Category Archives: 2011

2011: The year in books

This blog post was originally going to be about how I had failed to be wowed by any books this year in the way that I was in 2010 by, say, Arthur Phillips’ The Song Is You or Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin. But then I looked through my list, and I remembered The Grapes of Wrath, The Audacity to Win, the American Future, The Book Thief.

Still, though, I feel disappointed about this year, perhaps because I’ve read a fair few books that weren’t all I had hoped they would be (the subject of a future post, no doubt) and most likely because I will finish without reaching my goal of fifty books. I’ll have got to about 32, which is respectable enough, but that isn’t enough to appease the competitive urge in me.

There are a variety of reasons for this, chief among which has to be the iPad: long gone and almost forgotten are the days when it was too much hassle to turn on my computer for one last play on Twitter before bed. And when in combination with other addictions, like Authonomy, the online writers’ community, it has eaten away many hours.

And iPad or no iPad, Authonomy must shoulder some of the blame. It may well be that I have, in fact, read fifty books’ worth of first chapters: the idea is that you comment on other people’s books in the hope that they will read, comment on, and vote for yours, edging you ever closer to the desk of an editor at Harper Collins. So you read many books that you would ordinarily not go anywhere near. Some of the writing wowed me, like Rena Rossner in her first novel Blown to Smithereens; some, it has be to said, did not.

Then there was NaNoWriMo. I usually read most when travelling; this year, I wrote instead. I take the train less these days, too, and when I do I sometimes use the time for emails, or Authonomy, or – ahem – Boggle. (Yes, the iPad again.) There are many excuses I could offer, some slightly more worthy than others. Perhaps the very fact of having a goal made it seem a little too much like a chore.

I wonder if there’s another reason for it too, one that renders all the excuses almost irrelevant. Louis de Bernieres said that “love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision…” My love for the English language was a little like that. It came out of nowhere and blew me away, and last year’s voracious reading was a symptom of that. The temporary madness might be over now. Maybe that’s why I had to look at a list to remember the books that wowed me, when last year I could have named them without thinking twice, or barely even once. But, he went on to say, “… and when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.”

I suppose that’s the stage I am at with my reading. There are moments of awe, of course, but they are fewer than they used to be. But it is inconceivable that books and I, words and I, the English language and I, should ever part. Even though I don’t yet know what my target for next year will be, or even if if I should have one, I’ll never stop reading.

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On my bookshelf, 2011

So, last year I made it to sort-of 50 books. I’m not sure if I want to set a numeric goal for this year, because if I do I will never get round to reading Anna Karenina, Moby Dick or Gone with the Wind (although my motivation is a little on the low side for all of those anyway).

Who am I kidding? I’m far too competitive, even if it is only myself I am competing with. Full disclosure: this list (and last year’s) includes book I finished this year, even if I started them last year. That said, there will be books I start this year that I don’t finish until later, so it all comes out in the wash, or something.

1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

– 9/10. Difficult to know how this one can be topped. Oskar, the main character, is so very real and his story is haunting and heartbreaking, and I loved that it was long enough that you could really get into it – great book to take on holiday. It was a bit of a stretch that so much tragedy could have happened in just one family, but the story was so good, and so well-written, that I forgive it. I love how the different elements all tie up. I welled up several times at the end. Can’t wait for J Safran Foer’s next novel, and trying not to feel inferior about the fact that he’s only a year older than me.

2. Cupid and Diana, by Christina Bartolomeo

– 7/10. I was looking for a book set in Washington DC, and this one is infused with its setting, so I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, it’s chick lit, and no, I don’t read much of that particular genre, but it was funny and wry and there were some great observations on the life of an early-thirties woman trying to find love. The ending left me unconvinced, though – she had me rooting for a different one. I recommend this one for a poolside read in the summer.

3. Chapter after Chapter, by Heather Sellers

– 8/10 Inspirational and helpful, and tackles some questions that none of the (many) other books I’ve read about writing have answered. I liked the “nobody tells you” chapter – I feel better prepared for life as a writer now, though I still need to do the exercises!

4. Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

– 7/10 I enjoyed this, and he writes well. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. It was a good read, though, and a scarily plausible prediction of America in the not too distant future.

5. The very thought of you, by Rosie Aliison

– 6/10. Not the sweet coming-of-age story implied by the title, the cover or the reviews. Still, I couldn’t seem to stop reading, so there must have been something about this book that I liked, and towards the beginning especially I found it quite moving. I love that she structured her book how I plan to structure mine. And gold star for not one but two mentions of Belgium!

6. Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger

– 8/10. I found Holden’s voice compelling and readable and I really liked him as a character wtih his wry observations, his recurring pet phrases and yes, even his negative outlook. The ending didn’t feel very satisying, but I think the book was more an insight into a character than a story with a definite beginning and ending as such. I liked it a lot.

7. Dog Days, by Ana Marie Cox

– 6.5/10. Not a book I’d lend to my mum or recommend to my pastor, or even normally read myself, but it was really useful research for my novel: another DC-based book with a great “sense of place”. And despite the mildly ridiculous plot it was a bit of a page-turner. I’m bemused by the title, though.

I was going to give it a lower rating so you could all admire my preference for literary fiction over chick lit, but the truth is, despite its mildly ridiculous yet oddly believable plot and language and erm, things, it was a bit of a page turner!

8. The American Future, by Simon Schama

9/10 I don’t read much non-fiction, and I certainly don’t read much history. I would read more if it was all like this, though it’s a slow burner: you have to be awake and able to concentrate for good bit of a time!

Schama is a master storyteller, weaving together the strands of history, and shedding light on current issues by drawing lessons from past events, but never in an over-obvious way. He assumes an intelligent reader, and I like that. I also particularly liked that he admitted that he finds it hard to square certain very positive aspects of true Christianity with his own worldview.

Oh, and he likes the word pyrrhic.I love words with odd spellings, so that worked well for me.

9. Florence and Giles, by John Harding

7/10. I really only read this because I was doing a book review – but can’t complain, there are worse ways to earn money! Not really my kind of book – it’s Gothic novel, and possibly more of a YA novel too, but it made interesting use of language and that’s always good to keep me reading. “Nothing prepares you for the chillingly ruthless finale,” says one review, and that’s about accurate.

10. Primary Colors, by Anonymous/Joe Klein

-8.5/10. I thoroughly enjoyed this – quality writing, a good story, a romantic subplot, and a genuinely unpredictable ending. I was a little confused by the many characters, though, particularly in the first third of the book.

11. Sammy’s House, by Kristin Gore

– 8/10. I loved this! Sammy’s Hill, which I read last year, was good, but this was a notch up from this. Sammy herself is fun and endearing and has lots of quirks I can identify with. I was really rooting for her and Charlie and I am normally quite scathing of happy endings so she clearly worked her magic. Plus, you know, the whole DC thing.

I think I said this about Sammy’s Hill, but it’s basically Bridget Jones meets the West Wing. These are both very good things.
12. The me I want to be, by John Ortberg

7/10. Eminently readable, though I enjoyed it less (and got less immediate pratical application from it) than his other books. But maybe that says more about where I’m at right now than about his book.

13. The People’s Choice, by Jeff Greenfield

This was, at times, an easy read, and at times I really needed to concentrate to understand the point he is making. And he is making a point: it’s a lesson in the oddities of the American electoral system as much as it is a novel, and there were way too many characters for me to be able to keep with them all, but I enjoyed it, and the ending was more satisfying than I thought it would be. The style is idosyncratic – he is consicously talking to and educating readers. I liked that, though I’m not sure I’d want to read a hundred novels in this style.
14. The Book Thief

haunting, beautiful, enchanting, heartbreaking. 9/10

15. The Privileges

I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this. I hope the ending is deeply meaningful and somehow passed me by, because otherwise it’s just weird.
16. I think I love you

17. Breakfast at Tiffany’s

18. When a Woman Trusts God

19. Living History

20. The Grapes of Wrath

9/10 This book epitomises what I love about literary fiction: lyrical, heart-breaking, deeply understanding of humanity. The only thing I didn’t like was the end – because it wasn’t really an ending.
21. The Finkler Question

6/10 There’s no doubt the man can write, and I enjoyed it at fast, but then it got darker, weirder, and more incomprehensible to those not versed in the intricacies of Judaism and the intellectual arguments for and against Zionism, and he lost me.
22. Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of?

23. Hostage in Hava

24. Know Doubt

25. Becoming George Sand

26. Bird by Bird


27. No Plot No Problem


28. Capitol Offence


29. The Audacity to Win









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