Books read in 2018

I have, as usual, been falling behind on my book reviews. I’ve been reading, though, as much as I can while also being a full-time parent to a toddler and attempting to get in as much paid editing work as possible during nap times. I read 58 books last year, which is a fairly significant fall-off from 2017’s 89, for which I blame the fact that I weaned my daughter and thus no longer had several hours a day of being forced to sit still in a chair with nothing to do but read. Of the books I read, a little more than a third were for this project, all of them from the Philippines. I just managed to finish my last Filipino book on December 31, and have now moved on to Brunei, which is a blessedly short list. I also read a fair few books as background for the novel I’m writing: as many books as I could by Black British women, and a few memoirs set in prisons in the UK (and no, I am not writing the book that that sentence makes it seem I am writing). Anyway, only a day a few days a week late, here’s a list of books I read last year, with some brief annotations.

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Not for this project:

  • The Northern Lights trilogy, Philip Pullman (reread)
    • I read The Book of Dust and wanted to reread the original books to see if they held up. Short answer: kind of.
  • Endless Night, Agatha Christie
    • One of the most skillfully executed twists I’ve ever encountered in a novel.
  • The Dogs of Riga, Henning Mankell
    • OK. It was interesting to read a book set in Latvia just after the end of the Soviet Union, a setting I knew nothing about. There was a weird scene in which a detective on a dangerous mission is so nervous that he loses control of his bowels and poops in a wastebasket, which was kind of funny, and kind of rang true, but which I found so tonally inconsistent with the rest of the story that I couldn’t figure out what it was doing in there, which is probably why it’s the only scene from the book I remember now.
  • Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyoyemi
    • Fantastic
  • Murder in Montego Bay, Paula Lennon
    • A mystery set in Jamaica, with a mismatched police team of a laid-back Jamaican detective and an uptight Scottish officer on secondment to the island. Not terrible.
  • The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith
    • I like everything Zadie Smith writes, and this was no exception, though it wasn’t my favorite.
  • Sawbones, Catherine Johnson
    • Catherine Johnson writes historical YA fiction featuring characters of color, which makes a nice change from the complete whitewashing usually seen in historical fiction. This book is about a young mixed-race surgeon’s apprentice who must solve a mystery and protect his future when his benefactor suddenly dies.
  • Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
    • Been meaning to read this for a while; it did not disappoint.
  • Blade and Bone, Catherine Johnson
    • The sequel to Sawbones, set in the French Revolution. A bit more ridiculous than the first, but still enjoyable.
  • The Power, Naomi Alderman
    • I think everyone’s heard about this at this point. I liked it a lot. Not the best writing I’ve ever encountered, but a great concept and decent follow-through.img_1537
  • Bone, Yrsa Daley-Ward
    • Mixed feelings about this. Daley-Ward is an “instagram poet,” and a lot of her poetry is short, pithy, and eminently quotable. Some of it is good though.
  • Puzzle Girl, Rachael Featherstone
    • Read for research, not the type of thing I would ordinarily read, but it was ok. A silly rom-com with a preposterous premise and lots of plot holes.
  • The Opposite House, Helen Oyoyemi
    • Not as good as Boy, Snow, Bird. I think a lot of it went over my head.
  • Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (reread)
    • One of my favorite pieces of post-apocalyptic literary fiction.
  • Small Island, Andrea Levy
    • A story about Jamaican immigrants in England after World War II. Poignant, thought-provoking, and very readable.
  • You Are Having a Good Time, Amie Barrodale
    • I picked this up at the library on a whim because I liked the cover. I liked the book, too, of oddball short stories, though I don’t remember much about it now.
  • The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, Kate Summerscale
    • This is the point at which I started listening to My Favorite Murder and experienced a renewed enthusiasm for true crime. This book was an interesting story but not really a book’s worth of material. I would rather have heard it as a podcast episode.
  • Chanson Douce, Leïla Slimani
    • A french novel about a nanny who murders her charges, based on the New York nanny murders of 2012. Grim and compelling. I was on the waiting list for six months at the San Francisco library before I could finally get my hands on this book, and it was worth the wait.img_2528
  • Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder, Ann Rule
    • Another MFM-inspired choice (they love Ann Rule on that podcast). Ann Rule, a former private investigator turned author, was friends with Ted Bundy and never suspected a thing; she wrote a book about that, but this is not that book. This book is about Diane Downs, who attempted to kill three of her children (and succeeded in killing two). A horrible person, a horrible story, a good book.
  • The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, Catherine Johnson
    • Another Catherine Johnson; based on the true story of Mary Baker, who in 1817 fooled an entire British town into believing that she was an Indonesian princess. 
  • The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne
    • Loved it
  • Bare-faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard, Russell Miller
    • Recommended by a friend. It’s an incredible story—the biography of L. Ron Hubbard beggars belief—but way too long. My interest wavered about two-thirds of the way through, and only grim determination kept me going until the end.
  • Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle
    • A series of short comics about Delisle’s life in Burma with his wife, who was stationed there with Doctors without Borders, and their young child. There isn’t much of a through narrative, and sometimes the episodes seem kind of random and pointless, but I think that’s kind of the point—to capture Delisle’s daily life in a foreign country. The drawings are simple and monochromatic, the stories simply told.
  • Here, Richard McGuire
    • Another comic book, this one imagining the same location for millennia. Sometimes it’s a house, sometimes a forest, sometimes underwater. We catch glimpses into the lives of all the different people who have lived there over the centuries, though not in chronological order. It’s an intriguing book, with a sense of stories overlaying stories, of which we get only the tiniest snippets.
  • Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
    • Fantastic. Should be required reading for every American.
  • The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler (reread)
    • I love Raymond Chandler and can’t help reading at least one of his novels every couple of years.
  • Monstress, vol. 1: Awakening, Marjorie Liu (reread)
    • Read because I wanted to read the next volume and couldn’t remember the story
  • Monstress, vol. 2: The Blood, Marjorie Liu
    • I’ve owned this for a year or so and just got around to reading it. Good, inventive and beautifully drawn, though I’ve rather lost my taste for extreme violence in graphic novels and this has it in spades. My whole relationship to comics is cooling somewhat in recent years, and I’m thinking of bequeathing most of my collection to my twelve-year-old nephew, except that most of my books are not child-appropriate and while my nephew could probably handle it, I’m not sure he’d be able to keep the books out of the hands of his little brothers, who are decidedly not ready for such things.img_2381
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
    • Lots has been said about this book. I compelling and sometimes heartbreaking narrative that has a lot to say about race and mass incarceration in America.
  • My Garden, Jamaica Kincaid
    • I love the way Jamaica Kincaid writes. It’s like listening to the musings of an extremely intelligent and eloquent but easily distracted eccentric, filled with surprising tangents and startling observations, and she makes no apologies for herself or her oddities but is so charming that you can’t help but love her and wish she was your friend.
  • In It, Jonathan Robinson (abandoned)
    • Oh, awful. This was one of the books I read to research British prisons. All I need to know for the book I’m writing is what the inside of British prisons are like, physically, so I read enough to get an idea and then abandoned it with no regrets.
  • How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon
    • Beautiful. There were definitely parts that I didn’t understand, but one of the things I appreciate about this book, one of the things Laymon explicitly states at the outset, is that it is not intended to center the experience of white middle-class readers. I’m so used to being the favored audience that it is strange and refreshing to read a book that isn’t intended for me, at least not first and foremost for me. I will read this again and try to understand it better.
  • The Witch Elm, Tana French
    • I would read Tana French’s grocery list. I’m sure it would be suspenseful and thrilling and ever so slightly unsatisfying in its ending. Sometimes I feel like Tana French has not quite achieved her full potential; it seems like there’s a great mystery in her that just hasn’t quite come to fruition. This book was good but not my favorite of hers. Also, why did they change the title of the American edition from The Wych Elm to The Witch Elm? Did the publishers think we would think it was a typo? Did they think Americans are too stupid to understand the double meaning if the spelling is different? The book has nothing to do with witches. The name of the tree is wych elm, and it’s spelled that way throughout the text, so why change it in the title?
  • Hell (A Prison Diary, #1), Jeffrey Archer (abandoned)
    • Another prison research book. Not quite as bad as In It but still pretty bad. Jeffrey Archer gets the best of life in prison and complains about it endlessly. No mention of the fact that as an MP he campaigned for harsher prison sentences and showed absolutely no sympathy for people convicted of crimes; the irony seems to be completely lost on him.

For this project (all from the Philippines; I’m not going to make notes on them because I plan to write blog posts for each of them in due course, but I do like the symmetry of starting the year with America is in the Heart and ending it with America is Not the Heart):

  • America is in the Heart, Carlos Bulosan
  • The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic, Nick Joaquin
  • Cry Slaughter, E.K. Tiempo (abandoned)
  • Philippine Food and Life, Gilda Cordero-Hernandez
  • Dusk, F. Sionil José
  • Awaiting Trespass, Linda Ty-Casper
  • What the Hell for You Left Your Heart in San Francisco, Bienvenido N. Santos
  • Dogeaters, Jessica Hagedorn
  • State of War, Ninotchka Rosca
  • When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
  • Twisted, Jessica Zafra (abandoned)
  • The Last Time I Saw Mother, Arlene J. Chai
  • Smaller and Smaller Circles, F.H. Batacan
  • The Undercover Tai Tai, Maya O. Calica
  • Love and Gravity, Samantha Sotto
  • Doveglion: Collected Poems, Jose Garcia Villa (selections)
  • Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco
  • Gun Dealer’s Daughter, Gina Apostol
  • The Mango Bride, Marivi Soliven
  • In the Country, Mia Alvar
  • America is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo

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