OK, so I spent most of last year not writing up the books I read. But I also didn’t do as much reading as usual, so I’m going to do a speedy roundup instead. Sorry! Or you’re welcome!
Journey to the West, vols 1-4, by Wu Cheng’en, translated by Anthony C. Yu
Some books are daunting to give your thoughts on, and this is one of them. It’s the reason I read so few books this year – it’s extremely dense and footnote-heavy, and just took me forever to get through. If I’m making it sound like a chore, then believe me, it absolutely was, but one I’m glad I got through. I wish I had some intelligent thoughts to give on this story, but the truth is, I don’t know much about ancient Chinese cultures or the complex philosophical and religious interplay between Taoism and Buddhism. Yu has done an admirable job with the translation, taking on the cryptic chapter headers, punny names and reams of poetry as well as the story itself with aplomb. The poetry especially must have been a monumental task, not only full of classical allusions but written in a variety of distinctive Chinese forms, each less translatable than the last. Though I can’t speak to Yu’s faithfulness or the logic behind his structural choices, I think he did a great job. Sometimes they read a little strangely in English with little discernable rhyme or reason, but you know what, I’m happy to believe the best of him. The lowbrow humour is a lot of fun (Tripitaka drinking The Water That Makes You Pregnant Oops, everything to do with Idiot, so much scatological humour) and though the episodic “then they came to a mountain which was SURPRISE inhabited by a demon!” nature of the story does get repetitive sometimes, there’s still somehow a sense of progress being made. So yeah, I’m glad I made the commitment to read it.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, by Douglas Adams
Again, I wish I had a lot of intelligent opinions to give, but you all know it’s a classic, and you probably know why. It still stands up, possibly bar a very few curmudgeonly on-the-nose observations throughout. It’s just delightfully messy and blackly, slapstickly funny, and so off the wall you wonder how anyone let it through. I suppose times and editors were different, and aren’t we lucky they were.
A Scandal in Bohemia, and other stories, by Arthur Conan Doyle
I picked this up because yes, like the rest of the gaming world, I was playing The Great Ace Attorney, which is full of Sherlock Holmes references (and a thinly disguised Sherlock Holmes himself) and I’d never read a Sherlock Holmes before. And it was there on our shelf! They were all fun little short mysteries, I had a good time. I spotted some Great Ace Attorney references in there! It’s hard to say a lot about my impressions given that Sherlock Holmes is such a strong presence in pop culture. It feels like I’m already familiar, you know?
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
This one was also on the bookshelf waiting for me to pick it up, and so I dove into it as soon as I was done with Bohemia. I mean, what can you say about a classic? Spooky action and mystery and a little bit of that Holmesian absurdity to top it off. I finished it, in all its foggy glory on a long bus journey through an equally foggy Höchst to an Organscreening appointment, which felt very satisfying.
The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry
Remember when everyone was in love with The Essex Serpent? Yeah, it’s really good. Taps into that vivid time-and-place mastery that I love so much in my fiction lately, and I definitely had a lot to say about this one that I never got around to typing up. Lots of straddling-two-worlds going on, duality. Science and religion, town and country, sea and land, love and love. The creeping ominous atmosphere of the serpent’s approach is so well done, as is the multi-voiced perspectives, from arrogant Nice Guy genius Luke, to the feverish stream-of-consciousness journal entries of elfin reverend’s wife Stella, to the strange games of Aldwinter’s children. Just, fantastic all round.
What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell
This one was really lovely. An American expat in Bulgaria meets a young man in a gay cruising spot, and the novel follows their tumultuous, sparse, intense relationship. Neither is what the other needs or even really wants at times, but they can’t stay away from each other for too long. There are other, one-sided needs that they each fulfil – money, the illusion of emotional intimacy. The writing is gorgeous and so vivid that you wonder if it’s actually based on true events, from the evocation of Sofia to the American protagonist’s coming of age in an unforgiving Southern American town. Really stunning work. If you like the style and atmosphere of Call Me By Your Name, I can definitely recommend this one to you.
Dodgers, by Bill Beverly
Oh, this one was phenomenal. I didn’t really know what it was about because so much time had passed since putting it on my list, I had a vague impression of a sports book, which is 100% incorrect (though the Dodgers of the title does refer to sports team paraphernalia). It’s about young gang members in the US, centring on East, who lives between cracks, never really here or there, coming of age on the slightly surreal road trip that guides the plot. The writing style is sparse and vivid, full of atmosphere, the characters nuanced and real and dangerous and full of bad decisions and surprising moments of friendship, East himself full of depths and things about himself that even he hasn’t grappled with or worked out yet. It’s pretty dark, but so good.
East West Street, by Philippe Sands
Another great one, this one non-fiction, delving into the origins of the legal terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”, tied up in an examination and investigation of the history of Sands’ own family, who by chance crossed brief paths with the people who brought these concepts to life, and were involved much more viscerally in the events of WW2 which made them necessary. This kind of WW2 family memoir with a general info twist seems to be more and more a thing, and I’m glad, because these stories should be told, and they are personal as well as political, and there’s no getting away from that. Sands’ expertise in the subject and layman-friendly writing style makes the legal side of the story fascinating, as much as the twists and turns of the true story of his investigation of his family’s past.
The High Places, by Fiona McFarlane
Australian short stories! I honestly haven’t read a huge amount of Australian literature, so there was a little exotic tang there for me throughout. Sort of mixed feelings on the stories themselves – McFarlane is obviously a really good writer, and I kept coming across sentences that made me think “Ooh, what a good sentence”, but a lot of the stories themselves would just kind of start, hook you in with the concept, and then… stop. The ideas were great and the atmosphere dark, but I felt like there could have been a little more, somehow, just to really round them out and give the reader more to chew over when it’s done.
Bridget Jones’s Baby, by Helen Fielding
There are a couple of books on my TBR that I was staying away from, partly because, having planned to get pregnant, I thought it would be fun to read them while I was, and partly because, having been unsuccessfully pregnant, I didn’t want to press too heavily on those particular bruises. Eventually I got to Bridget Jones’s Baby though! And… eh. I read and enjoyed the first two (haven’t got to Mad About The Boy yet) but this one felt phoned in. It felt rushed and a little flimsy, lacking depth. The setpieces felt like they were designed for film (and judging by other reviews, the film seems to be far better) and feel a little lifeless on the page. Too short and light for my liking, and the main conflict was resolved with pretty much no effort.
How to Survive a Plague, by David France
A history of the AIDS crisis might seem a strange choice of reading material in the middle of a global pandemic, and yes, true, but it went on the list in 2017, and I didn’t know. And actually current events added a whole new dimension to the reading experience. A different pandemic in terms of severity, spread, targeted demographics (and reacted to differently by world governments in part because of the different affected demographics), and of course one that builds on and benefits from the lessons learned in the other, but still opening up little portholes of understanding and empathy. This was an excellent, fascinating, heartbreaking read, full of strong personalities and people whose good intentions led them to terrible places and people who were immensely valuable to the movement but horribly unlikeable. I learned a huge amount about activism, science, history. And if you do pick it up (and you should) look out for Dr Anthony Fauci. I know I was pretty surprised to learn about his part in the AIDS epidemic, especially as compared to his part in this one.
Nobody Told Me, by Hollie McNish
This is a collection of poems and personal essays McNish wrote from the beginning of her pregnancy through her daughter’s third year, and I had sort of been saving it in the hope that I’d be able to read it one day while I was pregnant, which I did! McNish writes with raw honesty, and says that some of the pieces are unpolished or unfinished, written in the thick of the experience. She does a lot of work with teenagers and connects her experience (especially when people call her out publicly for being what they perceive as a young single mother) to the lives of the people she works with, and to reports of pregnant women and new mothers in warzones (which is horribly relevant now too). I liked the essays a lot, both the ones that ruminated on the broader experience and the very personal ones. The poems were a little more hit and miss for me, purely because the style isn’t really my thing, but even then the concepts behind them were often interesting enough to carry them.
And that’s everything I read in 2021 after I stopped doing full reviews!