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a sky gone on fire ([personal profile] askygoneonfire) wrote2016-01-01 12:58 pm
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Reading List - 2016

Last year I read 30 books, although really it was 29 as the first one of the year was read between Christmas and finished on New Years Day so all in all, I'm maintaining my awesome pace of the last 5 years. I treated myself to 5 new books immediately after Christmas so I'm all stocked up and ready to read more graphics, sci fi, and the odd bit of crime fiction this year.

1. Watership Down - Richard Adams I bought this in the kindle sale, which in itself is becoming something of an annual bookfest for me.  I really, really enjoyed it. Having only seen the film before I didn't have the highest expectations because whilst the film is lovely, it's quite a thin story. I really loved the book - in particular I found the rhythm and texture of the prose to be really delightful, very rich. I also found the near ceaseless, but quite well defined, various conflicts to be really compelling.  My only critique would be that I wish we could have come to know Fiver better.
2. Pattern Recognition - William Gibson It's hard to know what to say about this book, on the one hand the plot was thin and nothing really happened and there were no twists where there should be if it was, as the blurb said, a detective/mystery novel.  On the otherhand, I loved Cayce (what is it with me and Gibson's characters?) and I loved having a protagonist with serious and non-dramatic anxiety issues which were both hindrance and gift. I also really like the portrayal of online relationships which absolutely correspond with my experiences over the last 10 plus years (back to 2003 when this was written/set). I'm sure I'll read the rest of the trilogy eventually, but it's not high on my list.

3. The Man in the High Castle - Philip K Dick It's hard to know what to make of this book and I'm trying to resist listing its faults.  I like the focus on minutae of life post WWII/German victory but I didn't really like any of the characters - except all of the Japanese who actually seemed to have integrity. I liked the acknowledgement that, had the Allies lost the war, they would have gone down hard and been accused of war crimes after the German victory - that felt true.  Otherwise it was very weak, quite meandering, lacking a real critical reflection on what fascism means - the idea that Germans were only interested in exterminating black and Jewish people felt really naive. I kept thinking of Swastika Night which gives a detailed account of the logical end of fascism with regard to women which Dick totally ignored/was unable to imagine. Similarly the Japanese are represented as reasonable, broadly compassionate victors which is problematic given the ideology which drove the Japanese war involvement in WWII.  As usual his female characters are all Madonna or Whore.  The suggestion, on the cover and in the foreword, that this was "the best sci-fi novel of all time" and that Juliana was a "fulled formed" character are laughable. It's not sci-fi and it's not even the best Philip K Dick novel I've read.
4. Interesting Times - Terry Pratchett Another of the 'old' ones I missed when I started reading Discworld.  I still adore the idea of a hero who, unlike your typical hero, hates finding himself in life or death situations and views every adventure as a disaster waiting to happen, or happening already. It shouldn't work, but good god it does.  Laughed all the way through. I must read the Last Continent again.

5. The Art of Flying - Antonio Altaribba This was a middling graphic. On the one hand, I enjoyed the history (the primary reason I bought it) and learning about the concentration camps Spaniard fleeing fascism were placed in, in France which was news to me. I disliked the representation of women - they were all Madonna's or whores and drawn in quite a juvenile way - all boobs and arse.  But there was a certain integrity to the story - even though it was the half-imagined life of a dead man. It's good.  Just not good enough to own forever more.
6. Reasons to Stay Alive - Matt Haig I hated this. I bought it against my better judgement after Buzzfeed listed it. In short; his solution to depression and anxiety is basically; be lucky enough to have a partner who will support you and not leave you because you are suffering crippling depression and parents and a partner who will financially support you until you can work again.  He is also frustratingly evasive about medical intervention - he says he doesn't take meds which is fine, but did he have counselling or therapy? What interventions did his GP offer or make? There are a few mentions of GP visits which suggest he was known to doctor as a depressive/suffering anxiety - but nothing on what came, or didn't come of them.  Ultimately I found him patronising, privileged, myopic.  And as for the title? The reasons basically are "you won't be depressed for ever" which - great. Yes. True. But something more is needed for this sort of book, some baring of the soul, some revelation of the self. Instead, I found it superficial and evasive. The points where it was specific on what helped were things which are often part of the cause of depression for me and others - i.e having/not having family, friends, children.


7. Phonogram Volume 3. The Immaterial Girl - Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie It's a surprisingly long time since I started on my Phongram journey and I am sad and sort of happy that it ends here.  I liked it a lot more than Singles Club (vol. 2) and I was glad to find the reasons I liked Emily were right, somehow.  It feels like a document of our generation.  I'm glad of it.

8. The Last Continent - Terry Pratchett I started reading Carol but the PhD is sucking up all my emotional energy so I abandoned it/put it on hold for some laughs.  I don't remember much about the story from the first time I read it in 1999 so rereading was especially nice. I do remember that all the cultural-reference-point jokes largely flew over my head when I first read it so it was especially enjoyable to read again and actually *get* it.  I love Pratchett, and I miss him.  The sparkling wordplay and the confident, exhilarating plotting is just a delight. 
9. The ABC Murders - Agatha Christie After the success of getting through above, I picked up a Christie from the library as I always fly through them.  This was no exception.  Great story, lovely knowing, meta-stuff regarding how detective novels (usually) work and so on.  Great discussion of mental health and pathology (yay for non stigmatising depictions and nuanced descriptions of insanity!). And, as ever, the 'big reveal' was just a small element in a rich story.  Wonderful.

10. Witches Abroad - Terry Pratchett In the first flush of thesis submission I started three different books but finally settled on giving this one a proper go.  I love it.  Granny standing firm, busting arses - and younger than she is in more recent Pratchett's I've read which is a beautiful thing about books - time travel.  She'll always be there, young and old, wise and impulsive. Waiting.
11. Divergent - Veronica Roth Good things; a largely pacey read - but becomes very repetitive in final third.  Bad things: the clear Christian-Right themes and morality (guns are power! fat is ugly, ugly is evil! Knowledge takes you away from the one true path - aka god) were really offensive.  As a young adult novel, I genuinely find it disturbing it represents handguns as a route to power and control and a whole heap of 'good' things.  Also: the characterisation was very poor, even when I finished I still didn't have a sense of Tris as a person.  Similarly, the writing was poor and the vocabulary was embarrassingly simplistic.  I hated being talked down to at age this novel is targeted at.  It left me with a bad taste in my mouth. 

12. Saga: Volume 6 - Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona K. Staples I love love love this series. Rationed myself through this again.  I adore that more and more great female characters are emerging in every volume. And there is a trans character in this one which I loved. And yes.  Never end, Saga, never end.
13. Carol - Patricia Highsmith Took me bloody ages to read this. For the first half to first two thirds, I was bored.  It felt like same-old sad-lesbian story with everyone wringing their hands and carrying around lots of shame and sadness and it was so frustrating.  When Carol and Therese finally left on their trip it got radically more enjoyable really fast.  Ultimately, a really joyful book and radical for its conclusion which the author's postscript, written 30 years after publication, says was as well received and powerful as you might expect.  Glad I stuck with it.

14. Pyramids - Terry Pratchett Tried and failed to get into a Stephen Baxter book that I got cheap on kindle in order to make a decision about whether or not to read the 'The Long...' series he wrote with Pratchett before abandoning that, then tried to start the second in the William Gibson Blue Ant trilogy but couldn't get going with that and ended up doing impulse buying in Waterstones.  This was the last Discworld novel I had to read. So that's it, I've read them all now.  A very bittersweet achievement.  I loved every moment, read the whole thing in 3 days. Just wonderful, sparkling wordplay, and silly jokes and clever jokes, and warm, open storytelling.  Time to start the full re-read, perhaps.
15. A Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein The first half to two thirds of this novel are a delight. Save for some nagging sexism it's pretty much perfect and then it disappears up its own arse and becomes a trudge.  A contemporary review said it was "a disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism" and i really feel that sums it up.  I don't know how or why it's come to be known as a 'sci fi classic' because it's barely sci fi, most of it reads as [erotic] wish fulfilment, which in principle is fine, but it's not what I signed up for.  It's not half as clever as it thinks it is and veers between loving women for being intelligent and independent, and some truly horrendous sexism.  I couldn't decide if Heinlein hated or loved women - I suspect it was a bit of both. He certainly didn't respect them as equals, more as exotic creatures.  The logic of his 'free love, human sexuality is wonderful' versus the explicit homophobia and expressions of disgust about m/m sex (predictably f/f sex is FINE) also really grated for me.  This review really covers the bases for me, I will try one more Heinlein - best 2 out of 3 - as I did enjoy Starship Troopers.


16. Spook Country - William Gibson I don't really know why I bothered with another in the Blue Ant trilogy. It was worse than previous one with absolutely no meaningful thrust and a really predictable conclusion. It was pacey enough for the first half but really dropped off and I slogged through the second half.
17. The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham Finally a good book! I loved this.  Really got in my head, really engaged me, really well rounded characters and such striking imagining of total collapse of society.  I started off thinking 'of it wouldn't be like that now with all the voice recognition...' but I think we might be closer than I think to similar hopelessness.  Like all good sci-fi, it also acts as a really great document of it's time - paranoia about total destruction, lingering trauma about mass casualties, a new perspective on women and their abilities and potential.  Good stuff.

18. The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula LeGuin It's hard to know what to say about this. Initially I hated it but ploughed on, then I came to love it and finished it in one marathon session. It really came into it's own when Genly and Estraven went over the ice and it turned into classic epic material.  Their love and determination was compelling. But there were a lot of inconsistencies - why if Genly was taught to hone his instincts about people did he never trust Estraven even though his actions all seem consistent and clearly motivated, but he went against his stated distrust of the Orgoreyns? There was also a level of embedded misogyny/sexism which was not only unexpected from a female writer generally, but firmly anachronistic for sci-fi from this era by women.  I don't know why LeGuin made those choices and it felt like an opportunity squandered.  The place names and various bits of Winter's language were distracting and I couldn't ever get to grips with it - this I think is an authorial failing as there are plenty of books with made up languages and words in which are immediately comprehensible (Stranger in a Strange Land, Clockwork Orange, pretty much all William Gibson stuff). I felt sad and worn out when I finished it - so it definitely connected with me emotionally, I'm just not sure I'm happy with how we got there.

....And that's it. Given it was the year I finished my PhD I suppose that's not too bad. I also read about half of Bleak House in November/December, and started about 3 more during year - I have been nothing if not indecisive/flaky.    Onward, to 2017!