Friday, December 21, 2012

All the books I read in 2012

Regular readers (hello Mum!) will recall I write a post at the end of each year reviewing all the books I read in the past twelve months (2011, 2010, 2009). It’s an annual tradition up there with the Queen’s speech or X-Factor. For me at least. 

They're not hugely insightful or long or clever reviews, more just quick observational thoughts on each book as I go. If you have questions, ask below!

So, here we go - in chronological order:

Dark Star Safari - Paul Theroux: A great start to the New Year of 2012, as Theroux heads north to south across Africa encountering interesting people and places, moaning and evangelising in equal measure about what he finds on his way. 

His past life in Africa as a lecturer in Uganda helps, as he can access numerous high-ranking people and knows local dialects too. His disdain for many of the aid organisations he meets is also interesting; some don’t like Theroux for his moaning while travelling but I love it - it’s far more realistic than the endlessly upbeat schoolboy excited TV presenters we get these days who find everything and everyone just wonderful.

The Wonderboys - Michael Chabon: I’ve seen the film a couple of times and finding the book for £1 in Brighton thought it was worth a go and I was right. A great tale of drunken lecturers, the difficulty of writing and the idiocy of love. Recommended.

Watching the English - Kate Fox: A nice little observational non-fiction about the peculiar mannerism and social mores of us mad English people. Tad dry in places but interesting mostly.

The Tiny Wife - Andrew Kaufmann: A short, odd novel about a man’s wife shrinking. It was ok.

A Week at the Airport - Alain De Botton: I bloody loved this; a quick, light yet insightful meander around Heathrow airport by the people’s philosopher (yeah right). As someone who wanders through the bright concourses of Heathrow every so often I enjoyed learning a bit more about the people that keep the big ol’ place humming.

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan: Thought this was a bit overrated but enjoyable. Never a huge fan of 'linking stories' that fuse different characters together, either subtly or obviously, but it was easy to read and better than most stabs at this type of fiction I’ve read.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Moshin Hamed: Enjoyed this a lot; a terse, tight novel about the growing disillusionment of a high-flying western financial expert from India who turns his back on it all for, maybe, more nefarious activities.

Jupiter’s Travels - Ted Simon: Around the world on a motorcycle is always a good premise for a book and Ted Simon’s account is excellent as he makes his way here and there across Africa, South America, North America and onto Asia and so forth. The people he meets make the book, as well as some of his excellent descriptions. He repeated the trip again later in life, although I’ve yet to read that. I may, though.

Engleby - Sebastian Faulks: The more I read of Faulks the more I like him, after finding Birdsong quite disappointing. A dark, somewhat comic novel about a disturbed chap going through life and odd events happening around him, OR DO THEY!

The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good - Matthew Crawford: Read this on a previous blog.

A Short History of Tractor Farming in the Ukraine
- Marina Lewcyka: Terribly written story-by-numbers tripe that aspired for comic-thoughtfulness but was just crap. Hey ho.

Americana - Don DeLillo: I started reading this flying back from San Francisco and fell asleep about 30 pages in so it dropped on the floor. When I awoke the woman next to me said “no good then?!” But actually it was very good. The first 100 pages or so are the clear inspiration for Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris but then it veers off into some mad road-trip novel which isn’t as good but the writing is engaging and different and kept me hooked to the end.

Cosmopolis - Don DeLillo: Inspired by the previous novel picked this up (from HMV!) but wasn’t as enjoyable as Americana. They made a film of it with Robert Patterson. Somehow sums up my criticisms.

The Reader - Bernhard Schlink: I really enjoyed this (I’ve not seen the film). A beautifully constructed tale of (too) young love and the inability to escape ones past, it had that rare ability to linger in your mind long after you’ve read it. It did this with simple, plain yet highly engaging language that I found completely beguiling. Highly recommended.

The Stranger - Albert Camus: I didn’t really enjoy this; a bit too short and the main character is a strange lad.

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins: Popular but not all that great. A page turner but dour writing and boring characters. Still, it sold gazillons, so what do I know.

Empire - Niall Ferguson: Ferguson is a contrary character it seems but I really enjoyed this thorough exploration of the Empire from its inception to its demise. It was great to learn so much more about a period of history that looms so large in the past of us Brits but yet we (for the most part) know so little about.

One Day - David Nicholls: Someone lent this to me to read and I can’t deny it had a certain basic charm but why it proved so popular is beyond me. Quite boring characters act idiotically for years on end blatantly in love but without ever acting upon it. I could believe this if we lived in a world without alcohol.

The Crow Road - Iain Banks: My brother lent me this and I really enjoyed it. Lyrical, insightful writing and an engrossing story with nicely realised characters with engaging personalities. I watched the BBC adaption afterwards but it wasn’t as good.

Last Orders - Graham Swift: I bought this book for 20p from the Putney Scouts outdoor stall (oh how we live in south west London) and being a big fan of Swifty I was expecting good things and I wasn’t disappointed. A moving tale of misdirected love and wasted lives. There’s a film but I’ve not seen it yet.

Touching the Void - Joe Simpson: ARGH MY LEG, he screamed as he fell down the mountain. Well, I’m going to die, he thinks. But then the triumph of the human spirit overcomes ridiculous odds and he makes it back to base camp. What a guy.

I, Partridge - Alan Partridge
: Funny throughout although the jokes wears thin after a while. A-HA!

Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck: Lenny you idiot! Poor old boys, struggling for a living; a bleak tale.

When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro: A disappointing effort from an author I usually love (The Remains of the Day) which starts off promisingly but ends poorly.

The Revenge of Gaia - James Lovelock: It’s enjoyable to read a proper rant sometimes and this is most definitely that as Lovelock has clearly had enough with our inability to accept the damage we’re doing to our planet and railing against it all.

Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis: One of the my favourite books of the year with Dixon a truly brilliant character who gets involved in some hilarious scrapes surrounded by a rag-tag bunch of awful people. A treat.

Sunset Park - Paul Auster: Same old Auster - people living on the fringes of society, somehow not wanting for money, and hiding damaged pasts. As always he does a lot of Telling rather than Showing which I always thought was a big no-no in the writer’s world but he gets away with it. I got this from Putney library for free when it would cost you £17 in hardback. Libraries are great.

The Family Arsenal - Paul Theroux: A bleak, grim tale of 1970s London that I struggled to get into until I just sat and read 100 pages plus when at an airport and then suddenly really started to enjoy.

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut: A very odd novel but one of the best I’ve read this year. Vonnegut was actually in Dresden when the bombs fell and survived and this novel was his response to that but it also includes time travel, aliens and lots of death. So it goes.

A Week in December - Sebastian Faulks: Didn’t expect to like this as it does that interweaving character thing I don’t usually like (see A Visit From the Goon Squad) but actually I found very enjoyable and when it hit its satirical targets was bang on the money.

London Under - Peter Ackroyd: There’s a whole world beneath our feet in London and Ackroyd does a great job of telling us about it all in lyrical detail.

A Touch of Love - Jonathan Coe: Very odd this as it was written very basically, almost badly, but I think that was the point. It was too short to really care about the characters that much but it kept me hooked.

No Easy Day - Mark Owen: An account of the raid on Osama Bin Laden. The first 150 pages just covers Owen’s (Not his real name) time in the SEALs and other missions leading to the Big One. This was all quite boring but the raid chapters are pretty good and it was interesting to get a first-hand take on the raid. Terribly written, though.

And that’s it: well done if you made it to the end. If not, I don’t blame you; it’s hard to review 33 books in one sitting and make it interesting and insightful throughout. Bring on 2013...

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