Some books I read last year

nights at the circus covers

In 2015, I managed to read 18 books. That’s more than one a month, which to me seems like a pretty good number. UntiI I read an article  by a woman talking about the 164 books she managed to read in a year. That’s more than three books a week. Three. Books. A week. A WEEK. 

Not only did she read the books, she also kept a spreadsheet of all the books she read. Now I feel inadequate as a reader. Perhaps the fact that she’s a librarian gives her an unfair advantage, but still, unless I spent all my time reading, I don’t think I could manage three books a week. I only work part time, so I could technically read a book a day on my off days, but that would be pretty much all I did. Forget writing exciting blogs (like I did for about three months or whatever until this one, or arguably like I just did always). Forget washing myself (again, not that big of a problem really). Forget leaving the house. Forget doing any work towards my freelance career. Actually, none of this things sound that much different from my whole year, except instead of reading books I was playing Plants v Zombies and Candy Crush and looking at unrealistic DIY projects on Pinterest. Ok, in 2016 I better not only read more but actually, you know, do some stuff. Like washing and getting some vitamin D and doing some actual work.

But for the moment, I thought I would entertain you with mini-reviews of the five books I read this year that I loved. None of them are recent, and yeah ok, 18 books doesn’t exactly qualify me as a literary genius able to talk recommend the best books to read. Unbelievably, I’m just offering you my opinion, without you even asking or caring for it. On the internet. Imagine.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
This has been in my book pile to read for ages. When I was doing my MA I wrote a terrible play about a circus and reading this afterwards makes me both happy and disappointed that I didn’t read it before I finished the terrible play. Disappointed because it would have been inspirational and shown me the possibilities of what can be done with such a setting and an amazing imagination. Happy because it would have shown me the possibilities for someone with an amazing imagination, I would have given up and the play would be even more terrible in the only way possible, ie, unwritten. Well ok, it might have been less terrible if it had been left unwritten but then I would have failed my MA and that would be more terrible for me.

Anyway, Geek Love is an awesome, weird, unsettling and moving book about a family of circus freaks. They are deformed and/or scarily talented and inspire love and loathing in equal amounts.

The book is narrated by Olympia, youngest sister and albino hunchback dwarf. She tells the horrific story of her family history and their experiences on the road. They’re not the shamed, bullied freaks, shunned by normal people like you might expect. Instead they’re kind of triumphant and conquering and fairly hideous. The terrible things that happen seem almost ok and normal as you read them because they’re a believable family. Ok, they’re a totally fucked up family with no real concept of right and wrong outside their own skewed existence, but that’s kind of the case with everyone isn’t it? Except their lives are so insular that they can get away with really outrageous stuff without drawing too much attention. They’re at the fringes of society, tugging sharply on the loose threads. A great book but it might make you feel a bit queasy.

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
This is the only relatively recently published book on my list. Not that recent as I got a paperback copy as a Christmas present in 2014. I only got one book for Christmas this year (er, last year), which was fairly disappointing as I had a long list of books to add to my pile of novels I have bought but got bored of before I even started them and then buried them under more books. Sometimes people come round and say oh have you read all of those and I have to say “God no, of course not, are you mad?” and act like they’re weird for thinking I might have.

But more importantly, this book got good reviews and awards and stuff so I thought it was either shit or brilliant. That seems to be the case with awards for books. The one book I got this Christmas was the Man Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Obviously I haven’t started it yet but I am looking forward to either loving it or reading it and saying stuff like “oh, seriously? Seriously that’s character development is it?”, “really? This won the booker? Pshaw”, “I could fart out a better book than this I just choose not to because I’m busy with other…stuff”, etc.

Eimear McBride’s debut novel is about a young girl who grows up with a brother who has been mentally and physically disabled after surviving a brain tumour as a very young child. Her life is uncomfortably intertwined with his, even when she moves away to go to university and hopes to escape her stifling upbringing. The book is written in a kind of stream of consciousness style, with all the strange spelling you might imagine if your thoughts were transcribed directly by a robot that didn’t feel the need to fill in any gaps. It’s not easy to get into, but there is a rhythm and once you discover it, it’s a rewarding but also a very sad and upsetting read. Mum, don’t read this book, it will make you cry a lot. But it is very good so I guess if you’re in the mood to feel like life can be irretrievably warped and horrible for no good reason, then give it a go.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
My Mum recommended this to me and as usual she was right. It’s a great book. It’s also been very popular. I loved it because I love Stella Gibbons books where everyone wears gloves and hats and bottles up their feelings until they go mad and buy a hat or move away and this was sort of like that but with time travel and a bit more drama.

It’s kind of nice on the surface, everything is lovely and everyone is pretending things are fine even though Hitler is trying very bloody hard to ruin things for everyone. Underneath though, little duck legs are paddling like crazy while being bitten by horrible things that bite underwater (I was going to say piranhas but I’m not sure ducks and piranhas often share the same ponds). The main character keeps dying and being reborn and living her life slightly differently. You’d like to think that this is working towards the nicest and most lovely and English of all solutions for the characters, but thankfully this is not really exactly the case. Nothing worse than a great book ruined by a conveniently happy and fortuitous ending. That’s what films are for.

The Pesthouse by Jim Crace
I read a great interview with Jim Crace in the Paris Review where he said he was lazy and never did any research (I’m totally paraphrasing because I can’t be bothered to look it up…here’s the link, you do it) and I knew he was an author that I share great affinity with. Maybe not talent, but at least he understands what it’s like to not be arsed and then you have to do something and oh my God it’s a ball ache. And I don’t even have balls so clearly that is saying something.

I wanted to read Gift of Stones but Waterstone’s didn’t have it so I bought The Pesthouse instead. It’s a kind of dystopian fiction in the way that’s it set in a future America where things have gone backwards after some unexplained calamity (I expect that Extreme Makeover kept upping the pace every series until it eventually went supernova or Donald Trump got elected President which is such a horrifying and depressing outcome even the machines would just give up and switch themselves off for ever). The two main characters are thrown together and have to find a way to get across country where a better life is supposed to be possible. It’s very American Dream-y in a kind of downbeat way.

Atmospheric and bit depressing in places, in the end it’s kind of uplifting, as far as it’s possible in a book where a lot of people are dead. I read Harvest after this, which won an award for being great, but didn’t enjoy it as much, although that was set in the past so I guess the ending is automatically less hopeful because after all, we all know what’s coming.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
I saved this one for the end even though I actually read it before the Jim Crace. But it was probably my favourite read of the year so I thought it deserved being saved for last. This is a book I actually put on my bibliography when I wrote my awful play and the essay explaining why it wasn’t that awful as it was art. I’d love to go back and write that essay again now that I can kind of see how I could at least try to improve the play and make it less obvious and melodramatic. The truth is though, I didn’t read this book then, really. I just put it on the list to make it look like I’d done some reading around the area. Much like Geek Love, if I’d have actually read it then I think it may have stopped me finishing the play in disgust with myself. I did start it, but for some reason it obviously wasn’t the right time – maybe deep down I knew reading it would scupper my chances of not collapsing in a ball and bawling about my lack of talent when compared with the genius of Angela Carter.

Yes, genius. I mentioned that my terrible play was melodramatic, but I should also say that there are different kinds of melodrama, and when it’s done well it’s brilliant. Nights at the Circus illustrates this perfectly. It’s all about Fevvers, a cockney bird, literally; she’s over six foot and has massive wings, so of course she plays in all the music halls in a kind of imaginary turn of the century London. Then she accepts an offer to join a touring circus, which takes her to Petersburg and Siberia, by accident. It plays with the ideas of time and identity, and is ridiculous in parts but completely believable, even when you know Fevvers is embellishing her biography, adding sequins and beading to the tapestry of her threadbare velvet life.

The novel spins its own universe, out of place in time and reality, with just enough imperfections to be real. Carter said ‘Is not this whole world an illusion? And yet it fools everybody’, it’s just a shame we have to live in this unreal reality, rather than hers.

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