2020 Goodreads Read­ing Chal­lenge

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(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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