These are some of the highlights of my reading last year, in no particular order. They are a mix of books from the basement and new additions to the library.
The Red Rising series, Pierce Brown
I’ve finally started reading Dark Age, the fifth in this amazing sf series. My brother recommended it to me, and even though I’ve still got Game of Thrones to read and I only finished The Amber Spyglass the other week (I’m really bad at reading series! It literally takes me years!) I blasted through the Red Rising books last year and I’m now tackling the 800-page Dark Age. The first three (I think) books are all from Darrow’s perspective and then the books move into multiple first-person narratives. It’s a jump: you get used to Darrow; I love Darrow. Now there’s all these other people to try to get to know (and like). It works for the most part though and I’m delighted that at least two other borrowers are working their way through the series too.
If you’re a bit scared to try sf, I’d say read these books. They’re not what I call ‘out-there’ science fiction. This is a survival story, timeless in its dealing with slavery, social hierarchy and civil war, with really cool characters, twists, strategy games, betrayal, loyalty and love. It’s got pretty much everything you could want in sf, even horses! I don’t want to compare this to other stories as there is nothing like it in my experience. When I first started reading it, I thought it was a big bowl of The Hunger Games, Firefly, Lord of the Flies, myths and legends and the classics, and probably a few others. I just love it. Reading Dark Age is going to take some time (the audio book is just shy of 35 hours and I work full-time) and I probably won’t review it thoroughly; I had enough of taking apart books I enjoy in uni. I’ll give you a quick update at the end to exorcise my thoughts. But at least read Red Rising, then decide how deep you want to go in this universe.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
This was one of the last books I read in 2019 and I think I need to read it every year I enjoyed it so much. Everyone knows the story of Jane Eyre so I thought I’d read it because of this, but I don’t think I’d ever actually read it. I remember watching the play in the old theatre house in my area (now gone) as my high school English teacher played Jane; I remember blushing distinctly when she kissed Mr Rochester: thank God it’s dark in the theatre!
I was angry and upset in the first few pages of the book as her cousin John throws a book at her head and makes her bleed; I was raging at her horrible aunt for punishing her, throwing her in a scary room, alone. I championed Jane’s love for Rochester (controversial? Will I change my mind on the next read?) and smirked at her refusal of the bland, preacher cousin looking for a marriage of duty. This book is so wonderfully written; reflecting on the fact that education has been (is) denied to women, and a young woman, hundreds of years ago, could write something so clear, challenging and unrelenting, timewise and theme-wise, is a great comfort.
I followed Jane Eyre by borrowing Reader, I married him: stories inspired by Jane Eyre (edited by Tracy Chevalier). I only read one or two stories. I’m not much of a fan of modern reworking so the ones I liked were related to the characters directly: Mr Rochester’s ‘Reader, she married me’ and ‘The testimony of Grace Poole’. I returned it the next day; Jane Eyre lives on my own shelf.
Bridge of Clay, Markus Zusak
As a lifelong devotee of The Book Thief, I was determined to find time to read Zusak’s latest masterpiece. I adore this book. There’s so much love leaping off every page and it’s also very funny and at times devastatingly sad. The story of the Dunbar boys and the breakdown of the family, heart-shattering trauma and reconciliation are beautifully, lovingly wrought in Bridge of Clay. I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.
We the living, Ayn Rand
I was enthralled by this terrifying, compulsively readable novel of Red Russia. It was hard going but absolutely superb, absolutely worth the slog. The main character, Kira, is so young but is made old by the regime and lives in constant fear. She loves the wrong man. Or is there a right man? Her lover is selfish, I didn’t understand him; she seemed to be more attracted to the mystery of him. The other guy, the Party guy, is frightening. He is powerful, but Party power is fragile as a bird. I’m making it sound like a love story but it’s not really, it’s about so much more. A year after reading it I still feel its impact: the protective blanket I want to throw on young Kira; the claustrophobic apartment she lives in; the claustrophobia of the entire world Rand has created. I love and fear this book.
I plan to read the behemoth Atlas Shrugged at some point too but it’s a huuuuuge book. It is safely stored in the basement for now but I think I’ll need to rescue it before long (library clear-outs are ruthless things).
Miss Blaine’s prefect and the golden samovar, Olga Wojtas
A hilarious book, I read this while recouping from minor surgery at the start of last year. I sometimes feared for my stitches as I chuckled constantly! It was a lovely book to enjoy under the duvet with tea and chocolate. Also, interestingly, the librarian in this book shares my dislike of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. No one wants to be down about Ms Spark but this woman did it!
The silence of the girls, Pat Barker
Brilliant retelling of The Iliad from a female perspective. The spoils of war are slaves and this gave a new meaning to the concept of ‘hero’. Brutal and essential.
The song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
Another brilliant historical novel from a different perspective, this time from the homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles is heroic in this as well as bratty, loving, selfish and timeless.
The ghost stories of Edith Wharton
Loved, loved, loved this! I enjoy a good ghost story and Ms Wharton blew my mind at times in this collection. Beautiful writing, well-constructed stories and addictive reading.
Women talking, Miriam Toews
The women and girls of a Mennonite colony open up to each other about horrific abuse inflicted upon them by the men, from the religious leader to their own fathers. The men claim the Devil is hurting them because of their sins. Disturbing and vital. I also read another Toews’ novel, My puny sorrows, about suicide. She’s a brilliant author, although taking a break from her bleak subject matter regularly is highly advised.
Three kinds of kissing, Helen Lamb
A wee surprise this one. Got it free after requesting it on Twitter from the publisher. It’s a great story set in Scotland about two teenage friends, how they’re secretive, loyal and disloyal at the same time.
Under the skin, Michel Faber
I read this on holiday last year it gave me the creeps as it’s so well written. The atmosphere is suffocating and again made me think I should stop maybe eating meat.
One thousand white women: the journals of May Dodd, Jim Fergus
I love stories set in the Great Plains about Native Americans and this was fab. It shows the dynamic polar opposites of cultures, within tribes and whites and non-whites. I remember the sickening story of the bag of baby hands; the deplorable drunkenness which results in mass rape; the unbridled racism and superiority of the white settlers. Great book.
Go, went, gone, Jenny Erpenbeck
Another surprise. This was mentioned by a customer so I requested it for myself. It’s brilliant. A retired uni professor befriends asylum seekers in Germany. It addresses the timeless tension of refugee and native, and trivialities of the educated.
No impact man: saving the planet one family at a time, Colin Beavan
Extreme ideas in this one but it shows how much we need to address our lifestyle choices to make any kind of dent in the environmental crisis. I remember him being grumpy for not eating chocolate (it’s wrapped in plastic) and washing clothes in the bath. More extreme than Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson and I loved it. For other ideas on simple, cost-effective and environmentally gentle (are things really ever environmentally ‘friendly’?), try Savvy chic: the art of more for less by Anna Johnson. I bought my own and copies for friends after borrowing it from the library.
The devil’s teeth: a true story of great white sharks, Susan Casey
My joint favourite non-fiction book alongside The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. It made me cry countless times with its portrayal of the cold-blooded nature of humans. Sharks are amazing. I love knowing about them but also wish we could leave them alone so they can keep doing their thing. Please read this!
The year of living Danishly: uncovering the secrets of the world’s happiest country, Helen Russell
Read this for the second time last year and still love it. It’s the kind of non-fiction book I want to write, one that reads easily and truthfully but you know she’s put the work in. Also good for revising before all my Scandinavian holidays!