My top 8 books from last year
Last year I read 109 books for our reading challenge, but who wants to go through a list that huge? What, you might wonder, were my top 10? Well, I’ve looked through them and there are eight which I feel comfortable advocating as the top-tier, and a couple of series I’d like to briefly name check first, because I devoured them this year.
Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters
This series starts with the adventures of a female Egyptologist in the 1890s, and works through the next thirty or so years, eventually describing the lives of her children. I enjoyed them a great deal, I can say from this safe distance, but would caution you against reading them in a string as I did. They start to pall, particularly while Ramses is a precocious and plot-defying youth. When he grows up and becomes the action hero and romantic lead, we can forgive him for being a boring little avenue for plot resolutions. The Library Service has all of this series, and several others, by this author.
Lucifer series by Mike Carey
This series that telegraphs its punches so far in advance they may as well be written on the front page, but for all of that, it has a certain style to the telling which is enjoyable. I’d recommend it, but I’m not really certain who I’d recommend it to. People who liked Sandman? People who liked Paradise Lost? It’s tricky to nominate a demographic, because its genre fiction, but its genre fiction that between the sword fights grapples with the issue of free will in a universe of predestination. To enjoy it, and I did, you need to be willing to have characters driven by deeply abstract philosophical positions, and you need to be willing to let the author pull deus ex machina after deus ex machina, although he does flag them fairly in advance. The Library Service has the complete series.
With the series done, let’s move onto the books (and the newspaper which has snuck in). In rough order of preference, they are:
The Battle of Hastings by Harriet Harvey Wood
A great piece of historical research. Generally historians like to side with either the Celts (as anachronistic, nature-loving hippies) or the Normans (because people like to side with the victors). Wood’s work is one which has a great deal of sympathy for the Anglo-Saxons, and which forcefully makes the case that they had greater personal freedoms, and more individual wealth, before the Conquest than for centuries after.
The Dawn by Louisa Lawson
My review of the Dawn was quite lengthy, so I’ll just link to it.
Told After Supper by Jerome K Jerome
I really enjoyed this. It’s brilliantly read and it deconstructs many popular ghost stories. If you enjoy historical ghost stories, its a joy to hear them again, but with an increasingly addled narrator gradually destroying them. Librivox has it in audio format, but their page also lists a epub version.
When you are engulfed in flames by David Sedaris
I’ve heard various NPR rebroadcasts on ABC Radio, but not ever caught the name of the author until recently. I’m thus a late arrival to the David Sedaris fan party. His work’s excellent, though. It’s filled with self-deprecating humor. It’s apathetically acidic, but mostly directed toward himself. Shockable readers might, however, choose something else. Sedaris uses the juxtaposition of his self-effacing, highly refined style of speech, and sudden changes into transgressive subjects to create the shock that’s relieved by laughter. The Library Service has this book in both print and audio formats.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
An excellent book with an ending I couldn’t quite get behind. Basically it has a surface level and a deeper level. On the surface it is a cyberpunk story. The main characters are a sword-weilding pizza delivery guy who works for a Mafia owned franchise which has many of the rights of a sovereign state, and a teenage skater who works as a courier, using a magnetic harpoon to get lifts along highways, and an almost magical skateboard to get herself out of trouble. In their spare time, both seem to work for the Library of Congress, which is now operated by a commercialised version of the CIA. So, that’s all great fun.
The deeper level is about hacking the human mind through language, and is really well done, right up until the end. Here I feel it sort of let me down with a thump, and an advert. The ideas are fun. Even the very talky chapters where the main character lays the whole plot to the other characters seem to hold together. The problem is that the final scenes don’t really, to me, seem to reward on an emotional level. That’s a very personal call, of course. The Library Service has copies of the book.
My Country and Other Poems by Dorothea Mackellar
Again, because of the length of the previous review, I’ll just link it here.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
And, for a third time, because the linked review is so long, I’ll just flag it here and move on. Truly an excellent book though, and congratulations to the amateur recordists who made the Librivox audio version.
The Jerilderie Letter by Ned Kelly
If you’ve not read The Jerilderie Letter, and you’re interested in the period and have forty minutes, it’s an extraordinarily powerful document. It’s a letter which Kelly wrote, likely with the assistance of Joe Byrne, and demanded be published in the press. The letter was suppressed, on the basis that it’s effectively what we would now call a manifesto from a terrorist.
The Jerilderie Letter was the source material for an award-winning novel by Robert Drewe, called Our sunshine. This was, in turn, the source material for the Heath Ledger movie Ned Kelly. Our sunshine is not a true biography: it’s a fictional reimagining that is meant to lie close to its source material. Reading them together, Drewe’s work as author is possibly too obvious, so it might be best to pick one, then pause for a few weeks before sampling the other.
After reading it, I recorded it for Librivox. My recording’s here, and I apologise to the people of Greta for mispronouncing the name of their town.