victorian painting of readers

2020 Goodreads Reading Challenge

(Forbidden Books by Alexander Rossi)

Every year I do the Goodreads Challenge. In 2020 my target was 52 books and I ended up reading 56. It looks like I won’t be going anywhere much until March this year due to lockdown and lockdown-related unemployment, so I’ve set this year’s target to an ambitious 100 (which I probably won’t reach). I also won’t be using Goodreads, but a new site that isn’t owned by Amazon, and doesn’t look like it was designed in 2002 http://www.thestorygraph.com.

Here’s the list in order, with some comments and links to the Goodreads review pages. The books with a star are those I particularly recommend. I’m hoping that I remember to do monthly roundups of the books I’ve read this year.

★ 1. Emergency Skin– NK Jemisin

A short story: in the future a clone man with featureless plastic skin comes back to the ruined earth on the hunt for Henrietta Lacks cells to keep his owners immortal. He’s been promised a real skin with a mouth for eating in return. It turns out that after Earth got rid of all the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos by sending them off into space, everything got a lot better, and the Earth’s not quite as ruined as they think. A lot of fun.

2. Size Zero: My Life as a Disappearing Model– Victoire Dauxerre

A brutally honest muck-raking memoir by a former model. Victoire was a French teenager who’d failed to get into the university of her choice and was trying to figure out what to do, when she was approached by a model scout and decides to give it a go. She ended up ripped off, depressed, and with an eating disorder thoroughly encouraged by her agencies and fashion houses. The more ill and miserable she was, the happier her employers were. Even though she was successful and working for very high profile labels, there’s always some industry fiddle that makes sure the models don’t get the money. Unlike many of the Russian and Brazilian girls she met, she wasn’t having to support her family by sending money home, so she’s able to quit and speak up about the psychological and financial abuses the industry commits. Karl Lagerfeld unsurprisingly comes over as completely foul in person in the book, and Miuccia Prada doesn’t cover herself in glory either.

★ 3. The Future of Another Timeline – Annalee Newitz

A time travel story with early 90s riot grrl bands, trips to the Chicago World’s Fair, Babylonia and the far future. Two teams of time travellers are battling it out- one to preserve human rights, the other (named the Comstockers after the 19th century politician) to change the timeline to try to change things in favour of their white male supremacist ideology.

★ 4. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood – Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah was born in 80s South Africa to a white Swiss father and a black South African mother, and his existence was illegal and evidence of a crime for most of his early years, and even after Apartheid ended, he didn’t neatly fit in anywhere and had to try to figure out who he was. A really good read.

5. The Other You – JS Monroe
6. Forget My Name – JS Monroe
7. Find Me – JS Monroe

A generic 99p thriller, as are the rest by the same author

8. Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia – Christina Thompson

A history of the Polynesian civilisation, and how their navigation systems helped to form modern sat-nav

9. Followers– Megan Angelo

A dystopian near future where reality tv roles are hereditary and the stars live in Truman Show type compounds

★  10. The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity – Axton Betz-Hamilton

Axton Betz-Hamilton’s family lived on a remote farm, and after her parents struggled with the fallout of identity theft fraud, they became paranoid and isolated. When she left home and went to university, she found that she had a whole load of fraudulent debts in her name that took years to investigate and clear, leading to her following a career path as an academic expert on the topic of identity fraud. When her mother died, Axton and her father were shocked to find out that it was their wife and mother who had been stealing the money in their names all these years, and that she had a secret second life they would have to untangle. I originally read an extract in a newspaper, and was fascinated and had to read the whole book.

11. Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia – Tracey Thorn

Tracey from Marine Girls and Everything But The Girl’s memoir of 70s suburbia

12. My Past Is a Foreign Country – Zeba Talkhani

A memoir of growing up in Saudi Arabia (with Indian parents), and then the culture shock of attending university in India and the UK.

13. How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century – Frank Dikötter

14. City of Illusions – Ursula le Guin (re-read)

★ 15. Hexwood – Diana Wynne Jones (re-read)

16. The Temple House Vanishing – Rachel Donohue

Really hyped, but fell flat for me. A Daphne du Maurier type story of the mysterious disappearance of a teacher and student at an exclusive boarding school in Ireland.

17. You Are Not Alone – Greer Hendricks

Another 99p deal of the day ebook thriller. Probably one of the worst books I’ve ever read. I gave up halfway

18. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language – Arika Okrent

★ 19. Six Stories (Six Stories, #1)– Matt Wesolowski

I can recommend this 99p ebook series however. Presented as if they’re transcripts of a true crime podcast, the presenter investigates cold cases from 90s and early 2000s northern England with a supernatural edge. Really well done mysteries

20. Diana Wynne Jones: Bristol 2019

Book of papers from the conference I went to. Here are some sketchbook notes I took.

★ 21. Hydra (Six Stories, #2) – Matt Wesolowski

Changeling (Six Stories, #3) – Matt Wesolowski

If I Had Your Face– Frances Cha

One of the best books I read all year- a Thackeray type satirical novel about poor provincial girls trying to make it in modern day Seoul via plastic surgery, relationships with corporate heirs and trying to meet celebrities.

22. Three Fires on the Dark Tower – Sheila McCullagh
23. Tim and Tobias: Magic in the Wind  -Sheila McCullagh
24. On the Night of the Full Moon – Sheila McCullagh
25. Wind Witches and Stone Men – Sheila McCullagh

All the Sheila McCullagh books on the list were from when I was doing picture research of the mostly forgotten hauntological children’s series Tim and the Hidden People. You can see some of the illustrations from the books here.

★ 26. Beast (Six Stories, #4)– Matt Wesolowski

27. The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist

Set in a future dystopian Sweden obsessed with social utility and conformism, people over a certain age who have failed to marry, have children or earn over a certain amount are shipped off to a locked Centre Parks resort where they act as medical guinea pigs and organ farms to repay their “debt” to society. It kind of fell flat halfway through however.

28. The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe – Ann Morgan

I was incredibly disappointed with this book. The author set herself a challenge to read a book from every country in the world. The book however is not about the actual books themselves, it’s more general, vague essays about reading. It turns out all the book reviews are on her website for free and are much more interesting, so just read those instead.

29. Dictator Literature: A History of Bad Books by Terrible People – Daniel Kalder

Daniel Kalder read all these terrible books so you don’t have to. I’d read his previous book Lost Cosmonaut about the obscure republics of the former Soviet Union that never declared independence and operate semi-autonomously inside Russia, such as Kalmykia where the national sport is chess, so I was familiar with his cynical, deadpan writing tone. Two things I particularly took away from this book: 1) Lenin was basically a pedantic Reddit bro, who enjoyed arguing with people on his own side far more than his actual enemies 2) Being a gobshite tabloid journalist is a surprisingly common path to the far right- see Mussolini, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove

30. Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS– Azadeh Moaveni

An informative read- it profiles the women and girls who ran away to Syria to join ISIS, and what happened to them, along with women from towns invaded by ISIS. The volunteers are a mix of teenage girls or homeless women groomed online, true believers and narcissistic drifters, and absolutely none of them get what they were lured in by.

31. The White Rock – Hugh Thomson
32. Tequila Oil – Hugh Thomson
33. The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England– Hugh Thomson

Three travel books by the same author- one about Peru and Bolivia and the Inca world, one about a road trip through Mexico in the 80s, and one about ancient roads in southern England. I enjoyed the first two books, but gained a huge dislike for the author in the third book, because he suddenly turned into a Jeremy Clarkson type creep.

34. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life – Ruth Franklin

A biography of the writer (who I highly recommend if you’ve never read her- start with We Have Always Lived in the Castle). One of those biographies of people in the 50s that makes you think “if only that person had been born 20 years later”. Given a bit more social freedom, Shirley could have ditched her terrible husband and been a lot happier, and probably lived a lot longer.

★ 35. Flyaway– Kathleen Jennings

My friend Kathleen’s first novel- modern Australian outback gothic. Kathleen herself grew up on a remote farm in the interior of Queensland.

36. Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park– Andy Mulvihill

Written by the son of the proprietor, this is an odd read. On the one hand he talks about his father’s recklessness and strange decisions, but on the the other hand he’s still drunk his father’s kool aid, and tries to defend him at the same time. Extremely American, extremely Republican.

37. The Killings at Kingfisher Hill (New Hercule Poirot Mysteries, #4)– Sophie Hannah

Oh this was bad. So bad. I gave up a few chapters in.

★ 38. Piranesi– Susanna Clarke

One of the best books I’ve read in years. The same author as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Piranesi wanders around the House, a giant edifice of endless rooms and Greek statues, sealife and birds, mapping it out and keeping his diary, and meeting up with the only other human in the universe once a week. Why are his diary and his memories starting to match up less and less though? A really good twisty tale about parallel universes, with a really unique atmosphere.

39. Q– Christina Dalcher

This one is really, really bad however. A poorly thought out dystopian thriller with unlikeable cardboard characters.

40. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots– Deborah Feldman
41. Exodus: A Memoir– Deborah Feldman

I’d seen the Netflix tv show adaptation, and wanted to read the book it was based on. It’s much the same as the tv show for the first part, except the main character’s talent is writing not music, and she doesn’t run away to Berlin. The second book is her attempts to build a new life, and visit her grandmother’s hometown in Hungary, it’s really kind of a mess and not as good as the first one.

★ 42. The Eighth Detective– Alex Pavesi

Another recommendation- an mathematician and an editor sit down in the 50s on a mediterranean island to review a book of detective stories the author wrote back in the 30s to illustrate his mathematical theories of the structure of whodunnits. The book goes back and forth between the stories themselves- deliberate pastiches of Agatha Christie but with a strange Hieronymous Bosch atmosphere- and the story of the author and the writer, which also has a lot of twists and turns.

43. Utopia Avenue– David Mitchell

A big disappointment. It’s a story about a band in the 60s that links up with Cloud Atlas, the Bone Clocks and Jacob de Zoet, but it’s cheesy as hell, with constant cringey cameos from celebrities of the era.

★ 44. Changing Planes – Ursula K. le Guin

I was delighted to find out there was an Ursula le Guin book that I hadn’t read, and it was a delight. A collection of short stories, each describing a trip to an alternate universe.

45. Playing Nice– JP Delaney

Another crappy 99p thriller. Don’t bother.

★ 46. The Witches Are Coming– Lindy West

I used to read Jezebel a lot when they were owned by Gawker Media, and used to have a lot of high profile journalists like Lindy West. It’s a shadow of its former self now after the lawsuits and the selloffs, with poor quality writing. So it was a pleasure to have a whole new collection of Lindy’s essays on various social and political topics.

47. Serpentine (His Dark Materials, #3.6)– Philip Pullman

A very short story, not a new book in the series. For completionists only I think.

48. Gifts (Annals of the Western Shore, #1)– Ursula K. le Guin
49. Voices (Annals of the Western Shore, #2)– Ursula K. le Guin
★ 50. Powers (Annals of the Western Shore, #3)– Ursula K. le Guin

And then I discovered in fact there was a whole series of le Guin books I hadn’t read, and they’re great. For some reason I thought they were aimed at children, but they’re definitely not suitable. Each book is a stand-alone story set in the same country with similar themes of trying to overcome societal oppression, but with characters who cross over. The third book, Powers was an absolute standout (and doesn’t require reading the other two).

51. Our House– Louise Candlish

Another meh thriller.

★ 52. The First Time Lauren Pailing Died– Alyson Rudd

A really good story of alternate timelines. From a young age Lauren Pailing has occasional visions of other universes. When she dies in a car accident age 13, she finds herself living in another timeline. The timelines keep branching out, with each new version told from the perspective of a different character. A really memorable and original take on the concept.

53. Middle England (Rotters’ Club, #3)– Jonathan Coe

The Rotter’s Club and What A Carve Up are great. This was terrible, and I abandoned it halfway through. A clumsy, hamfisted attempt at Brexit satire that falls flat on its face and ruins characters from previous books.

54. Midwinter Murder: Fireside Tales from the Queen of Mystery– Agatha Christie

A seasonal collection of reprinted stories- good low effort snack reading

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