Every year I set myself a reading target. I peaked at 30 books in 2016, and after a disastrous 2017 (just 15 books) I have been adjusting back up each year. Last year I managed my target 20, this year my target is 24 – so roughly two books a month.
In this regularly-updated post I’ll add each book I read as I finish it with a small review for anyone looking for some reading recommendations (or who wants to know what to avoid!). I try to mix up what I read, mostly because I get bored of an author/genre/style if I read too many similar books in a row, but also because I think it is healthy and important to be widely read. How else would you come across new ideas.
So here you’ll find a mix of fiction, non-fiction, literature, horror, comedy, trash, “classics”, contemporary books, books written by men and women, and maybe even a graphic novel or two. Who can say, as I haven’t planned the year out, I just go with whatever book speaks to me at the time! Let’s get cracking.
Murakami is my favourite author, and I’ve read almost everything of his that has been translated into English. In fact, I actually try to limit how many of his books I read a year so I have some to enjoy later (this is the way my mind works). But I always treat myself to at least one or two and usually they end up being high up in my books of the year.
Killing Commendatore is Murakami’s latest novel. The story centres around an artist who goes to live a secluded six months in the mountains of Japan after his wife suddenly and unexpectedly leaves him. There, he crosses paths with the wealthy and mysterious Menshiki, who lives across the valley, and gets caught up in his personal life when it transpires he has ulterior motives for commissioning a portrait from him.
At almost 700 pages, this is one of Murakami’s heftier novels (and I got some serious side eye for a month as I stood reading the hardback copy on the tube) but he is one of those rare authors who I could just go on reading forever. He is brilliantly deft at making even the most mundane daily tasks interesting. Honestly, I think he could describe white washing a wall for 500 pages and I’d still enjoy it.
Murakami’s MO is to alternate between the most believable reality and the utterly surreal, which keeps the story interesting. Those who haven’t read Murakami before should be ready for some strange and largely unexplained shit to take place, but it’s part of the charm. Honestly, I prefer the “realist” sections – following the day to day of the characters lives and how they interact with each other – but the contrast of realist and surreal side by side works to beautiful effect. It’s one of those books where I completely fell in love with the characters and by the end I was sad to leave them – which is a feat after 700 pages.
This novel has a lot of familiar Murakami themes and motifs – adultery, loneliness, sex, confined spaces, dreams (no talking cats this time) – and of course the whole book is a homage to The Great Gatsby, Murakami’s favourite novel. This is definitely my favourite of his long-form books (though The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka On the Shore, and 1Q84 are all also excellent). If you haven’t read Norwegian Wood yet, that is still my top Murakami and I’d recommend anyone to drop what they are reading now and pick that up right away. But once you have a taste for his writing, Killing Commendatore is a worthy second choice to get your Murakami fix.
Slaughterhouse 5 is a book that has been on my “to read” list for a long time but, honestly I don’t think I ever knew what it was about. I always got it confused with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – probably for no other reason than it has a title with numbers in it. I, therefore always assumed it was a book about a dystopian future, which it isn’t. In fact, it fits into two of my favourite genres: anti-war novels and novels where the author is self-aware. Some examples of other books in that second column: If on a winter’s night a traveller, the brilliant HhHH, and many novels written by Milan Kundera.
Vonnegut is struggling to write a novel around the bombing of Dresden, which he was witness to as a POW during WWII, when he settles on following the character of Billy Pilgrim – a young and ill prepared soldier that is unwillingly dragged along by the events of war. Billy also believes he has the ability to travel in time, which makes him the ideal lead character for the story as we flit back and forth through the pages of his life during and after the war.
It’s an ingenious approach to a war story, and Vonnegut writes with a lot of wit and irony. It’s marginally more grounded than Heller’s Catch-22, but reminiscent of the best parts in the last section of that book, and also leans heavily on the absurdity of war. By verging on the genre of sci-fi, Vonnegut shows us that nothing is quite as insane as wilfully killing one another.
It’s a cleverly written and important book so I can see why it’s a classic. If you like anti-war, sci-fi or self-aware novels, this is one for you. But even if not, I think everyone would get something from this. It’s an significant thing, to recognise the bombing of Dresden, because victors rarely recognise that atrocities committed on both sides in war. So it goes.
It was a happy coincidence that I came to read Conversations with Friends. We had a long train ride ahead of us, I had forgotten my book, and my girlfriend had just been gifted this. I think sometimes that’s the best time to come across a new book – and I consumed almost the entire thing on three long train journeys, which is definitely my favourite way to read.
I’m in awe of Sally Rooney, who’s only a year older than me. She writes how I want to write, and about the things I want to write about. In this story, Frances and her ex-girlfriend Bobbi become acquainted with Melissa, a journalist who is profiling the two of them. Frances soon becomes intimately involved with Melissa’s husband, breaking the tenuous harmony that was maintaining the fragile relationships of both couples.
I’m a little surprised by the reviews I’ve seen of this. CwF generated a lot of critical acclaim, which I think it rightly deserves. But it also drew a lot of comparisons with Sagan’s Bonjour tristesse, which I think is slightly reductionist. Not that Bonjour tristesse isn’t also a great novel – I enjoyed it very much – but saying, as one reviewer did, that it is Bt transferred to modern Dublin does Sally Rooney’s originality a disservice. There isn’t a whole lot in common between the two books other than that the protagonist is a young woman, it is partly set in France (maybe deliberately as a homage?), and there is an affair.
On the other hand, some reader reviews I have seen seem to have taken issue with the likeability of the characters. This is a point I can sympathise with as I am often turned off from a book or TV show if there isn’t a character I like or identify with. But in this case I thought the characters were so human you couldn’t help but relate.
What is impressive about this novel, entirely about an affair, is that it could have so easily been trash. The fact that it isn’t is to Sally Rooney’s credit in creating interesting, understandable characters who interact and act in a very subtle and believable ways. It’s a funny, smart, thought provoking novel about the complexity of relationships and the power dynamics in them, and I think her masterful understanding of this topic is seen in these beautiful few lines at the end:
“Things and people moved around me, taking positions in obscure hierarchies, participating in systems I didn’t know about and never would. A complex network of objects and concepts.”
Authority is the second book in the “Southern Reach Trilogy” and the sequel to Annihilation, now a hit motion picture on Netflix starring Natalie Portman (although I haven’t seen the film) and – according to my records – my fourth favourite book of 2018. That sounds like damning praise but, in truth I loved Annihilation, it’s probably the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read. The series is centred around “Area X” a pristine ecological landscape separated by a mysterious border and observed, monitored, and (in theory) contained by a secret agency called the Southern Reach.
Where Annihilation followed one of the expeditions sent over the border into Area X, Authority picks up the story from inside the Southern Reach agency itself – from the point of view of its new director, known as Control. VanderMeer’s choice to not directly follow on from the first book is a brilliant one, as it leaves Annihilation as a self-contained story while bringing to reader back to this world that it is dying to know more about. Having already been on an expedition, and left with so many unanswered questions, VanderMeer essentially invites you into the head office via Control to find out more, picking up exactly where the last book left off. It’s a great set up.
But unfortunately we join Control on the first day of his job as Director, and he doesn’t know much more than we do. VanderMeer’s (admirable) commitment to realism (in the face of happenings which call reality into question) means that progress often feels very slow at the Southern Reach as Control has to navigate the usual challenges of a senior hire – resentful subordinates, office politics, organisational bureaucracy, paralysing self-doubt. As the name of the book would suggest, a lot of time is spent on Control’s fight for authority rather than, you know, finding out for us what the hell is going on! It is completely deliberate but at times I found it frustrating.
That said, the Southern Reach has such a rich mythology that the book retains the reader’s interest even in the slowest moments. Whereas most sci-fi is based around physics – space or time travel – this series is focused around biology, something I have never come across. The idea is so fresh and original you cannot help but be drawn in to the mysterious Area X as VanderMeer very slowly and deliberately drip feeds you nuggets of information (or misinformation).
All of this means that when the twists do come in Authority – and there are a fair few of them – they are gut wrenching in the best possible way. There are a lot of thematic parallels with Annihilation, and crossover characters, so it is a true sequel that does justice to its predecessor. And like Annihilation there are some truly creepy moments that leave the hairs on your arm raised and are nothing short of works of art. Once again, it is a completely self contained story, which completes its own circle, but also shows you the entrance to the final part of the series, Acceptance.
David Keenan’s latest book, For the Good Times, was suggested to me by my girlfriend who had heard about it on a podcast and thought it would be my thing. I picked it up in the bookstore, and thought she was probably right. But then I saw This is Memorial Device underneath it and gave that a flick through as well. The inside cover gives the full name of the novel “An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986” and then I read the prologue “Introduction to Why I did It”, written by the fictional editor Ross Raymond, which made me laugh with lines like “I did it because later on everyone went off and became social workers and did courses on how to teach english as a foreign language or got a job in Greggs”. So I bought this instead.
The premise of the novel is that Ross Raymond and Johnny McLaughlin, “two fanboys of the Airdrie post-punk scene” (according to the back cover) have collected various accounts from people who were in some way associated with the fictional band Memorial Device, and curated those accounts into what we’re reading. The result is an unorthodox novel where there is no central character or traditional narrative, each chapter is a new story told from the point of view of a different character on the periphery of Memorial Device
This is Memorial Device reads like 26 separate short stories with recurring characters and themes. All of the stories are interesting. Some are captivating. More than anything else, it is a book about a place (Airdrie) and a time (the 80s but also a time in life. The time where you are young and everything is both impossible and possible. Before you become a social worker or English teacher). To that end, the book is endlessly successful. It does capture the feeling of being part of a scene, where the exact characters and events will never quite be the same but the feeling is universally familiar.
At first, I found the lack of central character and narrative a bit unmooring but I would urge readers to stick with it. As you go on, the strings pull together, the characters become familiar, a timeline starts to emerge, and you find yourself invested in this strange group. If you’re into music literature and biography the form will be more familiar to you because it is a really a novelisation of that. I read Meet Me in the Bathroom last year and at times This is Memorial Device reminded me of it – one hundred stories around a scene that can only give you a taste of what it was really like.
Of course, the difference is that Meet Me in the Bathroom follows some of the world’s most successful new bands in New York, while This is Memorial Device is about the bands you don’t know in the small town of Airdrie, Scotland. But every town has its heroes and legends and this book is about explaining that folklore to an outsider. Having grown up in a place not unlike Airdrie myself, obsessed with unsuccessful bands in a scene no one seemed particularly interested in, I loved it.
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