The Year of Little Reading

Due to lots of very boring reasons, this year I read fewer books than I ever have before. Horrifying but true. I was even worse than I usually am at critiquing friends’ manuscripts, for which I am truly and abjectly sorry. I regret, too, all the books people sent me that I didn’t read. I suck. And, yes, I was also a horrible, horrible, horrible correspondent this year. I really hope next year will be better.

So here are some of the books I did read this year and highly recommend (you’ll notice I don’t give away much in the way of plot—that’s because I hate knowing too much about books before I read them. I like surprises, me, and I’m assuming you do, too!):

M. T. Anderson‘s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party. I’m not sure I can add anything to what everyone else has said. This book is unbelievably good. Astonishingly so.

March by Geraldine Brooks is another book that’s been hyped so much I became deathly afraid of actually reading it. Not to worry. Believe the hype!

Ursula Dubosarsky‘s The Red Shoe and Theodora’s Gift have been winning every award going in Australia this year. Deservedly. Dubosarsky is the author of more than twenty books for children and young adults. She is a flawless writer whose mastery of storytelling leaves me breathless. I wish I could write like that! She’s not nearly as well-known outside Australia as she deserves to be. You must track down her books. I also particularly recommend The First Book of Samuel to which Theodora’s Gift is a completely standalone sequel.

Xavier Herbert Capricornia. Kind of embarrassing that I’d never read this Australian classic before. Maybe because the words “Australian classic” fill my heart with fear—despite having loved so many of them (My Brilliant Career, anyone? Or The Getting of Wisdom? Or Ride on Stranger? Not to mention Come in Spinner). Capricornia is a wild and unruly mess. It’s bleak and depressing and funny and searing and one of the most compelling examinations of race relations in Australia (or anywhere else for that matter) that I’ve ever read. I may even be brave enough to tackle the 40 million page Poor Fellow My Country now. Or maybe not. Four bazillion million pages is an awful lot!

It’s hard to believe that Notes from the Teenage Underground by Simmone Howell is a debut novel. The voice is so assured, the plotting flawless. It has none of the usual first novel lumps and bumps. I felt like I was reading an account of my school days even though the book is set in Melbourne, not Sydney. I’ve since talked to other readers and they said the same thing even though they went to school in Montreal and Los Angeles. Me thinks Howell has hit some universals in a very readable local way.

The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty. Moriarty is a genius. Pure and simple. She writes fast-paced, hilarious, heart-breaking and shudder-inducing books that are entirely made up of letters, dairy entries, legal depositions, shopping lists. You name it—she throws it into the mix. I don’t know how she does it. Bindy Mackenzie is her most recent and best book to date. Awesome.

The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species by Scott Weidensaul is one of the most beautifully written and compellingly readable natural history books I’ve ever read. Every single page gave me a new idea for a novel, but I couldn’t pause to jot my ideas down because I was too desperate to see what would happen, to follow his arguments, and get lost in the wilds of Tasmania trying to find evidence of the continuing existence of Thylacines.

I strongly recommend every single one of these books. Have any of you read them? What did you think?

Also if you have any recommendations for excellent and idea-giving non-fiction books, please do share. No fiction recommendations, though. I got way too many novels and short story collections to catch up on. And frankly all I want to do is read Georgette Heyer.


  1. marrije on #

    i’m sad to report i haven’t read a single one of these books… but i will read octavian nothing soon, because gwenda and jenny d. were so happy with it. and i just ordered the ghost with trembling wings because you love it and it sounds great. will have to stop amazoning now for a while, though…

    non-fiction recommendations:
    – Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (he’s funny and rude-but-kindhearted on the subject of religion, what more can you ask for?)
    – Adam Greenfield’s Everyware. I already recommended this one to Scott, and I think you should read it, too, chockful of near-future novel ideas. Also thin enough to read on one medium-sized plane ride 🙂
    – Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: cholera! maps! detective doctors! Written by Steven Johnson! I haven’t read it yet, but it’s also on its way, and I’m sure it will be wonderful.

  2. mely on #

    You should do Australian book recommendations *all the time*. I’ve only even heard of two of these books (or authors) before. ::adds lots and lots to the Books to Look For list::

  3. E. Lockhart on #

    Oh, I am glad you loved Bindy Mackenzie as much as I did. She is just amazing.

    non-fiction: the essays of MK Fisher
    Girl Sleuth –the book about Nancy Drew and the Stratemeyer Syndicate (I am reading it now)

    I know I owe you a nice long email!

  4. Little Willow on #

    I read Bindy, and it was all right. I predicted most of it early on and the obvious name/password connection. 🙂 I read Year of Secret Assignments and Feeling Sorry for Celia years ago.

  5. Justine on #

    Marrije: I can’t say as that I’m at all attracted to the Dawkins’ book. Explain it’s goodness to me.

    The Ghost Map sounds like just my cup of tea.

    I swear that you will love Trembling Wings. Truly!

    Mely: They’re not all Australian. The Weidensaul and Anderson aren’t. And Geraldine Brooks hasn’t lived in Australia for like twenty years. Which books had you heard of?

    E. Lockhart: Isn’t she? I love that you can read all three of those books in whatever order and they still work brilliantly. Did you see that she has an adult novel coming out? Can’t wait!

    I adore M. K. Fisher! What do you think of Elizabeth Davis? I’ve heard good things about Girl Sleuth. I must now check out.

    I believe it is I who owes you. But I’m happy with your interpretation of who owes who!

  6. jenny d on #

    i too have just had three months of reading far fewer novels than usual, it’s making me slightly crazy! (both the classes i’m teaching are novel classes, and in a busy semester where you’re teaching each week, say, 500 pages of tom jones and 500 pages of walter scott or whatever, there just is not a lot of time for other novel-reading. when i’m teaching things like hume and adam smith it doesn’t give me the novel fix and i have to read novels, but 18th-century novels are like the methadone of novel-reading, enough to stave off the pangs of addiction if not quite to satisfy the craving.) i am hoping to read a lot of novels in the spring once i’m done with my book manuscript and have an easier teaching semester!

    alison bechdel’s “fun home” is a must-read btw, it’s a graphic memoir so technically non-fiction and i highly, highly recommend that you add it to the tbr pile. that’s one of my two “top book of the year” picks, and the other is toni schlesinger’s “five flights up,” which i think you will also love.

  7. mely on #

    I’ve heard of the Anderson and the Brooks; Brooks’ first novel was very well-reviewed in general, and I actually read some rather annoying and patronizing article by an Australian man who seemed to think Brooks doing Little Women fanfiction was pulling some big trick on America or possibly just the readers of literary fiction.

  8. marrije on #

    justine, i’m not sure I can explain the dawkins or even represent it very well, though i like the guy very much. forget i mentioned it.

    two more favourites that i thought of while cycling from one end of the city to the other today, two books that changed the way i look at the world:
    – Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn, i never thought i would enjoy a book about houses and architecture so much, makes you look at maps and streets and buildings and see much more than you saw before (always good for novelists, no?).
    – Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature (i read this one at least three times), about gender roles and reproduction and maternal instincts and evolutionary patterns. um, that sounds dull, but it’s really good, if you don’t mind discussions of infanticide and little dead monkeys. the amazon description nails it.

  9. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    oh! oh! i love jaclyn moriarty! i thought BINDY was great, although bindy herself reminded me a lot of tracy flick from “election”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    and simmone howell’s book is superb – i just can’t get over it, it’s like it was written specifically for me. i am just so extremely pleased that it is coming here. Bloomsbury USA seems very anxious for it to do well, they are throwing a lot of weight behind it, & she will def. do stuff with nymbc!

    i think you might already know that i sort of liked octavian nothing.

  10. Rebecca on #

    the closest i’ve come is m.t. anderson’s thirsty. It was okay, but probably not one i’d read over and over again. ooh, but i just started reading sabriel annnnd i finally bought the boyfriend list, which looks awesome. i’m currently in the middle of a book called vampirates which so happens to be in third person…. er, omniscient? or limited? one of those things that head hops. 😛 it took me a little getting used to at first, but i’m starting to like it better now. but, shhhhhh, i’m not supposed to be reading anything till school’s done. 😛

  11. Seth Christenfeld on #

    How much little women is required to get a substantial amount out of march? I’ve never read the former, although I’m familiar enough with its plot and characters.

    Also, a fine recent non-fiction book I’ve read was the dead beat by Marilyn Johnson – an informative and often very funny look into the world of obituary junkies.

  12. Justine on #

    Rebecca: Octavian Nothing is not anything like Thirsty. It’s not like any other book I’ve read.

    Seth: You don’t need to have read Little Women at all. March totally stands on its own.

  13. Justine on #

    Jenny D: I’m particularly intrigued by Five Flights Up on account of having spent so much time in the East Village.

    Not having enough time to read is horrible! I hates it!

    Mely: patronizing article by an Australian man who seemed to think Brooks doing Little Women fanfiction was pulling some big trick on America or possibly just the readers of literary fiction.

    That’s absurd. Why are people so very stupid?

    Oh, and if you read any of these books—do please tell what you thought. Even if you’re deranged and didn’t like ’em.

    Marrije: justine, i’m not sure I can explain the dawkins or even represent it very well, though i like the guy very much. forget i mentioned it.

    I was genuinely curious, honest. I’m an atheist so I kind of figured that reading it would be the whole preaching to the choir thing.

    How Buildings Learn sounds awesome. Want!

    Jennifer, aka Literaticat: i think you might already know that i sort of liked octavian nothing.

    I had an inkling. Though how anyone could not like it is beyond me!

  14. marrije on #

    justine: OK, i’m going to give it a shot about the dawkins.

    i’m an atheist, but i’ve always been one of the live-and-let-live variety. i happen not to believe in god, but if other people want to, fine, go ahead, plenty of respectability there. plenty of things to disagree with, too, since many religions have excesses, from the silly to the downright dangerous, but on the whole i thought that religion was probably a good thing, if you had it.

    Dawkins doesn’t so much try to convince you to be an atheist, he tries to convince atheists to speak out, to show themselves as atheist, and to prove that it is a viable and moral alternative, to show that the religious people don’t have the monopoly on morality.
    and that the religious folk shouldn’t be getting all the children for indoctrination. he says no child is born religious, everybody is brought up in the tradition they happen to be born into, with all the attached baggage.
    It’s quite an activist book, I think. Made me angry in places (other places were dead funny, you probably know how he is when he talks about intelligent design). It challenged something I’ve been brought up with, that you don’t criticize people’s beliefs.
    And maybe we should. Maybe we should start saying just because you believe in god doesn’t mean a. that you are more moral and right and b. that we should grant you taxpayer money to conduct your business.
    Also that we shouldn’t take ‘but it’s our religion’ as an excuse for the oppression of women and children and gay people and groups of people who aren’t part of the one true religion, whatever it is at the moment.

    Doesn’t sound much like news, but it did (and does) make me think.

    If you think the johnson book and the book about buildings sound more appealing, though, i would not feel disappointed 🙂

  15. Colleen on #

    I have Howell’s book on my review request list for next year – I was already looking forward to it and now I’m really psyched!

    Have you heard about Sippewissett by Tim Traver? I reviewed it for Bookslut in November – it’s a lovely combination of natural history and memoir all about a marsh area around Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in New England. Traver is such an elegant writer. I adored this one.

    Joanna Kavenna also had a book out this year I loved – The Ice Museum. She went in search of the legendary land of Thule following all sorts of literary, historical and political threads to try and find what might have been it’s physical location. Lots of ruminations about ice, snow and exploration – again, a very elegant book.

    I’m going to do my annual 12 Days of Christmas recommendations at my site starting tomorrow – I promise to write about all sorts of books that might have been overlooked, both 2006 releases and earlier titles I’ve read and enjoyed.

    Isn’t it fun to see what other folks are reading?!

  16. Emmaco on #

    Sorry to chime in late!

    A fun book is freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. It asks lots of questions about society (like does your name make a difference in your life? why do people want to be drug dealers? why has violent crime been falling in the US?) and uses economics to come up with interesting answers. It’s sometimes a bit light on the detail but has reference notes if you’re interested in chasing stuff up.

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