Long time, no see!
Recently, I've gotten back into good reading habits and I'm excited to share the books I've read so far in 2016. I want books and literature to be a big part of this blog, whether it be writing reviews or via The Sorting Chat podcast with Sophie. As a way of playing catch up, I have planned a couple of posts that contain multiple books. This is the first. I figure it's a better way of doing things as I don't want to inundate TDC with a backlog of reviews.
Sophie is back in Brisbane for a year, so there's a good chance we'll be creating some great TSC episodes soon. We have read a lot of the same books in the past 18 months and I know there are a couple we're eager to discuss. But until then, here's a rundown of the first ten books I read this year.
*little to no spoilers*
Book #1 – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Synopsis: Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret.
Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering.
At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in.
Summary: I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. Werner and Marie-Laure's stories are tragic yet captivating.
The best part of this book are the relationships. There were so many beautiful interactions with Marie-Laure and the people she loved. She had such a touching relationship with her great-uncle, Etienne, and his housekeeper, Madame Manec. These passages evoked much love and affection from me. In saying that, I preferred Werner's story over her's; I was fascinated to read a German’s P.O.V. of WWII, and was enthralled by his experiences in a Nazi military training school.
The only downside of this book was that Doerr's writing felt unrealistic at times and that detracted from the rest of the book. Some events felt forced, or their endings felt a little too tidy. Though, in saying that, the ending was satisfying despite feeling a little contrived and predictable.
Book #2 – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Synopsis: The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.
Summary: I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) because I wanted to know if I would still love as much as I did the first time. Long story short: I did.
I am an idealist at heart, and TKAM helped shape my values and opinions. It’s the first book that made me want to be a better person – to judge people less, to empathise more, to never judge a person by their appearances. These are the lessons that I try to live my life by and I am comforted that my second read-through has only strengthened my own set of ideals.
I ended up getting more out of this book the second time around. My heart swelled with pride as Jem matured throughout the novel, and I found an appreciation for Lee's writing style that I didn't have before. Atticus Finch has will always be a role model for me, even if he a little problematic these days.
Book #3 – In My Skin: A Memoir by Kate Holden
Synopsis: Kate Holden is used to being summed up at a glance: arts graduate, history buff, middle-class daughter, dreamer, innocent. But she is a young woman who understands better than most the secrets that people keep hidden. This astonishing debut follows her journey from the safe and leafy suburbs of Melbourne to the all-consuming attractions of heroin and the sex industry. This is a story - confronting and utterly compelling - of survival and resourcefulness; an unflinching look at the consequences of addiction and the struggle of power and control that addicts face. Holden's journey leads her to a world of sex for money, from the seedy netherworld of back lanes and backseats to the security, both real and imagined, provided by brothels.This is a moving, at times brutal, memoir from a prodigiously talented new voice. Kate Holden has produced a searingly honest and wonderfully written account of a life on the streets, on drugs and on the skids.
Summary: In My Skin is an interesting autobiography that tells a first-hand account of drug addiction and the sex industry. Holden is a simple yet effective writer, and I sympathised with her throughout the book. It was sad to see the people who introduced her to heroin get clean, while Holden struggled for years. I was captured by her story, and was mesmerised as she started selling her body to feed the drug habit that controlled her life.
The ending, unfortunately, too abrupt as the rest of the book was well-paced; one day she couldn't kick her habit and the next day she could. It felt extremely anti-climactic and disappointing as I am sure there was more to it than that.
Book #4 – Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave
Synopsis: When Timothy Conigrave falls in love with the captain of the football team, John Caleo, at their Catholic all-boys school in Melbourne, the two embark on a passionate journey of love, betrayal and forgiveness. This bestselling true story is at once sexy, romantic, funny and sad - a masterpiece of authentic emotion that you won't forget.
Summary: I finished this in less than 18 hours. It grabbed me instantly and I kept reading until it was done. Holding the Man is basically Conigrave's love letter to his partner, John. I was so smitten by their love story that my heart swelled with their triumphs and broke with their defeats. Conigrave didn't hold anything back; every thought, whether good or bad, was captured and it resulted in an emotionally potent read.
While I commend Conigrave for writing an honest depiction of himself, I found him, as a protagonist, a little grating. I hated reading about his selfish moments, as he didn't seem to care how his actions negatively affected the people he loved. It evoked a strange feeling of disappointment, as if Conigrave some a personal friend of mine. I wanted to tell him that he was being an idiot, and that he needed to grow up. I guess it shows how well he was able to connect with his audience
Books #5, #6, & #7 – His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Synopsis: In an epic trilogy, Philip Pullman unlocks the door to a world parallel to our own, but with a mysterious slant all its own. Dæmons and winged creatures live side by side with humans, and a mysterious entity called Dust just might have the power to unite the universes – if it isn't destroyed first. Here, the three paperback titles in Pullman's heroic fantasy series are united in one dazzling boxed set. Join Lyra, Pantalaimon, Will, and the rest as they embark on the most breathtaking, heartbreaking adventures of their lives. The fate of the universe is in their hands. The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass pit good against evil in a way no reader will ever forget.
Summary: I have always wondered whether young adult novel like this would have the same pull for adults. Once you take the childhood nostalgia out of the equation, are they still as magical? (For anyone who read Harry Potter in adulthood, please let me know! I am honestly fascinated to see how well/poorly it resonated with you.)
Sophie urged me to read His Dark Materials as it is one of her favourite trilogies growing up. The Golden Compass took me a long time to get into, my mind kept wandering, and so I didn't have high expectations for the rest of the series. It took Iorek Byrnison's gruesome fight at the end of the book to finally pique my interest. To save myself some time I listened to the last two books via audiobook and goddamn did it make a difference, I was hooked! (Although I am not sure whether it's purely because Phillip Pullman's narration is gold, I think it may also have been the natural progression of the series.)
My favourite book was The Subtle Knife. I instantly connected with Will Parry and was glad he joined the series. I empathised and related with him more than any other character. He was this beautiful mix of logical, brave and sensitive. While I understand Lyra's appeal, she is an extremely well-developed character, her immaturity and stubbornness stopped me from connecting with her on a deeper level.
Sophie warned me of the devastating ending (her exact words were 'This is going to emotionally fuck your shit up.'), but I didn’t expect myself to be so affected. It seems that a lack of nostalgia doesn’t soften the blow of a heartbreaking ending. I was in tears throughout the last third of The Amber Spyglass.
The themes and allegories that run throughout the series are extremely insightful and intelligent, I could easily spend a couple of hours deciphering Pullman's work. He is such a talented author, and I only wish I had read this book when I was younger. It would have shaped my little brain in such a positive way and 12 year old Valerie would have totally fallen in love with Will.
Books #8 – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Synopsis: When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
Summary: To put it simply, A Little Life is the best book I’ve read this year, hands down. I don’t expect anything to top it, it is just that spectacular. This book is heartbreaking to read, but worth every minute of pain. Yanagihara is a talented author; she knows how to pull at the heartstrings of her readers and have that story resonate with her audience on such a deep level.
I will be the first to admit that it has its flaws. It’s (at least) 150 pages too long, and unrealistic in places (everyone in the novel is successful and lives extravagantly), but these flaws are easy to overlook when you have such a compelling story. I was completely absorbed in the narrative, I relished in every detail I got. I needed to know everything about Jude, the mystery protagonist. Who was this broken man, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a bespoke suit? As we learnt more about the pains of Jude's past, the more despair I felt. It was too horrible to think about, but that's all I did. I couldn't get away from this book. It followed me, even when I wasn't reading it.
I cannot recommend this book enough. It's as amazing as I am hyping it up to be. Seriously, drop the book you're reading right now and start reading A Little Life instead.
Book #9 – White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Synopsis: On New Year's morning, 1975, Archie Jones sits in his car on a London road and waits for the exhaust fumes to fill his Cavalier Musketeer station wagon. Archie—working-class, ordinary, a failed marriage under his belt—is calling it quits, the deciding factor being the flip of a 20-pence coin. When the owner of a nearby halal butcher shop (annoyed that Archie's car is blocking his delivery area) comes out and bangs on the window, he gives Archie another chance at life and sets in motion this richly imagined, uproariously funny novel.
Summary: White Teeth is highly witty and well-written. I related to the Iqbal twins and Irie Jones, as a first generation immigrant. I understood their struggle to find themselves in between the mix of two very different cultures.
Smith is eloquent and extremely funny; her writing is the type of prose I love to read. I wish I had given this book more attention but I struggled, purely because I was still processing A Little Life. It's a shame because I think in different circumstances I would have enjoyed it more. Though I connected with some of the passages, her writing is truly beautiful, it didn’t capture me in the way I hoped it would. I want re-read this book, as I suspect I will get more out of it next time.
Book #10 – Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Synopsis: Young Pip Tyler doesn't know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she's saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she's squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother--her only family--is hazardous. But she doesn't have a clue who her father is, why her mother has always concealed her own real name, or how she can ever have a normal life.
Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world--including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic provocateur who rose to fame in the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now on the lam in Bolivia, Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn't understand, and the intensity of her response to him upends her conventional ideas of right and wrong.
Summary: Jonathan Franzen is a great writer. He’s smart (though not as smart as he thinks he is) and knows how to write an intelligent novel. In Purity, he impeccably interweaves the storylines of each character to create an absorbing novel. Each singular story was well-developed and thought out. The plot was well executed, and I loved that part of Purity immensely.
Unfortunately some of this magic was lost due to the fact that Franzen has a habit of writing self-absorbed characters. Two of the protagonists, Pip Tyler and Annabel Laird, may actually be some of the most infuriating characters ever written. They filled the hapless stereotype of 'broken yet beautiful' that I, personally, have no time for. The only character I liked was Tom Abberant's partner, Leila Helou. She was intelligent, interesting, and overall, much more relatable/understandable than all of the other characters combined.
Basically: I loved the story, but hated most of the characters.