I read a lot of books in quick succession at the end of the year, and frankly didn’t have the energy to review them properly because I was recovering from emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy (all fine* now) so let’s open the new year with a backlog spring cleaning. I have an ulterior motive, which is that I’m currently blazing through a book that I am very excited to talk about, so let’s boot everything else off the slate, shall we?
Warning: these are going to be short and probably unsatisfying.
Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry
Really liked this one. It’s weird and nuanced and something that you can’t really describe without retelling it almost. The narrative voice gets under your skin (Barry’s Irish and the narrator is Irish but the syntax has this proper American swing, but the audiobook is read by an Irish reader [I had a listen out of curiosity when discussing the book with friend], and I dunno, I like it). It’s American history (the Indian Wars) told by people who fall through cracks, and who don’t quite fit. I’d go so far as to say they might not quite be easily pigeonholeable in modern pigeonholes either, and I like that? Especially in today’s increasingly fractured/boxed-off society. There are always people in between. There is always nuance, whether you think there should be or not. Barry does a fantastic job of jostling beauty and horror, goodness and badness up against each other, and making us confront the fact that both ends of every spectrum live inside us.
Der Hundertjährige, der aus dem Fenster stieg und verschwand, by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Wibke Kuhn
This was 2020’s German class reading project, and it was by turns light and breezy, and dense with historical detail and labyrinthine, dryly witty German sentences that tied my brain in knots. I enjoy Jonasson’s madcap slapstick, and the fact that he gives a non-Anglospherical (though still Western-based) view of history (see also Die Analphabetin Die Rechnen Konnte), and like that book he revelled in the absurdism of world politics. Again he can be a little too lighthearted for my liking when skipping through the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Communist China etc, but at the same time, our ancient protagonist is an absolute cynical mercenary, so it also sort of fits him. On the whole, I enjoyed this.
Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley
Now this was a slog. It’s written in letters between Max and Eleanor, a Brit and a German growing up in the mess of the 20th Century. And it’s written in… a style. When I began, with Eleanor’s first letter (not that you realise it’s a letter properly for a while), I was interested in the style. It’s odd and repetitive (every line of dialogue is preceded with “Xyz said:”) and full of questions that aren’t actually questions (“I thought: this is a normal statement? And: I guess the author just likes question marks? And: no really about 40% of the book is written like this?”). Then I read Max’s first letter and realised that it wasn’t Eleanor’s personal style, it was the style of the entire book. I did not expect this immense philosophical tome to have anything in common with Veronica Roth’s Allegiant, another book of alternating viewpoints between two characters who think and speak in the exact same voice, but I suppose that’s the wonderful level playing field of literature. To be fair, there are bits of Hopeful Monsters that were genuinely great – the Spanish Civil War segment, the salamander sequence, the relationship between Max and his mother is wonderfully drawn bar one very weird possible incest incident near the beginning which Mosley’s style made both slightly incomprehensible and very uncomfortable. On the whole I’d have to say the gold is not worth the digging through the long swamps of philosophical musings.
The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, by Gideon Defoe
This is a very weird, funny little book, and I enjoyed it immensely. I wondered from time to time who it was aimed at, as it seemed too silly for adults and too mature for children, and concluded that it was aimed at silly adults like me. It’s very different to the animated film, and is more of a parody of a children’s adventure book of the kind you’d read at school, complete with educational footnotes, vocab lists and questions at the end. Good fun.
The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
Exactly what I needed at the time I started reading it – a big historical drama to sink into, with a little hint of the supernatural. I’ve been to Amsterdam a couple of times, briefly, and greatly enjoyed recreating old Amsterdam in my mind. The atmosphere is pitch perfect, the characters are all full of angles and corners, the story full of twists and turns and inevitabilities. There was one particular twist that punched me in the face at a time I did not need to be punched in that exact manner in the face, but that’s hardly the fault of book or author (or, indeed, me), and I won’t hold it against them. Just, really loved this.
Poèmes de Victor Hugo en BD
Pretty much what it says on the tin – a collection of poems by Victor Hugo. The poems are laid out straight, then set out in comic form by a variety of artists, and every few poems you get a little spread of facts about Hugo’s life. I learned a surprising amount, and got to feel smug about reading French poetry, so win-win, really. I didn’t know Hugo even wrote poetry before we found this book at Frankfurt Buchmesse, and I feel thoroughly unqualified to judge whether he was a “great” poet, but I enjoyed the poems and there were some lovely little angles and images. Which is all you can really ask for.
The Bone Readers, by Jacob Ross
I tend not to gravitate towards crime or police procedural, but this was a cracking read. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything set so deeply in the Caribbean like this (to my shame), and I was totally lost in the setting, atmosphere, dialogue. The characters are vivid and real, many of them low-key terrifying. As it’s a crime novel I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but I absolutely raced through the book, totally absorbed and needing to get to the end. And once I got there, needing to get back into the world.
Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan
Ahhh, I wanted to like this one so much more than I did! It’s light and fun, with all of the opulent wealth and insane luxury you want from the title, but I found Kwan’s pacing to be a bit off? Or just strange in general. It felt like a lot of promises were being made that were never really kept or followed up on – the central event everything’s revolving around is a high-stakes wedding, whose groom the story heavily hints is unhappy or at least not ready. Rachel, the Chinese-American protagonist, has been thrown into a lion’s den of stupid wealth with zero preparation or warning, after the book has thrown ominous stories from other characters at how terribly this can go. But the wedding goes off without a hitch, and Rachel accepts her idiot boyfriend’s ridiculous moneyed status with no issues at all. So much conflict is set up, and then nothing comes of it. I wanted bitchy politics, class warfare, for Rachel to stand up for herself and slap Nick in the face for being so naive as to think his idiot thoughtlessness was in any way okay. We get a couple of incidents in which Rachel is made to feel unwelcome, but she’s always surrounded by genuine allies and the consequences are always softened – right up until the end, when everything comes out of absolute left field and shatters everything all at once, where really I wanted there to have been building tension throughout. Still, I did enjoy the book – the author’s footnotes are great, and enough of the supporting cast are fun to follow that it makes up for Rachel’s insipid niceness and easygoingness.
China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan
In a colourful ensemble cast like Kwan’s, it’s a common problem that the protagonist is the least interesting character. In some ways it makes sense – they’re often the character you want to be the most relatable to the audience so they end up being a bit less crazy than the comically wealthy extended family of snobs. The problem is that Nick, the love interest is also one of the least interesting characters. I have no idea what Rachel sees in him? He still hasn’t apologised or learned from his informed decision to fling Rachel into his terrible family without giving her a chance to prepare, and was only saved because she’s basically a saint with no flaws. Anyway. Nick and Rachel are getting married – another wedding, another chance for DRAMA! Incorrect. Nick’s estranged mother (who disgraced herself at the end of the last book) shows up at the wedding rehearsal (who does those?) in a helicopter, against everyone’s wishes, reveals that the Big Reveal of Rachel’s parentage of the last book wasn’t actually true, and something that was genuinely a big issue for Rachel is solved entirely – and not only that, but she’s also SECRETLY SUPER RICH ALSO. Anyway, Nick’s mother is rewarded for her appalling behaviour and disrespect for reasonable boundaries by being allowed to go to the real wedding, and oh my goodness why were any of these choices made. Astrid, one of the good characters from the last book, is having class-based marital problems that are much more interesting than Rachel’s adventures in charming her super rich family/stepfamily, as well as a love triangle with a pretty red-flag Nice Guy, and the B Story should actually be the A Story – Kitty Pong, soap opera/pornstar New Money social climber extraordinaire, is trying to get herself accepted by Singaporean high society. This is the political class intrigue I wanted. Hopefully she’ll have a more starring role in the third book, if I ever get around to finding and reading it.
Last Bus to Woodstock, by Colin Dexter
Yeah, yeah, for someone who doesn’t read police procedurals I’ve certainly been sniffing around them. This is the first Inspector Morse book, and it’s a tight little snapshot of 60s British life. There were some amazing lines (at one point the narrative is like “Morse hated sex crimes.” Don’t we all, Morse, don’t we all.) but altogether it was an easy read, in that way that takes a lot of skill to pull off, and the mystery remained a mystery for my blunt mind right until the end. This was my first experience with Morse in any medium, and I was surprised by how not-preternaturally-a-genius he was. I quite liked his dark moods and his failures and frustrations. Probably says a lot about me. I can easily see myself working contentedly through the series.
*I mean, not fine really, like, at all, but there’s no point worrying, and also it’s not a “not fine” that is unanticipated, so I suppose it counts? It’s a very monotonous, tedious and repetitive “not fine”. You wouldn’t enjoy it.