books 2011

A Year in Books: 2011

2011 was the year when my boyfriend read more than 110 books. I am not sure if that number includes re-reads, but it might tell you a bit about our household. I read 45 books, up from 21 in 2010 and 38 in 2009. That tells me two things: 1) I read more crap this year which means 2) I was more stressed this year. I am nowhere near the 110+ books read by my Other Half - then again, he does not knit! 2011 was also the year I finally signed up for GoodReads which influenced my reading a great deal. As my profile shows, I found adding books somewhat addictive. I began reading more and - crucially - I began reading better books. I began using my local library a lot more and I kept track of my to-read list via GR too. Huzzah for getting organised!

The worst reads: Alan Hollinghurst disappointed me big time with the Man Booker long-listed The Stranger's Child. Hollinghurst is one of the finest writers of his generation, but TSC just did not deliver. It read like a reiteration of everything he has ever written filled with token, tired literary allusions. Emma  Donoghue's 2010 short-listed Room made me angry. The Testament of Jessie Lamb was long-listed for the Man Booker prize this year. The first chapter was spectacular: a dystopian novel with a feminist bent. Oh yes! Unfortunately life is cruel and the rest of the book was a poorly-constructed and badly-written teen novel. I felt like giving up reading after Zadie Smith's On Beauty. And don't get me started on Lev Grossman's The Magicians. I really read far too many bad books this year.

The honourable mentions: Margaret Atwood's In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imaginationwas uneven but well worth my time. While Atwood writing about other authors is not her at her most interesting, I really enjoyed the section dealing with her childhood and the general overview of genre.  Jasper Fforde redeemed himself with both the delightfully metafictional and whimsical One of Our Thursdays is Missing and the far more sinister Shades of Grey. Jonathan Stroud's The Ring of Solomon was good - Stroud is quietly turning himself into a very reliable source of entertaining YA fantasy novels - and actually the book rekindled my desire to read. Isherwood's Goodbye To Berlin and Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time were both unsurprisingly solid. Finally, Susanna Jones' The Earthquake Birdwas a quirky, psychologically interesting read which reminded me of Murakami mixed with early Iain Banks.

The very good reads: After a year of mostly disappointing books, I re-read a few of my favourite novels.

AS Byatt's Possession: A Romance was one of those re-reads. I love it with quiet intensity as only a lonely girl who grew up surrounded by books could love a book about lonely people surrounded by books who in turn love reading about lonely people surrounded by books. Another re-read was Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. It floored me.

My best new read of the year was China Miéville's Embassytown. How interesting that in a year when mainstream literary fiction faltered so spectacularly a so-called genre novel took on all the hard questions and pulled it off flawlessly. Embassytown is not only incredibly well-written and tightly-plotted - it is also a challenging, sophisticated read that delves into the philosophy of language and notions of identity. It is absolutely splendid and deserves as much praise as possible. How very silly that some people will not give it a try because it is speculative fiction, gasp.

Moving Forward: I am not such a fool that I will announce how many books I will read next year. I will crash and burn out if I make any such pledges. However, I do hope that I will read far better books next year. This year was a real downer in terms of quality - even the books I thought would be decent reads turned out to be on the dubious side of things (HOLLINGHURST!)

Margaret Atwood's In Other Worlds mentioned the concept of 'slipstream' books which can be 'defined' as "the fiction of strangeness". I looked into what kind of book that may be and the loosely-defined canon include so many of my  favourite books and authors that I will probably use the 'canon' as a source of inspiration (sans John Barth). I have never been able to pinpoint what type of books I enjoy but I might have a new vocabulary. We shall see.

(2009 entry; 2010 entry)

Books Read 2011: Jasper Fforde - Shades of Grey

Years ago a good friend visited me in Copenhagen and somehow persuaded me into reading The Eyre Affair, an obscure first novel by a British writer. I had misgivings but my friend has good taste in things. Like countless others before and after me, I loved the book and Jasper Fforde is not an obscure author any more. He is more like a cult phenomenon - much in the same way as Terry Prachett (of whom I've never been a fan, incidentally) and Monty Python (who I love) he inspires devotion and fanaticism. You bond with other people over his books. You give them to friends and hope they'll come back laughing hard. Having said that, the Thursday Next novels which started with The Eyre Affair were a case of diminishing returns after the first three books and I never got into his follow-up series, Nursery Crimes. My interest in reading Shades of Grey was the unlikely combination of my friend Kirsten loving it and Adam Roberts calling it a failed high-concept sci-fi book (Pot Kettle Black, Mr Roberts). Shades is a more serious, darker book than what I expected from Fforde. Okay, so his dystopian vision is still filled with silly puns and comic asides, but the world is a sinister place where nasty things do happen to good people. The book is also more science fiction than his previous books (which were pomo-literary-comic-fantasy-detective-thriller-fiction) which is particularly noticeable in its world building. However, I wish I had known that Shades is the first of three novels, so I could have understood its pacing a lot better. The extensive world building takes up almost 2/3rds of the novel and the plot does not unfold until very, very late.

So, I had a mixed reaction to Shades of Grey but I know I shall be reading the next two novels in the series because I do love a good dystopian novel and the plot set-up is really quite intriguing even if I had to read 250+ pages about The National Colour Grid, the importance of maintaining a colour dynasty, beigemarket dealings in colour swatches, and homing slugs.