05 January 2016

Reading Highlights in 2015

Since 2007, I've been keeping track of my reading on the social bibliographic site LibraryThing - which in turn helps me to stay on track with my ambition of reading at least a book a week over the course of the year. In 2015, that's exactly what I managed: 52 books.

These are the books (excluding re-reads) that I rated 4.5 stars out of 5 or higher - and then a few honourable mentions of books I enjoyed very much that I gave 4 stars.

My reading for the first half of 2016 is likely to follow a different pattern than usual: as I'm teaching two Writing Short Fiction courses at Whitireia Polyetchnic, I expect a number of short story anthologies and books about teaching writing are likely to feature. (Or, my reading may consist entirely of sports autobiographies - we shall see!)

Looking back at my reading this year, I gave only one book a 5-star ranking, but I was surprised how many I'd given 4.5/5 (excluding re-reads). (I rarely rank a book lower than 3 stars, because if I feel a book is going to rank lower than that I probably won't finish it.)

So here are my best books first read in 2015. (Whether or not I wrote a capsule review depends very much on how busy I was at the time I finished the book, and is no reflection on how much I enjoyed it!)

5 stars

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (novel)

This excellent novels parallels the natural and the human world without being too obvious about it, as wolf reintroduction expert Rachael Caine supervises a project to reintroduce wolves to Britain while dealing with big changes in her own life. Wonderfully vivid writing and an exciting conclusion make this a five-star book for me.

4.5 stars

Fiction - novels

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

A splendidly written, tautly plotted book which, because the title character looms large over the narrative but is never able to speak for herself, is open to multiple interpretations. A page-turner, an cunning examination of class, and a formal achievement of great skill.

A great new Wellington novel also set in Takaka and Iceland, it’s the story of a high-flying graphic artist’s fall from grace, and her relationship with her wiser sister. The author is a winner of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award for fiction, and this shows in the wit and quality of her writing.

My Name Was Judas by C. K. Stead

Poetry - collection

Shift by Rhian Gallagher

I've previously heard Rhian Gallagher read her poetry and read individual poems in literary magazines, both of which I enjoyed, and I found them even more effective in this collection. It's divided into three sections, the first covering her life in London, the second a love affair in New York, the third her return to New Zealand's South Island. Her work is both technically effective and engaging, and I enjoyed most of these poems very much. My one slight caveat (and it's only a half-star-off sized caveat) is that a couple of devices of rhyme and vocabulary seemed over-used in the collection - but that barely dampened my enjoyment of this fine collection.

Graphic novel

Two Pedants by Sean Molloy

Two pedants, plus one curly-haired narrator who is married to one of the pedants. Their interactions, and their encounters with a variety of other characters, including the pedants' nemesis TXT SPK GRL and time-travelling playwright William Shakespeare, make for an entertaining graphic novel (or is "linked collection of comic strips" a better description?) which I enjoyed very much despite one of the pedants' virulent dislike of the Oxford comma, which is my view is the best thing to come out of Oxford since Mr. Toad.


What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

White Ghosts, Yellow Peril : China and New Zealand, 1790-1950 by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng

While it's hard for me to judge the quality of the historical research, this is a very readable study of the interactions between New Zealand and China - and in particular the experience of the Cantonese and Hakka people who came to New Zealanders as gold miners in the 19th century, and of their descendants. The book stops in 1950, and I would love to read an extended edition or a second volume that covers the next sixty years of the story.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman

The Great Land: Reflections on Alaska, edited by Robert Hedin and Gary Holthaus

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir by Carrie Brownstein

While Carrie Brownstein may now be most widely known for the TV show Portlandia, this memoir focuses on her life as a music fan and musician, specifically in the band Sleater-Kinney - the main part of the narrative finishes when the band goes on hiatus in 2006, and its reformation is covered only briefly.

The book is excellent of the intersections of character, place and circumstance that made, shaped, and derailed the 1994-2006 incarnation of Sleater-Kinney, and the strains the touring life place on all musicians, but especially on a highly intelligent, self-identified introvert and homebody. And I grew to like the author more for her analysis of her strengths and weaknesses, or at least areas of difficulty, as they have played out in her life within and beyond music. Her bandmates, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, are delineated strongly too.

I would have liked to see the book carry on into the next phases of Carrie Brownstein's life and career - or, to put it another way, I'd love a sequel!

Fictionalised memoir

7 Miles Out by Carol Morley

I watched Carol Morley's first feature film "The Falling" earlier this year (she's also an acclimated documentarian), and enjoyed both the film and her writing about it enough to seek out "7 Miles Out", her (very) lightly fictionalised memoir of her childhood and teenage years growing up in Stockport, Lancashire in the wake of her father's suicide. Although this might make the book sound like a "misery memoir", it's often very funny, and quite apart from its own merits it shed a great deal of light on the principal characters in "The Falling". Enjoyed and recommended.

Honourable Mentions

Here are three books from those I gave four stars that I nevertheless particularly enjoyed:

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson - science fiction novel

"Aurora" is another entry in Kim Stanley Robinson's series of novels about the habitation of the solar system - but this one goes well beyond the Solar System, as it tells the story of a generation starship sent to colonise the Tau Ceti system - an old science fiction trope, but handled with Kim Stanley Robinson's usual close attention to both the practicalities and the politics of such endeavours.

In my experience, people who read Robinson's work are sharply divided into those who love his writing and those whom it leaves completely cold, mainly because there is so much exposition, or to put it less kindly his books are full of info-dumps. I'm in the former camp, but this book certainly shares that weakness, and I found the characterisation of the main human character somewhat inconsistent. However, the book is thought-provoking and increasingly tense as the narrative proceeds, with only a rather protracted ending letting it down a little. Not the very best of Robinson's work, then, but still very good.

Felt Intensity by Keith Westwater - poetry collection

The core of this collection is Keith Westwater's experience of the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, and the effect the quake had on that city and its residents - a series of excellent poems that go well beyond the personal. But there are also other social, political and personal poems in a collection that well represents Keith both as a person and as a poet.

Possibility of Flight by Heidi North-Bailey - debut poetry collection

I really enjoyed this debut collection from Heidi North-Bailey, whose mainly personal poems are economical, witty, and make really good use of their short lines and stanzas. The subject matter is not new - relationships, "the big OE" - but it's expressed very well.

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