A bazaar crowded with random offerings. William Gibson/Henrik Ibsen. Zafon, Murakami, Van Gogh. A table of well-thumbed Louisa May Alcott. Shiny Urban Fantasy and an aromatic clutter of cookbooks.
I'm putting a bow on 2013 by noting my five most satisfying reading experiences of the year - and one memorable other. There are no spoilers here! You can get enough plot details from book blurbs and dozens of other sources.
So here they are, in no particular order:
Dodger, by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett does for Oliver Twist what Peter Carey did for Great Expectations (in Jack Maggs): he takes a critical supporting character out of Dickens and puts him at the helm of his own historical novel. Pratchett's twist (so to speak) places the intrepid Dickensian rogue and his unusual mentor at the center of a Boy's Own adventure that covers mid-19th-century London from sewer to palace. Along the way, there are cameos by a number of familiar historic figures. It's a charming ripping yarn. What makes it a little more than this is that the London of this story is richly informed by the work of Henry Mayhew. Mayhew himself even appears as a character. Happens I spent a couple of undergraduate years enthralled by Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, so Dodger was extra special to me.
The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
I know I said no plots, but I can't seem to talk about this without giving the elevator pitch: pensioner Harold Fry starts walking the length of England, armed nothing but a pair of Docksiders, and the determination to atone for past mistakes and sins of omission that suddenly feel too heavy to set aside. Along his way, random encounters expose him to the contradictory galaxy of emotions and actions that are the human condition. Written with deceptive simplicity, this is a perceptive, unsentimental book that brims with heart. Let us hope that Hollywood never stumbles on it, because they would surely try to turn it into something cute and spoil it entirely!
Wool, by Hugh Howey
I take it for granted that the most-talked-about-whatever is never going to live up to the buzz. Well Hugh Howey, the poster boy for self-publishing, sure proved me wrong. Wool is the best piece of pure scifi that I've read in years.Howey grabs you in from the first page and never lets you go. Like all good speculative fiction, Wool explores the present by projecting a highly plausible potential future. The writing is clean and direct. The characters are heartbreakingly real and every rivet is believable. If you read scifi/spec-fi at all, you owe it to yourself to read Wool. And if you're one of those who continues to eschew the genre, I suggest making a New Year's Resolution to give it a chance, starting with Wool.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
In the first few pages, Ursula, the heroine, is born, dies immediately, and is born again. That's not a plot: that's a conceit. Consider those pivotal moments, when your own life changed entirely. Now imagine what it would be like to press "reset" to go back to that point and take a different turn. This utterly fascinating book is one such "what if…" after another, so deftly told that it all seems plausible. And, despite the fractured lives, the characters remain miraculously true to themselves. Not that I don't enjoy the Jackson Brodie books, you understand; but I'm very glad to welcome back the Kate Atkinson of Behind Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.
Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway
You know how you set out to see a blockbuster film, all excited about the fun you're going to have? And then it turns out the only good bits were in the trailer? Well, reading Angelmaker is as much fun as as that blockbuster would be if only the whole film were as good as the trailer. I can only assume the lack of deafening buzz is due to the difficulty in labeling this book (we do love our labels, don't we?): it's a Cold War thriller, with neo-Victorian steam-punk trimmings, married to a pulp fiction gangster caper. Winding it's way through the whole is a classic Campbellian Hero's Journey. And that's all I'm going to say except for "READ THIS BOOK!!!" I have been saying this a lot, to everyone I know who reads for pleasure, because Angelmaker is a generous portion of undiluted pleasure. When was the last time you found yourself smiling from ear to ear for as long as it takes to read an almost-500-page book?
I can't close the books on this year without mentioning Adam Johnson's tour de force, The Orphan Master's Son. This brilliantly written story (I am in rare agreement with the Pulitzer committee on this one), set in the dystopic present of North Korea, was too disturbing for me to call it "satisfying." I admit that I'm a coward: I prefer my emotional agitation to be buffered by fantasy or the distance of time, or softened by the potential for preemption. That said, this is a tremendous novel.
Marking my calendar and sharing widely!
What says post-Christmas better than a book about a talking breast that might be...um…let's just say She is that She is. So, whether you're breaking in a new device or just wanting to make the most of that pre-New Year's slump with a cool read, please note that starting on December 26, with a one-day-only bargain basement price of 99 cents, Amazon will be running a special markdown promotion on the Kindle edition of Lori Berhon's unique novel, The Breast of Everything.
Maybe you've heard about it and have been curious, but didn't want to risk the regular price on something that sounded so odd. Maybe you've read the book and liked it, but were leery of recommending it to a friend. Here's your chance!
Those who miss Day 1 will still have two days to practically steal a copy for only 1.99! That's right: less than the cost of a ride on the NYC subway--and surely equally entertaining! Starting December 29, the price starts inching up: first to 2.99, then 3.99 (12/30) and 4.99 (12/31), before returning to the regular low price of 5.99 on January 1.
Shop early for the best price!
Last month I promised UK and Canadian readers that their day would come. Well, in a few more hours, it will be here: I'm giving away 3 more ebook copies of The Upsilon Knot, and this time, it's just for you!
This special UK+Canada Giveaway kicks off tomorrow and runs through the end of 2013.
Does the holiday season tend to knock you out? Imagine kicking off the new year by kicking back with a good old-fashioned l-o-o-n-n-g escapist read (wooly sox and beverage of your choice optional, albeit anticipated).
You'll find details on the BookLikes Giveaways page.
Post scriptum: If this is the first you've heard of this ripping-alternative-19th-century yarn, please visit my website to learn more (explore the World Of page, and don't neglect to click on the Sneak Peek to read the book's prologue).
...and the minute I have a few dollars to rub together, this is where they're going!
I am a huge Heston Blumenthal fan. And I became one without eating a bite of his food. A few years ago, The Fat Duck Cookbook introduced me to this wondrous artist whose medium is food. That book is a treasure trove, equal parts memory album, sketchbook, and cookbook. Will I ever cook anything from it? Probably not. I'll also never cook from Heston's Fantastical Feasts. Even the classic recipes that make up In Search of Total Perfection are less important to me than the stories leading up to each of them. As a body, Heston Blumenthal's books document the artistic process so eloquently that they ought to be required reading for artists and art lovers alike (regardless of media). And if you hear that he's giving a talk in your area, do yourself a favour and get a ticket!
If I ever do cook anything of Heston's (like all dribbling fans, I think of my idols by their first names), it will likely be his ultra-velvety mash, which shows up in Heston Blumenthal at Home. I contemplate attempting this recipe because I did indeed taste this potato-y marvel. Sigh.
It was a year ago October. I was considerably more solvent than I am today and was on holiday in London. I know it's improbable that I'll ever get to The Fat Duck, in Bray; but on my second day in London, I found myself just down the street from Dinner (the restaurant that is Historic Heston on its feet) and had one of those what-the-hell moments that often happen to me on holiday. I walked purposefully up to the podium and asked if there were any possibility of booking a table during my visit. It was near the end of lunch service on a drizzly weekday, and the very pleasant hostess asked if I would like a table now. The rest of my afternoon was a dream come true.
The room was lovely and I can't say enough good things about the staff. As for the food, well, it was everything I'd hoped. Here are some of my notes from that day:
You will have noticed the note about the mash. Yes, it was that good. And when I got hold of Heston Blumenthal at Home, I was thrilled to find a recipe. And one day I will purchase a food mill, specifically for the purpose of trying it.
My true recipe quest, however, was the Tipsy Cake. Which is included in Historic Heston. But really, even without that, I'd want to buy the book. I can't wait to read it and let this brilliant artist explain how he mined history for inspiration.
I love browsing through this site and seeing so many thoughts about books and reading here. But it still saddens me that on other social networks, people will post about everything BUT books and reading. In my own small way, I'm trying to change that. Think a tacky graphic like this will help??
If there is one thing for which I am unconditionally grateful, it's books.
To quote Stephen Sondheim (Passion): "I read to live / To get away from life." You can imagine my delight at spotting the recent HuffPo piece publicizing the health benefits of reading. Books have always been my necessities and my luxuries, my entertainment and my labor.
Since you're reading this on BookLikes, I expect this all makes perfect sense to you. And you'll understand why Thanksgiving seems an excellent opportunity to express my gratitude for everyone who contributed to my own life-in-books.
For my mother, who read aloud to me at night, and my father, who somehow found the money to buy books. For the teachers who taught me how to read and write, and the librarians who pointed me towards the shelves and allowed me to explore them freely. For the baby-sitter who handed down her outgrown library, and the managers of the college bookstore who anticipated where my growth would take me next.
I give boundless thanks for writers, far too many to thank by name. I wish they could all hear me, across the centuries and the globe. I thank them all: everyone who, regardless of the obstacles, wrestled with words and pinned them down so that the stories would live beyond the confines of their own minds and I could someday read them.
By the same token, I am so very grateful for my own readers, and to all the friends who've supported me over the years. Because if a story is told without there being someone to receive, it cannot be said to exist.
Happy Thanksgiving, fellow book lovers!
I'm up to my eyeballs in NaNo, but taking a very quick break for a brief announcement.
If you're based in the USA, chances are that you're about to need a holiday distraction! Your Thanksgiving might mean taking on a long commute, complete with endless lines and delays at the airport or train station. Maybe you'll need a little mental space in which to recover after overdoing it on family time (and, more critically, family dynamics). Maybe you just don't feel like watching The Parade or (for shame!) The Game.
With this in mind, I've posted a special USA giveaway of The Upsilon Knot for Thanksgiving. You'll find details on the BookLikes Giveaways page.
Because I'm giving away ebooks, you'll have this nice chunk of escapist fiction loaded in your device of choice in plenty of time to settle your turkey-related ruffled feathers!
Readers in the UK and Canada, please note: your day will come. Keep an eye on the Giveaways page for a December event that's just for you!
As excited as I am to have found BookLikes, this isn't the best time for me to be starting out. NaNoWriMo is nearly here. That means that all my writing time will be syphoned off to the chosen project and most of my usual reading time will be redirected to frenetic writing.
If I read at all in November, it'll be to clear my project sufficiently from my brain that I can catch some sleep (if you've ever done NaNo, you know that's a major feat!). For this purpose, I've got Peter Ackroyd's Foundation ready to hand. Ackroyd isn't a remotely soporific writer; on the contrary, I've always found him strikingly readable. I selected Foundation off the to-read tower because it's the kind of history that can be comfortably read in bits. Equally important: it stops with the end of the War of the Roses, meaning it will come nowhere near near the dystopian future NYC that I'm noodling with for this year's NaNo.
I imagine I'll be stocking my shelves whenever I need a five-minute walk-away refresh from my narrative duties, but this debut post is likely to be my last for quite a while. Once NaNo is over, I look forward to exploring BookLikes, meeting the community, and rambling on about books!