My Favourite Posts By Me From The Last Decade (Ish)

An unabashed post of self-congratulation marking the fact that I’ve now been blogging since 2011, starting on my old site Laura Reading Books and moving here in 2015. One favourite post per year!

Thomas Hardy backwards: escaping one’s fate [a range of Thomas Hardy novels], August 2011. ‘I can’t think of almost all the remaining cast drowning in the weir at the end of The Return of the Native without smiling’.

A Game of Thrones: Catelyn and Arya Stark [A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin], April 2012. ‘Martin shows us how a desire for justice can be distorted into a desire for vengeance, when life becomes too cruel for mercy’. (If you want to read more of my thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire, my other essays on Cat, Arya and Sansa are linked here. These essays also drew the most traffic to my blog ever!).

Laura Rereading: Theories about fear [The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull by John Bellairs], February 2013. ‘what I think Bellairs did teach me – and what he still does exceptionally well – is how to scare’.

All this buttoning and unbuttoning [Her by Harriet Lane], April 2014. “if Frances… was, as she put it, ‘making pastry’ as she inveigled her way into Alys’s old life, Nina is making choux buns to Frances’s shortcrust, so lightly and imperceptibly does she trouble Emma.”

Laura Rereading: ‘I belong to him’ [the Emily of New Moon series by L.M Montgomery], June 2015. ‘Emily’s Quest is not a novel about an obsessive lover getting in the way of true, pure love. It’s a novel about obsessive love, full stop’.

‘My child and my child’s child’ [The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers and The Ship by Antonia Honeywell], January 2016. “[Jessie’s] father tries to talk her out of her decision: ‘The future is an abstract concept, Jess’. But Jessie can’t believe this: ‘No, it’s my child and my child’s child’.”

Rewatching ‘San Junipero’: the black mirror [Black Mirror TV series], January 2017. ‘because of San Junipero, [Kelly] can have a second life as a young woman, in love with another young woman. She can be ‘normal’ and ‘transgressive’ at the same time. She can have it all, but only after she’s dead’.

Bookworm, Or I Wish I’d Written This [Bookworm by Lucy Mangan], May 2018. ‘I knew that Betsy was made up, so why was she mentioned in another book? HOW HAD THIS HAPPENED?’

Sex, the sea and academia: Night Waking (Sarah Moss) & The Pisces (Melissa Broder)May 2019. “If Lucy’s Tinder profile says ‘Let’s make out in a dark alley’, Anna’s would probably say ‘Please leave me alone in a dark bedroom’.”

Have any of you written lists of your own favourite posts by yourself, or have favourite posts of your own to recommend?

My Life in Books, 2019

I did a version of this in 2011, 2012 and 2015 as well as this same list in 2017, because it always amuses me. Borrowed from Jessie at Dwell in Possibility. One book title has been edited slightly to avoid libel!

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Me and my book!

Using only books you have read this year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

In high school I was The Loneliest Girl In The Universe (Lauren James)

People might be surprised by Things A Bright Girl Can Do (Sally Nicholls)

 I will never be Normal People (Sally Rooney)

My fantasy job is State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)

At the end of a long day I need The Language of Kindness (Christie Watson)

I hate Expectation (Anna Hope) 

Wish I had Chemistry (Weike Wang)

My family reunions are Sweet Sorrow (David Nicholls)

At a party you’d find me with My Sister [… the Serial Killer] (Oyinkan Braithwaite)

I’ve never been to Another Planet (Tracey Thorn)

A happy day includes Saltwater (Jessica Andrews)

Motto I live by Yes No Maybe So (Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed)

On my bucket list is Revelation Space (Alistair Reynolds) but I accept that We Can’t All Be Astronauts (Tim Clare)

In my next life, I want to have Memories of the Future (Siri Hustvedt)

 

The End of the Year Book Tag, 2019

I borrowed this from Diana at Thoughts on Papyrus#SciFiMonth reads are excluded!

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

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I’ve done a good job winnowing down my TBR pile to 2020 releases, but I ambitiously started a re-read of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and am only a few pages in at the moment (this is solely due to the size of the paperback and not a reflection on the book itself) so I’d like to finish that by the end of the year.

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

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I’m currently reading Tom Cox’s collection of short stories, Help The Witch, which is left over from my Halloween reading but is beautifully atmospheric and surprisingly funny. A number of the stories have ghostly themes, but Cox is very light touch: as he puts it in his acknowledgements, ‘thank you to ghosts, for maybe being real.’ What he’s especially good on is how places shape our personalities, even places where we only spend a short time. As one of his characters puts it: ‘Human character was more subject to geography than was generally acknowledged. Yet there was a pressure to be the same person people had come to expect everywhere you went.’ Striking woodcuts by Cox’s mother, Jo, add to the overall feel of this collection.

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

I think I nabbed them all on NetGalley!

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Going back to my mid-year check in tag, I’d like to prioritise Amy Waldman’s A Door in the Earth and Tash Aw’s We, The Survivors. I’d also like to read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments by the end of the year, before I totally miss the zeitgeist.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

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If it’s The Testaments I should probably give up reviewing books! But more likely, I think, looking at my TBR list, is Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, which is the one book remaining from my 4.5 star challenge (none of the rest achieved 4.5 stars, so he is my only hope).

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?

Yep – I have three main goals:

  • Start 2020 as I mean to go on by reading through all the 2020 releases I have stacked up on NetGalley and don’t think I’ll get a chance to read before then. These are: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara; The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams; A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry; The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue; and If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. I also have two proofs from the John Murray Proof Party at the Durham Book Festival to read: Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child and Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer.
  • Reframe 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge, so I can read any 20 books I like as long as they’re rereads.
  • In a similar vein, continue my Reread Project.

The Translated Literature Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel at pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. A translated novel you would recommend to everyone.

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Having just had a lively book group discussion about Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, it has to be this one. Not everyone loved this story of Keiko, a thirty-six-year-old woman who is totally devoted to a convenience store, but it made us ask really interesting questions about what is ‘normal’ and who gets to judge. Personally, this is one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year, particularly good on capitalism and its myths of individual fulfilment. I enjoyed this interview with the translator.

2. A recently read ‘old’ translated novel you enjoyed.

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I didn’t read this recently AT ALL, but I did enjoy Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, translated from the Italian by William Weaver. This unashamedly slow medieval mystery set in a Benedictine monastery culminates in the horrific murder of a lost manuscript (following the murders of some actual monks).

3. A translated novel you could not get into.

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This has happened to me with a disproportionate number of translated novels and is one of the reasons I tend to avoid fiction in translation unless it’s specifically recommended to me. The first example that comes to mind is Michel Deon’s The Foundling Boy, which I found dully written and derivative; it was first published in France in 1975 but translated into English by Julian Evans in 2013, so it unfortunately combined my aversion to novels published between c.1918 to c.1980 with my aversion to a number of novels translated from French around that time (Suite Francaise etc.)

4. Your most anticipated translated novel release.

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Not a novel as such, but I’m looking forward to Humiliation by Paulina Flores, a collection of short stories set in Chile and translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. As part of the research for my new novel, I’m specifically seeking out recent fiction by Chilean writers, and I liked the sound of these stories. Humiliation is out in the UK on November 7th.

5. A ‘foreign-language’ author you would love to read more of.

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I was fascinated by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and The White Book, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, so I’d now like to read Human Actswhich focuses on a violent student uprising in South Korea.

6. A translated novel which you consider to be better than the film.

I’ve tried very hard to find something for this category, but I can’t find any films based on a translated novel where I’ve both read the book and seen the film…

7. A translated ‘philosophical’ fiction book you recommend.

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Jostein Gaarder is best known for his novel Sophie’s World, a whistle-stop tour through the history of Western philosophy, but my favourite of his books is The Ringmaster’s Daughterwhich centres on an unnaturally brilliant man and his facility for making up stories, which leads to him selling plots to authors. It’s not as overtly ‘about’ philosophy as Sophie’s World, but the narrator’s musings on fiction are fascinating. It was translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson.

8. A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long.

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The book in translation that’s been on my Goodreads TBR the longest is Carole Maurel’s Luisa: Now and Then, a graphic novel translated from the French by Nanette McGuinness and adapted by Mariko Tamaki. Luisa, thirty-two, meets her fifteen-year-old self and confronts questions about her sexuality. I really ought to read this while I’m still thirty-two!

9. A popular translated fiction book you have not yet read.

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Using the list ‘Popular Translated Fiction Books‘ on Goodreads, there are a LOT, but I’ll pick Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. Unfortunately I am unlikely to read this as I didn’t enjoy either Norwegian Wood or Kafka on the Shore.

10. A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read.

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Returning to my Goodreads TBR, I’d like to read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; I’ve been hearing about this everywhere, and it has a great title. It’s set in a remote Polish village where people start turning up dead in strange circumstances.

If anyone else wants to have a go at this tag, please do – I’d love to see your answers.

Choose The Year Book Tag: 2003

Thanks for Laura (Reading in Bed) for tagging me for this! The idea is that you select a certain year and look back at the books published in that year. Like others, I’ve used the Goodreads Top 200 list for convenience.

1. Choose a year and say why.

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My Y11 yearbook picture from 2003.

I’ve picked 2003 because it falls on the cusp for me; I turned seventeen in September 2003, so this was really the period when I was moving from teenage fiction to adult novels, but still dipping back into YA here and there! I’ve noticed that the Goodreads Top 200 tends to feature YA quite heavily, so I thought it would be fun to pick a year where I have both YA and adult fiction to talk about.

2. Which books published in that year have you read, or if none, heard of?

I’ve read 24! Almost an eighth of the Goodreads Top 200, although there are some dubious entries (Harry Potter appears twice, as a single book (Order of the Phoenix) and as a series, and I’m pretty sure The Cat In The Hat wasn’t first published in 2003; nor, although I have not read it, was Plato’s Symposium).

I’m not going to discuss all 24, so here are some highlights:

 

  • Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada still infuriates me whenever I think of it because of how Andy is treated for prioritising her career rather than her boyfriend. Said boyfriend is also very stupid because he cannot seem to understand that Andy hasn’t ‘sold out to the fashion world’ but is deliberately doing the internship from hell for one year to hold out for what she really wants to do. The film has a different ending, but is equally, if not more annoying in this respect. Still love it though…
  • We Need To Talk About Kevin is Lionel Shriver’s most famous book but it’s only midlist in terms of quality; my favourites are Double Fault and The Post-Birthday World. It’s a shame that Shriver seems to have become so offensive and shortsighted in recent years, as her writing used to be excellent, and still is when she isn’t ranting about libertarianism.
  • Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is one of my favourite books of all time; a vampire novel that doesn’t fall back on a single cliche, it’s set in a totally convincing alternative world where humans are trying and slowly failing to hold back the dark, but where where there’s still space for good cinnamon rolls, painted motorcycles and used book fairs that yield favourite novels and protective objects. READ IT.
  • Zoe Heller’s Notes on A Scandal is a wonderful portrayal of not just obsession, but loneliness and isolation – the film is very good in some ways but drops the ball badly by making Barbara into a stalkerish lesbian stereotype – no hint of that in the book.
  • Jostein Gaarder’s The Orange Girl isn’t my favourite book by him (I’ll be writing more about Gaarder when I get around to the books in translation tag), but the storytelling is still compelling and it rests on an obvious twist that amazingly worked very well for me as a teenager.
  • Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light (published as A Northern Light in the US and on this list) made me very cross as a teenager and I can’t remember why! I definitely wasn’t a fan of the heroine.
  • Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice was a disappointment to me after loving her Alanna, Daine and Kel series; I never warmed to Aly as a character or got over her romance with a bird!
  • Philippa Gregory’s The Queen’s Fool is a very silly historical novel in numerous ways, not least its ahistorical take on gender norms, but I still like its no-holds-barred version of Elizabeth I before she became queen; Elizabeth is so often presented as so saccharine (e.g. in the film Elizabeth, which has her totally innocent of all conspiracy against Mary) this is a nice antidote, even if it goes too far the other way… Along with David Starkey’s Elizabeth, this probably inspired my A Level history dissertation which was on Elizabeth’s involvement in plotting during Mary I’s reign.
  • Eoin Colfer’s The Eternity Code, third in his Artemis Fowl series, is a book I can no longer remember anything about other than its very glittery cover, but has brought back fond memories of the first in the series which was very fun.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is one of the few books on this list I read AFTER the year 2003, and like all her writing, it’s subtle and moving.

3. Are there any books published in that year that sound interesting and would you read them now?

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Very, very few on this list! I’m really only interested in reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor after reading Rachel’s review of it. I suppose I might eventually get round to reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.

4. Most obscure sounding book?

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Looking only at books that don’t fit into obvious categories (i.e. I don’t read romance, so it’s all obscure to me, but I don’t think that makes it obscure in general) I’ve gone for Bill Willingham’ Fables: Volume 2: Animal Farm just because I’m really confused as to what it is! A graphic novel? Here’s the blurb:

Ever since they were driven from their homelands by the Adversary, the non-human Fables have been living on the Farm—a vast property in upstate New York that keeps them hidden from the prying eyes of the mundane world. But now, after hundreds of years of isolation, the Farm is seething with revolution, fanned by the inflammatory rhetoric of Goldilocks and the Three Little Pigs. And when Snow White and her sister Rose Red stumble upon their plan to liberate the Homelands, the commissars of the Farm are ready to silence them—by any means necessary!

5. Strangest book cover?

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Yuu Watase’s Absolute Boyfriend has to win this – what is going on here?? To be honest,  this manga novel actually sounds amazing:

Shy high school student Riko Izawa aches for a boyfriend but guys just won’t look her way. Then one day she signs up for a three-day trial of a mysterious “lover figurine,” and the next thing she knows, a cute naked guy is delivered to her doorstep–and he wants to be her boyfriend!

Has Riko died and gone to heaven? The cute naked guy turns out to be smart, super nice, stylish and a gourmet chef. Plus, he looks like a million bucks…. Trouble is, that’s about what he’s going to cost Riko because she didn’t return him in time!

I don’t tend to tag people, but I love this tag, so please have a go if you fancy it and haven’t already done it!

 

Some of My Favourite Recent Book Covers

I love cover art, and am always fascinated when cover artists discuss the process of jacketing a book (for example, this piece on Dear Mrs Bird). Inspired by Rachel’s post along the same lines, here are some of my favourite book covers from the past couple of years. (I’m going to restrict myself to UK editions, even though I tend to prefer US covers.)

love seeing how books are remarketed when they move from hardback to paperback, and here are some examples that didn’t have bad hardback jackets but have beautiful paperback covers [hardbacks on left, paperbacks on right]:

 

I love the bright colours of the paperback edition of Aminatta Forna’s Happiness, and the photo of the fox; the whole feel of the cover is much edgier than the hardback version, which is pretty but a bit abstract for this London-set slice of social realism.

 

The hardback cover of Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall was pretty good, but the paperback cover is just perfect for this Northumbrian-set chiller, evoking the ‘light nights’ of northern summers and the isolation of the central character. I want to buy it all over again.

 

I really liked the pattern of leaves on the hardback of Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, but the woodcut image on the paperback is stunning, and fits this medieval mystery so well.

Of course, sometimes it goes the other way:

 

The paperback cover of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is clever and bright, but is definitely aimed more at a women’s fiction market; the hardback cover is just gorgeous, and I like the more subtle symbolism of the tree and the font that looks hand-sewn, referencing Celestial’s doll-making business.

I frequently like covers much more than the books they contain. Here are some examples:

 

(I still can’t get over how beautiful the cover of The Lido is when the book was so awful…)

However, some books get the amazing covers they deserve:

 

Does anybody violently disagree with my taste in covers? (I know I always Have Opinions when I read these kind of posts…)

The Literary Fiction Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel from pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. How do you define literary fiction?

I’ve written about this here but I actually now prefer Emma Darwin’s definition. Here’s an excerpt from it: ‘all fiction works by integrating the familiar (the world that readers experience themselves) with the new (what they don’t know themselves), in varying proportions… [but] when it comes to the proportions of originality to familiarity, there’s more originality, in more aspects (plot, character, prose, ideas etc. etc.) than in commercial fiction. The more that’s original and the more original it is, the more challenging it will be to read.’

2. Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study

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I’m actually not as fervent a fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as many others seem to be (I think her The Little Friend is a better novel, and that Tana French’s The Likeness takes on a number of the same themes more interestingly) but this was the first title that came to mind when I thought about characterisation. There are a number of vignettes that have stuck with me. Henry knowing everything about classical culture but only just finding out that man has landed on the moon, and struggling to believe it. The twins, Charles and Camilla, working out their alibi  – they’ve decided to say they were seeing a movie – and then starting to argue over the meaning of the movie that is their alibi for murder, because they’re twins and that’s what they do. The sweet stupidity of Bunny’s father as he dotes over the small children in his family, even as we know the harm his unthinking privilege can wreak.

3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing

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Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil did not get the love it deserved (especially given the inexplicable praise of his far inferior debut, Beasts of No Nation). It follows a black, gay teenager trying to fit in at his exclusive DC private school, but is distinguished by its prose, adopting an experimental literary style that effortlessly blends dialogue and interior monologue in a way that can occasionally be jolting but is usually exhilarating. Despite this, it’s not difficult to read at all; this was one of my top ten novels of 2018.

4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure

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Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing, another massively under-appreciated novel that should have won all the prizes going in the year it was published, switches between first-person chapters narrated in past tense and set in the present which move forward in time, and first-person chapters narrated in present tense and set in the past which move backwards in time. This sounds confusing, but it isn’t; our brilliant protagonist, a woman called Jake, easily ties the two together. Half the novel is set on a remote sheep farm on an island off the coast of Britain; the other half is set in the Australian outback. It’s unusual to find a novel that’s both so intelligent and so moving, and this is why I’m waiting so impatiently for Evie Wyld’s new book.

5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes

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Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army is the best feminist dystopia I’ve ever read (sorry, Margaret Atwood). Set in the near future in Penrith, it follows a youngish woman, Sister, who strikes out from her regimented life in the town to join a female collective, Carhullan, in the wilderness. This novel is feminist not because it glorifies women, but because it explores both the violence and the love that develops in this single-sex settlement, and what women might be like if they lived and ran their own space. Everything Hall’s written is worth reading, but this remains my favourite – and given that it was first published in 2007, it now feels extraordinarily prescient.

6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition

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I have to second Rachel’s suggestion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I’ll also add Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby, which I wrote about here as a guest post on At Home With Books. I’m not especially keen on most of Faulks’ novels, but this book, which starts with the disappearance of a Cambridge student in the 1970s, emerges from Faulks’ fascination with the human brain, and the ways in which it’s ill-adapted to a temporal existence. This picks up on the concerns expressed in his previous novel Human Traces and his subsequent novel A Possible Life, but I think Engleby is the best of the three. The narration is often weird but consistently fascinating, and Faulks writes so well about human consciousness, our sense of modernity, and what Siri Hustvedt might call ‘memories of the future’.

7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel

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My FAVOURITE thing. There are so many I could name, but I’ll go for Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being, an exhilarating mix of literary and speculative fiction. This melts between reality and fantasy so effortlessly as it follows the stories of Ruth and Nao. I must re-read this.

8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I love speculative literary fiction, as above, but it doesn’t always fall firmly enough into the realm of the speculative for me; so let’s say literary sci-fi. I know from bitter experience (writing my own!) that these two genres are not an easy combination, but when it’s pulled off, as it is in Nina Allen’s The Rift and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travelthe results can be extraordinary.

I don’t tend to tag anyone in posts, but if you haven’t done this tag already, I’d love to hear your answers!