Thursday, 10 January 2013

Books I read in 2012

I'm doing this again: compiling a list of the books I read last year and briefly how I came to read them, and what it was about them that I loved, liked or disliked. As a general observation I didn't read as broadly as I would have liked, and there are no ancient books, as in Chekhov or Dickens, a failing which I intend to rectify this year. I wish I'd had a recommended reading list, as you do at uni. It's not a bad thing. There were no books that I had to read, but there were some that I elected to read for research purposes. So, as before, I have three categories: books I read for research, books of my choice and my top three. I've added the publication dates for usefulness, and a comment on the covers. Can you judge a book by its cover? Definitely not. But a good cover makes a good impression. It's like wearing the right clothes for a job interview.

Books I read for research:

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Green (2012)
I read this because I wanted to see what other people were writing about imaginary friends. I am relieved to say it's very different to my story. It's narrated by the imaginary friend, which is unusual and added an extra dimension, but it doesn't venture out of childhood. There were some references for adults to delight in, but mostly I felt it was a children's book, helpful to both children and parents of children who have imaginary friends. Cover does not excite.

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper (2012)
This was referred to somewhere as a gothic novel so obviously I had to read it. And the descriptions of the farmhouse and the deserted Australian countryside are brooding, menacing and evocative. For instance, Then strangely angled farmland. Paddock fences leaned askew; sheep clung to slanted grass (like everything was unstable and tilting). Tick, gothic.I wanted to love this novel but before the end the story lost me. I couldn't warm to the main character. Her name is Liese, which is lies with an extra e, which might be a clue, since I didn't know which character was lying and which telling the truth. This might well have been what the author intended - everything was unstable and tilting -  but it left me irritated and unsatisfied.  Cover could have been better...Could have been the gothic farmhouse!

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke (2011)
This is a memoir. The author's mother dies of cancer and it's an account of that process and the author's grief. I read it because I wanted to gain some insights into death and grief. Meghan O'Rourke writes beautifully and effortlessly but somehow it doesn't carry the same weight of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.  In fact in some places I thought it was overwrought. Too much. Which is hard for me to write because who am I to pass judgment on someone else's pain? What is my experience of grief? Overall I was disappointed. Bland cover.

Books of my choice:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008)
This was a rare occasion of seeing the movie before I read the book. I didn't even know there was a book until I saw the credits roll. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Paloma, an intelligent and philosophical 12 year old who lives in a Paris apartment, and Renee, the concierge of the apartments. I loved it. It was a little hard to get into, but once I reached the Concierge's point of view I was hooked. I needed tissues, and I'll never look at a Paris apartment again without wondering about the residents. Cover is so-so. 

Before I go to Sleep by  S J Watson (2011)
I read this because of all the hype. It is an intriguing premise. Full marks to the author for dreaming up such an idea. Without giving too much away, this is about a woman who forgets everything, including her name, what her husband looks like, etc, every time she goes to sleep. It is so compelling I practically inhaled it. And this is a problem because now when I think back on the book I can't remember much about it. I am keen to see what the author tackles next. I mean, how do you follow up a novel with a premise like that?  Awesome cover (although the skin around the eye is a little too young - needs crow's feet, a little experience and emotion).

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2011)
I've included this book although I can't honestly say I read it. It was long-listed for the Miles Franklin. I meant to read it. I even bought my own copy. I tried to read it. Several times. But it wasn't for me. I was bored. Bored. I know people who rave about this book, and the author, so I think it must be me. Pretty cover.

Ten Short Stories you must read in 2010 by The Australia Council for the Arts. A friend gave this to me. She got it from someone else who got it from someone else. And, yes, there are a couple of great stories in it. There were two that stood head and shoulders above the others. Merlo Girls by Nick Earls, and Manuka by Alex Miller. 
It contains a wide variety of stories. Christos Tsiolkas alongside Rachael Treasure for instance. I don't think this is necessarily a good thing. Cover is okay.

The Light between Oceans by M J Stedman (2012)
I blogged about this novel last year and you can read it here.
My overall impression was good, although the narrative was let down by structure. Beautiful cover.

Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett (2011)
This was also long-listed for the Miles Franklin and, in this case, it isn't difficult to see why. Sparse, descriptive writing. Evocative. On the whole a distressing read because of the subject matter, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. The story is about three motherless brothers and their abalone-fisherman father on the south-east coast of Tasmania. It's an area not often written about and I can't wait to go there, although I can't imagine it will be a happy visit. I won't say more than that. Awesome cover but out of touch with the storyline. 

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan (2006)
I was pushing myself to other genres when I read this, and I have no regrets. It's a book of short stories, some of them weird (as in spec fic), some of them fantastical, but each one filled with wonderful writing. And mostly all giving cause for thought. Not everybody's cup of tea. I can't for instance imagine my mum enjoying these stories. Cover doesn't do anything for me.

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (2012)
Gale was a visiting author at the Brisbane Writers' Festival in September and as I'm a volunteer reading him was a deliberate choice, although, Sod's Law, I missed out on hearing him speak about his work. However, I've no regrets. Interesting read incorporating several points of view,  skipping backwards and forwards in time, and covering an area in England I've actually visited. I'm looking forward to reading more of his work. The cover is good, although, again, I don't think it captures the essence of the story. I'm beginning to think that cover artists never read the stories.

The Boy under the Table by Nicole Trope (2012)
Wow. Another compelling narrative. This one about child abuse, set in Sydney. It's gritty and realistic, and the pace is unrelenting. I saw the title on Booktopia and that was enough to hook me. A problem for me was that the beginning is so confronting the rest of the story can't hope to compete. Also, the main character is beautifully drawn and the story would have benefited by remaining more in her viewpoint IMO. Some readers have raved about the cover but it's a bit wishy washy in light of the book's contents.

Ancient Light by John Banville (2012)
This is a familiar plot line. Schoolboy has affair with best friend's mother. But the book is anything but ordinary. Lyrical. Detailed. Beautifully crafted. I wish I owned a copy so that I could lose myself in the writing whenever I want. I saw this reviewed somewhere, Avid Reader?, and knew I had to read it. There's something about male UK writers that really gets to me. I can't wait to read more of Banville's work. I don't like the cover. It doesn't fit with my conception of the characters and apparently the same photo was used on another work. Unforgivable.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012)
This I did see reviewed on Avid Reader. It's something I wouldn't normally have picked up so I'm really pleased I did. It's narrated by a man looking back at his 13 year old self, a boy whose mother was raped and assaulted on an Indian reservation in North Dakota. It embraces tragedy and comedy, doesn't conform, and the main character gets under your skin. Well, he did mine. Highly recommended. The cover is awful. Does nothing for a stunning read.

My top three books from 2012:

Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen (2005)
I read this in January last year and still find myself thinking about it. I lent it to a friend who said it was tedious, that the detail of domesticity bored him stupid, so I don't know.  It's also a story narrated by an elderly man looking back on his life - I seem to have fallen into a pattern here. It's set in Norway, was written in Norwegian, and this definitely adds something. I can still imagine the scenery in my head. I did a review of it for the Sydney Writers' Centre which you can read here. The cover is awesome, just could do without the disjointing photo at the bottom.

Passage by Connie Willis (2002)
This was a serendipitous find. It's about near-death experiences - that brief period of time when you move from this world to the next (if there is a next world) - and, specifically, the Titanic disaster. I picked it up for research, again delving into grief and death, and was mesmerised. It's clever and the plot is well-thought out, and the characters are endearing. If I have a criticism it's that it's too long, some 500 odd pages. The cover is stunning but doesn't quite fit with the main theme of the story.

A Dark, Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (1993)
This was another book I picked up for research purposes. Wiki says that Vine's narratives are whydunits, whereas when she writes as Ruth Rendell (her real name) she produces whodunits. So a psychological crime novel, and it's brilliant. It's a family saga, detailed, and skipping backwards and forwards in time. This is my first Barbara Vine read but it's not going to be my last. I didn't like the title. It's too obscure. And the cover is misleading.But I forgave all that to put it on the top three list.

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