Deciding what to read, start of 2009 edition

Normally, I’ve got zero interest in what the press write in previews for books of the year – the combination of the fact few papers have book journalists and the need to add some celebrity spice to any and every piece means they normally turn over the preview to vaguely well known writers and politicians, who in turn use the space to plug their mates. And of course, all the books they’re plugging are pricey hardbacks. The Millions’ recommendations for 2009 has a couple that caught my eye:

* New Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, which is a cycle of short stories, a format I love.
The Vagrants, by Yiyun Li. Set in China, it’s described as “magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim”, which centres “on the 1979 execution of a Chinese counterrevolutionary in the provincial town of Muddy River and spirals outward into a scathing indictment of Communist China.”

Neither of those are out yet, and as always when it comes to books, my eyes are bigger than my stomach (bigger than my bookshelves, maybe?) so I have lots from last year, and from Christmas to tackle.

I’ve decided to start with a book called The Dark Volume; it’s the sequel to ‘The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters’, which I read at the end of 2006; although I ended up criticising it for pretty much the same reasons as everyone else – it was too baggy, needed an edit, the good guys never seemed to ever get on top of the bad guys, it was tricky to tell what motivated the heroes – I was grabbed by the first few pages of the sequel. Although it’s still the kind of book you could whallop a burgler with, and be safe in the knowledge he’d never get up, it was obvious from the first few pages the editing was tighter. Secondly, I don’t often read sequels or serials and I can’t deny it was nice to get that sense of familiarity from re-meeting characters. Finally, having survived hundred of pages of machinations in the Glass Books, the three heroes have motivation now: revenge.

After that, the road ahead is less clear. I need to read a book called Rogue Leaders, which is a history of LucasArts games – shouldn’t take too long as it’s filled with a lot of illustrations. Then I’ve got Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y – you’ll recognise it if you’ve been into Waterstone’s recently, as it has black-edged pages. Plugged on the back by Coupland and Pullman it looks like a good mysetry with some pop-philosophy thrown in.

Then it depends on what I order next from Amazon; a couple of last year’s books have resulted in some proliferation on the wish list, with Tim Butcher’s excellent Blood River spurring me on to find out some more about colonialism in the Congo via Adam Hochschild’s Leopold’s Ghost; Richard Holmes, who was a wonderful tutor when I was at UEA has a new book out whose title alone – ‘The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’ – is the literary equivalent (for me at least) of the tastiest ingredients. Hardback only at the moment though, so I might go for some more Tim O’Brien after enjoying his ‘Things They Carried’ last year. A quick scan through the earlier pages of the wishlist also reveals a promising looking sci-fi novel called The Sparrow, which is about what happens if you send the Catholic church into space, The Last Summer of the World, which focuses on an aerial photographer in WW1 and Sandor Marai’s The Rebels – Marai was an obscure Hungarian writer who’s books have only just been translated into English. I read the first one made available, Embers, in 2003 and it was terrific. Genuinely haunting, a tale of two old friends coming back together in a spooky, mist-shrouded house for a reckoning; finally, there’s a bunch of motor racing books as I have a vague plan this summer/autumn of driving to see some old circuits…

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