Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 Review

As it’s the last day of December, the time seems right for a look back at what I read in 2009.

I’ll start this post with a quick look at my December reading list. I started the month by racing through the rest of the Sookie Stackhouse box-set then read William Boyd’s The New Confessions (large) and then The Quincunx (even larger) and then I zoomed through 13 Treasures and 13 Curses in the last couple of days. At £1 per book, that makes a £10 donation to Book Aid this month.

Whilst on the subject of Book Aid, I just want to mention again how pleased I am that Jodie from book gazing set up The Year of Readers. The self-imposed “fine” of £1 a book this year has meant that I have given £125 to Book Aid International in 2009. Or, looking at it another way, this year I effectively bought 62.5 books to send overseas which gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. I will definitely continue to support them next year but have not quite decided if it’ll be in the same structured way. I’ll post more about that in the new year.

And on to the almost obligatory (in blogging terms) 2009 review! Of the 121 books I read this year, the genre breakdown* was:

General Fiction: 57
Fantasy/Science-Fiction: 55
Graphic Novels: 5 (of which 2 were fiction and 3 non-fiction)
Non-fiction: 4

Blimey – that’s a lot of SF&F! In a nicely even split, 61 of those books were written by female authors and 59 by males. I also read books by 48 authors who were new (to me) in 2009.

Out of those 121 books, 51 were bought as new by me this year with an additional 16 new books coming in as gifts or prizes. 18 were purchased second hand (from either green metropolis or local book stalls) and 28 were borrowed from the library and two more from a friend.

That means that just a handful of the books I read this year came from the 2008 brought forward TBR pile… Gulp! I am also pretty confident that the actual number of books I personally bought this year was far higher than the 69 I read which is shocking! Perhaps I need to impose a stuck-in-a-book style “Project 24” buying cap in 2010…

It’s time for my worst stat of all… I only read one book that I have previously read. Yes. One. This utterly flies in the face of my constant assurances that I need to keep so many books in our home because I will re-read them. It strikes me that perhaps I should not have been quite so honest in this post in case my husband reads about it so let’s leave it as our dirty little secret for now!

All in all, 2009 was a pretty good reading year for me - although I did read a lower number of books than I expected to. I’ve just checked my 2008 total and that was a final count of 133 books so perhaps it was just in line with the norm!

Next year I would like to read more non-fiction (perhaps one a month?), catch up on un-read classics, delve into some poetry and try to push the boundaries of my reading comfort zone a bit further. Taking into account my Christmas book loot, and the additional 15 books I “accidentally” bought on Boxing Day, I’m definitely set up for an enjoyable first few months.

* Slightly arbitrary but it works for me!

13 Treasures & 13 Curses - Michelle Harrison

As part of their annual Smugglivus celebrations, Ana and Thea at The Book Smugglers ran a YA giveaway sponsored by Simon & Schuster which I was lucky enough to win. Michelle Harrison won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize last year for 13 Treasures which was her first book. I remember seeing it on display at the time and being tempted to buy it as it looked as if it had an interesting take on fairies and could be something my niece might enjoy too. My first prize book, The 13 Curses, arrived the week before Christmas and, as it was a sequel, I just had to buy The 13 Treasures to get into the story properly! Any excuse…

I am leaping ahead of myself and should probably say what the books are about! The heroine of The Thirteen Treasures, Tanya, is a young girl who can (unusually for a human) see fairies. It’s clear from the outset that they are not always pleasant to her and their antics land her in trouble with her mother. Eventually reaching the end of her tether, her mother sends her to stay with her grandmother, Florence, at her old manor house in the country.

There she re-connects with Fabian, the groundskeeper’s son, and in the library they uncover an old photograph of Florence with a girl who vanished in the nearby woods fifty years ago. Fabian’s Grandfather, Amos, was the last person to see her alive and has been viewed suspiciously by the townspeople ever since. Fabian wants to prove his innocence and after a chance encounter with a very similar girl in the woods, the two children investigate further.

Into this mix, we add in secret tunnels, a homeless girl called Red, several fairies (and other magical creatures) , a mysterious local witch and the fact that more local children have been mysteriously disappearing…

What I love about books written for children/young adults is that they are all about the plot! The 13 Treasures is a great little story – lots of action and a vivid portrayal of the fairies living among us (I loved the grumpy brownie in the teabag jar!) and it serves as a great introduction to what I hope will be a series as well as telling an interesting story in its own right.

Although now centring on Red, events in The Thirteen Curses follow on from those in the first book and it’s definitely worth reading them in order. Broadly speaking the major characters are the same but this book feels like Harrison’s more comfortable writing and happy to tackle more perilous themes. It’s a longer book than the 13 Treasures and that allows for a more involved plot (including Red’s back story) where we learn more about the fairies and encounter their dangerous side. I enjoyed it even more than the first book and loved Red who is strong, courageous, loyal and independent. A great role model for young female readers.

I’d also like to mention the illustrated lettering at the start of each chapter which Michelle Harrison drew. They added a lovely dimension to the story and it’s nice to know that she wrote the words as well as drew these fabulous sketches. Both books race along and, as they are quite short, I was able to race through them in a couple of days and finish them off in time for a clean slate to start 2010. I hope that 13 Curses proves as successful for Harrison as 13 Treasures did and that this launches a loose franchise as I’d be very tempted to check out what happens next to the girls even though I am far too old to be part of these books target audience!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2009 in one liners meme

Jodie at book gazing has posted about her 1 year blogiversary today (congratulations, Jodie!) and included a meme which I thought fitted in rather nicely as it is a look back at 2009 in one liners.

January: Seeing the year in from Tynemouth where I indulge in comfort reading and kick off the Sci-Fi Experience.

February: Really enjoying reading Sci-Fi but break it up with a Georgette Heyer blow out!

March: Have had enough of winter and being cold so convince Mr B we need to take a trip to somewhere warm.

April: We enjoy two fantastic weeks in Kenya and I succeed in reading all 2250+ pages of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.

May: The Alphabet Weekends (inspired by a book read on holiday) schedule kicks off and Mr B and I cover off Art, Broads, Cycling and Dragon Hall!

June: Have post-birthday book splurge and realise I could have an out of control addiction.

July: Read far too much escapist historical romance but really enjoy myself in a slightly guilty way.

August: Wonder what on earth happened to our promised summer and sign up for three book challenges.

September: Reading rate drops to an all-time low and I only read five books this month.

October: I give up and accept that I am going to “fail” nearly all my 2009 book challenges.

November: We return from a trip to Toronto to visit some friends where we manage to cover a lot of Canadian ground but I only read one book!

December: I realise that I have raised £125 for Book Aid International by taking part in the Year of Readers!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Quincunx: The Inheritance of John Huffam - Charles Palliser

I received this book as a gift last Christmas and, at a whopping 1200 pages long, it nearly came with me to Kenya earlier this year before being put to one side when I realised that Neal Stephenson’s enormous Baroque Cycle was likely to comfortably occupy me for a fortnight. Which it most certainly did!

It then languished on the shelf until I read this post by Sam Ruddock from Vulpes Libris. After that, how could I resist selecting it as my reading material for the Christmas break? Motivated by the thought of carrying such an enormous book in my handbag on the walk to, and from, work for reading this week at lunchtime I stayed up last night until I finished it. Wow. That was a book worth reading although I really should mention that it’s not often that you get to the end of a book and feel as though what you really need to do next is to go back to the beginning and start it again!

Although The Quincunx was published in 1989 it is actually an incredibly authentic pastiche of the mid-nineteenth century novel. It is set in a very plausible mid-nineteenth century England with the action split between provincial village life and the grimy city of London. The book charts the fortunes, over the course of about fifteen years, of a single mother and her young son, John Huffam, as told through the eyes of the latter.

We follow John’s narration as the world collapses around him and his mother when, following an ill-advised investment on her part, they have to leave behind their relatively comfortable, and safe, life in the country to face increasingly grinding poverty in the slums of London. I think it’s worth an aside at this stage to mention that the depiction in this book of life for both rural and urban poor is absolutely excellent and so vividly portrayed. It’s clear from the early stages that this transition is not entirely his mother’s fault (although the young John may not agree with that) and that there is a mysterious plot against the pair of them centred on a codicil to a will written half a century before…

We unravel the mystery surrounding John’s birth, and who his family is, as he does and, like him, the reader struggles to sometimes understand the motives and connections between the individuals who are interested in him.

There is a really complex web of intrigue at play in this book and, to add to the challenge of following the twists and turns of the plot, we have a sometimes unreliable narrator. For a good part of the book this is because we are seeing events through the eyes of a young child. What I did enjoy was that evidence is presented to us (although sometimes we receive conflicting reports from protagonists) and the reader is allowed to draw their own conclusions about events which I found occasionally differed from those made by John. I also found that a couple of times he allowed a investigative thread to drift that I would have wanted to follow – which throws his position of trusted narrator into an interesting light.

The edition I read has an afterward by Palliser in which he explains more about the careful way in which the book has been structured and hints at more layers to explore than I found. For example the novel itself is divided into five parts, and each part is divided into five books and then five chapters… One device I did really like was that at the start of each part was a family tree that grew as John (and our) understanding of how his relatives fitted together and what their motives towards him might be.

I’m sure I’m not doing the book any justice at all but if you like the BIG Victorian novels (think Wilkie Collins) then you’ll probably really enjoy this one. As mentioned earlier, it is rare that you finish a book and feel the need to start again at the beginning so this is definitely a book I will re-read in a couple of years time. But next time I will be keeping a closer eye on the evidence as it unfolds…

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Sci-Fi Experience 2010

I really enjoyed taking part in the 2009 Sci-Fi experience at the start of this year and was delighted to see this post from Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings announcing the 2010 launch.

In his own, rather lovely, words: “More than any other genre of fiction, science fiction reading is to me an experience– not only does it transport me to another time and place in the future but it also transports me to my past and as such creates an aura of reading that is wonderful to experience but difficult to describe. I can only hope that you fellow readers are nodding your heads in agreement right now, recalling similar experiences that you have with various novels and/or genres of fiction.”

For those who have not heard of it, it’s taking place from January 1st, 2010 through February 28th, 2010. What I rather like about it is that there is no official sign up or requirement to read a certain number of books. Particularly useful for me as I have failed miserably at half the challenges I signed up for this year! Also included is film, TV and gaming so it should be fun to see what I can see or play in the genre too.

When I participated in the Sci Fi experience in January and February this year, I read some great books by new (to me) authors. I’ve definitely read more Sci-Fi this year than ever before and it really helped to expand my reading “comfort” zone. Looking ahead to the books I might read this time around *fanfares* I present to you…

My qualifying (book) shortlist:
The following books are already on the TBR pile and some of them have been there for a while so it’ll be good to finally check them out.

Ursula le Gruin - Left Hand of Darkness
Alistair Reynolds – Chasm City
Stephen Donaldson - The Gap series (five books)
John Brunner - Stand on Zanzibar
Mark Helprin – Winter’s Tale
Larry Niven - Neutron Star
Philip K Dick - Beyond Lies the Hub
Charles Stross - Singularity Sky

Perhaps I should have looked at my bookshelves before ordering the following from amazon and Green Metropolis!

Joe Haldeman - The Forever War
Neal Stephenson - Anathem
Toby Frost - Space Captain Smith
Frederik Pohl - Gateway
Orson Scott Card – Wyrms

I clearly have more than enough books to read for the experience but never mind – at least it was a good excuse to pick up some books from my wish list that fit into the Sci-Fi theme! I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in with this not-really-a-challenge and also to seeing what everyone else is reading and (hopefully) discovering some new great authors.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The New Confessions - William Boyd

Last year Mr B and I both really enjoyed William Boyd's excellent novel Restless so I thought it was worth digging out more of his work as otherwise I've only read his African novels.

The New Confessions is the story of John James Todd who, now aged seventy, is looking back on his life and reflecting on his achievements. After a lifetime of obsession with Rousseau’s Confessions, his own version of a confessional memoir recounts his life as lived through the course of two World Wars and includes his memories of friends, relationships family, romance and recounts his career as an early film director.

Before I start, it’s definitely worth mentioning the book’s fantastic opening: “'My first act entering this world was to kill my mother. I was heaved - a healthy eight pounds - lacquered and ruddy from her womb one cold March day in Edinburgh, 1899.”

After this inauspicious entry to the world, Todd begins by recounting his lonely, and largely loveless, childhood in Edinburgh he is dominated by his stern father, bullied by his older brother and is effectively brought up by their housekeeper, Oonagh. We follow the young Todd to an austere boarding school where he meets the wonderfully named Hamish Malahide – his only childhood friend.

Following adolescent heart-break, Todd enlists in the army and the story moves to the battlefronts of WW1. Following the war, he embarks upon a career as a film director and the action moves from London to pre-war Berlin and then on to Los Angeles.

Because the book is written in the style of an autobiography, events are depicted through the eyes of Todd and I felt that he was not always a reliable narrator. As a character, he is selfish, self centred, not very pleasant to those closest to him although endeavours to paint himself in the best possible light wherever possible. This makes for an interesting reading experience as the reader needs to form their own opinions about his honesty and try seeing events through the eyes of the other participants to try to dig out the truth of the situation.

For me, the early years of Todd’s life are what made this book. Perhaps this is because he was a more forgivable person in those years but also because Boyd really brought the WW1 and Berlin sections of the book to life for me as events were so vividly portrayed. The last third of the book didn’t really do it for me in the same way and, although it was interesting to read about Todd’s brush with McCarthyism the Los Angeles / present day section didn’t live up to the earlier part for me.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The True Blood Series - Charlaine Harris

When I posted my November reading list at the start of this month, I mentioned that I’d bought the first eight of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books from the book people for a bargain £8. I also said that I’d read the first two but was not sure that the series was going to be my cup of tea.
Erm – well… Since that post on the 1st December I have read all eight books back to back. Yes. All eight books. Back to back. In nine days. Gulp! …and I’d be reading the ninth if it was not already out on loan at my local library!!

Set in the contemporary world, soon after the world’s previously secret Vampire community have “outed” themselves, this series of books focuses on the experiences of Sookie Stackhouse, a cocktail waitress in Bon Temps,
Louisiana who has an
unusual talent – the ability to read minds. The first book covers her developing relationship with Bill
Compton who is a vampire who’s moved in next door. Her unusual ability means that she’s not really had a chance to form close relationships before as she’s found it hard to block out the constant chatter that she picks up from those around her and part of Bill’s appeal is that she can’t read the minds of vampires.

Her relationship with Bill brings her into contact with other members of the vampire community and life becomes significantly more complicated, and dangerous, for her. She becomes useful to several powerful vampires and, as she becomes more a part of their society, she learns more than most humans about the other “Supes” that live amongst humans – like shape shifters and werewolves.

I’m not entirely sure what I found so addictive about the series. I think it might be just the sheer escapism of a series that features (amongst others) vampires, were-creatures, shape shifters, witches and fairies… The storylines are not complex, the characters are easy to follow and there is plenty of blood and guts action to keep you interested even when her tangled love life isn’t centre stage.

I read Bitten and Stolen by Kelley Armstrong earlier this
year and, although slightly steamier, I would imagine that these would appeal to the same audience.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Worldbuilders 2009

I think that author Pat Rothfuss is one hell of a guy. Last year he ran a rundraiser for Heifer International that raised over $100,000. His efforts attracted donations of over $53,000 and he matched the total raised. Personally.

This year, under the banner of Worldbuilders, he is running:
  • a lottery, at $10 a ticket, with over a thousand (!) prizes that he's posting about over the next month. One of which is a "Golden Ticket" where he will owe the winner one (1) favour. Brave!
  • a "sure thing" where you can buy personalised items directly from him. If only I could justify a dedicated first edition for $145 but maybe I'll win a signed one with my lottery tickets!
  • an auction featuring some of the rarer items, specialised donations and "miscellaneous cool". The rare books and manuscripts auction is coming on the 6th December and I'm a bit excited...
The fundraiser ends on the 16th Jan so there is plenty of time left to get involved. In his own words "So you'd like to make the world a better place while simultaneously winning fabulous prizes?" Hell yes!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Reading List

I am beginning to feel as if this blog has turned into a “reading list” repository rather than a regularly updated, and even vaguely interesting, bookish blog but I shall charge ahead with my monthly post without too much remorse as there is clearly no point in promising to change my ways yet again!!

So it’s that time of the month once more and, luckily for Book Aid, this month’s donation was boosted by the recent arrival of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series of books from the Book People which they have for sale at a mere £8.99. I’ve read a few blog posts recently about the series, and they’re the books that the recent True Blood series is based on, and at that price I could not resist… I’ve only read the first two so far and I hope Sookie grows on me or this could be a series that finds a new home as I'm not sure I can read all eight. Although I am such a finisher-completer personality that no doubt my December reading list will contain the next six!

Aaanway. Here’s the bit where I list What I Read in November and avoid guiltily promising to catch up on my reviews as that never seems to happen…

The Summer Tree & The Wandering Fire & The Darkest Road
(Fionavar Tapestry) - Guy Gavriel Kay
Dry Store Room No. 1 - Richard Fortey
Pandaemonium - Christopher Brookmyre
Holidays on Ice - David Sedaris
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town - Cory Doctorow
Dead Until Dark & Living Dead in Dallas - Charlaine Harris