Happy New Year! I thought about saving this for this Sunday, but instead I think I’ll review Hallucinating Foucault like I promised a bunch of people I would. This week I embarked on my semi-annual I-moved-house-so-I-better-reorganise-my-bookshelves business. Because I only have two bookshelves, and about twice that many books, this is a bit of an endeavour for me and takes on a sort of symbolic overtone: the books that I put on my bookshelves represent something about how I want my year to go. Also, the whole top shelf of my longest bookshelf is my books-to-read this year, which obviously has ramifications for how my reading life goes. While sorting these out this year, I was thinking about the books I read last year, and so here, I have some thoughts.
At the beginning of 2009 I challenged myself to read 100 books. I decided to be pretty strict with myself: I wasn’t to count re-reads, because I re-read all the time and the point was to challenge myself. I’d count strictly paper books that I read cover-to-cover. Half-finishing a book didn’t count and I couldn’t sew together journal articles to make up anything book-sized.
Unfortunately in 2009 I only read 64 books. Dammit! It was a shock to the system. So in 2010 I set out to do the same thing.
Well, it took reading a book a day, every day after Christmas (not exactly a hardship), but I managed it! Oh, yes. In fact, I realised after noticing that the book I worked on during the course wasn’t there, and I’d somehow missed off Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver, I actually read 101 books; which is a nice number, and relaxing, and meant I didn’t have to stay in on New Year’s Eve finishing Bassett by Stella Gibbons. (I enjoyed it, the book I mean, but not as much as I enjoyed going out, or as much as I enjoyed Cold Comfort Farm.)
Here are a few demographics. I read 77 books by women, and 26 by men (the overlap is a co-edited anthology; I didn’t produce a fraction for most anthologies, I just ascribed them the demographics of their editor). I didn’t check that last year, but I imagine it’s about the same. Sometimes I think I should try to read more books by men, and then I remember that everyone else does and I decide not to worry. Other demographics I don’t worry about: I read 29 young adult/children’s books (vast majority YA), 42 books which I consider “genre” (counting Hard Luck & Hardboiled by Banana Yashimoto, but not Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers), and 8 graphic novels (although I will admit that most of that was the entire run of Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley).
Here are some demographics I do worry about, though. I read 12 books by New Zealanders or published in New Zealand. In 2009 I read 5, about 8% of my total; 12% is a bit of an improvement, but not much. I’d like to get that number up to 20. I read 6 books of non-fiction, which doesn’t compare all that favourably to 2009’s 3; obviously the number has doubled, but it’s around 4.6% of last year’s and just under 6% of this year’s, which is not a big jump. I’d like to bring that up to 10%. I only read 9 novels by people of colour. That at least is a significant improvement on 2009 (2 books, around 3%), but still pretty crappy, considering. And I only read 2 books in translation, Hard Luck & Hardboiled by Banana Yashimoto and A Novel Bookstore (Au bon roman, 2009) by Laurence Cosse. I liked them both very much, so I don’t know what my problem is there.
On the other hand I read 18 books with queer themes, which is probably as good as I need to get. I only read 2 volumes of poetry cover-to-cover, but I never do that with poetry anyway, so I’m not worried.
Everyone Loves a Top 10 List
Everyone does love a top 10 list, but I honestly and truly think that if you ask someone for their top 10 books published in 2010, and they’re not a professional book critic or a librarian or bookseller, they’re lying – or they’re simply telling you every single book they read that year. I read quite a few books this year, and I probably only read between 10 and 15 books published in 2010 – and only one or two of them really stick out for me (Guardian of the Dead, by Karen Healey, and I-have-so-many-conflicted-feelings-about Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel; and although it was published in French in 2009, I suppose A Novel Bookstore wasn’t released in English until this year, and I thought it was pretty gorgeous). (I have not yet read Freedom.) If I was going to give you a top 10 of the year, I’d have to include nearly all of them, and I just don’t think Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour and Started Early, Took My Dog have any business being on a list next to each other. (They’re also, just for the record, not the best books in their respective series. They are both pretty good and I really enjoyed them, but they just didn’t blow me away.) I resent the pressure to tell you all about what’s hot *right* *this* *second*, because apart from anything else nearly everyone I know is qualified to do so without really having read any books at all; just shuffle a list together, make sure Freedom and something by someone Swedish are on it, and you’re good to go. I have no interest in that. Instead I’m going to do three or four themed Top Whatevers, and you’re going to like it. Note: Several of these could fit in multiple lists, but instead I’m going to restrict them to one.
Top 4 New Zealand
The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton (VUP, 2008). 25 March.
I simply adore this book, which is worth reading twice; the second read is incredibly illuminating and everything slots into place. It’s playful, pomo without taking itself overly seriously; none of the characters are realistic, and yet it says true things about the real world; and it’s just a delight to read.
Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin, 2010). 6 April.
This was sort of a re-read because I was lucky enough to read this book in MS form, but whatever. I just love it. Urban fantasy set in Christchurch & soaked in New Zealand myth, especially Māori myth. Urban fantasy that doesn’t shrink from hard conclusions; urban fantasy with lots of different characters who don’t all (or any) look like Kristen Stewart. And it’s funny. And gross.
Gifted, Patrick Evans (VUP, 2010). 12 November.
I already reviewed Gifted in this space, so I won’t go on too much; all I will say is that I’m reading Owls Do Cry right now (and it’s making me cry, sheesh).
Hicksville, Dylan Horrocks (VUP, 2010, originally someone else in Canada).
This is a graphic novel that’s actually quite old, and it was originally published in Canada. (If we know each other because of comics and you think you know the name Horrocks, it’s possibly because you remember the issues of Batgirl [first Cass Cain run] or the sequel to Books of Magic that he scripted.) Hicksville is actually set in New Zealand and the US, though; mostly in a small town in the North Island, the titular Hicksville, where everybody reads and loves comics. This is a really beautiful graphic novel that is also pretty painful to read if you’re a superhero comics fan, although it’s also so honest and gorgeous that you’ll probably keep reading anyway. It’s ultimately, I guess, about the value of low-budget, indie comics (including low-budget superhero indie comics). And it’s also a story about family and community. And also it’s just beautiful. And since it’s in print in New Zealand for, I think, the first time ever, you should all go buy it and read it.
Top 5 Literary
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons (Longmans, 1932; my edition Penguin Classic Deluxe Editions 2006, introduction by Lynne Truss, and worth every penny). 1 January.
Bitingly funny, perfectly paced, absolutely brilliant satire. If you like literature, and especially if you’ve ever read anything by D H Lawrence or any of his contemporaries, you’re almost bound to like this – whether you like Lawrence or not! Absolutely wicked and I completely adored it.
A Novel Bookstore, Laurence Cosse (Gallimard, 2009; in English, Europa Editions, 2010, translated by Alison Anderson). 29 December.
I also thought the translation here was very, very good; there was perhaps one place where I really felt that I was reading a novel-in-translation rather than just a novel, which is pretty good for this kind of thing. This is a novel for people who love reading novels, and was therefore a bit self-indulgent; but it’s really very lovely. Its production values are also excellent; a lovely paperback with flaps, which in my opinion is the perfect format for a book, durable enough to last without being too heavy to carry in a bag. A pleasure to read in all ways.
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber, 2009). 17 February.
I feel obliged to mention that this had very uneven reviews, but I liked it immensely. I found it a HUGE improvement on The Poisonwood Bible and very nearly as good as Animal Dreams, my favourite of Kingsolver’s novels. I also read both her novel Prodigal Summer and her short story collection Homeland this year, and I found it absolutely fascinating to see how clearly Kingsolver is not a short-story writer; Homeland is simply not very good, where Prodigal Summer is lovely. I mean, the writing in Homeland is nice, but the stories have no bite nor kick to them. They feel just like excerpts from her novels, and not to be honest terribly interesting excerpts! Anyway, anyway, The Lacuna is terrific.
Kindred, Octavia Butler (Beacon Press, 2003; first pub. Doubleday, 1979). 19 February
I tossed up putting this in literary or genre, because I detest the habit some people have of taking all genre books which they think are good and saying, well, it’s not really science fiction (or fantasy, or horror, or a mystery novel), it’s really literary darling. On the other hand, sometimes by sneaking genre books into literary lists you can get people who wouldn’t otherwise to read them. So, here we have this book, which is like it The Time-Traveler’s Wife grew up and got a social conscience. It is really, really terrific, I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I wish everyone would have read it.
Hallucinating Foucault, Patricia Duncker (Picador, 1996). 27 December.
This is a lovely, slim, concise little book that for some reason took me a very long time to read. Perhaps because I found the writing, although perfectly lucid, a little dense: a very great amount of meaning packed into a very few words. At any rate, I liked it very much anyway, adored the Germanist (of course). Also I had precisely the right amount of French to understand all the conversations without translation/my Harrap’s, which was pretty satisfying (although not much of a feat, considering).
Honourable Mentions: Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld; Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides; God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy. I pulled numbers out of a hat to do these, so.
Top Two Books I Have The Most Conflicted Feelings About
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2009). 4 August.
I think this probably deserved its Booker win; the writing is very good and I found this book completely absorbing. On the other hand, it also drove me NUTS, because the conceit (an extremely restricted third person) was, well, SO conceited. (Ha ha.) No matter how interested I was in Cromwell at any given time, the lack of attributions and the frequent sense that I just had no idea how Cromwell actually felt about anything – well, obviously it’s a genius thing to do in the context of this book, in the context of this man, when her thesis is how poorly he was understood by others, the kind of fear and rumour-mongering she builds up around him. But … well, every now and then it was a little alienating. Consequently any time someone’s mentioned it to me since I read it I’ve said something different about how I felt about it. However, reading it was absolutely not a waste of time, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the period or in exciting writing.
The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (Picador, 2004). 31 August
How peculiar that these are both Booker Prizewinners! However, my conflict is much more minor for this novel. I read it cover-to-cover in less than a day. The writing is wonderful – the passages in which he describes one character’s depression will stick with me for awhile. Unlike Wolf Hall, the writing is never not readable; the pacing is great, keeping everything moving, and the ending is bitterly brilliant. My problem, I suppose, is that about half the time I absolutely despised the protagonist, and about half the time I felt intensely for him. This is tough to sustain for a whole novel. Like a lot of novels about gay men in the 80s, quite a lot of the book has to do with the way being closeted, being unhappy, and being socially ostracised contributed to the HIV epidemic, and it does the job very well – except that Nick is not closeted, not especially unhappy, and is at least vaguely supported by the people around him. Except because he is a giant, tremendous snob, he makes a series of terrible decisions about the people he spends time with and sleeps with. Half the time I just wanted to shout at him, Nick Guest, go and get a real job! Sigh. And yet the writing is so brilliant. So once again I’ll recommend this book.
Top Five Genre
Black Juice, Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin, 2004). February.
Chillingly brilliant, haunting, wonderful short fiction.
A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold
I tossed up between this, Mirror Dance, and Shards of Honor. I knew I had to put a Vorkosigan Saga book on the list because apart from anything else I read the whole thing this year, in basically a month and a half; this is a wonderful space opera with a liberal bent, which is frankly unusual in my experience. At any rate, A Civil Campaign is more or less a delightful Regency romance In Space; Shards of Honor is the first book in the series and features the effing amazing Cordelia Naismith kicking ass and taking names, plus things blowing up In Space; and Mirror Dance features a bunch of mistaken identities, an evil twin, two different long-lost sons and of course some more things blowing up. (Nothing blows up in A Civil Campaign though.)
Widdershins, Charles de Lint (Tor, 2006). Mid-April.
First off I have to say that this book has a great cover and a beautiful spine. It looks so nice on my bookshelf, even though as a rule trade paperbacks make me want to scream/cry/get a bigger bookshelf/get an ebook reader. But someone really paid attention to that spine, which is uncommon (check out your bookshelf sometime: Title, Surname, Colophon, on a single-colour background, right? YAWN. Unless your colophon is a) famous AND b) tells you something about the book you’re about to read, I think this is just sad. (So actually Tor would already get a pass, so would IDK Baen and particular imprints.) Books sell from their spines pretty often, so.) Erm, oh yeah, something about the book. Well, it’s the sequel to The Onion Girl, maybe my favourite Newford book. It’s by Charles de Lint. Why aren’t you already buying it? It’s lovely, obviously, although I will say that I wasn’t wild about the curing-the-disability narrative.
The True Meaning of Smekday, Adam Rex (Hyperion, 2007). 24 June.
Eleven-year-old Gratuity (known to her friends as Tip), her cat Pig, an alien called J.Lo on the run from his own planet’s colonising forces, and their flying car Slushious, roadtrip over the (former) USA to find Tip’s mother and save the world. As if that wasn’t great enough, this book is a super, super clever post-colonial novel (but if that’s not your thing and you weren’t looking for it you’d hardly notice, honestly!). Genius, funny, thoughtful and not in an intrusive way.
Pyre of Queens, David Hair (Penguin India, 2010; I think it’s out from Penguin NZ by this time).
David Hair is a New Zealand author who wrote this while he was living in India, and Penguin India published it. It’s the first part of a fantasy trilogy drawing on the Ramayana, but in case you were starting to worry, all the characters are Indian, there’s no convenient White Person’s Surrogate, etc. I really enjoyed it, thought it was slick and fast and fun and a classic mythology-incorporating urban fantasy. Published aiming at the YA market, for the record, and it was definitely a YA novel.
Honourable Mention: So I still haven’t finished this, but Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, an anthology of James Tiptree, Jr.’s short stories. These are variously beautiful, horrifying, challenging, uplifting, depressing (sometimes all at once, as in “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled with Light!”) and they’re incredibly thoughtful. I can’t recommend them enough, particularly to genre fans.
Top Four Young Adult
Will Grayson, will grayson, John Green & David Levithan (Text, 2010). 20 May.
Alright, OK, these guys are like YA fiction superstars, obviously this book is amazing, I re-read it a couple weeks ago and it made me cry. On a re-read. It’s about friendship and love and stupid arguments and important arguments and looking after the people who are with you and the people who aren’t, too. And a giant football-playing musical-writing gay dude called Tiny Cooper (it’s irony).
When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (Random House, 2009). 11 August.
Yet another reminder that some of the finest, most precisely elegant writing being done today is being done for children. Really really beautiful, Newbery-Award-winning prose about a girl whose favourite book is A Wrinkle In Time, who starts getting mysterious, anonymous notes.
8th-Grade Super Zero, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (Arthur A. Levine, 2010). 24 June.
Really wonderful middle-grade novel about a kid called Reggie who just wants to ditch his nickname (Pukey) and be a normal kid for eighth grade. I don’t know why books about middle-school elections are always so good (erm, the only other one I’ve read is John Howe’s The Misfits, which I also recommend) but they seem to speak directly to a passionate, awkward preteen in me.
The End of the Alphabet, Fleur Beale (Random House NZ, 2009). 8 May.
I enjoyed this a great deal, I always think Beale’s work is good. However, I think it’s a fairly curious protagonist: Ruby, the protagonist of the book, is functionally illiterate – she can’t read or write except with great difficulty (we’re not talking dyslexia but a more serious problem, I guess.) That is to say, the protagonist of the book is someone who could never read the book, and one of the book’s underlying messages – that there are successful and worthwhile contributions to be made outside the field of schoolwork, and that you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t read – will never reach its intended audience, although I suppose it might engender some compassion. Anyway though, Fleur Beale is a reliably excellent voice in NZ Young Adult fiction, an instant read for me as a rule. To me she’s the gold standard of the problem novel that doesn’t condescend to young adults, instead expresses their concerns and reassures them that they’re not alone. I feel pretty strongly about defending this genre, for various reasons.
Honourable Mentions: A Love Story (Starring My Dead Best Friend), Emily Horner, and The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins.