james debate
james debate

Sunday 20 December 2020

As with most of you, my new year's resolutions for 2020 went out the window pretty quickly. I did not travel to a new country in 2020, nor did I find a good opportunity to get back into driving after years without getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. But there was one challenge that I did manage to achieve. Last December I pledged that I would read one book every month in 2020. Here's what happened next.

one book every month year challenge 2020

It sounds pretty simple when I write it down, actually. But the reality, not so much. Some books are longer than others, and forcing yourself to meet that monthly deadline every single month without fail takes more discipline than one might expect. I'll admit there were times it felt like a bit of a slog, perhaps more so because of the self-imposed deadline. Oddly, this is probably the one challenge that was actually made easier by the ongoing global situation, having found myself with an overabundance of time due to the lack of going out and actually doing things. So one book for each month, plus a few bonus books (and some of the "just for fun" kind that I won't list here). Here's what I read, the good, the bad, and the downright neutral. Enjoy:

January - "The Secret Commonwealth" by Philip Pullman

After all these years, we finally get to see a continuation of the story of Lyra Belacqua, protagonist of Philip Pullman's classic His Dark Materials series. Truth be told, two books into this trilogy and I am still waiting to see what exactly it was that inspired Pullman to resurrect his long dormant creation, but even if that moment never arrives so far it has been a hugely enjoyable romp. 

This latest entry in the series the sort of globetrotting adventure one would hope for, but also recognises that both its cast of characters and its target audience are a little older and more mature than they were in the original trilogy of novels, taking a darker turn in its content, particularly as it pertains to the mental state of the novel's protagonists. A very fine work of fiction, albeit nothing as of yet as seminal as its predecessors. We will wait and see what the final book has to offer.

February - "The Guest Book" by Sarah Blake

Often delightful. The Guest Book traces the fortunes of a family of American aristocrats across three generations from the interbellum to present day, and in particular their life spent on the family private island and its guest house. Flashforward to present day and the family, now on harder times financially, is looking to sell the island and all the memories that reside within its grounds.

There's a lot to like about this novel. It tackles the topic of social inequality from a perspective not commonly explored in fiction and manages to weave its narrative across a broader story about family, nostalgia and loss. Unfortunately other than its themes, the actual narrative is a bit thin and one gets the impression it is drawn out considerably longer than is justified. The Guest Book also suffers from having, to be frank, way too many different minor characters. Most barely even figure into the plot, are mentioned once and then promptly vanish. I can imagine it being tricky to keep track of if you don't read it in a condensed space of time as I did.

March - "The Supernova Era" by Liu Cixin
To quote the old football maxim, "it's a game of two halves...". The Supernova Era has perhaps one of the best set ups to a sci-fi novel that I have read in many years. A nearby supernova bathes the Earth in radiation, dooming the planet's adult population and requiring a sudden and urgent training of children in order to keep the world running in their absence. 

The first half of this novel is brilliant. As with his other work (notably the Three Body Problem), Cixin has a knack for setting up an outlandish premise and following it through to its logical conclusion, imagining what one might actually do in such a situation and how it would play out in a manner that is extremely believable. Unfortunately about half way through, the novel takes a complete left turn into the realm of the unbelievable and nonsensical. It's an example of an author who clearly wants to make a satirical point, even at the expense of a coherent story, and it's a pity.

April - "Daisy Jones and the Six" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This is a brilliant novel and I have absolutely nothing negative to say about it. Daisy Jones tells the story of fictional band Daisy Jones and the Six, allegedly based loosely on the history of Fleetwood Mac, in the style of a documentary film. The quality of the writing here really is excellent in many ways. Vivid and believable characters with motivations that are explored to just the right extent without feeling like forced subtext. The pacing in particular is just about perfect, never feeling like the story is dragging whilst also never feeling like it has to rush through it's plot points.

I wouldn't surprised to see this one pick up a Debbie in a few days time. If you read one book from this list, I would make it this one.

May - "This is Going to Hurt" by Adam Kay

I remember seeing a live performance by Adam Kay at Imperial College freshers week (where he had studied medicine, before quitting medicine to become a comedian). While I thought he was hilarious, he somehow managed to deeply, deeply offend both my female friends and my LGBT friends who were with me that night. That should give you some clue as to the type of wit to expect with this novel.

This is Going to Hurt serves as a memoir of the ever irreverent Adam Kay's days in medicine. A series of moments and snippets in a diary format that range from rolling in the aisles hilarious to tragic and some that are just downright nauseating, but always entertaining. It seems Kay may have finally struck the right balance between edgy and funny that allows his particular brand of humour to go mainstream, a TV adaptation is expected to land sometime next year.

June - "Men Without Women" by Haruki Murakami

A collection of short stories penned by legendary Japanese surrealist author Haruki Murakami on the topic of relationships. Inspired by and sharing a name with the similar collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway. As with any collection of short stories, the quality and tone of each tale varies, but the quality is as consistent and immersive as one would expect from the author.

One often gets the impression that Murakami is inherently suspicious of women, as indeed the female characters in his novels often turn out to be hiding mysterious, often duplicitous sorts and sometimes these gender biases can grow a bit stale. Fortunately the short-form nature of this collection allows a greater variety of devices to be employed, including some that break refreshingly from the typical Murakami tropes that one might expect.

June Bonus - "An Average War" by Mike Peyton 

Confession time: I had already started reading the previous entry last year. So by way of recompense, I added another (much shorter) novel to this month's reading list. An Average War is the autobiographical tale of somewhat noted illustrator Mike Peyton and his adventures during the war.

One can tell from the quality of the prose that Peyton is not a professional wordsmith, but he has much to say and does so in an engaging fashion. These are stories that range from the exciting and adventurous to heartbreaking, often told with dark humour. Some incidents are so farcical as to be scarcely believable, but that only serves to highlight the tragic reality that at the end of the day these wars are just fought by regular people in all their flaws and idiosyncrasies.

July - "Agent Running in the Field" by John le Carré

The final work of the recently deceased espionage legend. Le Carré's career spanned six decades and includes such seminal pieces of work as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Night Manager and The Constant Gardner. 

Agent Running in the Field, to be quite blunt, is le Carré's Brexit novel, inspired by the real life events of the past few years and in particular the Russian intelligence efforts behind Trump and Brexit. Le Carré makes no apology for his frank and to the point political commentary, but one wonders if his desire to explore contemporary politics has come at the expense of the story itself. This is a good novel, but undeniably among the more simplistic and straightforward in the le Carré bibliography. Still, the opportunity to see a master of the espionage genre tackling such current and relevant events is a treat you will not want to pass up.

July Bonus - "Superman: Red Son" by Mark Millar

In most cases I might have included this among the "for fun" items that don't make the list, but Superman: Red Son is one of those graphic novels that is so sensational that is genuinely merits consideration among more traditional forms of literature. 

Red Son is an alternate telling of the Superman mythos: what would have happened had Superman's spacecraft crashed in then Soviet Union instead of the United States, and he then grown up into an ideological soldier of communism rather than the posterchild of the American way of life. It's a great premise and Millar makes the most of it crafting, for me, one of the best comicbook stories of all time.

August - "Once Upon a River" by Lorian Hemingway

This one sounded good on paper. A mystery tale set against the backdrop of towns along the river Thames, a period setting, a tapestry that touches everything from folklore, to science, magic and myth. Unfortunately the execution is far less wondrous than the pitch.

The story itself is not bad, but it is paced so excruciatingly poorly, with everything stretched out and packed with unnecessary filler. After the enticing opening scene, the novel takes a drastic detour and doesn't return to the main plot for more than 100 pages. Dozens of pointless and irrelevant characters are introduced and their backstories fleshed out for no apparent reason. It's meandering, plodding, and ultimately not worth sticking with to uncover its deeper meaning.

September - "Exhalation: Stories" by Ted Chiang

A series of short stories by renowned author Ted Chiang, who you may know as the author of the short story on which the Oscar winning film Arrival was based. The stories contained within Exhalation cover a variety of topics from mankind's place in the universe, to the nature of humanity, free will and technology.

On the whole I found this collection to be less impressive than his first anthology, but still well worth reading. Most stories are good, some are brilliant, and only one felt like it overstayed its welcome.

October - "Utopia Avenue" by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is known for his dizzyingly ambitious works of fiction, most notably Cloud Atlas. Notoriously obtuse, multi-layered and often with a strong underlying link to the supernatural and metaphysical. By contrast, Utopia Avenue almost seems oddly traditional by his standards. This made for odd reading as, on the surface, the novel bore many similarities with Daisy Jones, concerning itself also with the story of a fictional band in the 1960s. Indeed for the first half of the novel it follows many familiar story beats. But don't you worry Mitchell fans, persevere and eventually it starts to get every bit as weird as you would expect.

I actually loved this book. I felt it had the perfect balance between a rich, traditional story and the classic David Mitchell weirdness, making for one of the more accessible entries in his bibliography. Certain parts can make for difficult reading and you will certainly gain the most from this text if you are familiar with the man's work, but this is very much a worthwhile novel.

November - "The Invisible Life of Addie Larue" by V. E. Schwab

Addie Larue makes a deal with the devil to live forever, the trade-off being that no one will ever remember who she is and thus she is unable to ever form any lasting relationships with anyone. Then one day 300 years later she meets someone who does remember her, but why? 

This was a pretty good one. Takes a fascinating premise and runs with it. Often these high concept stories peter out when they can't think of a reasonable justification or resolution, but Schwab packs enough interesting twists and turns that the plot never becomes stale and impressively manages to find a satisfying conclusion that neither succumbs to trope nor banality.

December - "Migrations" by Charlotte McConaghy

For my final book of the year I decided to pick something from the annual best sellers' list on Amazon, place my luck in the wisdom of the crowd. The result was Migrations, a novel set in a not-too-distant future where most animal life on Earth is extinct due to pollution and mankind generally being a bit shit. Our protagonist manages to talk her way onto a fishing vessel to allow her to follow perhaps the last ever avian migration, only she has ulterior motives...

I sometimes get the impression that there are novels out there that succeed not because of their quality but because of their statement, and this is one of those novels. It's not bad by any means, the quality of writing is strong, with an absorbing sense of atmosphere and place. There just isn't a huge amount there beyond "humans bad". Most of the novel is spent filling in the tragic backstory of our protagonist, which is serviceable enough, if emotionally manipulative, and nowhere near as interesting a setting as its initial premise. Just about worth reading but there are better novels on this list.

So there it is. Twelve months in books. Do I dare take on the challenge again next year? Only time will tell.

Newer Post Older Post Home