It was a very good year for blue blooded girls of independent means. Most years are. And it was a pretty good year for reading. According to GoodReads, quite possibly (nerd alert!) my favourite social media platform, I managed 60 books in 2019 — a whopping eight more the year’s Reading Challenge.
Naturally, I am rather proud of myself.
About half was what can be called “light reading”; fantasy, thrillers and mysteries. Authors like Michael Crichton (2), Lee Child (3), Brandon Sanderson (4), Ian Fleming (5), and Stephen King (7) — the last of which is mentioned several times below. Entertainment and escapism, nonsense and drivel. Wonderful, energising drivel.
The other half ranged from literary fiction (7) to the history of the Middle East (5), from biographies (8) to personal development and psychology (5). The sort of stuff you actually tell people you read and quote nonchalantly in a posh accent.
And so, without further ado…
Best Literary Fiction
Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk, 2002 ★★★★½
I found Lullaby’s premise positively off-putting at first; a lullaby that brings about the death of whoever hears it just seemed too preposterous. O ye, of little faith!
Yes, the plot is bizarre and strangeness and deviancies abound, but with a pinch of the hard-boiled detective and a deeply human touch, Palahniuk deftly keeps the story pretty down-to-earth, all things considered. The titular lullaby and its implications become a plot device and secondary to the fascinating drama of the flawed, if hilarious, people involved. One strand of the tale is among the best love stories I ever remember reading and Helen Hoover Boyle, in particular, is a worthy addition to the Palahniuk pantheon of characters. As is to be expected from Palahniuk, paradoxically, there are unexpected twists in the story. Each of these in expertly executed and of the deeply satisfying I-should-have-seen-that-coming variety.
Imaginative, hysterically funny, tragic, and riveting, Lullaby is definitely the best Palahniuk book I have read so far, easily outshining his most famous Fight Club and beating my erstwhile favourite, Choke, by a respectable margin.
Best Light Reading
Words of Radiance by Brian Sanderson, 2014 ★★★★
In late 2018, I found myself craving fantasy. Rather odd for someone who had to will himself through The Lord of the Rings, finds Song of Ice and Fire rather overrated, and was bored stiff by Harry Potter. After being left unimpressed by Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, I struck gold with The Way of Kings, the first book of a planned ten in Brian Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archives series. I quickly picked up the second book, Words of Radiance.
I finished The Way of Kings on 2 January 2019, reading it mostly in November and December 2018. For this reason, Best Light Reading of the year goes to Words of Radiance, which was read entirely in 2019. This is as good a tie-breaker as any and one is needed as the two are equally strong, with the third and latest main entry in the series, Oathbringer, lagging the slightest bit behind.
Without going into details, the plot is an epic confrontation between Good and Evil, with knights, sword fights, arcane magic, and mysteries aplenty. While the story and the cast of characters are by no means lacking, the real strength of Words of Radiance, and indeed the entire series, is Sanderson’s awesome creation of Roshar, the planet in which the story takes place. Religion, history, politics, race relations, social conventions, science, cuisine, meteorology, flora, and fauna are all meticulously crafted into an intricate, fascinating world which not only serves as a backdrop but is woven into the story, sometimes feeling like an all-encompassing main character.
Calling the series light reading may be stretching the definition a bit; each of the three main entries is a tome of over 1000 pages. In addition to their epicness, the intricacy of Roshar adds a level of effort. Regardless, they are “light” in the sense that they are easy reads, written in a straight-forward style, not requiring much in the way of critical analysis, and the story, although sprawling and complex, is likely to whisk you away from your daily toils.
The Gun And The Olive Branch: The Roots Of Violence In The Middle East by David Hirst, 1977* ★★★★
Living in the Middle East, I am trying to get to know the history of the region. And what a history: From the cradle of civilisation to the betrayals and interference by the Western powers, from the the blood-curdling atrocities of the Lebanese and Syrian civil wars to the hope and yearning of the Arab Spring. It’s heartbreaking and devastating, humbling and inspiring.
Then there is the issue of Palestine and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories, painful to Palestinian, Israeli, and Arab alike, and not easily navigable for the best intentioned outsider like myself. In The Gun and the Olive Branch, David Hirst, a twice-kidnapped former Middle East news correspondent banned in six Arab countries, provides a harrowing overview of the conflict, its history and international repercussions. It is clearly sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians displaced and living in Israeli-occupied territories, but still succeeds in giving a reasonably balanced account. Painstakingly detailed, it is not recommended to those with no prior knowledge but readers familiar with the fundamentals will be able to deepen their understanding. By no means an easy read, this is a highly rewarding chronicle of one of the most complex issues of modern history.
*I was only able to get a hold of a 1977 edition which obviously does not cover later events. If I am not mistaken, the latest edition is from 2003 and is updated accordingly.
It’s So Easy: And Other Lies by Duff McKagan, 2011 ★★★★
With this one, bassist Duff McKagan handily supplanted Slash as my favourite member of Guns N’ Roses. I’ve always appreciated his playing style and sound and now it seems he is a rather likable fellow as well.
Entirely void of the posturing and bravado one might expect from a member of “The Most Dangerous Band in the World”, this one does not read like most rock star biographies: It is not the life story of “Duff, the GNR bassist” but that of “Duff, the guy”. Yes, there is a bit of the excesses for which the band is infamous but it is not glorified and takes the backseat to Duff’s personal journey. His near-death experiences, his fatalism, his descent into addiction — but more importantly his deliverance and triumph over adversities.
Duff’s humanity and humility is what makes this a cracking, feel-good read.
The Snooze, the Bad and the Ugly
I avoid rating books only one star and reserve it for books which I either actively dislike or which fall very short of what they are attempting to accomplish — or both. Fortunately, only three books read in 2019 merited just a single star and it would be an overstatement to say that I actively disliked any of them.
Insomnia by Stephen King, 1994 ★
In all art, there is but one cardinal sin: Boring your audience. In Insomnia, Mr. King is found guilty in the first degree. He has been successful in this type of sprawling, contemplative narrative; see 11/22/63, one of his very best. Less successful were Under the Dome and Revival, which felt unnecessarily long-winded.
Insomnia is a short story, a novella if you are being kind, stretched over 900 pages. The ruminations on getting old are tedious, the Multiverse connections seem inorganic, the story isn’t very exciting, and the resolution is uncharacteristically cheesy, if well executed. Rivals The Stand as my least favourite Stephen King novel.
Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance by Sean Williams, 2010 ★
The first thing any Star Wars author needs to realise is that reading about lightsaber duels, blaster fights, and space battles is not the same as watching them on the silver screen.
Unfortunately, in Fatal Alliance, Sean Williams seems to ignore this for the most part. The story itself is not bad, really quite ambitious compared to other Star Wars novels I’ve read, but some further editing would have been needed to make it work. The narrative feels loose where it should be punchy and sports a cast of two-dimensional non-Skywalker Saga characters about which I didn’t feel much one way or another.
The end result is a longish, rather uninteresting yarn in a galaxy far, far away, and the least enjoyable entry in the Old Republic series.
The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho, 2008 ★
I read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist when I was 17 and, deeply impressed, quickly devoured Eleven Minutes and found it delightful. Other works of Coelho have left me wondering if he only speaks to my 17-year-old self — I have yet to summon the courage to re-read The Alchemist. In any case, The Witch of Portobello felt lazy, superficial, and predictable.
Not necessarily the runner-ups and in no particular order.
Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life by Gary John Bishop, 2016 ★★★★
A no-nonsense, tongue-in-cheek guide to getting a bit more out of life. Even if your life is not in shambles, it’s both inspiring and, importantly, entertaining.
Life won’t stop for your pauses and procrastinations. It won’t stop for your confusion or fear. It will continue right along without you.
Getting’ Tighter: Deep Purple ’68-’76 by Martin Popoff, 2008 ★★★½
An avid, even rabid, Deep Purple enthusiast, I was happily surprised that this album-by-album history of the band provided me with new insights on this era of their career.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, 2012 ★★★½
Anyone interested in understanding the difference in the liberal and conservative modes of thinking would do well to read this. It goes a long way to making sense of the ongoing culture wars and, to an extent, the rise of populism around the globe.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, 2000 ★★★★½
First, there were, interestingly, no five star books this year. 2018 had two: Fidel: A Critical Portrait by Ted Szulc and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Second, I may be cheating a bit with On Writing; I enjoyed Lullaby at least as much.
Having covered Lullaby as the year’s Best Literary Fiction, I am anointing On Writing as my favourite overall — perhaps in part because I am following some of Stephen King’s advice while writing this very article: Putting my thoughts down rapidly, hardly looking back, thus outrunning any creeping self-doubts. Thanks, Steve.
Some of King’s advice on writing is purely practical; place your desk so you face a wall, eliminate all distractions, and so forth. His down-to-earth take of his craft may seem to strip it of all its romance but it is also easily applicable for aspiring writers, covering how to craft a story, how to shape your characters, how to capture your audience. There are also some gems on the how he wrote some of his stories, for example that he drafted part of what would become Misery at the desk where Rudyard Kipling died, and that he wrote The Tommyknockers…
[…] often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.
Oh, the glamour!
While it is foremost about the craft of writing and King’s approach to it, replete with sage wisdom and good advice, On Writing can likely be enjoyed by those without aspirations of writing. In true Stephen King fashion, the prose is straight-forward and easy to comprehend. It provides an interesting glimpse into the author’s life and his personality. Of particular interest are the snapshots of his childhood and family, and his early days as a struggling writer, prior to his massive success. Who would have thought this giant of pop literature wrote his early work at a child’s desk in a trailer laundry-closet?
Not wanting to overdo it, I have set a reasonably ambitious goal of one book a week for 2020 — a GoodReads Reading Challenge of 52 books.
Needful Things by Stephen King (★★), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (James Bond #11, ★★½) by Ian Fleming, and Átakasvæði í heiminum (roughly translated from Icelandic as War-Zones of the World, ★★½) by Jón Ormur Halldórsson were carried over from 2019 and finished in the new year, putting me one book ahead of schedule; three down, 49 to go. In addition I’ve begun reading The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Israeli “New Historian” Avi Shlaim, and Hefnd (Revenge or Vengeance) by up-and-coming writer Kári Valtýsson. The last is an ambitious historical thriller, with the premise of an Icelander in the Wild West of the late nineteenth century; it is said to be the first Icelandic western.
The new year is off to a pretty decent start.