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The idea (and any number of my reads) is yanked from [livejournal.com profile] flywoman, whose reading list I peruse with avidity. Stars are distributed subjectively, not according to any logical criteria.
Warning: spoilers!

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. (****)
I think this was a book from Flywoman’s 2014 list. It’s the chronicle of an unfortunate anthropological experiment, raising an ape in a human family. I found it fascinating partly because of the explosive subject matter, partly because it is a study in perspective and faulty perception. Enjoyed it greatly; it might have made five stars if there weren’t so many other contenders this year.

Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London. (**)
This one was definitely yanked from Flywoman’s list. London cop gets drawn into a parallel magical world where he helps to solve supernatural crimes. I liked the original premise and greatly enjoyed the references to Holmes, Harry Potter, etc., but maybe this isn’t my genre. Books dealing with magic tend to resolve plot twists and turns by introducing spells or powers that do the job, and I can’t help feeling that that’s cheating.

Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed. (**)
I loved The Kite Runner, but this one didn’t do it for me. Can’t remember the plot other than that it dealt with siblings separated during childhood, and I can’t be bothered to look it up.

Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora. (***)
Another one of Flywoman’s ... Yes, yes, I know, I don’t have a taste of my own. Again, same problem as Rivers of London, but the world in which Locke Lamora lives is an elaborate and opulent creation, as is the backstory. Locke’s childhood in particular was well done. Sadly, the characters were somewhat flat — you get a similar mix in Ocean’s Eleven or Sneakers — and I missed female characters of note. (There was one at the end, but it was too little and too late for me.)

Ian McEwan, The Children Act. (****)
If only I could write like McEwan! Middle-aged judge comes apart over a case involving a minor whose parents refuse treatment for his medical condition. Doesn’t sound great, but it was wonderful. The protagonist Fiona’s battle with a failing marriage, her ambivalence towards the young boy, her guilt and subsequent depression, even the ending with its pragmatism and openness all felt right — which is something I rarely say about books.

Wolfgang Herrndorf, Tschick (German). (*****)
A recommendation by one of my kids, and boy, was she right! I don’t think it’s been translated as yet, but in case it has: two dissimilar teen boys go on a road trip from Berlin to Wallachia (except that they don’t get anywhere close to Romania), discover that they have more in common than they thought and that mankind isn’t all bad. It’s tragic and hilarious at the same time, neatly avoiding the ‘John Green’ fallacy of pomposity and pathos.

Andy Weir, The Martian. (***)
I thought this would check all my ‘geek’ boxes, and in theory it did. In practice I spent way too much time wondering why an astronaut who has been abandoned on Mars would write a journal explaining things that the potential finders of his journal (namely other astronauts) would know as a matter of course. And then I noticed how easy it would be to make a movie from the book: it practically reads like a screenplay. And then I got annoyed by the German astronaut who, although he speaks fluent English, doesn’t know the word ‘yes’ and who is delighted that his son has been named captain of his high school’s soccer team, even though German schools don’t have athletic teams. (It’s all organised via athletic clubs.) What happened to the concept of editors?

John Gribbin, In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. (****)
Now this one did tick all my ‘geek’ boxes. An understandable explanation of the major scientific developments that led to quantum physics and then, of course, quantum physics itself. Not that I can remember much of it, because frankly, it surpasses what my brain can grasp, but it was a good read.

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (***)
The book that inspired Blade Runner. Erm, yes. It wasn’t bad, but if I hadn’t known that this was the idea that launched Harrison Ford against a thousand androids I mightn’t have noticed. On a dying planet Earth the remaining population evades the question of survival by placing all remaining energy into obtaining status symbols — as in ‘real, living’ pets. If they can’t get real ones, they invest in fakes. The protagonist finances his obsession with sheep by hunting down and destroying escaped androids. It’s all a bit depressing — post-apocalyptic stuff that was popular in the middle of the last century, but seems a bit dated now.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. (****)
This book cost me roughly a month of my life, the endnotes another two weeks. (And you have to read them, because they contain significant pieces of information.) It was a warm rec from a colleague; in addition, the guy who translated it into German (a highly acclaimed translation) was in my uni drama group, so I was interested to see what he’d got himself into. (I read it in English, though. Nothing will induce me to read 1400 pages of English-translated-into-German.) What is it about? Not sure. Addiction in all its facets. A lot of very weird characters. If there’s a plot, I missed it. If there’s an ending I missed it too. (I Googled the book afterwards and found some really interesting Venn-style diagrams that extrapolated to events that probably/potentially/possibly take place after the book ends, closing the circle so to say, but that seems highly speculative to me. IMHO, it’s the author’s job to write an ending.) So, why four stars? To be honest, I’d read a commentary on telephone directories if Wallace had written it; he writes that bloody well. But I had to subtract a star because of those endnotes behind the non-ending. (Endnote: Do not read this book on an ebook reader!)

Eric Emmanuell Schmitt, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran. (French) (***)
It’s the first time I’ve read something in French without having any clue as to the contents (my previous reads were books I’d read before in English), and I think I understood the plot. Boy with shitty family (absentee mother, distant father) is ‘adopted’ by a local grocer. The point? The boy is Jewish, the grocer a Moslem. Road trip, etc., etc., a bit of tragedy, all very predictable.

J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur. (****)
This one has been on my reading list for ages. A historical novel set during the Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857, it deals with the efforts of a besieged garrison to survive until a relief force arrives. The book’s portrayal of the social constraints of the era, their gradual breakdown, and subsequent resurrection is relevant today insofar as we are also children of our times, bound by our prejudices and rituals.

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (***)
I’ve read American Gods and didn’t much like it, so I was chary of this. It was quite nice, actually, but it didn’t bowl me over. Odd neighbours, an unpleasant nanny, and a mysterious death combine to enmesh a young boy in supernatural events that’ll haunt him throughout his life.

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle. (*****)
A rec from a friend, this one bowled me over completely. It’s a memoir of an unorthodox childhood in the 60’s and 70’s of the last century. Jeannette Walls’s parents are, um, free spirits who don’t believe in shackling their children ... or in supervising them, or even in providing for them, for that matter. The book’s brilliance lies in its absolute faithfulness to a child’s limited perspective. Adult readers may wince internally at some of the incidents the book describes, but the narrator only shows the amount of awareness that Walls could have had at the age when the incidents took place. Her narrator’s awareness grows as she grows older. It’s an excellent study on how abuse begins and can perpetuate itself, and it certainly raises the question of where love ends and abuse begins.

D.B.C. Pierce, Vernon God Little. (*)
Never, ever trust in numbers. I got this based on the high number of positive reviews, but I thought it was appalling. Plot: Boy is suspected of collaborating with the perpetrator of a massacre at his high school. His life spirals out of control as incompetent police collude with scammers and greedy media to frame him. The book was essentially a darkish farce, with the high school massacre being purely incidental to the plot. (No one seemed to be bothered by the massacre other than looking for the culprits.) Plot developments were completely over the top and the resolution was unbelievable. Okay, farces are like that, but why attach one to as harrowing a subject as a school massacre? I thought it was in extremely bad taste.

Wolfgang Kraska, Auf Wiedersehen im Paradis. (German) (***)
A book about dealing with the death of loved ones. The author held an excellent sermon on the topic at my church, so I got the book. It wasn’t quite the same as hearing him live.

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. (*****)
I know this one is controversial, but I liked it a lot. Not as good as To Kill a Mockingbird, but since the latter is my Favourite Book of All Times, that isn’t enough of a qualifier to cost Watchman a star. Harper Lee excels at introducing utterly plastic and believable characters within a few sentences. The central conflict (childhood idol turns out to have feet of clay) isn’t exactly new, but I could identify with everyone involved — Scout, her uncle Jack, her boyfriend and Atticus Finch. And no, I wasn’t surprised to find out that he is a racist. When reading To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult, I’d noticed that he addresses Tom Robinson and Calpurnia by their first names, the Ewells however as ‘Mr Ewell’ and ‘Miss Mayella’ respectively, and I thought it was telling. A one-sided use of first names is a sign of social prerogative. Since the Ewells rank below Tom Robinson and Calpurnia on an objective (i.e. non-racial) social scale, this means that Atticus bases his prerogative on race.

George Eliot, Middlemarch. (*****)
I watched a theatre performance of parts of Middlemarch sometime at the end of 2014 and finally got down to reading it. The novel follows the fortunes of assorted citizens of the town of Middlemarch — an idealistic young gentlewoman, an ambitious doctor, the son of a businessman — and the people in their orbit. The charm of the book lies in its loving, tongue-in-cheek analysis of its characters’ foibles and weaknesses. I thoroughly enjoyed it. No idea why the Brontes and Dickens are often rated higher than Eliot.

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You. (**)
Family has to deal with the death of the oldest child. As the book progresses we discover that the girl despaired of living up to the expectations of her parents. I didn’t buy the premises: that parents can be so obtuse, that being ‘mixed-race’ is a major social catastrophe. (I’m ‘mixed-race’, have lived on both continents and then some, and can safely say that my problems weren’t caused by my racial make-up, but by my geekiness.) And I didn’t buy the saccharine ending either.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. (***)
A good book that would have got more stars if it hadn’t tried to be so all-encompassing. (IMO Harper Lee is so good because she doesn’t try to tell her story from a ‘black’ perspective. She sticks to what she actually knows and has experienced.) The book, based partly on fact, traces the lives of the daughter of a Charleston slave owner and one of his slaves in the years before the Civil War. The daughter rejects slavery and joins the Abolitionist movement — the Quakers, to be exact. The slave sews, gets caught up in a slave rebellion, and suffers hardships. Not bad, but not stellar.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. (****)
Why didn’t I read this earlier? I admit that it took me a while to get caught up in the troubles of Tom Joad and his family, but it was worth it. Destitute farming family from Oklahoma joins the Great Trek to California, only to find that the inhabitants of the Land of Milk and Honey aren’t all that happy to have them. Maybe the parallels to the present refugee situation fuelled my enthusiasm for this book, but I utterly fevered with that family.

Michel Rostain, The Son. (**)
It was lying around, so I read it. A (mostly) autobiographical account of the days and months of Rostain’s life after he lost his son to meningitis. (Huh, death seems to be the prevailing theme of my reading this year.) Didn’t tick my boxes.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. (**)
Saw it on Flywoman’s list and decided it was time I read something by Woolf. It was like wading through treacle. Plot: non-existent. A day in the life of Mrs Dalloway, assorted acquaintances from her youth, and a war veteran suffering from PTSD, presented as stream of consciousness with changing narrators. I’m not averse to stream of consciousness as such; I love Ulysses. But I know I’m reading a book all wrong when the only character I empathise with is the most boring character in the entire book (Richard Dalloway). I think my problem was that all the characters are perpetually looking backwards, remembering the halcyon days of their youth and wondering if their lives would be better if they’d married someone else, done something different, or whatever. Oh, and when they aren’t mourning lost chances, they’re busy despising everyone else for being boring, conventional, unsuccessful, successful, conservative, staid, dowdy, attractive, unattractive, ...  (Richard Dalloway, in case you were wondering, is the only one who is happy to have married his wife, proud of his daughter and generally contented with his life.)

Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. (***)
Same problem as the other fantasy books listed above, plus — what happened there at the end? Young geek whose boss is murdered struggles to clear himself of suspicion, placate his irate girlfriend and get his sofa out of the stairwell. Oh, and to save mankind. There’s a lot of intelligent stuff about Coleridge, causality and Schrödinger, but I was only marginally amused.
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