Monday 30 December 2013

80 Books 2013 Review

I’ve impressed myself with the books I’ve read this year. Not necessarily in terms of the quality I’ve read (come on, Pretty Little Liars, whilst addictive books and TV show, is not ‘literature’) but in the quantity. Whilst I’ve never kept such a dedicated list before 2012 (when I managed 76 books) I’m sure 115 books has to be a record for me.

There’s been a definite slant towards YA fiction this year, although not quite as much of a slant as it felt like whilst I was actually doing the reading. I also read more non-fiction books than I have since I did my degree/Masters, so I’m impressed with that.
Genre-wise, it’s difficult to say – so many of the books I’ve read don’t fit into particular genres. What is noticeable is the dearth of anything from before 1920 (and only This Side of Paradise by F Scott Fitzgerald drags that date backwards). Indeed, most of the books I’ve read have been published since 2000.

Having read so many books, even having kept (several) lists, I’ve forgotten some of them already. Inevitable I suppose. However, some have stayed with me and I’ve therefore compiled my top five of the year. Interestingly, these were read in the first 2/3rds of the year, four of them in the first half. Clearly my taste in books either got worse (as in, I read trash) or I became more discerning (doubtful). I've linked to the original blog review where I've done one. In the order I read them:

 Book #5: The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern. What I like to term ‘magical realism’, even though it isn’t, strictly speaking. Calling it fantasy would be belying it’s inherent beauty, and I do put it in a similar bracket to Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop. I’d probably also describe it as ‘romantic’ in all senses, so well-worthy of being in my top five.

Book #9: The Crow Road by Iain Banks. Apt that this book should be in my top five in the year Banks sadly passed away all too early. This was skilfully written whilst still being engaging. I shall be reading more of his work in 2014. 

Book #26: A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale. A book which achieved the impossible – both my mother and I enjoyed it! This is an extremely rare occurrence and testament to Gale’s writing and character-building. A book where nothing much happens and yet everything happens.

Book #39: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Stunning. Not just one of the best books I’ve read this year, but, I think, ever. So so beautiful. A wonderful concept from Siobhan Dowd, another writer gone too soon. 

Book #73: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor. Okay, so it’s not quite To Kill a Mockingbird, but the way I felt when I read it was like I felt when I read Harper Lee’s novel for the first time. Gorgeous. And screw you, Michael Gove, for believing our kids should only be studying the work of writers from the British Isles. This did more for me than any of Dickens’ dirges.

Being positive doesn’t come naturally to me (perhaps something to consider for 2014!) so where there is a best five, there should probably be a worst five as well. In the order I read them:

Book #7: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson. I don’t like Jeanette Winterson’s writing is probably what this comes down to. It was short, which was a plus, but just so tedious to get through.

Book #20: True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies. I felt a bit grubby after reading this and hated all the characters. The modern day The Bell Jar in her dreams.

Book #51: Once Upon a Prince by Rachel Hauck. Of course. So effing bad it’s insulting. Next.

Book #56: Janie Face to Face by Caroline B Cooney. This is mainly here because it was such a shoddy ending to a series I once enjoyed. Almost offensively bad, like the fans didn’t deserve better. Paper-thin plot and characters and clumsy execution.

Book #63: The Bell by Iris Murdoch. Boring. No other word for it.

An honourable mention for worst read goes to Harvesting the Heart by Jodi Picoult, saved only by the fact that it was at least readable.

I really don’t think I can better 115 books next year. What I think I can do is alter slightly the types of book I’m reading. I need to read more non-fiction, and I may have found my niche in true crime fiction like Columbine. I also think I should read more books published before the 20th century, even if I find them hard work. There has to be more to it than Dickens, right? I’m also tempted to try the Man Booker Shortlist to try and raise my game.

I can try, anyway!

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Farmyard Fridays Xmas Special: Away in a manger

Animals are an incredibly key part of our lives. On the most basic of levels, animals share our homes and appear upon our plates, though that’s probably an illogicality best left untouched for today. Animals also provide entertainment, whether through being raced, jumped or performing amusing dances on the internet and You’ve Been Framed. They can even help to save lives, by aiding those with disabilities and even detecting epilepsy and cancer. All in all, animals and humans have an absolutely solid relationship.

It’s therefore of no surprise that so many animals were present at the birth of Jesus, right?

 Wrong. At least, according to Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. In a book published in December 2012, the former leader of the Catholic Church shared the fruits of his research into the birth of Jesus (cashing in? Never…) and revealed some news that it’s surprising more daytime television shows didn’t pick up on: there are no nativity animals mentioned in the four Gospels of the New Testament. No sheep, no camels and certainly no ox or ass.

Farmyard Fridays is nothing if not thorough and this claim has been verified through reading the four Gospels in question (well, the relevant verses anyway. Life is a tad too busy for anything else right now). And it will probably come as no surprise that Benedict, Pope for the nine years, does actually know his Biblical passages. There are no animals standing around the manger to welcome the Baby Jesus.

One has to question, then, why it’s such a key part of modern day nativity scenes. ‘Away in a Manger’, a carol of 1885, builds animals in as a pretty key part of the whole situation, and the part of ‘Fifth Sheep’ is a pretty standard way of including every child in a school nativity. Why this sudden need to have a whole menagerie crowding into the scene?

Of course, the setting of a stable makes animals that bit more logical, especially if you’re trying to create a believable story. Had there been no room at the inn but plenty of room at the local hospital, a stray cow wandering past would have been slightly analogous. Equally, a stable in 1st century Palestine without some form of livestock would be a complete waste of space. So from that viewpoint, it’s naïve to suggest there wouldn’t be animals present.

 But perhaps it’s simpler than that. Maybe somebody looked at the story and wondered what would make it all more interesting. Not that the Son of God in a cattle-stall isn’t pretty engaging in itself, of course, but, let’s be honest here: if the nativity was being recreated today the three wise men would transform into a sparkly vampire, a wizard and a time-travelling alien. You’ve got to try and appeal to new audiences after all, and so perhaps whoever began adding in our four-legged friends simply intended to make the scene a bit more varied and visually appealing. There is, after all, a limit to the number of humans you can have crowding upon a scene before it become a bit tedious.

There are therefore 2 Farmyard Fridays facts to celebrate Christmas.

Farmyard Fridays Fact #12: There are no animals mentioned in the nativity scene described in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Farmyard Fridays Fact #13: Animals make everything way more interesting.

Monday 28 October 2013

80 Books No.75: The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale

In the few months since I've read this, I've sort of forgotten about it which can't be a good sign. This is therefore a very short post, mainly to state the fact I did read it. I remember it was about a thwarted couple who met up many years later and seemed to have some sort of affair, but it became a bit hazy to be honest. The premise was it was set on one day, although much of it was spent reflecting upon what had happened on previous days. However, at the end, I suspected that they were actually two different days as it didn't tie up properly. Either that, or I simply didn't understand it. A whole heap of time-shift here which made A Perfectly Good Man look easy to follow. Enjoyable and well-written but beyond that, I have no idea.

80 Books No.74: Annerton Pit by Peter Dickinson

I try to be really fair in these reviews, and rational, and reasonable, and generally quite erudite. I've managed to find good points in most of my reads this year, even if it's that they were over quickly and I could move onto something better. I try not to have knee-jerk reactions to things.

But this was stupid. It was so ridiculously stupid that it sort of insulted me and I only skim-read the last fifty pages or so because I was so bored stiff. It was the sort of stupid which made you wish the writer had let someone else do it, because somebody else might have made it less stupid.

It wasn't all stupid. The opening pages of this were clever. It took a while to realise the narrator was blind and it really showed what could be done with clever descriptions and building up an almost tangible sense of surroundings. Throughout, Dickinson did well with this and I felt like I was wherever the narrator took us, purely through the descriptions of the four senses open to him. Kudos for that.

But the plot. Oh God, the plot. It was so stupid, and I shan't apologise for repeating that word because anything more would be crediting it too much. The plot relied on so many coincidences and unlikely events to make it work. Dickinson needed help with this.

And the book covers (whichever edition you read - just Google them) are horrendous. They make the narrator look like something out of The Exorcist.

Plus the copy I read was really grubby which made me feel a bit ill.

80 Books No.73: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

Having finished this, I couldn't really understand why I'd never read this before. It's a popular GCSE text, it's got a title which rolls pretty neatly off the tongue and it's so similar to To Kill a Mockingbird that it would seem the natural next choice for anybody to recommend to you. I feel almost let down by my English teacher that this didn't happen before I was twenty-six.

No matter, it was a rare find when I came to it. I enjoyed almost every page and found so much truth and wisdom in the pages. Like Harper Lee's classic, it deals with black segregation in the 1930s, only this time from a black girl's perspective. It was beautifully sparingly written and made me wonder why more people don't rave about this when they rave about Atticus and co (though Atticus totally deserves raving about - he's the Man).

Perhaps the weirdest thing about Roll of Thunder is that it's part two of a trilogy. It seems really odd for people to have decided to stick a middle book on so many reading lists with next to no reference to the other two parts. It would be like whacking Catching Fire on the curriculum and ignoring The Hunger Games. I sort of want to see what part one is like but it seems to be about trees; I struggle to empathise with trees.

But a really good read nonetheless.

80 Books No.72: Arthur, High King of Britain by Michael Morpurgo

We've already established I don't really get Morpurgo, and I feel like I should because the kids love him so. I just can't find a book I connect with of his, even Private Peaceful, because I never really truly love his characters. This probably makes me the hardest hearted person ever, but there it is: I cry more at Boxer dying in Animal Farm than at any of the events in Private Peaceful.

Given this, it will come as no surprise that Arthur, High King of Britain didn't really grind my gears. I do like an Arthurian legend and I'm immensely gutted that Anna Elliott's Avalon trilogy has been completed on e-book only, as I not only don't own an e-reader, I have no intention of buying one. It seems I am doomed never to find out if Trystan and Isolde are ever going to get together (I mean, it's pretty blindingly obvious they will but whether they'll come to a sticky end is anyone's guess). This little book, I hoped, would fill the void a little and educate me somewhat in less romantic Arthurian myths.

In terms of conveying the legends, Morpurgo does well. It's essentially a little run-down of key tales from the Knights of the Round Table which means it was always going to be a little picaresque in style. He therefore does well to tie it together a little (even if he for some reason involves the Isles of Scilly again). What lets it down is that I don't actually rate his style of writing and that he introduces some frankly weird plots into the story. Okay, so he doesn't make up that Arthur sleeps with his half-sister and has a bastard, but does this really need putting in a kids' story? Acres of awkwardness if we had to teach this. In terms of reading for meaning and analysis, it's also completely void of any material. The planning needing to surround this novel would be ridiculous.

Basically, not a recommended read. I feel I could probably blag a few answers on University Challenge off of the back of it though.

80 Books No.72: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Like You Don't Know Me, this is a book which has been staring me in the face in the book cupboard for a couple of years. Perhaps more so than Klass' novel as I've actually heard of this one before, though I've always assumed it's about a delinquent chicken (cause so many YA novels are about poultry). This clearly shows me off as a bit of dimwit.

Instead, Artemis Fowl is about a master criminal who is only in his teens, and his clash with the fairy world. In the light of this, it being about a delinquent chicken sounds marginally less far-fetched. I'm almost tempted to write a novel about a delinquent chicken now in order to justify this expectation.

I was pleasantly surprised by Artemis Fowl as at first I was a bit sniffy about it. I'm not sure why, beyond it feeling like one of those books which is written by somebody with a pseudonym which wind me up. In reality, it was quite witty and interesting, although the last few chapters didn't wholly hold my attention. It suffered a little from my knowing there were further books in the series and so key characters were highly unlikely to snuff it, but there was a creativity and inventiveness that kept it from being too stale. Definitely a good example of how to build a 'world' and stay within it.

Teaching this one in January. Why I've selected this year as the one to start teaching about five new novels, I have no idea. This fact further supports the viewpoint that I am in fact a dimwit.