Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Category: Annual Roundups (page 1 of 5)

My Best Reads of 2015

Last year I split my best of list in two – the Shiny edition and the Blog edition. I read just as many books this year as last (127) and awarded 17 of them 9.5 or 10 stars at the time of review, but I’ve decided to have just one list this time with a baker’s dozen choices,  mixing old and new titles, blog and Shiny reviews.  As always, the links will take you back to the original review.

Best evocation of 1960s London

arnottThe Long Firm by Jake Arnott

This violent story-cycle about a bipolar gay gangster is primarily set in and around Soho of the 1960s and it’s pitch-perfect in its seedy detail. Five episodes from the life of Harry Stark, each told by a different narrator – from the unhappy peer Lord Thursby to the speed-addicted Jack the Hat and Ruby Ryder the tart with a heart, the picture they build up of Harry is of a complicated character.


Best YA novel

grasshopper-jungleGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

I nearly gave this award to Marcus Sedgwick for his masterful linked story cycle The Ghosts of Heaven, but Grasshopper Jungle with its coming of age story set in a world newly invaded by mutant six foot tall praying mantises was just so fresh and immediate. It was thought-provoking too whilst entertaining us in a horror mode that recalls Charlie Higson’s zombie novels. Fantastic stuff for mid-teens upwards.


Best Comic Thriller

hackHack by Kieran Crowley

This thriller by crime journalist Crowley had me laughing all the way through with its hilarious wisecracks while a serial killer was at work in New York.  From the moment a pet-columnist is mistakenly sent to a crime-scene because there’s a dog guarding the body, you know you’re in for an entertaining and suspenseful read. The funniest crime novel I’ve read since I discovered Christopher Brookmyre.


Best Book that Made Me Cry

instrumental james rhodesInstrumental by James Rhodes

Several books I’ve read this year made me cry – including that disappointing doorstop  and some tough lit for teens, but the book that dissolved me into a weeping heap was a memoir. Instrumental is a candid account of horrific child-abuse and its lasting effects in the injuries, shame, anger, breakdown, self-harm, OCD, addiction and more that followed. However, it may sound glib but isn’t, this book is also about the healing power of music and how Rhodes harnessed it to make a life for himself as a classical pianist.  Horrific yet hopeful, it’s a tough read but an important one.


Best Technicolor Cover

hotel arcadiaHotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh

This literary thriller grabbed me from page 1 and didn’t let go until I’d finished.  It’s premise is very simple – a group of terrorists storm the Hotel Arcadia, systematically hunting down the guests and murdering them – we never find out why. We see what happens through the eyes of just two people: Abhi, one of the hotel managers and Sam, a guest who happens to be a war-photographer, both of whom escape the initial purge. Full of authentic detail and perfectly balanced between Abhi and Sam, this is a suspenseful and affecting read.


Best New to Me Crime Series

spring-tideSpring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind

The husband and wife team behind Scandi-TV hits Arne Dahl etc. have diversified into crime novels featuring an odd couple of investigators – Olivia Ronning is a trainee police officer and Tom Stilton a dropped-out one, a former inspector.  Combining solving a cold case alongside current ones that together expose the underbelly of Stockholm in both high and low places, this pair make a rather interesting new team. The follow-up novel Third Voice was also brilliant.


Best Book from the TBR I’ve Owned the Longest

My original first UK paperback edition (Minerva 1994)

The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury

Why this book sat for 21 years in my TBR piles, I’ll never work out, but once a new edition piqued my interest, I read it and was blown away by this tale of small-town America following the lives and loves of the fictional Grouse County, Iowa. The novel is driven by the conversations between the characters, finding its drama there rather than in action. The dialogue, coupled with deadpan observational detail draws you in totally. I now want to read everything Drury has written.


Young God

Best New Voice

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

I have Elle to thank for this recommendation. Brutal, sparse and shocking, this coming of age novel is maybe the darkest I’ve ever read – but I loved it. Teenager Nikki’s story is told in short chapters, sort of vignettes – some only a line or two long, others stretching to a couple of pages. Drugs, underage prostitution, guns, trailer-park living. The author never attempts to make us like or judge Nikki, she just tells it like it is in a triumph of understatement.


Best Science Book

Spirals-in-Time-small-440x704Spirals in Time by Helen Scales

Cedric Villani, the flamboyant French mathematician deserves a mention for making equations sexy in his book Birth of a Theorem, but marine biologist Scales’s volume about molluscs was delightful – combining natural history with folklore and the seashell’s place in culture – a perfect mixture to captivate the reader. She tells her stories with such enthusiasm for the subject, explaining clearly with a great sense of humour,  drawing vivid pictures of these marvelous creatures in her words, making the book accessible to a wider audience.


Best Book About Books

Clive James Latest ReadingsLatest Readings by Clive James

James, bless him, is still alive despite having personally believed he’d be dead of the cancer afflicting him by now. He’s still reading furiously and luckily for us, writing about it. This book of essays about what he’s been reading is inspirational, funny, full of facts and detail about the titles and authors covered, all delivered with deadpan wit and a life’s experience – yet he hasn’t lost the joy of discovery of new books. Lovely.


Best Human Story About the Thrill of Space

Last-Pilot-cover-RGB-667x1024 The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

Anyone who has ever been enthralled by reading or seeing the film of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s seminal story of the USA’s quest to break the sound barrier and the early days of NASA and the space programme, will realise that beyond the technological marvels, the successes, and the failures, is a human story. These pioneering heroes had wives and families, friends and colleagues, who are left behind every flight, every launch, wondering if their man will come home. The Last Pilot is a novel about one such human story, that of a fictional family set amongst the real life test pilots and astronauts, and their story blends seamlessly into that of history. A magnificent debut, and so close to being my book of the year.


BOOK OF THE YEAR

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

fuller
When I reviewed this back in March (Shiny review here,  companion blog piece here), I said this was the best thing I’d read so far this year. It remained my favourite book all year and chose itself as my book of the year.  Fuller’s novel has a dual timeline alternating between her protagonist Peggy being seventeen living with her mother and nine, when her father took her to live in the woods, saying that her mother was dead. It is as dark as any of Grimms’ fairy tales and the suspense of some of the cliffhangers throughout is nearly unbearable. There is lightness too and the whole resonates with the tinkling of bells with Liszt’s La Campanella running through the narrative.  An amazingly debut novel – I can’t wait for Claire’s next one.

The paperback is published today as it happens, and I urge you to go and buy a copy if you’ve not read it already,

Book Stats & Targets: 2015 in Numbers

Even if the results are not as varied as I might expect, each year I love analysing the stats of what I’ve read and potentially boring you with graphs. Thanks to my master spreadsheet that I’ve kept since 2007, I have all the data …  all the 2015 stats are correct as of Christmas Day!

Last year I ended up reading 127 books plus 3 DNFs. This year it was very similar in numbers of volumes 127 + 4DNFs + any books finished between Christmas and New Year. However, the big surprise was that I read more than 37,000 pages this year versus a final 36,000 last year. This really surprised me given the number of shorter books I read, but this is my highest ever page count. As always there is a quantity versus quality argument, but given that we all pride ourselves on picking good books to read most of the time, that doesn’t really enter the equation much.

Time for a graph… You know I’m addicted to new books – especially ‘Shiny’ ones – how did my reading this year compare when looking at publication dates?

2015 Books by Year of pub

Last year a whopping 56% of books I read were published in 2014. This year it’s down to 40% with books published since 2000 playing catch-up, and that 40% includes 40 books reviewed for Shiny New Books. What was lovely though was the number of books I read published before my birth-year (1960) – this was over double that in 2014 – but even without the ‘Simenon effect‘ which accounted for 7 of them, was still more than the previous year.

My target was  ‘I really MUST try harder to read from my TBR in 2015 when not reading for Shiny!’    DONE! I plan to keep this up in 2016.

Another of my 2015 targets was ‘To keep up reading books in translation’.  Here’s where my 2015 reading list authors originate from:

2015 books by athor nat

 

As in 2014, approx 100 books I read are by UK or US authors with the UK dominating; but a few more US ones this year. Novels published in French from France and Belgium dominated those from elsewhere, and again thanks to the ‘Simenon effect‘ the number of novels read in translation was up just a little on last year at 24  vs 22, so I achieved my target – just!

Moving on to categories. This is always fascinating to me. I try to read widely and enjoy including non-fiction and genre (beginning to hate that term) books in my reading list.

The shocking thing is that contemporary fiction – which is usually the mainstay of my reading is down from just over 50% to 30%. This year, I’ve read a lot more crime novels and thrillers, and also some more SFF/Speculative fiction. Obviously, again the crime count is bolstered by the ‘Simenon effect‘, but I’m enjoying (re)reading them so much that I plan to continue.  Non-fiction is up too at 13% from just over 10% – I’ve read some cracking books in particular for Shiny here.

The last graph for you now – it’s the male/female one:

2015 books by m-f

Upon discovering that I consistently read more books by male authors than female authors, I wrote (for me) an empassioned post trying to analyse that back in June, when my stats were nearing 70% male authors.  By year end, they had recovered slightly to just over 60%, but are again a little skewed by the ‘Simenon effect’ plus several Anthony Powells.  I still believe what I wrote in that post – that I don’t consciously choose male authors over female ones.

One last statistic – New to me authors. Last year around 60% of the books I read were by authors I’d not read before. This year that’s down to 40%, influenced by the many multiples from the same authors I’ve read this year.

In summary, I feel I’ve had the broadest year yet since starting this blog in terms of challenging myself in my reading choices – something I plan to continue in 2016.  More on plans for that tomorrow.

Discoveries of the year…

Time to highlight some of my favourite ‘new to me’ authors that I’ve discovered this year. I’ll start off with a trio who have a good back catalogue, authors I’m amazed not to have read before, and then mention a few debut novelists I loved. Again, all links in this post will take you to my original posts:

Louise Welsh

Louise_400x400I’ve been meaning to read some books by Louise for ages – I’ve had several on the shelves for a good while. I finally read one of her novels though when her publisher sent me the first volume of her planned trilogy known as The Plague Times Trilogy: dystopian thrillers set in a world beset by pandemic flu known as the ‘Sweats’.

A Lovely Way to Burn, the first volume has a sparky heroine who is a presenter on a TV shopping channel and starts right at the beginning of the pandemic. It has a gripping medical thriller side-plot too which made for a really taut and suspenseful read.  The second volume Death is a Welcome Guest (review coming soon) follows what happens to a Scottish comedian who manages to get out of London and encounters gangs and fledgling new communities as he tries to get home to Orkney. This all sounds very like Survivors (the wonderful 1970s TV series), but Welsh has injected a great twist which adds significantly to the story.

I can’t wait for volume three, but meanwhile I have those others on the shelves for my TBR reading.

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Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff-VanderMeer-headshot-by-Kyle-Cassidy-683x1024

Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy

I read all of Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy earlier this year. The three volumes, Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance combined into a  SF/Horror/Eco-thriller mash-up that raised as many questions as they answered. Unevenly written, yet full of such brilliant ideas and imagery. I gave the books high, but not the highest scores, yet this trilogy has truly stayed with me, so for that reason alone I want to explore more of his writing.

I’m really keen to read more of Vandermeer’s work now to see if it’s equally bizarre. I have Finch, his detective novel set in the ruined city of Ambergris on my shelves, plus Wonderbook, which is a gloriously illustrated Creative Writing handbook for fantasy fiction.  I’d love to get my hands on The Steampunk Bible too.

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Jake Arnott

arnottOver the years, I’ve bought all of Jake Arnott’s novels, but they stayed on the TBR shelves until I finally got The Long Firm down – and was totally wowed by it. I did have the advantage of having seen the TV adaptation some years ago of this book, but the novel itself was marvelous – its 1960s Soho setting was just so detailed – I loved it, and can’t wait to read more. (I note he has a new novel due in 2016 too!)

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Aside from established authors with a back catalogue to explore, I’ve also encountered some great debut authors this year including:

Will any of these make my year-end Best of list?  Some certainly… but you’ll have to wait for it!

Bookish Disappointments…

Welcome back!  As if you’re not fed up already with eating turkey, I’m going to be talking turkey in my first round-up post. Yes – it’s time to discuss the most disappointing books I read this year. I pride myself on being able to pick books that I know I’ll enjoy reading – that’s why the majority of what I read scores fairly highly.  There are times when I’ll abandon a book though, which I hate doing, but does give a rather good feeling when you stop being masochistic and give up on a tome. All links in this post will take you back to my full write-ups.

The DNFs (Did Not Finish)

There were four this year that became ‘DNF’ books for some different reasons …

Lurid and CuteLurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell – Gosh, I hated the slacker protagonist of this novel. I gave up just over 100 pages in during an interminable orgy scene!  It’s also had some rave reviews though – so a real marmite book.

little big pbkLittle Big by John Crowley – A readalong, and a re-read for me. I remember loving this book back in the 1980s, but I struggled so to get into it this time. Its leisurely pace and dense description with loads of parentheses didn’t do it for me this time. I only lasted 75 pages.

calvinoIf On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino – I tried, but couldn’t get on with the literary tricksiness of this book, it just felt smug to me. Another marmite book, for this one is loved by so many. I have promised to give a different Calvino a go though some time.

King of Elfland's DaughterThe King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany – I planned to read this for the 1924 Club, but came to it after reading three YA novels in a row, and Dunsany’s florid prose floored me within a chapter or too. I have kept this one though, as I would like to try it again one day.

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The one where I’m (still) on the fence…

YanagiharaThere was one book this year, which countless folk have raved about and put in their Best of lists. I read it in a readalong this summer – and while I enjoyed it in a way, it didn’t rise above soap opera to me. Ultimately it was too long and it just wasn’t worth the hype – and for that reason was a disappointment. That book is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

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But the award for my turkey of the year goes to a book which I could only bear to skim, a book in which the language was such ‘blissful torment’ to read, yet I’m glad to have experienced it in a way…

The one which was worth every penny!

list of the lostThe List of the Lost by Morrissey.

Just let me quote an extract from that excruciating 72-lines-long sex scene once more:

… Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone. … (p99)

Nuff said!

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Which books have disappointed you most this year?

I’d love to find out…

What I read in 2014 in numbers, and goals for 2015…

Yes! It’s my annual stats post. Apologies if it’s not your thing, but analysing the numbers of what I read each year and comparing them to previous ones always flings up some interesting figures. I have kept a master spreadsheet since 2007.

This year I read more books than in any year since I used to commute by train to work (when I got through 3 or 4 books a week). 129 is my actual total this year – however … that did include quite a lot of shorter novels and novellas which is clear if I look at my chart of Books v Pages over the years …

Books & Pages 2014

So pages read are a better measure of how much I read?  Perhaps, although of course, ignoring any discussion of quality vs quantity, that premise is not without its flaws too!

TARGET: Aim to keep up a good reading rate in 2015.

Moving on to date of publication.

Books v date

This year I surpassed myself in the number of ‘Shiny New Books’ I read with 57% of them published this year (it was 42% last year).

TARGET:  I really MUST try harder to read from my TBR in 2015 when not reading for Shiny!

One area of true success is reading more in translation.
Books v nationality 2014
I read 22 novels originally published in other languages this year.

Of those books published in English, I read more by UK authors this year than last at 58%. American authors accounted for 20% this year, 5% or so down on 2013.

TARGET: To keep up reading books in translation.

Last graph now – looking at categories.  I didn’t read a lot of crime novels or thrillers this year, and slightly more Young Adult books – otherwise it is my usual mix, with Non-fiction remaining around the 10% mark.

Books v genres
I didn’t read a lot of crime novels or thrillers or classics this year, making up for them with slightly more Young Adult books – otherwise it is my usual mix, with non-fiction remaining around the 10% mark.

TARGET: Read a bit more non-fiction in 2015, but aim to read eclectically across a wide range of categories and genres as always.

Two last stats for you:

Male / Female Author Ratio – This year it’s 67:62 – ie 52% male, 48% female so very close after having been 70:30 last year. I never choose my reading based on gender, and this ratio goes up and down each year – so it doesn’t mean a lot in terms of my reading but I do follow it at year end in case a trend does start to appear!

And finally, a new stat – that of ‘New to me’ authors, complementing my post yesterday on my best finds of the year. I was amazed to find that 76 (approx 60%) of the books I read this year were by authors I’d not read before – and as you saw yesterday, I’ve discovered some fabulous ones to follow up.

That’s all folks!  I’ll be back with book reviews in the New Year.

All the best for 2015!

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part Two – The Blog edit

Yesterday I shared my best reads of 2014 as reviewed for Shiny New Books. Today, I turn my attention to titles reviewed here. The links will return you to my full reviews:

Best Retro-Subversive Laugh-Out-Loud Book

scarfolkDiscovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

So nearly my book of the year, Discovering Scarfolk is just hilarious! Stuck firmly in the 1970s world of public information films and Cold War paranoia, every page of this little book which is designed from front to back yields gems of parody and references in its tale of a missing man who got stuck in the unique town of Scarfolk.

There is also an comic twist to each illustration too, which ironically does make you look again to see if you missed anything…

For more information please reread this poster.

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Best Illustrations

sleeper spindle 1The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 2Gaiman’s reworked fairy tale is fabulous on its own, but with Chris Riddell’s illustrations it reaches a new height.

Inked in black and white with gold highlights, Riddell’s characteristic strong-browed young women, cheerful groteseques and skull-like gargoyles are simply gorgeous.

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Horrorstor_final_300dpiBest Cover Art

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

And whilst we’re on the subject of illustration, I must mention the best cover concept of the year – in this horror spoof of the IKEA catalogue.

The graphic design extends to the inside of the novel too with lots of attention to detail, but the story itself, although entertaining, is standard horror fare.

Best in Translation

my brilliant friendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein)

Like many this year, I too have caught ‘Ferrante Fever’. The first in a sequence of four novels by the elusive Italian author captures growing up in backstreet Naples in the 1950s perfectly for two young girls. Volumes two and three are now available, with the fourth to come. I’m so looking forward to catching up with Elena and Lila’s lives.

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Best Medical Drama

Dirty WorkDirty Work by Gabriel Weston

The second book by Weston, a surgeon herself,  is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions.  It was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read and gives a profound insight into this difficult area.

 

Best Sequel

echoThe Echo by James Smythe

My book group will disagree with this choice for they hated the first book (The Explorer) in this planned quartet. However, I loved the utter claustrophobia of outer space in these books, and The Echo takes the central premise of the first book and keeps twisting it further with great effect. Roll on the third volume I say.

 

Best Book-Group Choice?

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maris Remarque

Arguably, we read some great books this year including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but the added poignancy of reading this novel of WWI during the centenary month of August was very fitting and moving too. Our discussions were wide-ranging and everyone enjoyed the book, proving you don’t always need a voice of dissent to have a good book group meeting.

Best YA Shocker

BunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

I am glad to have read the controversial Carnegie Medal winner to see for myself what it was all about. I can honestly say it is the bleakest novel I have ever read and it is for younger teens and upwards. If it had been written for adults, we wouldn’t find it so shocking at all, but despite its subject, I wouldn’t stop any child from reading it – I would encourage discussion afterwards though!

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… And Finally, My ‘Blog’ Book of the Year

hangover squareHangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton

I read this back in January it is still, frankly, the best book I’ve read all year.

Set in 1938 pre-war Earls Court in London, this is the story of George Harvey Bone and his unrequited love for the teasing Netta. This tragic novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I shall be reading more Hamilton in 2015.

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So that’s it for my Books of the Year.
Have you read any of these from yesterday or today?
Do share yours too.

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