2018 Reading Round-Up

I was aiming to write regular posts about the books I enjoyed during 2018. In this, I mostly failed! I may still get around to writing about some of them, but in the meantime, here’s a long, rambling post about everything I read this year.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Image shows the cover of Trail of Lightening which features a young woman dressed in black standing on stop of a red car driven by a young man. She holds a gun and lightening plays around her.

My favourite book was Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse. Set in the post-apocalyptic world of Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation), this story about a monster-hunter had me gripped from the beginning. It takes what is now quite a well-worn trope (young woman with special powers hunts monsters) and does something fresh with it. I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Check it out of you like Buffy, Wynonna Earp or Seanan Maguire’s books.

 

Image shows the cover of the novel which features the title in large white stylised letters on a black background surrounded by a design based on moments in the book, green plants, a knife, a key, a puma, a pen and in the bottom right corner, a woman with a pistol.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss came a close second. It’s is a lovely read in which the daughters of all your favourite nineteenth-century Gothic “mad scientists” get together and start to investigate their origins. I managed to write a post about this one.

 

 

 

The biggest surprise was Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, which came as part of a Humble Bundle I bought last year. I guess this is the joy of bundles, they make you try things that you wouldn’t usually pick up. The representation of women is not great and McCammon goes full throttle with the “magical negro” trope, but I got a lot out of this book. It captures something about the way children use fantasy to interpret their experiences of the world and the exploration of loss and grief is really powerful. I’m still thinking about it months later.

Image shows the cover of Children of Time. It features a spaceship approaching a green planet.

I read some good SF novels. The most enjoyable was probably Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, with its story of a ship looking for a new home for its cargo of frozen humans, only to arrive at a promising planet and find it already occupied by sentient spiders, the result of a science experiment gone wrong. I don’t think it quite lives up to the superlative praise it received, but it’s fun, hopeful and quite moving at the end.

 

 

400 Billion Stars by Paul McAuley is a thoughtful, beautifully written and very serious story about a telepath press-ganged into investigating alien life on an eerie planet. I will read more of his work. After Atlas, Emma Newman’s novel about the forms that slavery might take in the future, is very good, but so bleak and depressing I can’t say I really enjoyed it.

I quite liked Taylor’s Ark by Jody Lynn Nye, but didn’t warm to the protagonist and found it rather slow-going. She has several series though and I will try some of her other works. Caught in Crystal by Patrcia C. Wrede is a very light and pleasing fantasy with the unusual feature of a protagonist who is middle-aged and a mother.

Image shows the cover of All Systems Red. It features a painting of Murderbot in its full armour and helmetI read some novellas. I’m enjoying the adventures of Martha Well’s Murderbot (along with pretty much everyone else it seems) and read the first two in the series, All Systems Red and Artificial ConditionBinti by Nnedi Okorafor is lovely, but a little too YA for my tastes – get it for your daughters and nieces though! Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Arkfall is a nice, gentle SF story about an underwater civilisation.

 

 

I read far less short stories that usual. Ted Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life and Others is excellent, but the stories are very dense and challenging and, honestly, a lot of it went over my head! Maybe it wasn’t the right time for this one. I was quite excited by the conceit behind Alien Artifacts (ed Josh Palmatier at al), but found the stories disappointing. None of them really stood out for me.

I re-read a couple of beloved books, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Crime Fiction

Image shows the cover of What the Dead Know. It features a photograph of a girl in a red dress walking behind a tree. As she emerges her body has faded and become translucent.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman is probably the best serious, literary work of crime fiction that I read in 2018. Clever, elegant, haunting, but very dark and disturbing. I admired it more than I liked it.

Alafair Burke’s The Ex is good too. I saw the twist coming, but it didn’t really matter. I also read the second in her Ellie Hatcher series, City of Fear, which is entertaining, but comes with a massive content warning for depictions of sexualised violence against women.

I really liked The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves, the first in her popular Vera Stanhope series, but was disappointed by the second novel, Telling Tales which is full of boring, unsympathetic characters – the only interesting person is dead and even Vera is sick of everyone by the end! I’ll probably try the next one though.

Image shows the cover of The Stranger Diaries. It features a painting of a flowering plant against a blue background with writingThe last book I finished in 2018 was The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths which is a really fun Gothic mystery. A good one to take on holiday.  I also loved Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, a meta-fictional response to Agatha Christie and two solid mysteries for the price of one. These are both books written with the intention of entertaining the hell out of you, while also making some good points about the function of literature.

 

 

Speaking of Agatha Christie, I worked my way through all the Miss Marple novels in 2017 and was finishing up the short stories at the beginning of this year. The Thirteen Problems and Miss Marple’s Final Cases were both decent reads, but not really a patch on the novels. I also read one Poirot novel this year which was The Murder on the Orient Express. I knew the ending and it still had me gripped. I guess that’s why we call her a genius.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sovereign, the third in C.J. Samson’s Tudor detective series. This series is far more dudely than I would usually read, but it’s a world to sink into and has me hooked.

Image shows the cover the novel Stoner McTavish. This edition features a painting of the Grand Teton mountains with a Stoner sitting on a black horse in the foreground.

 

Special mention goes to Stoner McTavish, the first in Sarah Dreher’s much-loved lesbian detective series. It has its flaws but is very enjoyable and I would hate to see Stoner fall into obscurity. I wrote a post about this one.

 

 

I was disappointed by Stephen King’s Finders Keepers. Mr Mercedes certainly wasn’t King on top form, but it was a good read. Finders Keepers had an interesting premise, but I found the characters dull and too much of it was told from the POV of the extremely boring villain. I probably won’t bother with the next one.

General/Literary Fiction

Image shows the cover of Astray. It features a sepia toned photograph of a chain of old keys

I’ve been really off literary fiction for the last few years, so there isn’t much in this category. I liked the haunting stories in Emma Donoghue’s collection Astray enough to write about it.

Otherwise, it was all re-reading. I read Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, both for a lesbian book group I occasionally attend. I’m not really a Winterson fan, with the exception of Oranges and the memoir, which is basically another version of Oranges! I disliked Sexing the Cherry even more on reading it again. I’m still fond of Rubyfruit Jungle. It’s an important novel from a queer historical perspective, if not a great work of literature.

I usually re-read something by Jane Austen and this year it was Persuasion.

Non-Fiction

Image shows the cover of Forbidden Lives. It is a plain brown cover with the title and author's name in black capitals and a small Welsh dragon in black on the right hand sideMy favourite work of non-fiction this year was Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales. As a Welsh LGBTQ person myself, I was delighted to see a book published about our history. I’m very aware of what a challenge this book was in terms of doing the research. The result is a collection of fascinating stories that in many ways highlight, and even celebrate, the ambiguities and elusiveness of queer lives in the past.

 

I read CN Lester’s Trans Like Me which I found an accessible and moving personal account of transgender experience. It covered a lot of issues and didn’t shy away from areas that might be considered challenging.

Image shows the cover of Eat Up. It features cartoonish drawings of good on a pink background

Then there was Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up, a delightful and thoughtful book of essays about food and eating which also has a queer and feminist sensibility. A very healing book, I think, and recommended for anyone trying to recover from eating disorders, or just wanting to get off the diet roller coaster.

 

 

 

The rest was a bit of a mixed bag. I’m fascinated by con artists and fraudsters, so I was keen to read The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. It was worth reading, but felt a bit padded out and repetitive. I would have liked more stuff on how to resist falling prey to confidence tricksters. I was a bit disappointed by Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Papagianni, but this was mainly because I wanted more on the actual lives of Neanderthals and this book is more the story of scientific advances and the study of the subject. How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman is readable, like all his books, but not as fascinating as Misquoting Jesus.

Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Made Simple does what it says on the tin and offers a nice, simple introduction to Buddhism, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Food

The best recipe book I bought this year was The Modern Cook’s Year by Anna Jones. I feel I should say that I don’t entirely approve of Anna Jones’s general attitude to food and eating.  I’m all for eating your vegetables, but I find her approach rather restrictive and a bit inclined to pander diet fads like “clean-eating”. Also, many of these recipes are not cheap to make. Having said that, I do own all of her books because the actual recipes are innovative and delicious and The Modern Cook’s Year is a beautiful book full of ideas.

The most useful book I bought was The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer. My partner and I both work full-time and this book has helped us to feed ourselves well without too much work and washing up. I just bought the follow-up, The Green Roasting Tin, which looks just as good, and is exclusively vegan and vegetarian.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a mostly enjoyable, if unfocused, year of reading. I mainly read genre fiction. The majority of the books were by women (72%/20%), and a reasonable number by queer/LGBT authors, but I could do better at reading more books by people of colour.

If I had the time over again, I would set a page limit at which to ditch the book if I’m not liking it, because I still wasted too much time slogging all the way through some books that I didn’t enjoy.

2012 Reading Round-up

2012 was more of a thinking and talking year than a reading year. I read less than I usually do and didn’t get around to writing about many of the books that I did read, though I’m still intending to write about some of them this year.  My general preference leaned towards large works of fiction, which I think indicates a desire to lose myself in stories.

Book of the Year: Alison Bechdel, Are You my Mother? (2012)

Every now and then you come across a book that changes you. For me, there is a “before Are you My Mother?” and an “after Are you My Mother?” and that’s why it’s my book of the year. This book fundamentally changed the way I think about myself and my relationship with my own mother.  There was also something empowering about reading a book that takes seriously the subject of relationships between lesbians and their mothers, a subject that mainstream heteronormative society really could not give less of a shit about.

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Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1996)

Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that change when it comes cracks everything open (p. 48).

Dorothy Allison is a lifesaving writer who doesn’t get a lot of attention from mainstream feminism. Every time I read her work, I feel like she’s is reaching out to us in an authentic attempt to communicate something important about surviving in this world.  In a world in which it can feel like there is little in the way of authentic, honest, communication, and in which so many interactions seem to be about what people can get out of each other, Allison’s writing is a great gift.

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Screw Usefulness: Feminism & the Politics of Rereading

The Thursday before last I was having a pretty bad time. Several annoying things happened that day, but I was finally tipped over the edge by reading this review in the New Yorker of a book by Patricia Meyer Spacks entitled On Rereading, which is represented in the review as a book “justifying” the “usefulness” of rereading. Just the idea of this book’s existence enraged me to such an extent that I seethed all the way home and subjected my partner to an incoherent rant about it when I got in.  My immediate response was something along the lines of “What a bunch of nonsense! Wasting perfectly good paper on a ridiculous, made up, middle-class, non problem!”

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Diana Souhami, Wild Girls: The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks (2004)

Natalie Barney (1876 – 1972) and Romaine Brooks (1874 – 1970) were lesbians whose extremely long lives and 50-year non-monogamous romance spanned a period of time from the fin de siècle to Stonewall.  They were both from wealthy families and active in the arts – Natalie was a poet and novelist and Romaine was a painter.  Between them they seem to have been friends or lovers with most of the famous lesbians of the period.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think this is a very good book. It reads like an extended gossip column (all description and little analysis), the prose is serviceable at best, the title is inappropriate for a book about two such highly complex women and Souhami weirdly intersperses the narrative with episodes that are apparently drawn from her own life.

However, I also have to admit that I enjoyed reading Wild Girls and might call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ if, that is, I felt guilty about reading silly books. Even in such an unsophisticated take on their lives, Natalie and Romaine come across as fascinating characters and I really enjoyed finding out more about them and their relationships with women like the poet Renee Vivien, Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly, lesbian writer Djuna Barnes, the dancer, Ida Rubenstein, and of course Radcliffe Hall and her partner Una Troubridge.  Truman Capote once referred to Romaine Brook’s paintings as ‘the all-time ultimate gallery of famous dykes’ and you really can’t argue with him on that one.  The book includes some great photographs and images of Romaine’s paintings.

Romaine, in particular, had an incredibly traumatic upbringing and I would have liked to read a more nuanced and sympathetic approach to her subsequent mental health problems.  Actually, it was the attitude to mental health that made me most uncomfortable with this book, as a lot of the women had problems which come across as sensationalised – Renee Vivien’s anorexia is one example and Dolly Wilde’s depression and addictions another

Wild Girls is a non-challenging introduction to a specific lesbian sub-culture of the fin de siècle and first half of the twentieth century and it’s probably the kind of book best read while lying on the sofa sick with the flu.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Directed by James Kent and written by Jane English

I was pleasantly surprised by this beautifully filmed drama based on the life of nineteenth-century diarist, Anne Lister (1791 – 1840).  Some parts of Lister’s diaries are written in code which, when cracked, was found to contain remarkably frank descriptions of her romantic involvements and sexual relationships with women. This all rather demolished the idea that unmarried women necessarily had little access to knowledge about sex or lesbian culture before the twentieth century.  It’s apparent that, not only Anne, but also the locals who called her “Gentleman Jack”, had a very good idea of what she was about.  The Lister diaries suggest that there was a well-developed discourse about lesbianism which was available, at least to upper-class women, as a way to understand themselves in the nineteenth century.

One of the most refreshing things about this drama is that it doesn’t make concessions to the straight audience: it doesn’t explain, or apologise, or dumb down the lesbian representation, but nor does it use the lesbian theme to titillate the viewer.  There is one sex scene which I thought very well done.  This may be because the producers were aware that only lesbians and people already interested in the history and literature of the period would be likely to watch it, so there wasn’t much point in trying to entice a wider audience.  It was cast thoughtfully with actresses who made credible nineteenth-century lesbians, and I was particularly pleased to see that thought had gone into how a butch lesbian might have presented herself during this time.   Maxine Peake played Anne with tomboyish energy and great charm, Anna Madeley, as her long-time lover Mariana, was believable as a woman caught between her sexual desires and the life she has chosen as the wife of a wealthy man.  Susan Lynch was excellent as Anne’s hard-drinking ex-girlfriend ‘Tib’ who’d still like to be more than friends.  Gemma Jones and Alan David were also lovely as Anne’s slightly bewildered, but ultimately accepting, aunt and uncle.

I really liked the film but found the documentary with Sue Perkins, ‘The Real Anne Lister’, even more fascinating.  In order to make the drama watchable for a modern audience, the writers modified what we know about Anne to make her appear a great deal more sympathetic than she was in real life.  As Sue Perkins reads the diaries she rather struggles to like Anne, who comes across as a terrible snob and not a particularly nice person.  For example, in the drama, her last relationship with the heiress, Miss Anne Walker, is sweetly presented, but in the diaries it seems a far more cynical arrangement based more on Anne Lister’s desire for a submissive wife and her need for money to invest in her mining projects.  Of course money and companionship were considered perfectly acceptable reasons for marriage in the early nineteenth century, but what is fascinating is that the two Annes do seem to have considered themselves married and even managed to get their relationship blessed by the church.  My own feeling is that Anne Lister probably had to become a rather ruthless person just to be able to live the life she lived in this period.

I would highly recommend this drama and the accompanying documentary for anyone interested in lesbian herstory.