Tag Archives: Anthony Trollope

My Favourite Books of 2011

Okay, it’s not the official end of the year just yet, but here’s my list so far. It was a bit easier to compile than last year’s list, because I now keep a book journal, which allows me to report the following statistics:

Number of books read so far this year: Fifty-seven (not including the two novels I disliked so much that I couldn’t finish them)

Number of books read that I’d previously read: Seven (actually, there were more than seven, but I stopped noting them down in my journal, so most of them aren’t included in this book tally)

Number of Young Adult books read: Fifteen

Number of children’s books read: Eight

Number of memoirs read: Three

Number of other non-fiction books read: Nineteen

Number of graphic novels read: Three

Number of anthologies read: Two

Number of books by Australian writers: Fourteen

Number of books by British writers: Twenty-seven

Number of books by North American writers: Fourteen

Number of books by Scandinavian writers, translated into English: Two

Number of journals subscribed to this year: Two (Viewpoint on Books for Young Adults and Australian Author)

And now, here are the books I read this year that I loved the most. Note that none of them were actually published in 2011 (I’m still trying to catch up with reading from the nineteenth century).

Favourite Novel About Terrifying Creatures with Supernatural Powers

'Let The Right One In' by John Ajvide LindqvistI don’t read many horror novels – if I want horror, I can just read the newspapers. However, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist received a lot of favourable publicity when the two film versions were released, so I decided to give it a try and it was amazing. It’s incredibly gruesome, but the author does such a terrific job of narrating events though each character (even a squirrel, at one point – truly) that I could not put the book down. I must say, it doesn’t paint a very pretty portrait of late twentieth-century Sweden. Practically every character is desperately lonely, an alcoholic, a drug addict, mentally ill and/or a violent criminal, and yet all the modern-day villains (and there are many of them) have plausible reasons for their vile actions. Ultimately, it’s a hopeful story about two outsiders helping one another. I should also note that this is one of the few translated novels I’ve ever read where the prose was completely seamless, as though it was originally written in English – the translator of the edition I read (whose name I forgot to write down) did a wonderful job.

Favourite Novel About Victorian Clergymen

'Barchester Towers' by Anthony TrollopeBarchester Towers by Anthony Trollope is a clever and very entertaining satire of church politics and middle-class English society – think Jane Austen with added snarkiness, or Charles Dickens without the sentimentality. I’m not sure who is my favourite villain – Mrs Proudie, self-appointed Bishop of Barchester, or the oleaginous Reverend Mr Slope, the chaplain who rapidly falls from grace after he gets tangled up in a few too many love affairs. There’s also a good BBC television series based on this book and its prequel, The Warden, with Alan Rickman as Mr Slope.

Favourite Short Story

‘Different for Boys’ by Patrick Ness (in Keith Gray’s YA anthology, Losing It) is one of the best short stories I’ve read in years. Vibrant teenage characters, a school that felt completely authentic, real sex and real heartbreak, lots of jokes, all in forty-four pages.

Favourite Graphic Novel

'Tamara Drewe' by Posy SimmondsAdmittedly, I only read three graphic novels this year, but Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds would probably have been my favourite even if I’d read fifty of them. It’s a loose modern adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, set mostly in a writers’ retreat in rural England. There’s lots of biting satire about self-indulgent writers, academics, celebrities, middle-aged philanderers and ‘liberated’ young women, but the story is engrossing and includes a sad but realistic portrayal of disenfranchised rural teenagers. The art is great too, expressive without being too fussy (and is it just me, or does Glen, the American writer who’s moved to England, look exactly like Bill Bryson?).

Favourite Book About Punctuation

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which I have previously discussed here.

Favourite Children’s Book

'Millions' by Frank Cottrell BoyceMillions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is the very best sort of children’s story – funny, exciting and moving. A bag containing thousands of pounds lands in young Damian’s lap, and he and his brother Anthony have only a couple of weeks to spend it before it loses all its value. They trigger hyper-inflation in the school yard, realise that material goods don’t buy happiness, and discover that trying to do good in the world is harder than it seems (for example, when they give a large donation to the Mormon missionaries down the street, the men spend it on a dishwasher and foot spa). Damian’s family are beautifully portrayed, but so are all the secondary characters – Damian’s long-suffering teacher, the local policeman, a lady who visits their school to explain about the introduction of the Euro dollar, the various saints who appear as visions to Damian, even the robber trying to retrieve his stolen money. Highly recommended!

I must also mention two other children’s books I enjoyed: The Secret Language of Girls by Frances O’Roark Dowell, about two best friends gradually growing apart during sixth grade, and Cicada Summer by Kate Constable, an intriguing time-slip story set in a drought-stricken Australian country town. (I also re-read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, which is still awesome.)

Favourite Book About Germs

I read quite a few ‘popular science’ books this year, some written by journalists, others by scientists, and I decided I much preferred the ones written by people who actually understood the science they were writing about. Anyway. Killer Germs: Microbes And Diseases That Threaten Humanity by Barry E. Zimmerman and David J. Zimmerman was a very clear, interesting account of the history of microbiology, with technical but accessible descriptions of how germs cause diseases. It did have an overwrought ‘We’re all doomed!’ chapter about bioterrorism and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and so on, and the edition I read was out of date (published in 2003), but overall, it’s very good. Also, it was written by science teachers who are identical twins (I’m not sure why the book pointed that out, but I couldn’t help imagining them as looking like the Winkelvoss twins).

An honourable mention in the ‘popular science’ category (although this book is not specifically about germs) goes to Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All by Rose Shapiro, which examines a variety of ‘alternative medicines’ popular in the UK, ranging from chiropractic to homeopathy. The author points out that there is no scientific evidence to support most of these treatments, and she laments the money and time that the UK government devotes to ‘quack remedies’ that can be very dangerous (for example, chiropractic neck manipulations can cause strokes, and some herbal medicines contain toxic levels of lead and mercury).

Favourite Novel About Teenagers

'Will Grayson, Will Grayson' by John Green and David LevithanI really enjoyed Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, a book about friendships between teenage boys – some gay, some straight, but all of them interesting, realistic characters. There was lots of humour and the story moved along at a perfect pace, but most importantly, it was emotionally resonant. I cried at the end, but I didn’t feel manipulated into it by some sentimental epiphany on the part of the characters, because their emotional journeys seemed real. I also liked that while being gay wasn’t ‘normal’ in this book, it wasn’t the cause of unending angst, either. Maybe the girl characters could have been nicer or had more depth, but overall, I thought this was a great YA novel.

So . . . I don’t seem to have read many new books this year – perhaps because I was so busy writing. I was reading online newspapers, magazines and blogs, but not that many books made out of paper (even though I don’t own an e-reader, iPad or laptop, and my only internet connection is extremely slow dial-up). I do have a list of To Read books for 2012, but it’s too long to type out, and I still haven’t read a couple of books from my 2011 To Read list.

I hope that you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2012 brings you many entertaining and intriguing books!

More Favourite Books of the Year:

1. Favourite Books of 2010

I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

Australian author Charlotte Wood recently wrote* about how she is troubled by readers who “seem to base the worth of a novel on whether or not they might be able to make friends with the characters in real life”. She felt it was a sign of “laziness and immaturity” for readers to care about whether characters were “likeable”, because the really important thing was “that the characters behaved convincingly, rather than pleasantly”.

Ms Wood was talking about fiction for adults (for example, she refers to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Jamaica by Malcolm Knox – both novels full of loathsome characters). However, I’ve also noticed a lot of bloggers reviewing Young Adult novels in terms of whether the main character is ‘relatable’. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware that ‘relatable’ was a word, and I’m still not entirely sure what it means in this context. Does it mean: ‘I want to be friends with this character’? Or does it mean: ‘I recognise something of myself in this character, even though the familiar characteristics may be flaws’?

'Lesendes Madchen' by Franz EyblWhen I read fiction, I like to read about characters who are interesting. If I don’t care about them, why should I keep reading to find out what happens to them? Sometimes I find characters interesting because they’re likeable, but other characters are interesting because they’re absolute monsters. For example, I love Mrs Proudie in Barchester Towers and Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate – their very awfulness provides most of the comedy in those novels. My favourite example of an unlikeable narrator is Barbara in Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. There is no way I’d ever want to be Barbara’s friend, or even work in the same place as her, but her shrewd observations and general misanthropy make her wickedly perfect for her role in that novel.

On the other hand, many of the novels I’ve loved reading have included likeable characters, and I don’t think this is a sign that I am lazy or immature (although, of course, I can be both of these, at times). I’d much rather read Pride and Prejudice than Mansfield Park, for instance, because Lizzie is fun and smart and lively, whereas I just want to push Fanny Price off a cliff. Of course, ‘likeable’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ – it simply means that I find the character’s flaws natural, forgivable or amusing, rather than irritating.

This leads to the issue of whether authors ought to make their characters more likeable (or relatable), in order to attract more readers. I confess: when I started writing the Montmaray books, I deliberately tried to make my narrator likeable. I wanted her to be intelligent, good-hearted and have a sense of humour, and to learn from her mistakes. But one difficulty, especially with a series, is that if a character is perfectly likeable from the start, there is nowhere for her to go. How can she change and grow over time, if she starts off being wonderful? The other obvious problem is that just because an author thinks a character is likeable, doesn’t mean that readers will agree. Some readers hated Sophie in A Brief History of Montmaray, describing her as stupid, childish and weak-willed. Just as we all have different reactions to real-life people, so we all like or dislike fictional characters to varying degrees. Perhaps, as Charlotte Wood suggests, all that authors can do is try to create characters who convey the messy truth of real life.

*Link to The Likeability Problem by Charlotte Wood (downloadable pdf) was found at this blog post in The Australian.

Fifty Books A Year

Books

The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that school children should be reading fifty books a year. Leaving aside the irony of this coming from a politician whose government is slashing funding to libraries, the proposal raises a number of questions. Does forcing reluctant or poor readers to read a book each week really make them more enthusiastic about reading? What does Mr Gove mean by ‘book’? I’m guessing (and I could be wrong) that he isn’t counting graphic novels, comics or picture books towards the total. And why fifty books, and not thirty, or a hundred? Is quantity more important than quality? Do they have to be fifty different books? If so, does that mean a child who chooses to read and re-read a beloved book isn’t getting any benefit from the experience? And how many books has Mr Gove read this year?

Of course, as a reader and a writer, I’d love more children to be exposed to the wonderful world of books. However, this proposal seems designed to suck all the joy out of reading by reducing it to quotas and ‘learning experiences’. If reading some arbitrary number of books is essential for a well-balanced life, then all adults should be doing it, too. I decided to examine my reading from the first twelve weeks of this year and determine what I’d learned from the experience.

Total Books Read: Sixteen. This doesn’t include the two books I started, and didn’t finish. One of those was a book I’d read before and decided to re-read to find out if it was really as bad as I’d thought (it was). The other was a contemporary YA romance that I hated so much, I had to stop reading about a third of the way through. I made two further attempts at it, then decided life was too short to waste any more of my time on it.

Number of Novels Read: Ten.

Number of ‘Memoirs’ Read: Three. (I’ve included in this category any book written by someone about their own life, even though one of the books probably wouldn’t be labelled a ‘memoir’.)

Number of Other Non-Fiction Books Read: Two.

Number of Anthologies Read: One.

Number of Books Read That I’d Previously Read: Five. (For various reasons, I didn’t feel up to tackling any new books during the first few weeks of the year, so I re-read some old favourites.)

Number of Books Written By People Who Are Dead (But Were Alive When They Wrote Their Books): Four.

Number of Books Written By Australian Authors: Five.

Number of Books Written By British Authors: Nine, if I include the editor of the anthology. (What? I’m writing a book set in England, okay?)

Number of Books Written By American Authors: One. (I revere you, Susan Faludi.)

Number of Books Translated from Swedish: One.

Number of e-Books: One. It was a free download because it was out of copyright, and I read it on my computer, because I don’t own any e-readers. I’d rather have read it as a paper book, but then I’d have had to pay serious money for it because it’s out of print in Australia – and frankly, it wasn’t that good.

Five Things I’ve Learned As A Result of Reading Approximately 1.3 Books Per Week This Year:

1. Vampire novels don’t have to be sparkly and anti-feminist. Sometimes, they can be scathing critiques of modern Scandinavian society that manage to combine extreme horror with a poignant portrayal of friendship between outsiders (Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist, for which I have not included a link because I couldn’t find one without plot spoilers).

2. I really like novels that combine information about an unfamiliar aspect of history with clever plotting and endearing, plausible characters (Small Island by Andrea Levy).

3. Novels about Victorian clergymen don’t have to be dull and worthy. Sometimes they can be witty, hilarious and unputdownable (Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope).

4. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking or perceptive as the hype suggests, and its publishers should have spent some of its advertising budget on more thorough copy-editing and proofreading. It was okay, though, and at least now, I can say I’ve finally read it.

5. I should read more anthologies, because they’re a good way to sample a range of writers. Also, I should now read everything Patrick Ness has ever written, because Different for Boys is the best short story I’ve read in years. Four vibrant teenage characters, a school that feels completely real, great dialogue, droll jokes, a boy with a crush on an Irish golfer, frantic sex, a devastating fight, a heartbreaking kiss and some snarky references to YA book censorship, all in only forty-four pages (in the YA anthology, Losing It, edited by Keith Gray. The other stories in this collection were fine, by the way, but they just didn’t hit me the way Different for Boys did.)

One Other Thing: If politicians want children to read more, they should provide adequate funding for libraries, teachers and learning disability support in schools, and remove taxes on sales of books.

One Further Thing: The Montmaray give-away is still on, till the 5th of April. If you win a book, you could count it towards your fifty books for the year.

That is all.