Honourable mentions: Fangirl, The Book Thief, The Catcher in the Rye
Dishonourable mentions: Invisibility, The Elephant Vanishes, The Declaration
1.Invisibility by Andrea Cremer & David Levithan (2013)
This was a phenomenally silly novel. I probably should have guessed as much from the premise—an invisible boy meets a girl who can somehow see him and they start going out—but hey, I like David Levithan, and it started out wonderfully cute before it got heavily involved with magic, eye-rollingly flat stereotypical villains and use of words like ‘spellseeker’ and ‘hexatorium’.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh (3700 BC..?) Translated by Andrew George (1999)
Arrogant heroes, universal human themes and the greatest bromance ever to cruise the Ancient World beating up giants and tangling with gods. All pieced together from stone tablets translated from a dead language—reportedly the scholar who first translated a piece of the poem announced “I am the first man to read this after two thousand years of oblivion” and started running around his museum in ‘a state of excitement’ tearing his clothes off. As a lover of both history and literature, I can say that I understand that feeling.
- Fate/Zero Volume Three: The Scattered Ones by Gen Urobochi (2007)
In which, as they say, the stuff starts to really hit the fan. My favourite character dynamics are at their best, some peaking and some shattering, some heroes and some villains. Yeah, it took me a long time to finish this. I got up to Act 11, said “Nope” and dropped it. But I came back, and that’s the most important thing.
- Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones (1986)
Lyrical fantasy that in no way takes itself seriously and has a lot of fun with spellcasting shenanigans and casual messing with the laws of physics, and characters that are lovable in all their unlikeability.
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (2000)
Probably the only thing of Stephen King’s I will ever read, and it had to be assigned to me and held the promise of not containing anything terrifying. Not even his harshness with adverbs.
- Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)
Manages to balance a child’s narration with a very adult and horrifying concept—the story is told by five-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life in a sealed room that unbeknownst to him is a garden shed where his mother is being held captive after being kidnapped seven years before. Well-done, but doesn’t call to me to be read again.
- Adaptation by Malinda Lo (2012)
Conspiracies! Aliens! Bisexuals! Everything you could want from a modern YA sci-fi. It’s Malinda Lo’s first time writing in the genre and I feel like she’s leaning on a lot of tried-and-true methods, and her writing style is nowhere near the beautiful stuff in Ash. But it’s a totally different tone and subject matter so it’s not really fair to judge. I have faith she’ll get better!
- The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (1993)
It takes me an embarrassing amount of time to get through short story anthologies, especially, unfortunately, anthologies like this one where a lot of them leave me simply surrounded by question marks. Some surreal and fairy taleish, some slice-of-life but slightly odd, and most leaving me with an unfinished sense and a vague dislike for the protagonists, a lot of whom seem to be literary, apathetic yet philosophical men who smoke and drink a lot and pass through women with little devotion, and by some weird twist work in the PR section for an electronics company. The vanishing elephants are the least of my problems.
- The Declaration by Gemma Malley (2007)
According to The Sunday Telegraph this is ‘one of the best written books of the year’. If so, poor 2007. The book has some interesting questions about the ethics of immortality and the cruelty of social conditioning, but the actual asking is muffled among clumsy writing and tack-flat characters. Alas, another YA dystopia bites the dust.
- The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume (1886)
A Victorian crime novel twice over—written and set in 19th century Melbourne, self-published because “everyone whom [Hume] offered it to refused to even look at the manuscript on the grounds that no colonial could write anything worth reading”. Full of twists and turns, eccentric landladies, smarmy detectives, dry social commentary and passionate outbursts. Surprisingly easy to read and rather fun.
- Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (2013)
There are plenty of novels about socially anxious bookish girls, but none I’ve really come across that deal with these characters responding actively to the books they immerse themselves in—especially in the case of creating fanfiction, which our heroine Cath does avidly. There are a lot of interesting things going on in this book, though it isn’t perfect, and it has at its core a character that millions of readers will be able to see themselves in (and language and references that make it a perfect, immersive portrait of our time, which means it will probably be obsolete in ten years…), in ways that aren’t really addressed in mainstream media if they’re not being made fun of in some way. Both Cath’s crippling anxiety and the fandom that keeps her afloat are explored with due respect, as is the love story, which I have to say starred the first romantic lead I’ve fallen a bit in love with in a long, long time. Thank God for small miracles and good YA.
- The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris
I love mythology, but the way it’s told isn’t always the most accessible and easy-to-read bundle of weirdness and magic. This, though, chronicles most of the Norse myths in a very readable and enjoyable way that utilises Loki as a witty little bastard of a narrator without demanding you feel sorry for him, and getting pretty meta about the cyclical nature of storytelling and myth too.
- W.I.T.C.H Book One: The Power of Five adapted by Elizabeth Lenhard (2004)
Throwback to my youth, polished off like an old favourite snack in a few hours. Five teenaged girls must band together to fulfil their destinies and save the world from monsters, all the while spouting teen lingo from a decade ago. You wouldn’t think such a short time could be a culture shock, but there you have it.
- Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (2003)
I kind of wanted to groan loudly in the direction of this YA protagonist and her bland narration style, but she grew on me and I found it quite sweet watching her come out of her shell. I guess that’s the character development thing.
- The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (2005)
Lovely, lovely words put together in lovely, lovely ways—fitting for a book about their power. Heartwarming children in the endless tragedy of World War Two are all very well, but what really sold this for me was the fact it was narrated by Death. I never would have suspected such a being to be so sympathetic and eloquent.
- Lola Rose by Jacqueline Wilson (2003)*
Irresponsible parents, relatable heroines and an impressive capturing of how important and cool comfort food is to kids. Not my favourite JW, but still good.
- Inheritance by Malinda Lo (2013)
We’re still standing on the shoulders of giants/leaning on sci-fi clichés a bit here, but I have to give this series absolute props for a) successfully blending an appropriate amount of character drama with a million and one intersecting conspiracies and warring factions and b) giving me a love triangle I was actually emotionally invested in and felt contributed to the story as a whole, and ended in an unexpected but really good way. Wonder of wonders!
- The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta (2010)
The same characters we got to know in Saving Francesca, five years older and with a focus on a different messed up family this time. Apart from brilliantly capturing the chaos family situations can twist and collapse into and the way people simply have to hold on through it, nothing about this really stood out to me because it was written so blandly. And I managed to empathise with but really fundamentally not care about a good chunk of the characters, so it was a bit of a slog. But passed time reading on the bus.
- Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly (1887)
One of the first accounts of undercover long-form journalism by one of the first properly famous, properly badass female reporters. She’s certainly a tough cookie, though her wit and humanity comes through wonderfully in her writing, which depicts the understandably but no less chillingly awful practices involved in ‘taking care of’ mentally ill women at the end of the nineteenth century.
- Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover (2000)
Have I ever been interested in the American prison system, or what goes into working in it as a guard, before? No. But this is the marvel of assigned reading. Undercover journalism is something else, man.
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1945)
Holden Caulfield, the original snarky asshole YA protagonist. And what a magnificent and interesting not-quite-bastard he is.
- A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray (2003)
Teenaged girls destined to tangle with the supernatural—but in the Victorian era! I was thirsty for more Diviners, but there shall be none until next year, thus I decided to try the author’s first series, of a similar nature. Unsurprisingly, but unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as good. I think the “young women ought to believe in their inner strength and combat the constrictions placed on them by society” message is really important, but it hits you heavy as a brick. Her writing has gotten leagues more subtle and pretty over the years.
- Fragments by Binjamin Wilkomirski (1995)
Scattered memories of a childhood in WWII concentration camps and post-war foster homes drawn together into a memoir, all written with a childish voice and chilling specificity where they’re not hauntingly vague. What’s interesting about this much-loved and highly-praised work is that as a piece of nonfiction it was later proved to be untrue, events not matching up with the author’s actual documents and personal history. Horrible hoax, or genuine muddled, imagined memories?
- Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki (2002)
A fascinating insight into culture, art, a dying profession and one girl who lived it. If nothing else, I could read endless descriptions of all her kimono.
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)
A Man Booker prize winner about an elderly English guy philosophising endlessly about time, life and responsibility and coming to the conclusion that he was a bit of a dick in his youth. Alright if you like that sort of thing.
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)
Really, I didn’t need the plot with the ancient brotherhood of assassins and the Boy Meant to Bring Them Down. I would have been content reading the episodic adventures of Nobody Owens running around matter-of-factly living out his childhood among ghosts and the eerie, not-quite-explained magic of the graveyard and all its ancient layers.
- Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends by Marie Heaney (1994)
I’m still terrible with short stories, even if they are all fascinating, entrancing legends. Woven into the telling of these stories are offhand notes about how people are still tilling scorched earth that may have been a campfire for the warriors of Fianna and how the names of places are intrinsically connected with people and things from myth—it brings up the question of whether these heroes and monsters actually existed, and have simply grown into figures of wonder and with enhanced retellings.
Overall, it has been a year of myths and genre mixing and, surprisingly for me with her head in the clouds, nonfiction. One can only wonder what 2015 will bring!
Happy New Year!
P.S. No Fate post this week due to utter madness in the life department! Double feature next time around, though. Stay tuned.