The Year in Books So Far

It’s been a funny old year, reading-wise. I was pondering why this might be so when it suddenly occurred to me that my algorithm for purchasing books has changed. As audio books are pretty much all I use these days, I’m mostly on the lookout for cheap kindle books with cheap whisper-sync options. I used to  have the monthly audible credit and audible’s regular sales to add into the mix, but my library of unread books reached a figure Mr Litlove must never know about, and so I’ve cancelled my membership until the TBR pile is tamed.  But still I find myself searching the amazon deals, an occupation which has taken me into a demi-monde of publishing that I never knew about before. Basically I had no idea so much crap was published. In all fairness there are probably some great books out there, but the amount of nonsense you have to wade through to find them is a little overwhelming.

So I think this explains why I’ve read so few good new releases this year. Two exceptions, however, go straight into the top ten. Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight. I haven’t got much to say about them except that they were absolutely brilliant and made me excited about what the novel can do. They were both so astutely observed and chose intelligence over sensation.

In the big book category, however, I had two notable disappointments. The first was Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Last summer I listened to Swallows and Amazons and loved it, so this year I decided I’d try another children’s classic that I never got around to with my son. I should point out that I generally don’t choose YA or children’s books. But I’d loved Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke and enjoyed The Shadow in the North (though I never approve of killing off main characters – I blame J K Rowling for this trend which to my mind breaks a sacred trust with the reader, but that’s just my feeling). Northern Lights is objectively a terrific book. The plot never slackens and not a sentence is out of place. But… I found myself listening to get it finished, not because it had truly engaged me. I’m tempted to say it lacks psychological depth, but honestly, Swallows and Amazons hardly owes a debt to Freud. I don’t know what the matter was. The other big disappointment was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. On paper this sounded perfect – bookshops and mysterious authors with hidden pasts. In reality I lost the will to live less than a quarter of the way through. I don’t think the audio version did it any favours. Setterfield has the kind of style that I might classify as Goes On A Bit, and whilst some parts were beautifully written, others verged on the cringeworthy. Also, most characters had a tendency to be one-dimensionally mad, which I found tedious, and the gothic parts were just implausible. I expect lots of people loved this story: sorry.

On a cheerier note, I’ve done very well with memoirs, listening to three really good ones: Tara Westover’s Educated, Rebecca Stott’s In The Days of Rain and Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own. Westover pips Stott by a feather, but both were mesmerising. Religious fundamentalists make for wonderful batty parent stories, though I spent a great deal of time feeling furious on behalf of their children. It seemed to me that their behaviour had nothing really to do with religion; instead, what these books show is how dangerous people become when they decide they are unequivocally right and that all their conduct is uniquely blessed and sanctioned. The Claire Tomalin was a very different kettle of non-biblical fish. Tomalin’s life as an editor and biographer was a resounding success, but her private life was full of tragedy. Her journalist husband was killed in the Middle East crossfire, and of her four children, one died shortly after birth, another is severely disabled and one committed suicide at Oxford. Yet Tomalin’s account is remarkably low-key, sometimes to the point of sterility. I scoured the reviews afterwards, wondering what others made of this and the response in the mainstream papers was very positive. Other journalists applauded her absence of emotion. I didn’t need sob stories but for me one significant dimension of a memoir is an account of what life has taught its author about herself. Educated is fantastic in this regard. Maybe Tomalin couldn’t leave the biographer’s attitude behind, refusing to draw conclusions? Well, it was a fascinating book, if odd, and sometimes fascinating because of its oddness.

If there’s one category, though, that I’m doomed never to find a decent book in, it’s contemporary mass market. The curse of the sympathetic character has ruined most of them, and a strange contagious plot disease has weakened the rest. I was going to name and shame but I can’t be bothered. They’re not worth it and I should never have gone there. But what has really worked for me, and been perhaps the most bizarrely successful part of a generally bizarre year, has been a sentimental return to books I read and loved as a teenager. This all began right back at the start of the year when I noticed that Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels were going to be issued in audio book format. It’s tragic, I know, but this was my most anticipated event of the year. The Merlin novels always struck me in retrospect as a mirage. Mary Stewart’s other novels are okay, not great, and I wondered whether youth and enthusiasm had skewed my perspective. Not a bit of it. They are still outstanding – clever, powerful, vivid, stirring. I’m not sure how they would go down with younger readers these days, as there’s much more description and plot moves more slowly. But I appreciated the space this gave to the story to live and breathe in my imagination. They are not fantasy novels, though. They are much more about political power, and as such seemed to resonate for me with our 21st century plight in which power is used against the gullible and disadvantaged to get what the powerful want.

Thus encouraged I started poking about amazon’s bargain bins with my teenage years in mind. And I ended up listening to a lot of Joanna Trollope and Georgette Heyer. And they were fab! Really nice sentences, great plotting skills, credible characters. There were things going on at all points in the book which made me curious to see how the characters would react. No great middle-section wastelands where we must all tread water in anticipation of a twist. Honestly, when I was looking for an agent a couple of years ago – and a most depressing business it was – the vast majority were most keen to find a chilling psychological thriller with a truly original twist! I have read such books from the supermarket and they are laughably implausible. Why has this become the Ur-book of the new millennium? What does this say about our culture? Or, in all fairness the alternative must be considered, is this just what getting old looks like?

So currently, I am listening to Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds and Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones, both of which I am enjoying. And I’m theoretically listening to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, when I feel strong enough. It fooled me by having an opening page of terrific humour, but by the end of the second chapter there had been three tragic, tear-jerking deaths. I’m about five chapters in now and have lost track of the body count, and am afraid we might run out of characters. Be warned, Cranford is obviously the former name of Midsomer but without the jolliness.


29 thoughts on “The Year in Books So Far

  1. You’ve been busy! Northern Lights is OK but the trilogy only really gets going in book 2 The Subtle Knife, which is grittier in its portrayal of a young person’s life, and the Amber Spyglass is very moving and memorable in the relationships between the young people. I am sure I would feel the same about the lack of personal details in A Life of My Own, and that I would feel something was missing. I did like Normal People, it was very perceptive, it was a bit like watching a French film, all these everyday things happening that built up to feeling part of a person’s life.

    • Ha well, that is over the past eight months of listening! Interesting to know that about the Pullman trilogy. I’m immediately feeling out my reading bruises, as it were, to see if I could commit to another of the books. And I totally agree about the French filminess of Normal People. Yes! It’s just like that only it works better in book form! 🙂

  2. I agree with so much in this post! Northern Lights is the best of the trilogy, and I loved it as a teenager, but I struggle to read Pullman as an adult – there is a lack of warmth about his writing that I think is a lack of psychological depth in a story that demands it (whereas Swallows and Amazons doesn’t). Also struggled with The Thirteenth Tale. I hope the publishing trend towards thrillers with twists has now burnt itself out – I’ve read many wonderful thrillers, but also many that have been totally distorted for the sake of a twist. I’d rather know what was coming. Finally, I also loved Sight and have just recommended it to yet another person.

    • Yay for another Sight fan! i just adored that book so much. And very interesting what you say about Northern Lights. ‘A lack of warmth’ is a really excellent way to put it, yes, that is exactly what I felt, and yes, Swallows and Amazons is so mild and benign that it has plenty of warmth but is not in need of depth. Ha, you are so right. Oh please let the twist distortion be passed – but I’d love to know if there are any thrillers you’d recommend. I do love a good thriller and haven’t read one in ages!

      • Louise Doughty’s latest, Platform Eleven, is very good (and very different from Apple Tree Yard, which I also liked, but I know some people didn’t). Erin Kelly’s Stone Mothers was excellent, better than her earlier work. Sabine Durrant’s Take Me In is also very good.

      • Fantastic, thank you!! I really loved Louise Doughty’s Black Water so I am very up for her new one, and I’m cursing myself for not buying Stone Mothers when it was offered cheap. Ah well, it may yet reappear. Sabine Durrant is new to me – off to look her up, very happily!

  3. Yes, a *lot* of crap is published, which is why I probably never read mass market nowadays – and yet the Mary Stewart Merlin books probably *were* mass market in their day and they were bloody good. Like you I loved them as a teenager. I used to read all manner of romantic stuff my mum had lying around and in those days it was pretty well writter (Victoria Holt and co). What comes out nowadays is awful. I was cutting up a book (don’t faint…) to use in craft recently – I got it for £1 in Poundland oddly enough – and I happened to actually read some of the pages and they were just awful. Made me want to go straight out and read the most challenging thing I could find…

    • Oh I am so thrilled that you also loved the Merlin books – they are SO fab, and yes, I read Victoria Holt too because my mum had one (at least I think it was hers, I’m sure she read her). And they WERE all well written, weren’t they? I did laugh at your comment about not fainting, lol! It’s okay, when I was at the Amnesty bookshop we found the oldest, least interesting books we could and used the middles to make paper sculptures for the Xmas window display. And we talked ourselves into thinking we were prolonging the life of the book! But I am so with you on that violent reaction to rubbish. I find I lose the will to live – going directly to a challenging book is a MUCH better response and one I will have to try!

  4. You made me laugh out loud with your comment about the amount of crap published. I’m a veteran of the book trade so I’m afraid it was a rather cynical laugh!

    I hope you’re enjoying the Dawson and that it has the reader it deserves. I thought it was an excellent novel. She did a fine job in redressing the prurient, aristocracy-obsessed media’s imbalance in its reporting, putting the focus back on the nanny Lucan murdered.

    • Oh Susan, what a change I’ve noticed, from reviewing lovely new releases for Shiny to digging around in amazon’s bargain bins! Ah well, you live and learn. I’m a big Dawson fan and I knew I had to have this one the moment I heard the subject matter. I am enjoying it very much and unlike the other books I was, ahem, mentioning, it is wonderfully well written. I was so glad to see it in your Booker longlist, and in fact loved your longlist much more than the official one. I’ve put about half the books on my wish list!

  5. What you mention about there being so many bad books out there is something that I blame on Amazon. The mountain of published (especially self-published) books is overwhelming when I try to do a web-browse for new titles, and I often waste an hour or more without turning up something that I believe I would actually finish reading, much less enjoy. I really miss all those bookstores that have closed their doors forever.

    Too, I agree with you on The Thirteenth Tale – great premise wasted, there. And Educated is one of the best books I’ve read this year, most definitely the best memoir.

    Does your library offer audiobooks as an option? I stream them one-at-a-time from my county library because I do so much driving during the school year that I need something to make it all that traffic more tolerable – and it works. I sometimes have to wait for my turn at new releases, but there’s always enough choice to satisfy my reading mood of the moment.

    • Sam, I feel exactly the same. It is indeed overwhelming, and there are so many books forced to my attention of a kind I have never in all my amazon buying days shown any interest in! It’s quite a relief to find some people also disliking The Thirteenth Tale and I am loving the love for Educated, which is soooo good. I have a lilttle branch library in my village so will go there and see what the audio options are. They definitely have books on CD that you can borrow – I’ll ask about streaming options, I didn’t know that was even possible, so thank you!

  6. I read Educated a few months ago and was pretty blown away by the insights into Westover’s upbringing. There was something astonishing on virtually every page, to the extent that it began to feel somewhat overwhelming at times. (I can’t even begin to imagine how frightening and emotionally draining it must have been like for her to live through it.) Not my usual kind of read at all (it was chosen by a member of my book group), but very compelling nonetheless.

    • Jacqui, I am so delighted that you liked Educated! Your reaction is so similar to mine, especially what you say about something astonishing on virtually every page – YES! That’s what I found and it was indeed overwhelming though in a good way. I slowed down my listening and only did a couple of chapters a day as I didn’t want it all to speed past me. I do like memoirs generally, but they are rarely as insightful as this one was. Will you review it? I must look out for that if you do.

  7. Interesting about the Mary Stewart books: I have recently tried (again, in some cases) some of her romantic suspense and as you say, they are just OK. Maybe I should revisit the Merlin ones! Cranford does indeed have some sad bits but it’s so sweet and tender at heart, and has such lovely gentle comedy throughout, that I encourage you to persist! (The adaptation is also lovely, something I don’t often say about adaptations of books I really enjoy.)

    • Ah now that is exactly what I need – some encouragement for Cranford. It is a wonderfully written book, so well written that it can bring me to tears in a few choice lines! But you remind me of its many virtues – it IS really good. As for Merlin, I find it hard to judge how you would react. It’s probably a try-a-chapter from a library book kind of book, just to see how it sits with you.

  8. I really enjoy all your comments and indeed your comment about all the crap being published did cause me to laugh. One question is which Georgette Heyer books did you listen to? I also have recently retreated to past favorites and I’m interested to know which ones you enjoyed.

    • Ooh now GH. I have particularly enjoyed Venetia and Faro’s Daughter, and The Talisman Ring was a good romp. Years ago I read The Grand Sophy and really enjoyed it – must look that one out for a re-listen. She is just so good at plotting! If you have others you’d recommend, do let me know!

  9. I recently read and enjoyed Diana Setterfield’s Once Upon a River and realised I’d never read The Thirteenth Tale – however like you I was disappointed, and wondered what all the fuss was about.. I rarely read new releases these days unless they are for Shiny reviews – find myself instead plunging around happily in various back lists, most recently Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Ondaatje.

    • Oh those are lovely back list authors. I do so wish Barbara Kingsolver wouldn’t narrate her own books. She’s a brilliant author, she could leave it at that, lol! It’s very interesting to hear that Setterfield’s new book is a lot better than The Thirteenth Tale – that’s encouraging to know! I’ll keep it on the possibles list.

  10. I thought I was a voice crying in the wilderness where The Thirteenth Tale was concerned. You give me hope that my judgment is not as completely skewed as I thought. I recently recommended Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy to a blind friend of mine who two weeks later berated me soundly for keeping him up to all hours of the night on the sound equivalent of ‘just another page’. I don’t know if that would be to your taste but Donald is very discriminating and I would trust his judgement. If you want to go down the classics route, I know he’s also had a lot of pleasure from Trollope.

    • I feared I would be too, but it turns out that several of our friends are in agreement! And yes that is a terrific recommendation and right up my alley – I read An Officer and a Spy last winter and thought it was absolutely fantastic. I also love Trollope, especially when read by Timothy West so you are spot on with your suggestions.

  11. Mary Stewart’s pretty good! I’ve read The Ivy Tree and This Rough Magic, and both have a witty allusiveness to them that I really enjoyed. Giggling at “strange contagious plot disease” – go on, tell us what you’re thinking of? Is it the Curse Of the Truly Original Twist that you mention later in the post?

    • That’s a nice thing to say ‘ witty allusiveness’ and very apt. Lol! Yes, I am thinking of those wretched twists, but I suppose in all honesty I have a dislike of soggy middles too. Just when you want a good, strong middle build to carry you through the meat of a story, all too often the pace dwindles and authorial invention fails. I am thinking especially of contemporary crime fiction where this seems to happen a lot. Many fictional police teams spend the investigation getting nothing out of their suspects and then in the eleventh hour their leader has an extraordinary epiphany and puts together unlikely data in surprising combinations and solves the case. Hmmmm. Maybe real life IS like that?

  12. Oh! Educated! How brilliant! I’m so pleased you liked it, and I had exactly the same reaction as you, with a side of feeling furious on behalf of the mom. The whole thing where she CLEARLY HAS A BLEED ON THE BRAIN and everyone’s like, ha, ha, you have raccoon eyes made my brain explode.

    • Oh yes that is totally infuriating! I was also incensed when the son accidentally soaked his jeans in petrol and was then expected to hold the fire gun thingy and inevitably made himself a human torch. It’s madness! And living in the UK right now, I know what madness looks like. But yes, completely brilliant book – glad you loved it too.

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