Tag Archives | reading

My books of the year 2016

I’ve had a good year for reading, although I’m not always very good about tracking what I’ve read. Between April and October I had a daily weekday commute that gave me 15-20 minutes reading time at both ends of the day, and I relished the time spent with my kindle or paperback.

I do have tsundoko (pile of books waiting to be read), but here are some of the books that made an impression on me in 2016.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInenery

Pile of books I read in 2016 - The Wolf Wilder, On Starlit Seas, The OutrunI don’t read books just because they’ve won awards, or have become notable in some way. In fact, that’s often reason enough to keep me away from them. But I read the first couple of pages of this in a bookshop and I was hooked. Raw, bold and starkly original, the characters captured me as much as the writing.

An accidental murder sets up characters to rub up against each other, against the backdrop of a poor-at heel Ireland. The desperate frictions create palpable tensions, even as I hoped characters like Ryan, the teenage protagonist, would find a way out. Gritty, sweary and raucous, this felt like keenly observed fiction that read like non fiction, except for the dazzling sparks of beautiful language. A real surprise and my book of the year.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I almost missed my stop reading this on the metro. Fable, fantasy and metaphor mixed in a post-Arthurian world of knights, dragons and quests. Unreliable narrators travel a dream like land, forgetting and remembering glimpses of the past, disagreeing and arguing over what was, what wasn’t and what was meant.

This reminded me a lot of the dream-like quality of Piers Plowman, or the Pearl poet. It felt very English in its style, and like the mist that covers and obscures much of the land the characters travel through, it seeped into my thoughts waking and dreaming. Beautifully written, it lingered with me long after I finished reading it.

A Short Ride in the Jungle by Antonia Bolingbroke Kent

This book was recommended to me by Paul Hughes, as a good one to read while I was travelling through Laos and Cambodia. Antonia took on the challenge of riding a Cub motorbike along as much of the notorious Ho Chi Minh trail as possible, through Laos, Cambodia and into Vietnam. The tales of her adventures, staying in decrepit hotels and tackling the mud, monsoons and mechanical failures along the way are interspersed with episodes of the area’s history and culture.

It’s a rollercoaster of a read – at times funny, frightening and enlightening. I smiled widely as I read about Antonia arriving in Don Khong in Laos on the day I’d cycled there. As well as being a great travel adventure, this is an engaging and well written read.

On Starlit Seas by Sara Sheridan

Much of my knowledge of history comes from novels, and in Sara Sheridan’s latest I gained a fascinating insight into the world of chocolate trading and travelling by sea in the 1820s.

From the depths of the Brazilian rainforest, to life onboard the Bittersweet, and then polite London society, I was immersed in the rich detail of another time.

Her main character, Maria Graham, is notable, not least because she is based on a real person, but also because she shows independence, determination and intelligence in a man’s world. The real and fictional characters blend seamlessly in this tale of smuggling and treachery. They live on the pages and transport you to another time and place.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Touchingly lyrical, at times prickly and awkward, this tells the tale of a seemingly unlikely relationship between a girl and her former English teacher. Two lost souls drifting.

I loved this for the depiction of  Tokyo and the almost torturous slowness of their growing closeness and dependency on each other. The ending is heartbreakingly touching.

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

I’m much older than the target market for Young Adult fiction, but I like to dip into it as I think it’s often some of the best writing and story telling around.

I bought Wolf Wilder, because I’d enjoyed Katherine Rundell’s previous book Rooftoppers and because I liked the cover.

Feodora and her mother live in a cottage in the woods somewhere in Russia. They are Wolf Wilders – people who help wolves to learn to be wild again. When they come to the attention of the Russian Army, Feo has no choice but to run with the pack.

This is a fast-paced adventure, with episodes of delicate stillness, when you can almost feel the snow falling all around. With elements of fairy-tale, this deserves to become a classic.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I’ve only just finished reading this non-fiction account of a girl’s return to Orkney and recovery from alcohol addiction, and I almost didn’t want it to end. The subject matter sounds bleak, but the book is actually joyous and uplifting, while dealing with tough issues including mental illness and relationship breakdowns.

The scenery, wildlife, people and customs are so wild and vivid, I felt as though I was away on an adventure as I was reading it. Another beautifully written book, I enjoyed its scattering of thoughts and themes, and stopped a few times to drink in a particularly evocative phrase. I love books with a real sense of place and the islands are as much a character in this story as the writer as she examines both her outer and inner space.

The worlds within books

“A book is a world full of words where you live for a while.” Patrick Ness, More Than This

I was talking to someone recently about my time at university and half-jokingly remarked that during my 3 years studying, I only lived part time in the 20th Century.

Picture of a quote "A book is a world made of words, where you live for a while."I discovered a love of medieval literature and stories even older than that from Beowulf to the Pearl poet. My favourite lectures, tutorials and studies were based on old works – Chaucer, Spenser, Sidney, Milton.

These days I’m more contemporary in my reading but I still love that feeling of walking another landscape, sampling another culture or stepping into another experience that I get through reading both fact and fiction.

Last week’s charity challenge of walking 10,000 steps per day gave me some appreciation of the time and effort it takes women and girls in the developing world to fetch water for their families. But arguably books and stories take me even further.

I’ve been to Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith and Mma Ramotswe; eaten in the best places in San Francisco with Amy Tan and even been into space with Commander Chris Hadfield.

I’ve time travelled to Victorian London with Dickens and to Regency period Bath with Jane Austen. I’ve walked the streets of Ankh Morpork; survived a shipwreck on an alien planet where men can hear each others thoughts, and travelled beyond Wall into Faerie (and made it back again). Books take me places I could never go.

I will never know what it means to be a black woman transplanted from Nigeria to the USA; to have my hair chemically relaxed, or tightly braided in a salon. I’ll never experience racism in all its different shades and colours. But, thanks to the book I’m currently reading, ‘Americanah’ by Chimananda Ngozi Adiche, I know about these experiences. And through reading I’ve seen the world through another person’s eyes.

I am grateful to books for all the worlds they allow me to live in for a while.

Reading wildly

One of the sessions I attended at Wordstock last week was to hear Andy Miller speak about his year of reading dangerously. Picking up and actually finishing books he’d once claimed to read but hadn’t. Books that people consider difficult to read. Books like Moby Dick and Anna Karenina.

There was lots that struck me in his empassioned presentation, but one that chimed true is what he said about the books we have read recently. How they are limited, and for a large part, chosen for us.

Bookshelf full of classics

If you still have a bookshop, the fiction section is largely dominated by the top ten hardback or paperback titles, pushed forward by the major publishing companies. Unless it’s a very large, independent or particularly quirky place, there’s little space for anything outside the popular in all genres and the well known classics. And so, those of us who read, get a narrowing choice of the new, and we all pick up “We need to talk about Kevin” or “Wolf Hall’.

Ah, and there’s the other thing that Andy spoke about. If you start a book, you should finish it. And I haven’t finished Wolf Hall. It isn’t very often that I fail to finish a book, but Wolf Hall I put aside after giving it a really good try, with that standard excuse of “Life’s too short to read something I’m not enjoying.”

And yet where would I be if I hadn’t persisted with difficult books? As a student, I toughed it out through the Faerie Queene, various medieval texts and far more impenetrable stuff. I stuck with Dickens Our Mutual Friend, which, quite frankly, really takes some time to get going, but does pay off.

The Japanese have a word for a pile of books waiting to be read – it’s Tsundoku.  I’ve managed to keep mine manageable this year, by virtue of not acquiring new books, until I’ve read the ones I already have. I currently have four in waiting, including two non-fiction titles, but I’m prepared to put them to one side a little longer to take up a challenge to read outside my usual range. To finish books I’ve started, to read some older stuff I may have missed.

I am starting with John Buchan’s 39 Steps, which I don’t expect to be a difficult read, but I prepared to be challenged. This is a rich time for my reading list, with a birthday and Christmas approaching. So I’m asking you to recommend some titles and until the end of January, I’ll read a little more dangerously.