I used to love reading. As a child I had a book in my hand wherever I went. This love of reading continued as a teenager, but faded during my uni years as academic reading took priority over fun reading.
This year, I resolved to get back into books and read 25 in one year, a considerable increase from the 4 or 5 I read last year. And I just about managed to do it.
These were my favourites.
Mort by Terry Pratchett
In 2013 I began the slightly daunting task of reading through the 40-odd books that make up Terry Pratchett’s acclaimed Discworld series.
After umming and ahhing over where to start (some are standalone, so you can jump into the series easily, but some are part of little series within the series that focus on a particular character, and even the standalone ones feature several nods and references to previous books that newbies will miss and, oh, what a headache), I decided to simply start at the start, despite reading that the earliest Discworld books are not even close to Sir Terry’s best work.
I enjoyed The Colour of Magic enough to continue onto The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites, but was still feeling slightly underwhelmed. I liked the world that Pratchett was slowly putting together, the spoofs of fantasy conventions were fun, I liked the creative locations and characters and the nonsensical but oddly logical rules and traditions of the Discworld, but I wasn’t amazed.
I wasn’t disappointed, as I knew the early Discworld books weren’t the best and were very much about Sir Terry figuring out what he wanted to do with his imaginative creation and find his feet before he could really get into the swing of things, but I had yet to be bowled over. There had not been a moment where everything clicked and I thought ‘Ah, so this is what all the fuss is about.’
But then, in 2014, I read Mort. And I loved it.
I knew it was something special when it made me laugh. I don’t really laugh when reading books. Plenty of them, including the first three Discworld novels, are advertised with quotes that use words like ‘Hilarious’, ‘laugh-out-loud,’ ‘side-splittingly, gut-bustingly funny’, ‘so rib-destroyingly hilarious you’ll shit yourself’, etc, but usually these books massively under-deliver on their promised hilarity. They provoke the occasional appreciative smile, a quiet ‘Heh’, or maybe even a chuckle or two.
Not Mort. It snuck up on me. It charmed me, lured me in, then it caught me off guard. It threw in a particularly clever bit of wordplay or a wonderfully awful pun or a wry aside during a descriptive passage or a bone-dry one liner from Death himself, and I burst out laughing. Not a smile or a ‘Heh’ or a chuckle, a loud guffaw. This happened several times, and I after I’d stopped laughing, I’d go back, reread the last sentence and laugh again.
I’m not sure why this, of all the Discworld books that I had read, made me laugh so much. None of the humour was any different to that of the first three books. The footnotes, the puns, the silly similes, they had all been there. Death had appeared in them, too, but only for brief cameos (which, incidentally, were always a highlight).
Perhaps the broad silliness had been refined, perhaps the bizarre world that had been introduced to me three books ago now felt familiar and comfortable, perhaps I have a really morbid sense of humour, perhaps the sheer amount of comic potential to be mined from Death getting an apprentice and then having a day off for the first time in several millennia was just so huge it couldn’t not be hilarious.
Whatever the reason, it was a delightful ‘Aha!’ moment. I understood the hype. Impressively, the book also managed to tackle a fairly weighty and serious subject that can send even the most level-headed person into a deep and despairing existential crisis. It used jokes to make the subject more palatable but never to water it down or dilute its serious nature.
The book had raised my expectations very high indeed, so when I moved on to Sourcery, I was a bit disappointed. It was a light, likeable and perfectly fine tale that was similar to Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic, both of which I had enjoyed, but it felt like a step backwards after Mort. I started to worry that perhaps I had raised my expectations too high and now my enjoyment of the rest of the series would suffer because of it.
Then I finished Sourcery and moved on to Wyrd Sisters.
I laughed three times on the first page alone. Ah, this is gonna be fun.
I didn’t want to clog up my blog’s front page with a lengthy entry, so I hid the rest of the best under this Continue Reading button. Click it. It’ll be worth reading, honest.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Stephen King is one of those authors that everyone knows the name of. Even someone who has never read his books or seen one of their many adaptations knows plot details and characters from his most famous works. Pennywise the clown, the prom scene at the end of Carrie, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, etc.
I hadn’t read any King until last year, when I picked up his non-fiction book On Writing, half a memoir, half a how-to guide on writing well. I’d never read his fiction, as horror has never been a genre that’s really appealed to me. However, reading about his life and his work ethic and his clear love of writing made me decide to finally read one of his novels.
Where to start? The Shining? Pet Sematary? Salem’s Lot? No, not for me. Not yet. I felt that I should ease myself into his vast back catalogue by going for a genre I was more familiar with: sci-fi.
My options were limited. There was a book about a dragon which I had never heard of, an epic seven-volume saga that was intriguing but seemed like too much of a time commitment, and a lengthy door-stopper of a novel about a man going back in time to stop the JFK assassination. There was also a post-apocalyptic novel that was even longer, but the JFK book intrigued me.
Reviews hailed it as a return to form, one of King’s best in years and, since I’m a sucker for time-travel stories, I bought it to take on holiday.
I was dubious as to whether it could hold my interest and stretch out the plot over 800 pages, but I was gripped, shocked, unnerved, touched and thoroughly, thoroughly entertained. The assassination-aversion plot is pushed into the background for much of the novel, as Jake spends his time exploring late-50s/early-60s America, getting used to the mind-mangling possibilities of time travel, and unexpectedly meeting the love of his life.
A significant chunk of the book has Jake wandering around Derry, a creepy shithole of a town, a town brought so vividly to life you can almost smell its toxic stench leaking through the pages. The sense of unease and dread, the feeling that something isn’t quite right, is palpable. I thought to myself ‘I would love to read a whole book set in this place’, then remembered that, of course, such a book exists. It is next on my King reading list.
In complete contrast to this disturbing dump is the town of Jolie, where another big section of the novel takes place. Jake visits there while he waits for 1963 to roll around (his time travel wormhole-thing restricts him to going back to 1958 only. He has to find some way of passing the time).
He gets a nice job, makes some new friends, falls in love and ponders whether he should bother with his mission and just stay there instead. It’s a far cry from the race-against-time suspense novel that the book was marketed as, but this section was one of my favourites. That small town in Texas where everyone is very close, very friendly, very focused on events at the local school and unreasonably obsessed with high school football matches gave me flashbacks to Friday Night Lights, which regular readers of this blog (there must be one or two out there, surely) will know is one of my favourite TV shows of all time.
Jake spends a long time in Jodie, a loooong time, but I didn’t mind one bit. In fact, when he eventually decides to go to Dallas to resume his original history-altering mission, I was actually sad that we were leaving and stopped reading the book for a while.
Also, during the hundreds of pages in Jodie, King made me really care about its residents and that pays off in a big way later in the novel.
The sense of place in 11/22/63 is wonderful. Derry, Jodie, Dallas, heck, the past itself feels like a different place, a different world, and it’s all brought to life very well. The amount of research King must have done shines through but never gets in the way or feels shoved in for the sake of it. The time-travel rules are intentionally vague at first, only to become horribly clear later. I’d heard that King was infamously terrible with endings, but the ending to this is lovely.
I couldn’t put it down, I adored this book, and I’ll definitely be reading more Stephen King. Pigeon-holing him as a horror writer seems rather unfair. He’s great at many more things than just making you scared.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Discussing this book is rather difficult. It requires a lot of care and delicacy, like tap-dancing around a minefield, to ensure that I don’t mis-step and mess everything up.
It’s about a husband who comes home one day to find that his wife is missing, and there are signs that she may have been kidnapped, or even killed. But he didn’t do it. Apparently.
He insists to everyone – the police, the neighbours, the media, the reader – that he didn’t do it, but there are gaps in his story. His narration leaves out a noticeable chunk of time on the day of the event, and the diary entries of his wife which are interspersed between sections of Nick’s narration track how her head-over-heals infatuation with him has soured over the years, and it becomes clear that he’s hardly the best husband in the world.
He’s a jerk. But is he a killer? What happened at his house? And where is his wife? Where has this girl gone?
Well, finding out is half the fun. The book is excellently paced, with each section ending at the perfect point to keep you interested and desperate to know what comes next. When you’re reading Nick’s chapter, you’re hoping to get to the next Amy entry to find out more about her, then when you’re reading Amy’s entries, you’re wishing to get to the next Nick bit to find out more about him. Flynn expertly strings you along as more clues come to light and we learn more about the not-so-happy couple.
And when all is finally revealed, the pace doesn’t flag. If anything, it kicks into another gear and there are still plenty more twists to come, and an ending that lingers in the memory.
I don’t read many thriller novels, but this book was given such gushing hyperbolic praise from seemingly every media outlet that I picked it up and, while it wasn’t quite as earth-shatteringly incredible as the reviews made it out to be, it was one hell of a ride.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
I just noticed that there seems to be an unfortunate theme of death appearing in this list, with it featuring assassinations, murder investigations, and even the Grim Reaper himself. Cat’s Cradle is about the atomic bomb and the apocalypse, so this cheery theme is going to continue.
Cat’s Cradle is a story about a man studying one of the creators of the atomic bomb, a man who frequently experimented with, researched, and created new technologies without stopping to think about what horrible consequences these new creations would have on the world. Our protagonist tracks down the scientist’s sons to interview them and during his journey he discovers a new religion, Bokononism, a religion whose founder admits in its sacred text that he’s made it all up.
It’s typically bizarre Vonnegut stuff and, like the other Vonneguts that I’ve read, is simultaneously scathingly cynical and absurdly aloof, funny and scary, thought-provoking and memorable, and frequently switches from witty to poignant to crude to thoughtful to silly within a sentence.
Presented in bite-sized chapters that are only a couple of pages long, it can be breezed through in a few days, but it’s worth taking your time to mull over the prose and absorb all the unexpected insights that Vonnegut packs into deceptively simple writing. He uses his phony religion to cast a wry eye over modern society and human behaviour and packs in plenty of jokes to stop it sounding preachy or overbearing.
There are plenty of jokes made about Bokononism, the religion Vonnegut invents for his novel, but he also notes that a religion can give hope and meaning to people living in a world that can feel chaotic and meaningless. Even though its own followers know that their sacred text is full of nonsense, it doesn’t mean that they can’t find some truth and comfort in it.
The satirical story features a huge cast of comical characters, a laughably rubbish republic, and an examination of how people try to create meaning out of something that is meaningless, like the titular cat’s cradle. It’s also a good starting point for anyone looking to get into Vonnegut.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas features six stories in six different time periods in six different countries in six different literary forms that span six different genres, with a couple of invented dialects thrown in for good measure. Understandably, reading this book seemed like a daunting task.
Keeping track of the characters and plots while traversing through the book’s strange structure (the first half of one story, then the first half of another, then the next, in chronological order, up to the final one, which is presented in its entirety, before the book goes through the second halves of the preceding stories in reverse chronological order) seemed like a big challenge, so I put off reading Cloud Atlas for a long time.
Then, last summer, I decided to stop stalling and dive into this sextet of stories, and ended up reading one of my favourite novels of all time.
The first story is slow going and the language changes in the future stories take a while to get your head around – especially the one in the post-apocalyptic future, where every’n talks r’lly wyrd ‘n’ th’ w’rds ‘r full o’ ‘p’s’tr’ph’s – but reading Cloud Atlas is a wonderful experience. Essentially it’s like reading six books in one, but to get to the end of the first one you have to read five others first, all of which are far more interesting.
Adam Ewing’s 19th century voyage diary is fine, if a bit dry. Robert Frobisher’s letters about his frustrated exile in Belgium during the inter-war period are full of humour and melancholy, and Robert is a likeable dick-head of a protagonist. The 1960s detective novel about intrepid journalist Luisa Rey is simple and fast-paced, a welcome change after the slower, wordier sections before it. Timothy Cavendish’s ghastly ordeal is a hilarious, farcical tale of an old man getting trapped in a modern-day nursing home and trying to escape.
Sonmi-451’s interrogation in a futuristic dystopia is a jarring change in tone; a bleak, dark story that wears its sci-fi references on its sleeve and leads to a grim twist that is, bizarrely, foreshadowed in the Cavendish section. Completing the set is Zachry’s story, set even further in the future, long after the technological wonders of Sonmi’s society have crumbled to dust.
David Mitchell – no, not the funny one, the other one. Yes, there’s another one – switches between genre and style with ease. He gleefully plays with language and form, and creates a marvellous series of short stories spliced together and linked with themes and ideas about power and and change and how one person can challenge higher authorities despite overwhelming odds, sacrifices and setbacks.
All of the characters swam around in my head for weeks after I finished the book and, though it feels a bit odd to say, I did miss them.
Highly, highly recommended.