Rarely have I read more voraciously or more gratefully than I have in 2017. My commute is devoted to reading and I am incapable of going to work with only one book with me – I take two if not three in case one doesn’t take my fancy. This is partly because 2017 is the year I have started Actively Avoiding the News. I hit my emotional limit after the terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge, and the Grenfell Tower fire. Each horror on its own would have scarred me, but the headlines about lost partners and family members became so gratuitously designed to twist a knife in your heart that I became too angry with the media to want to engage. Instead, I read books, and read even more fiercely than I do normally. Here are a few highlights and lowlights.
How Not to be a Boy by Robert Webb
This is a late entry for 2017, as it was a Christmas present. The writing is brilliant, and his story is by turns very funny and completely heartbreaking. His take on masculinity and his wise words on how toxic it can be make this a vitally important addition to the feminist literary canon. I learnt an enormous amount about the pressure boys and men are under from a very young age, and had a little more insight than I needed into how a teenage boy’s mind works. How he had the courage to put to paper some of the ways he acted at university is beyond me – a more accurate title for those sections would be ‘how to be a complete penis’, and they make me want to instruct all girls not to date a man below the age of 25 – but that, I suppose, is his point. The patriarchy benefits nobody, not even white boys who went to university at Cambridge. This book should be compulsory reading for all.
Night and Day by Virginia Woolf
I’ve tried to read Virginia Woolf before, and found it impossible, but something made me try again with Night and Day. I absolutely loved it. The characters are brilliantly drawn, the dialogue is perfect, and the relationship between mother and daughter is so accurate it’s uncanny. Some might find the moment-by-moment descriptions of emotional states wearing, but I thought they captured the difficulties of everyday trials and tribulations only too well. I’ve since tried reading a few others of hers, but so far they’ve all been too whimsical and ‘let’s float off on a tangent’ for me.
Happy by Derren Brown
This is a self-help book for people who hate self-help books. Brown argues against the popular case for endless positivity, pointing out how this can quite easily just make everyone feel worse. He outlines various ancient philosophies in very accessible language, and generally made me feel a whole lot better about things. This and Night and Day are now fixtures by my bed for nights when I’m having trouble getting my brain to calm down and switch off.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Towles’s novel Rules of Civility has been one of my absolute favourite books for about five years, and I was a little nervous about this second book. The hardback, which I loaned from the library, is simply enormous and the cover is brash and unappealing. However, once I got into it, this is a wonderful story. It follows an aristocrat in revolutionary Russia, who is put under house arrest in the opulent Hotel Metropol (which I was very excited to find afterwards actually exists, and if Russia wasn’t such an autocratic, sexist, homophobic shitshow of a country I’d want to go and blow a lot of money staying there). He makes friends and loses them and has more adventures than you would think possible in only one building. The whole thing is brilliantly atmospheric, and I loved the little bits of Russian history he slipped in, too.
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr AND To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell
I’ve read a lot more non-fiction than usual this year, and found some real corkers. These books were both excellent examinations of technology’s effect on modern life. The Shallows focusses on the ways the internet is affecting how our minds work – fascinating stuff, and frightening too. Our attention spans and short-term memories are getting worse and worse, and this has knock-on effects for our relationships and how we interact. We are getting less patient and more fidgety, our brains are tired and our expectations are getting bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale. To be a Machine follows the extraordinary world of transhumanism – people who want to extend human life spans, perhaps indefinitely, and perhaps by melding man and machine. The writing is superb, and along with The Shallows, it’s a great read for encouraging us all to take a step away from the technology and assess what’s really important to us.
The Bad / Unfinished
Agatha Raisin and a Spoonful of Poison by M.C. Beaton
I decided to give this a try as I grow worryingly close to reading every single one of Agatha Christie’s books, and thought I’d better look out for a “replacement” author now so the pain of having no more of her books to read will be easier to bear. However, Agatha Raisin is not for me. I read a couple and they’re reasonably funny but there is no skill involved in solving any of the crimes, only endless irritating returns to question the same people, long past most folk would have taken her to court for a restraining order, and then finding the culprit by falling over them by accident. Tedious.
The Big Four by Agatha Christie
Having said that, this novel by my beloved Agatha is really rather dreadful. An attempt at John le Carre-esque spy thriller-ness is just confusing and tortured, the ending is baffling and it involved Poirot’s twin – which I think may be the one and only time he makes a (sort of) appearance. The only one of hers I haven’t enjoyed, so far.
How to Worry Less about Money by John Armstrong
Tepid. Obviously aimed at middle-class morons like myself who have time to read a book about worrying less about money, rather than people who actually need to worry about money like those who have to decide between feeding their children and paying for electricity. His main thought is that your worries about money are probably connected to something else, some other deep insecurity which isn’t actually anything to do with not being able to afford the latest iPhone. Well, duh. Don’t waste your time.
A Dog’s Ransom by Patricia Highsmith
Another attempt to find an enjoyable crime writer who isn’t Agatha Christie. Again, not my cup of tea. All rather odd and the sort of book where the mistakes people make are because they’re too stupid to take an obvious course of action. Tiresome and I skimmed the second half rather than prolong the pain any longer.
Underworld by Don DeLillo
Cracking opening chapter, total nonsense from then on. Something to do with a baseball, flitting between time periods, no clue who anyone is or why you should give a hot damn about any of them. No.
Author of the Year
It would be Agatha Christie for the second year in a row, and to be honest maybe it should be – I’ve read so many crackers of hers this year, particularly a few that aren’t Poirot or Marple: Crooked House, Sparkling Cyanide and Sad Cypress. All fantastic.
But one crime author who I returned to this year, and then read four books back-to-back, was Nicci French. I’ve read many of their books (it’s a writing partnership of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) and particularly enjoyed their series with Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist who gets caught up in a lot of police cases. Earlier this year I read Thursday’s Child, Friday on My Mind, Saturday Requiem and Sunday Morning Coming Down one after the other. The plots are exceptional and I love the characters and places that they’ve created. If Frieda Klein’s house was real, I would want to buy it. The books are very creepy but not revolting, which is good for me – I shy away from a few contemporary crime writers because they’re just too nasty. I once read a short story by Karin Slaughter which was so revolting and poisonous, it made me think she needs some serious psychoanalysis. And to stop writing immediately. But I can highly recommend all these Frieda Klein novels, which are intelligent and completely engrossing.