Tag Archives: David Mitchell

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

What I’ve Been Reading

I don’t usually read horror fiction (if I want horror, I can read the newspapers), but I recently borrowed a huge pile of books, plucked pretty much at random off the shelves of my library because it was about to close down for SIX WEEKS1, and two of these books turned out to be Tales of Terror.

'Slade House' by David MitchellThe first is probably more speculative fiction than straight horror. Slade House by David Mitchell was an engrossing, if fairly silly, novel about a mysterious house in London. Once every nine years, a carefully selected person is lured to this house and provided with all he or she has ever desired – until these ‘guests’ realise they can never leave. It is probably not giving away too much to reveal that the story involves vampires, although not the sort who wear black capes and drink blood. The first ‘guest’ we meet is a sweet, awkward teenager who arrives at the house in 1979 and his fate is heartbreaking. He’s followed nine years later by a policeman investigating the boy’s disappearance, then some university students who belong to a paranormal society, then a grief-stricken relative of one of the university students, and finally, a psychiatrist researching patients who claim to have had paranormal experiences. Each of the ‘guests’ is beautifully portrayed and their emotional experiences felt very real. It was heartening to see them begin to fight back and the conclusion to the story was very satisfying. However, if the author was trying to create a deepening sense of dread, he probably shouldn’t have had the villains explain their fiendish plot in great detail to their supposedly helpless victims. The plot becomes more and more ludicrous with each passing chapter until even one of the characters says, “This is all sounding a bit Da Vinci Code to me.” Apparently Slade House also contains a lot of references to previous David Mitchell novels, particularly The Bone Clocks. I didn’t pick up on any of this as I’d only read Black Swan Green, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story at all. Recommended for those who want a fast, engrossing read that’s mysterious but not too spooky.

'The Haunted Hotel' by Wilkie CollinsI also read a more traditional horror tale, The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. This 1889 novel is what Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey would approvingly call “an amazing horrid book”. The summary on the back of the Penguin Classics paperback that I read says it all:

“A sinister Countess is driven mad by a dark secret. An innocent woman is made the instrument of retribution. A murdered man’s fury reaches beyond the grave.”

No wait, there’s even more! There’s a decaying Venetian palace with a hidden chamber, an evil foreigner obsessed with discovering the Philosopher’s Stone, a play written to reveal the Countess’s “dark secret”, a floating disembodied head … Go on, you know you want to read this. It’s great. Maybe not quite as horrid as The Mysteries of Udolpho, but it’s a very quick and entertaining read. I hadn’t read any Wilkie Collins before, and now I’m interested in trying The Woman in White.

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  1. Of course, I devoured half of my pile of library books in the first week. Fortunately, the library staff have set up a little pop-up library in my neighbouring suburb.

What I’ve Been Reading: Some Really, Really Annoying Books, Plus One Enjoyable Book

'Black Swan Green' by David MitchellI’m not going to write about the really, really annoying books I’ve just read (even though I have many thoughts about them) because those authors don’t deserve any more publicity. However, I did enjoy Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. This novel, apparently semi-autobiographical, describes a year in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason, who lives in a small village in Worcestershire, England in 1982. As Margaret Thatcher revels in the carnage of the Falklands War, Jason concentrates on his own struggle for survival. At home, his father is angry and often absent, his mother is lonely and frustrated, and his sister Julia, an inconstant ally, is about to leave for university. At school, Jason is bullied for being clever, sensitive and worst of all, a stammerer. He spends a great deal of time and energy hiding his true self, engaging in stupid and self-destructive stunts in (mostly futile) attempts to show how “hard” he is. There are innumerable ridiculous rules about how boys in his community need to behave in order to avoid that dreaded label, “gay”. Pretty much anything Jason enjoys in life, including being friends with girls, is “gay” and is punished with social exclusion and outright violence. Even some of his teachers join in with the harassment. Fortunately, Jason is resourceful, gathers up some courage and a few supporters, and manages to engineer some sort of victory by the end.

The novel is supposedly written by clueless thirteen-year-old Jason, although the insights revealed often sound more like an adult narrator looking back on his childhood. At times, I was also irritated by the author’s decision to use a combination of teenage-speak and a very obtrusive form of contractions:

“School corridors’re sort of sinister during classtime. The noisiest spaces’re now the silentest.”

Even worse was when Jason lapsed into poetry:

“Autumn’s fungussy, berries’re manky, leaves’re rusting, V’s of long-distance birds’re crossing the sky, evenings’re smoky, nights’re cold, autumn’s nearly dead.”

But I enjoyed Jason’s thoughts about his development as a writer (“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say ‘When you’re ready.’”). And readers who can remember the 1980s will enjoy all the pop culture references and the jokes (for instance, listening to “that ace song, ‘Olive’s Salami’ by Elvis Costello” and getting a Betamax video recorder because “VHS’s going extinct”). While the plot’s predictable for anyone who’s ever read any Young Adult fiction, Black Swan Green is an entertaining and often moving story – Adrian Mole rewritten as Serious Literature.