I decided last year to keep a tally of what I read, to grade each book from one to five stars, and also to note both what books I bought and what books I gave up on without finishing them. Well, as they say the results are in, and will I hope be of some interest.
Total number of books read (in their entirety) 134
Total number of books given up on (ie partially read) 35
Total number bought 34
23 books scored 5 stars, of which 11 were non-fiction, 11 fiction and one covered both categories (of which more below).
This bit was rather like judging my own Booker Prize. Out of this list I decided to make three special awards. I couldn’t choose one overall winner.
Best fiction author of a series: Ben Aaronvitch. The series begins with Rivers of London and cleverly combines police procedural novel with a twist: the Metropolitan Police has a small division dealing with crimes with a supernatural element. Aaronvitch’s books are witty and well-researched, and I particularly enjoy their solidly realistic settings. I’m always a pushover for authors who know and love London. I also enjoy the fact that although each novel follows one or two cases, there is clearly a longer story arc which is gradually emerging in importance and complexity as each novel is published. Can’t wait for his next one.
Best fiction author of a single novel: Elizabeth Wein. The novel Codename Verity is apparently intended for ‘young adults’ but I haven’t come across anyone who’s read it who hasn’t been completely caught up in it. The narrative voice for the first and larger half of the book is a young British airwoman who has been captured by the Gestapo. Wein’s research is impeccable and the tension and pace make your hair stand on end. I also read Wein’s second novel Rose Under Fire. The central portion of this novel describes survival in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and is quite simply both utterly horrific and impossible to put down. However, perhaps because she was dealing with such intense material, the opening and closing sections of the novel do come across as somewhat stilted and colourless, so it doesn’t for me quite rate up to Codename Verity.
Best non-fiction authors: Sara Maitland and Maxine Hong Kingston. I found it impossible to choose between these two extraordinary books. Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest, a study of fairy tales, forests, the role of women in oral history and much much more, which crosses many boundaries, including both fiction and non-fiction, history, geography, botany, and literary history, as well as recounting . She is quite simply a magical writer. I loved her book Silence but this is even better.
Kingston’s book The Woman Warrior was written in the 1970s but is utterly timeless. Reading it is a unique experience. I actually found it quite alarming, as though the book itself was squatting on the shelf beside me possessed of a living personality. A cursory description of it is that it combines (another combination book) an account of Kingston’s childhood as a Chinese-American with vivid retellings of Chinese legend and the story of her mother’s life. This last sentence gives you absolutely no idea what it’s like. Just saying ‘really, really, weird’ is probably the only way to sum it up.
OK! On to the other end of the list, made up of the nine books which only scored one star. Of these only two were non-fiction, and I will name and shame them both. Ruth Dudley-Edwards, an astute and intelligent commentator on Irish affairs, is the author of The Faithful Tribe: a History of Unionism. It’s a really good idea to try to explore and explain Unionists, who probably nobody else in the British Isles understands or sympathises with. Unfortunately ignoring chronology and structure and just going on and on and on about your subject is not the way forward. An enormous baggy unreadable tome, but not as enormous (nothing could be) as my second candidate Gracious Ladies: Elgar and the Norbury Family by Keith Allan. I was only reading this because the Norbury family appear in my WW1 project, and it is self-published, so you are unlikely to even run across it. It is however a terrible warning to anyone wanting to self-publish. It’s the only book I’ve ordered from the library where when I went to collect it all three librarians rushed forward in fits of giggles to watch my reaction. It ought to come with screw-on legs being the thickest A4-sized book I have ever seen in my life. It’s also overwhelmingly the dullest. Elgar and the Norburys were actually all really interesting people who wrote fascinating letters and did interesting things, but Allan kills his subjects stone dead and buries them under this unreadable pile of paper.
Fiction: five of the list were crime fiction of various degrees of awfulness. I won’t bother naming them except for Wicked Business by Janet Evanovitch. Evanovitch used to be a really enjoyable and imaginative author, but boy, has she slipped downhill. This one got thrown across the room. ‘Lazy, derivative and dull’ I noted at the time. However, even worse than that are my last two offerings, which jointly share my Worst Fiction of the Year award. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter jointly wrote The Long Earth, a science fiction novel. As many of you know, Sir Terry is suffering from early onset Altzheimers and deserves every sympathy. Mr Baxter, however, is not, and should never have allowed this dreary, overlong and self-indulgent drivel to be published. Lastly, and probably least, is the truly awful Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale. I thought the idea of an Austen theme park was a good idea for a setting but failed to take into consideration that some ability not only to write, but have some understanding and knowledge of Austen’s works is necessary. Really, really badly written.
Thank you, thank you. Champagne and canapes will be served in the foyer. Autographs available on request …