Summer Reading List: America, Asia, and Desert Heat

Last year, my summer reading was all about taking on some of classic literature’s biggest slogs—namely Moby DickUlysses and Don Quixote. But as much as I enjoyed that challenge, this year I’ll be sticking to some much smaller and more easily-digested novels—some continuing the swing in my reading this year towards American voices, others picking up on some of the new authors I’ve fallen in love with recently.


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

Of course, while I may not have any mind-bending Joyce or Tolstoy epics lined up, I’d still like to tackle at least one Big Read this summer, and Michael Chabon’s 600+ page opus about two Golden Age comics writers taking on the Nazis fits that bill splendidly. I really loved Chabon’s madcap Wonder Boys, so hopefully this will be more of the same—and if I enjoy it, I might just have to extend my stay in New York with Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching or Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill.


Heat, Ranulph Fiennes

I’ll admit, summer isn’t my favourite time of the year—like land snails, lungfish and the East African hedgehog, I thrive much more when the temperature is well below my age. Quite why that makes me want to spend these aestival months reading about Ranulph Fiennes’ “extreme adventures at the highest temperatures on Earth”, I’m not sure; maybe it’ll have the same cooling effect as a hot drink during a heatwave?


The Vegetarian, Han Kang

With my Booktrotting journey currently moving through East Asia, I’ve been eyeing up a few books to compliment those stops, like Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads and Rebecca Mackenzie’s In a Land of Paper Gods. As I’m currently reading through Korea this month with Krys Lee’s Drifting House, it seems like the perfect opportunity to add Han Kang’s Man Booker International-winner The Vegetarian to that list.


After Me Comes the Flood, Sarah Perry

When I lost my heart to The Essex Serpent earlier this year, one of the first things I did (besides recommending it to literally everyone I know) was order Sarah Perry’s first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. It goes without saying that I’m really looking forward to this one: at the risk of sounding bitter and/ or jealous, Perry’s writing is pretty much everything I wish I could do, and then some. Whilst I’m spending some time revisiting new favourite authors, I also dug Jessie Burton’s The Muse (follow-up to 2014’s The Miniaturist) and Eleanor Catton’s debut The Rehearsal out of a charity shop recently, so I’ll line those up for later.


Skin, Ilka Tampke

My summer reading is already set to be pretty fantasy-heavy as I continue working through the Mistborn and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series’, but even so I’d still like to find room for this novel. I can’t say I know anything about Skin or Ilka Tampke—this was really just an impulse buy based on my soft spot for Finnish writers and awesome female leads. But if there’s any time of the year to try something new, when better than summer?

May in Books: Stone of Farewell; The Deathly Hallows; In a Land of Paper Gods

With May bringing the first heatwave of the summer, the days have been just perfect lately for sitting under a tree and reading al fresco. And even though that means the weather here is beyond lovely, I always like my books this time of year to go somewhere—whether that’s to the fantasy realm of Osten Ard, a Chinese missionary school, or back to the nostalgic halls of Hogwarts.


Stone of Farewell, Tad WilliamsWhen I found The Dragonbone Chair, the first part of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, last year, I fell in love with it completely—not because it’s a well-crafted paragon of the fantasy genre, but because it’s utterly ridiculous, dripping with just about every trope you can imagine, and absolutely impossible to take too seriously.

Stone of Farewell, the second part of the series, is pretty much more of the same. Admittedly, it was quite slow-going compared with The Dragonbone Chair (it’s more or less 800 pages of displaced heroes traipsing about and trying to regroup in the wilderness) but the middle books in trilogies are always a bit hit-and-miss, and it’s not as if I was expecting anything more than what I got—a harmless, silly flight of fancy.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (reread)

Nothing says summer like a bunch of school leavers on a camping trip, right? Granted, those school leavers also happen to be on the run from the forces of magical fascism, and they spend less time drinking round the campfire and more time just trying not to die—but nevertheless, when it comes to some light-hearted adventure reading, you can’t really go wrong with revisiting Harry Potter.

Though saying that, I think this will probably be the last time I reread these books for a while now. It’s been an interesting experience going back to where I fell in love with books in the first place, especially from this new perspective of being a writer and an English student, but as much as I adore Harry Potter I think it’s time to put him back on the shelf and leave him be for a while.


In a Land of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mackenzie

In a boarding school atop the mountain of Lushan, a band of mischievous missionary children play at being prophetesses whilst their parents pursue their calling across China. But at the mountain’s feet lies a country at war, and as the children play their games the Japanese are drawing ever nearer to Lushan.

Paper Gods is a book that’s been on my radar for a while now, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to Japan’s wartime conquests in eastern Asia by The Garden of Evening Mists that I got round to picking it up—although once I did, I could barely put it down again. There’s not really much more to say about it other than it’s just that compelling; except that it would be wrong not to mention Mackenzie’s brilliance in bringing the relatively alien world of a missionary school in 1940s China to life, a skill which took Paper Gods  to the shortlist for the 2017 Ondaatje Prize.

If you’re a devotee of Second World War fiction or you just want a book that’ll take you somewhere this summer, In a Land of Paper Gods will do you just fine.

January in Books: His Bloody Project; The Essex Serpent; Voyage of the Basilisk

Ah, January—the month of new beginnings and fresh book goals. As well as starting a new Booktrotting chapter in Oceania, this month’s reading has been mostly about making a dent in my stack of literary Christmas presents, starting with bloody murder in the Scottish highlands, and a double helping of sea-serpents…


His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

A surprise and an underdog it may have been, but there’s no denying His Bloody Project deserved its place on the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Billed by the blurb as a simple historical fiction about a murder and its following trial, what sets this novel apart is Burnet’s unique choice of form. Presenting the story as true from the outset, he tells it not via the usual prose but with a collection of “found” witness statements, court documents and the memoir of the accused—think The Blair Witch Project meets Law & Order: Scottish Victims Unit.

But whilst that certainly made for an interesting concept, I’m still not entirely sure it resulted in the best read. It just felt a little too choppy to get into: the section comprising murderer Roddy’s memoir was a classic piece of historical fiction, compelling as it mounted to its bloody climax and so vibrantly real in its portrayal of Victorian Highland life; but for all its strengths, that part felt too short, and the medical reports and trial coverage far too long. For now, I’m still in two minds about His Bloody Project, though perhaps in time I’ll appreciate it better.


The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

But if I’m still unsure about His Bloody Project, I couldn’t be any more certain by comparison about The Essex Serpent. In the wake of the death of her abusive husband, the intrepid Cora Seabourne leaves behind the pity and mourning of London and rents a house in the tiny Essex parish of Aldwinter. Indulging her love of palaeontology amongst the fossil-rich clay of the Blackwater estuary, Cora’s dream of emulating Mary Anning soars when she learns that Aldwinter is haunted by a primordial sea-serpent…

I don’t think it would be too much to say that I really and truly fell for The Essex Serpent. The promise of a foggy riverbank and accompanying Gothic beastie would probably have been enough on its own to make this a good novel, but what makes it great is how Perry lets it swell to a level of complexity far beyond the mere terror of the Serpent. More than anything The Essex Serpent is a story about human relationships, about the different forms of love binding Cora’s circle of mismatched friends together; it’s also the story of England facing great change, as society’s old certainties are tested by feminism, socialism, science and reason, and people’s fears of this new age take shape as a serpent in the mist.

With everything The Essex Serpent sets out to be, it’s no wonder it’s won Sarah Perry so much praise over the last year—and that’s without even mentioning the beauty of Perry’s writing itself, and the way her voice flourishes into passages so sublime I couldn’t help but read them twice. It is simply an astounding novel, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.


Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

And speaking of sea serpents, after finishing The Essex Serpent there really was no other way to follow it up than by setting off with Marie Brennan’s Isabella Camherst, dragon naturalist and the Indiana Jones of fantastic palaeontology—the spirit of Mary Anning would have it no other way.

Voyage of the Basilisk, the third instalment in Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series (of which part five is out this April), sees Isabella embark on a two-year voyage aboard the RSS Basilisk, searching for sea-serpents in the far-flung oceans of the world. It’s this use of location that is one of this series’ main strengths: although the content of each volume is more or less the same—dragons are sought, shenanigans ensue, discoveries are made—Brennan uses her knack for worldbuilding to set each novel in an environment that not only keeps the story feeling fresh, but is also completely tangible, with whole languages and cultures that seem fully at home in the worlds they inhabit. From frigid mountains to swamps and savannahs, and now to the seas of Yelang and Dajin, these books are an armchair explorer’s dream.

However, it must be said that whilst the locations of Voyage of the Basilisk were as good as ever, the pacing of the book itself was a little off compared to its predecessors. It’s hardly surprising, given the task of condensing two years at sea into just 365 pages, but with so many time cuts it all felt too episodic to really flow as one narrative—nevertheless, with the scenery rolling ever by, and to the sound of Isabella’s whip-cracking wit, this still proved to be a highly enjoyable slice of escapism.

New Year’s Reading List

New year, new books: now there’s a resolution I can get behind. In my opinion, there’s no finer way to kick-start the year than by getting your teeth into a new book, whether that means taking a chance on an author you’ve never heard of or knocking a few of those Christmas gifts and holiday sale bargains off the to-be-read shelf.

With all the new beginnings in the air, I also like to spend some time on the approach to spring tackling some of those books I feel I should have read already, the Steinbeck and the Nabokov and the D. H. Lawrence—those books I buy from charity shops because they look all literary, but somehow never get round to reading at the time. Last year it was the time for To the Lighthouse and Fahrenheit 451, but I think with the way things are looking for the foreseeable future, it might be a good idea to make my reading list a little more dystopian this year…


The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Last year it took me pretty much forever to get round to reading the 2015 Man Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, so this year I’m determined not to be so sluggish with Paul Beatty’s 2016 winner The Sellout. Yes, that does mean giving it quite the bump to the top of my 80-strong to-read list—but given its satirical look at race relations in the US, and with many Americans currently re-evaluating whether racism is really as bad as everyone says (yeah, it really is), there doesn’t seem to be any more fitting time than the present to make myself acquainted with The Sellout.


img_3230His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

Another to-be-read from last year’s Man Booker shortlist, with all the praise Graeme Macrae Burnet’s fictional murder case study has garnered I could hardly say no to giving it a spin—not to mention my love of all things Scottish wouldn’t let me pass it up if I tried.


img_32351984, George Orwell

1984 is one of those books mentioned above that caught my eye in a second-hand shop, but once brought home was consigned to wait patiently at the tail end of my to-be-reads. But, as with The Sellout, the zeitgeist is pointing me towards Orwell’s Big Brother classic; after all, we probably haven’t got much time before 1984 stops being fiction and becomes enshrined as legitimate prophecy.


img_3234The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

One of the many books to arrive mysteriously in my stocking on Christmas morning, I fell in love with The Essex Serpent‘s thistly cover and dreamlike prologue so quickly I actually started reading it the minute I unwrapped it. Now two weeks and 150 pages in, this already looks like a pretty solid nominee for my book of the year.


img_3237Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams

I read the first volume of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, The Dragonbone Chair, back at the end of last summer, and after taking a few detours through Middle-Earth and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I feel it’s about time I got back to Williams’ sword-and-sorcery epics. I’m hoping the series does something to pick up in Stone of Farewell: The Dragonbone Chair was plenty enjoyable but got a bit stale towards the end, and it’ll be a shame if Stone does nothing more than pick up where Chair fizzled out.

October in Books: Dead Souls; The Final Empire; The Norman Conquest

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol

dead-soulsSeedy Russian businessman exploits state corruption in a get-rich-quick scheme, by buying up the souls of dead peasants for use as collateral against a massive loan.

According to the blurb, Dead Souls is “the funniest book in the Russian language before the twentieth century”, but unfortunately this joke just wasn’t for me. The novel is really a series of caricatures: the plot itself is just a vehicle for Gogol to satirise the various forms of legal, financial and moral corruption in 19th century Russia. Which is fine, if you know enough about said corruption to get the satire – but as I don’t, I couldn’t really find any purchase in what is essentially the story of a man trying to find the best deal on a mortgage.

I do very much like the cover, though, even if that is where my inclinations end. Being incredibly cheap, Wordsworth Classics’ covers do have a tendency to be the naffest of naff, but I quite like Dead Souls’ “Dementors in a poppy field” vibe. That said, it’s probably not enough to stop me passing this one on to the next second-hand shop I visit.

The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson

the-final-empireA band of thieves and street urchins attempts to overthrow a god.

It’s always great finding a fantasy book that not only does something different with the genre, but doesn’t just lean on that difference as its only selling point. Sure, on the surface The Final Empire looks like yet another story about an uprising against an evil imperial oppressor; but instead of the usual saga of knights in faux-Europe, the first Mistborn novel is more like a Hunger Games reboot led by Victorian alchemists. I imagine this would be a great fantasy novel for people who say they don’t like traditional fantasy novels, or for existing fantasy fans who want something that takes them somewhere new.

The Norman Conquest, Marc Morris

the-norman-conquest

The full story of the 1066 Norman invasion, from its origins in the twilight of Anglo-Saxon England, through to King William’s death and legacy.

I don’t know about you, but for all the emphasis put on it at school I never felt I really learnt much about William the Bastard’s conquest of England. So, with the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings this month, I figured it was time to put that right.

I must admit, this did take a bit to get into. The story of William the Conqueror starts a long, long way before 1066, and Marc Morris spends almost the entire first half of this book focusing on the messy socio-political context of tenth century England that made the Norman Conquest possible. What with all the Danish invasions, failed Godwinson power plays and tenuous succession claims, it took about 150 pages for William to start making any invasionary noises.

But as with any episode in history, you can’t ignore the preamble if you want to make sense of the event itself, and as the Battle of Hastings is arguably “the most important date in English history”, it takes a lot of background reading to really understand why the Norman Conquest was so important. I still think Morris could have pared things down a little further, but compared with the simplistic “he came, he saw, he conquered” Key Stage 3 approach, I’ll happily take The Norman Conquest‘s level of depth any day.

September in Books: The Dragonbone Chair; The Gospel of Loki; The Order of the Phoenix

The Dragonbone Chair, Tad WilliamsThe Dragonbone Chair

Young, inept servant boy Simon falls into a world of monsters, mages and magic swords after accidentally rebelling against the High King of Osten Ard. Sometimes, you just can’t beat a good bit of absolute pulp.

And that’s exactly why I loved The Dragonbone Chair. Sure, the plot is very much a remodelled Fellowship of the Ring, the dialogue is stuffy and melodramatic, and every other character has the classic Exotic Apostrophe wedged into their name (hello, Khendhraja’aro); but Tad Williams doesn’t seem to care. He’s cheesy and he knows it – and with the fantasy genre firmly entrenched in the serious and the grim these days, a little unashamed cheese is no bad thing.


The Gospel of Loki, Joanne M. Harristhe-gospel-of-loki

The rise and fall of Asgard, retold from the perspective of Loki the Trickster.

I won’t lie, I bought this one purely for the cover. I thought the premise – reimagining the villainous Loki as a victimised anti-hero – was neat, but if it weren’t for the oh-so-shiny cover, I doubt the blurb would have been enough to sway me.

In fact, I actually put off reading this for months purely because I was worried the book itself wouldn’t live up to its packaging – and now it’s finished, I can’t honestly say that it did. I’m not sure whether it’s because my love for the cover art set too high a standard or because I was never really invested in the ‘sympathy for the Devil’ angle to begin with, but I just struggled throughout to find any real foothold in this. I think perhaps if I were younger I would have found something more in the snarky, misunderstood tone (Harris really does reduce Loki from a god to a seething, “oppressed” teen sometimes) but as I am now it just didn’t do it for me. A shame, considering how great it looks on my bookcase…


the-order-of-the-phoenixHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling (reread)

After going straight from Ulysses to Don Quixote to A Brief History of Seven Killings, I needed a bit of a detox – and what better for that than the favourite book of my childhood?

I’ve honestly lost track of how many times I’ve read Order of the Phoenix, but clearly not enough times for it get stale. One of the things for which I’ve always loved this book is introducing two of my favourite characters in all of literature – Luna Lovegood and Bellatrix Lestrange – and also for developing Ginny Weasley into something more substantial than the hapless damsel she was pared down to in the films.

And then there’s that great climactic set piece as Dumbledore finally confronts Voldemort himself; until now, I’d never really appreciated Dumbledore’s weary sense of duty as he marched into the Ministry, entering a fight he was too old for but couldn’t yet leave behind. “It was foolish to come here tonight, Tom” – one of those sublime moments when J.K. Rowling truly nails the scene.

Autumn/ Winter Reading List

One of the things I love most about the winter – apart from my birthday, Christmas, and the ever-present smell of cinnamon, of course – is the books. For me, it’s the perfect time to revisit an old favourite or bundle up in a big ol’ classic, those kinds of books that will always welcome you on days when the weather is invariably grim or when you’re waiting for a heartwarming pie to finish in the oven. And then there are the murder mysteries and Gothic horrors, which are absolutely ripe now that the days are getting shorter and the nights earlier.

So whilst I’ll still be booktrotting through Central and South America over the next few months, I’ve also set aside a few reads to see me through to Christmas (when I’ll hopefully get another few dozen books to fill up my New Year’s reading list):

The Greatest Knight, Thomas Asbridgethe-greatest-knight

My resolution to read more non-fiction this year fell somewhat by the wayside when I also decided to take on the likes of Tolstoy and Joyce (and not to mention a whole Booktrotting adventure), but I’ve at least got a little time before the year is out to set that straight. I’m really looking forward to this one: William Marshal – who rose from being a prisoner of war to participate in the drafting of Magna Carta – is one of those historical figures who seems plucked straight out of fantasy, and I can’t wait to delve properly into his story.


the-strings-of-murderThe Strings of Murder, Oscar de Muriel

There’s something about Christmas and crime novels that just works – especially when those novels are set in Victorian Edinburgh. I picked up The Strings of Murder in the summer after being caught by the cover in the window of Oxfam Books but have been holding it back until now; I just hope it lives up to the long wait.


The Final Empire, Brandon Sandersonthe-final-empire

I wasn’t planning on reading any more fantasy this year after slogging through a reread of A Song of Ice and Fire in the spring, but then a friend happened to recommend Brandon Sanderson to me on the same day I was browsing a Waterstones (which, let’s face it, is every day). I’m deliberately not getting my hopes up after being stung by some truly drivellous modern fantasy recently, but I’ve heard good things about Sanderson and his Mistborn series, so with any luck this one won’t end up dumped on the same pile.


draculaDracula, Bram Stoker

It’s been a good few years since I last read this, and I can feel it calling to me once again (perhaps because I watched Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the other day as well). Considering I got given the beautiful Barnes and Noble leather-bound edition last Christmas – and considering Hallowe’en is about a month away – it feels like exactly the right time of year to reread one of my all-time favourite novels.


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoyanna-karenina

Back at the start of the year, I set aside five massive books that had been lurking on my shelves, waiting to be tackled for too long. Four of them – War and PeaceUlyssesMoby Dick and Don Quixote – have been met and dispensed with, and now only Anna Karenina remains. Seems only fitting to read it now and bookend 2016 with Tolstoy’s two most well-known novels.