It is a sad state of reading affairs when the books that stand out the most for 2018 are the ones that annoyed me. I may have waxed lyrical in my previous post, unfortunately they were but 12 books out of my total reading. Unlike most annual wrap up, this is not a “Best of” list, instead I am going to write about the standout books that left a mark on me.
But first my annual reading statistics:
Books read: 94
Fiction: 37 including Romance fiction: 21
Books DNFd but counted: 10 (this means I threw in the towel after tolerating 100 pages of shite)
Children’s: 9 (this is abysmal as I usually will read 30+ picture books in a year)
Graphic Novels: 4
Non-fiction: 53 including Memoir: 13 Design: 15 Library/Reading Theory: 20
This last stat, my theory reading, is an indication of where my time was spent this past year. I am finding it harder and harder to sit and read print for leisure as I am so tired after leaving work and/or the study cave. Audiobooks saved my reading year as I listened on my commutes.
Keepers for my shelves
This one surprised me. I am familiar with the seemingly universal love for Woolf’s writing especially amongst women. I have had her work proselytised to me, I have had friends and colleagues gasp in shock that I just couldn’t get into her books, and to be fair, knowing all about her impact on women’s reading and writing, I felt embarrassed that she bored me despite my many attempts to read her books numerous times over the last 4 decades. What was wrong with me? I have tried reading her books over and over again but nuffink! And then came my year of the audiobook, and in a moment of “Well, why not!” I downloaded the audiobook copy narrated by the sublime Juliet Stevenson and I was astounded. Ah but for for the power of the narrator. A bit like Keats’s Upon First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, she opened my eyes to Woolf with her beautiful interpretation. I guess what I really needed was for Stevenson to read A Room of One’s Own to me; like a parent reading a fairytale to a child, of the dark underbelly of the reality of life as a woman. I listened compulsively and then I went out and bought a print copy too. I finally fell in love with Woolf. And even more in love with Stevenson.
Circe by Madeleine Miller; narrated by Perdita Weeks
I was halfway through Circe when I posted about it in the last blog post. I already was infused by deep love for this book, but the ending was even more sublime than I expected. Having read Miller’s Song of Achilles which built up in tension to reach a frantic, emotionally fraught ending, I was expecting the same. But Miller’s understanding of Circe was so immense, so complex that only upon reading the gentle slowing of Circe’s later life that I felt the pure and utter genius of Miller. This ending laps through my mind just like a gentle Mediterranean Sea. Circe rids herself of her monsters and the thunderstorms and battles and the tempestuous seas within her heart, she discovers her own incredible powers over male gods, Titans and Olympians, she navigates a life on her own, female terms and does so in a way that is gentle and womanly and filled with love for mortal life. I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. I cannot tell you how much Perdita Weeks’s narration permeates my mind as I walk, talk, think, eat, swim. It is one I will definitely revisit but this time I will read it in print, and it will have to be my own copy.
There were several other standout books for me such as Victoria Purman’s The Last of the Bonegilla Girls and Beverly Jenkin’s Forbidden, and my write up for those are in the previous post.
I took a bullet for a friend by reading this book. And it was totally not worth it.
I’m not a slow reader but I got so infuriated by this book that I kept rage-quitting it. It took me 2 weeks to finish it. Let’s just say that Greek-druggie-Mama’s-boy-has-issues fiction shits me to tears. Setting wise – Polites nails the setting, accurately depicting Sydney’s differences and the divide between East and West, not only socioeconomically but geographically. I live only a few hundred metres from the Hume and the Sydney he describes is completely authentic. This is such a positive for me and could possibly be the reason I continued reading this novel as I yearn for authors to write such incisive descriptions of Sydney. Only Melina Marchetta has also depicted the same sense of Sydney that I understand and experience, and that Polites so aptly captures in his book.
However, as important as setting may be, it is not the only lead for this novel. This is a story about the dysfunctional relationships of a disaffected, odious man living in the West of Sydney. Relationship wise, it is about people being horrible to each other in the name of sex and some weird sense of affection while at the same time robbing people and scamming for drug hits. And yes, I understand, that Queer Greek-Australian Suburban Noir fiction (a unique subset in Oz publishing) is supposed to be gritty and all about the underbelly of life. However, there was an annoying undercurrent of “Wogs out of Work” (for my non-Oz readers this is a predominately Southern European-Australian “comedy” show from the 80s) with the constant reference to “Wogboys” and “Skips” and it just made me want to shake the character and tell him to grow up and that maybe he wasn’t liked because he was a shitty human being and not because of his cultural background. The female characters in this book were poorly developed and mere objects to reflect how women are weak, narcissistic and superfluous. Because we haven’t read enough of those type of characters in litfic before, right? To be fair, the author treats WASP males with the same disdain so at least there is that. The tipping point for me was nostalgia for quiet libraries and the derision with which the character regards current library spaces as being “e-info spaces of nonsense”. Seriously, the 20th century is calling and they want their glory back. Let’s move on, everyone. Digital literacies FTW, thank you very much.
Sadly, the writing style drove me nuts. Others might call it edgy and experimental, but to me even the inconsistencies were inconsistent. They felt unpolished rather than deliberate and if I wanted to read unpolished writing with the inconsistency of pronouns being used/dropped I can just head over to Wattpad and Fanfiction. At least the stories there are good. And even the use of Greek beseechments (using the Greek alphabet) were either incorrect or just some weirdass Greek that I haven’t previously come across. Also, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, when Australian publishing is so pale that being Greek is still a diversity story, I have to say FFS.
So if you want excellent Sydney set fiction – this book is for you. If you like noir – this book is for you. I love Sydney settings and I don’t mind noir. But I did mind this book.
Romance fiction disappointment – New contemporary romance fiction continues to underwhelm me and at times infuriate me. The propensity for first point of view and only from the female character points to a more boring and weaker story. Alice Clayton’s Nuts (previous post) was awful, I could not get past the first 100 pages of Penny Reid’s tedious Neanderthal Seeks Human (soooo far away from the odiously self-titled “A Smart Romance” and even though Colleen Hoover’s All Your Perfects was far superior to Reid and Clayton, especially with its promising and heart-saddening anti-meet-cute, it still lacked the richness that a two person perspective brings to a romance novel. Lindsey Kelk’s I Heart New York was so awful I gave up in Chapter 5 because I could not bear Angela, the main character/heroine. The story opens at her best friend’s wedding where Angela finds her long-time boyfriend having sex with another woman. There is the usual chaos and heartbreak especially when she discovers that all her friends – even the BFF bride -already knew. Angela’s mum is there to help her, etc etc but Angela decided to go to NY to escape her heartache. One of her last acts before she leaves is to pee (yes – pee! Urinate!) in her ex-boyfriend/fiance’s toiletries bag. And that was my tipping point. From here onwards, nothing could redeem this character for me, and I couldn’t bear to think that just another awful human gets their HEA when there are so many good people who don’t pee in their exes toiletry bag unable to find someone to care and love them. In my own mind, I preferred Angela go the way of Polites’s protagonist and wallow in a gritty suburban noir spa of her own bodily fluids. So yeah. I was not interested in investing any more time to this character.
And it just feels as though there is this influx of awful heroes and awful heroines. So awful that it makes the alphahole heroes from the years gone by look like veritable angels. Which is the vein that I decided to deal with Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient which was mostly good but…BUT! The Pretty Woman trope (in reverse) is far from a favourite. The male escort with the heart of gold understanding the autistic heroine when no-one else has ever managed worked for me, and though the relationship build was good, when the hero punches someone out right at the end, and it was a bit “yeah but nah” for me for any man whose impulse control has him beating someone up means that he has the potential to be violent to anyone. No pretending about the horrid realities of life. But he doesn’t get awful status. He seemed like a generally a nice character until that one scene edged him towards the passive aggressive alphahole in beta’s clothing.
Some romance reading goodness
Thankfully, Molly O’Keefe saved the day and did give me two wonderful contemporary romances, and I was quite happy with Sarah Morgan’s Manhattan series too (both mentioned in the previous post). Add in Alisha Rai’s Hate to Want You and Alyssa Cole’s The Princess Theory, which were both good. As for historical romance, the only one that I remember and mostly liked was Julia Quinn’s The Girl With the Make-believe Husband. I enjoyed the majority of this book but two things rankled: 1. the dishonesty of calling it a Bridgerton book when the only Bridgerton was seen in the epilogue as the hero was neighbours with them (SERIOUSLY!? Quinn’s name alone can sell a book without the Bridgerton name being bandied about) and 2. Quinn’s attempt at slapstick right at the end of the book, during the critical love declaration moment with the use of a shrieking older woman. This unnecessary character marred the ending for me. I wrote about Beverley Jenkin’s Forbidden in my last post, and hers is the only wonderful historical romance fiction I read this year.
To be honest, not a single romance ranked as a keeper or worthy of a reread. This makes me sad. On a positive note, where I was in a definite reading slump in the first half of the year, the second half seemed to just get me back into my reading groove of earlier years where I read with that incredible feeling of desperation for fiction. I attribute this to the great experience of attending IASPR‘s conference here in Sydney, listening to so many scholar’s research on romance fiction. So here’s to more reading and here’s hoping that my 2019 reading is more positive.