-movie mixed with Douglas Adams mixed with god-knows-what. I feel like either I or David Wong (probably me, to be honest) slightly lost the plot somewhere in the middle, but I certainly enjoyed it enough to stick the sequel (This Book is Full of Spiders) on my reading list.

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The 5th Wave Yancey, Rick – The 5th Wave

I was unsure about this book from the first few chapters, as me and the main protagonist got off on the wrong foot, and sadly our relationship never fully recovered. The setting is ridiculously bleak, existing at some dark intersection between The War of the Worlds, The Walking Dead, and everyone you ever loved dying horribly. The story, meanwhile, is a cocktail of various Young Adult flavours, notably The Hunger Games (as the teenage protagonist stumbles from one gritty, back-to-basics survival situation to the next), and Twilight (as she gets all gooey over a mysterious but hot guy who may or may not want to kill her – has the whole of society just decided that that’s how love works now?). The story does have some moments of real cleverness, but they weren’t quite enough to hold my interest. Anyway, I won’t try to pass off my distaste as some sort of insight; it just didn’t really click for me.

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150-StoriedLifeOfAJFikry Zevin, Gabrielle – The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

On the surface, this story about an embittered bookshop owner learning to love again after a child is abandoned in his shop should be the sort of thing that reaches into your heart and squeezes unbearably tight. But – and I don’t know why this is – it did very little for me. One problem I can actually put my finger on is that the change in Fikry’s character seems to happen almost as soon as the child shows up. There is little reluctance on his part to let someone new into his damaged heart, and once he has, it is pretty much smooth sailing from there on. No major setbacks, not much struggle to adapt to the idea of loving again – just all the pieces of a happy and fulfilling life appearing one by one and falling neatly into place. If there is a message here, it feels a naive and rather alienating one. Also, I wasn’t sold on some of the thematic stuff – I got the sense the author was trying to suggest that stories can interweave with people’s lives in all sorts of subtle but profound ways, but I can’t think of many ways this was actually demonstrated, aside from the literal fact of the main character’s occupation. I will say this though: the rest of my book club loved A. J. Fikry, and they are clever and discerning people. Perhaps parts of it were targeting receptors that are missing from my messed up brain.

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