I enjoy reading, but never seem to manage to read enough. Finding the right time to do so is partly to blame; I need to be away from noise and distraction, and that’s often easier said than done.
So far this year I’ve finished seven books, more than my average. Here are some brief thoughts about those books.
Kingsley Amis — Lucky Jim
Lucky Jim portrays a young academic bumbling through university as a junior lecturer. After a disastrous drunken weekend during which he burns a hole in the bedclothes of his host, the novel sees Jim stumbling through the term and into an uncertain future. The book is a satire and I found it to be generally amusing, sometimes hilarious. I was expecting more from it, however, and I didn’t find myself turning the pages at a great speed. Perhaps a second reading would allow me to appreciate it more.
Derek Robinson — Goshawk Squadron
Slow to get going, I eventually found myself thoroughly absorbed in the toil and turmoil of Goshawk Squadron. Set in the First World War, the novel goes to great lengths to dispel the myths of chivalry amongst airmen. Much like the worst fighting in trenches, this air battle was ruthless and unmerciful. The book features a great cast of characters, from the battle-hardened Major Woolley to the young (well, younger) pilots looking for a jolly war. It’s very funny in places, but the unsuspecting reader will be caught out; what starts as a humour of the darkest sort ends suddenly and with a shock.
Sally Green — Half Bad
This book was recommended as a book of the year for young adults. I decided to read it on holiday, thinking that it would make for some light and easy reading. What I got was a page-turner I haven’t experienced since Harry Potter; I could not put this book down and had to ration myself to prolong the enjoyment. The book is narrated by a boy, Nathan, who grows up living outside in a cage. One review describes his childhood as what Harry Potter might have experienced with Voldemort as his father. The violence and cruelty experienced by Nathan is immense and horrifying, but this left me captivated by the story as he looks for his father. It is apparently partly based on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel I’ve not yet read but one which is now on my list. You should ignore this book’s “young adult” label and read it — it’s simply a fantastic story.
Polly Toynbee & David Walker — Cameron’s Coup
Cameron’s Coup: How the Tories took Britain to the Brink is an analysis of the government of Britain between 2010 and 2015. I read this in parallel with other books this year, only really focusing on it in the weeks before the General Election. I didn’t manage to finish it before the election, but reading it beforehand made me angry at the actions of the government and hopeful that a change was on the horizon. After the election, that anger was replaced with misery and fear of what the next five years will bring to the country. I’m not a fan of the current government’s politics you see…
Ha-Joon Chang — Economics: The User’s Guide
This enlightening little book was the first in the relaunched Pelican imprint. Pelican was created by Penguin to distribute cheap paperbacks of a wide variety of non-fiction topics. Economics gives a thorough introduction to a subject that often bewilders me. It contains a mixture of history, different schools of thought, key principles and an explanation of the current economic situation. It’s not always easy reading, but it makes a good effort to demystify the subject.
Andrew Smith — Winger
After my enjoyment reading Half Bad, I picked up another recommended young adult/coming-of-age novel. Oddly enough it is centred around the game of rugby, but set in the USA. I had never considered the sport to have enough presence in North America for a novel to be written including it, but much in the way that Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding doesn’t require a knowledge of baseball to enjoy, this book can be read without understanding rugby. The novel focuses on a 14-year-old boy called Ryan Dean West and his life at an exclusive boarding school. It is primarily a funny book that sees a boy stumbling through adolescence. I didn’t get attached to it as early on as I did with Half Bad, but the last couple of hundred pages had me fixated. Although more light hearted than the story of a boy in a cage, the book hits the reader hard as it reminds you that real life has more than enough cruelty to go around.
James Hanley — Boy
I’ve realised that cruelty has been a common theme with this year’s books. Boy certainly has its share of that, but it is mainly a shockingly grim book. Arthur Fearon hopes to study chemistry and one day be able to afford a pair of the brown boots worn by his teacher. His parents, however, need him to leave school to earn them money. So, at the age of thirteen he is sent to the dockyards, and shortly after that he stows away on a ship. Originally published in 1931 and the subject of obscenity allegations, this book is devoid of any happiness. Nick Hornby described it as one of the bleakest books ever written, and I can’t disagree. There is suffering, misery and no happy ending here. Despite that, it is an incredibly captivating novel. I felt compelled to read it and did so in the space of a weekend. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this grim tale is that it is not spectacular or a fantasy. The very thought that such a miserable life could have been normal for countless people in this country less than a century ago is horrifying.