Sorry for the lateness of this final update for my 52 Books in 2013 Challenge. I’ve been caught up with job applications and writing – perhaps 2014 might be the year for a writing challenge, now there’s a thought! – so I had to prioritise my workload and this was fairly low down unfortunately. But here it is, my final update for the book challenge.
Book 48: The Ruins by Scott Smith
Okay, I’ve mentioned the Flavorwire list of scary books before in these posts, and 4 out of the 52 books in this challenge were taken from that list – I’m a sucker for a genuinely scary book, and ‘The Ruins’ is no exception. Here’s how that list captions this book:
“Right now you worry about ticks when you walk through the tall grass. After reading this novel, you’ll never walk through the tall grass again. Smith makes a convincing argument that nature is trying to kill you.”
I didn’t know what to expect from the book with that paragraph to go on, but I gave it a shot anyway. ‘The Ruins’ follows a group of friends travelling in Mexico who hook up with some other travellers, and embark on a mission to find Heinrich, the missing brother of Mathias, a German tourist. Despite a language barrier between the American and Greek members of the group, they manage well enough with a crudely drawn map left by Heinrich and after a few setbacks – an argumentative driver trying to convince them not to follow the map, and a village of unhelpful and unresponsive Mayans who provide no answers when the group ask for directions – they come across the clearing that they set out to find. That’s when everything starts to go wrong, and I won’t go further than that with my explanation of the plot. You need to read it, as it is so masterfully paced; you’re rarely more informed as a reader than the characters are, which means that the unnerving things that happen to them are just as mysterious and unnerving to you too. And the source of the fear in this book is unusual and original, and Smith really thinks of everything. I saw the film adaptation of Smith’s other novel, A Simple Plan, many years ago and was struck by the sense of meaningless tragedy and how good people can be overcome by a selfishness in desperate times, which is something that is also present in this book. There are a few quite horrific and graphically bloody bits, which I initially struggled through and then glossed over, but even if you’re squeamish like me it’s worth giving this book a shot, because it is bleak, desperate, and hopeless. Merry Christmas!
Book 49: Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi
I never thought I’d read this book, as I knew Portia de Rossi only from Arrested Development and as Ellen Degeneres’ other half. I found it in the folder of Kindle books I downloaded ages ago, and figured what the hell, I’ll read it.
I’m so, so glad I did. The book chronicles Portia’s battle with anorexia, from her early days as a teenage model through to her career breakthrough in Ally McBeal and, thankfully, her eventual recovery. It opens with a frank description of a typical low-calorie day, where Portia is spurred on by her anorexia (a voice that she hears, like a drill sergeant) to live on 300 calories and run for an hour to maintain her tiny physique. I noticed a lot of the compulsive tendencies that Portia describes were things that I could relate to in some way, and I will just say that for anyone who has ever had a ‘complicated relationship’ with food, diets or general self-image and self-esteem, you must read this book. At times the imagery and metaphors are a little annoying, but they’re not too frequent and they don’t detract from the point of the book – exploring the cause and effect of anorexia, and how throw-away comments and looming celebrity exposure made the problem worse. It’s not an obvious choice, but this is a really brilliant book.
Book 50: Hell House by Richard Matheson
The last scary book of the year, and it’s the last one from the Flavorwire list too. Hell House is about four people who go to spend time in an infamous haunted house, in the hope to establish some facts about the afterlife and get some evidence of paranormal activity. There’s a scientist and his wife, an actress-turned-spiritualist and a man who had been a teenage prodigy as a medium and was the only survivor from a previous attempt to contact spirits at ‘Hell House’ thirty years prior. Sponsored by an eccentric millionaire, the four enter the house with different agendas, but soon find themselves at the mercy of the spirits inside; typical haunted house scares such as flying furniture, locked doors trapping people in rooms, and electricity cutting out to leave rooms in darkness – they’re all here. In the book, part of the explanation for the haunting is that disgusting, depraved acts took place in the house, most of which are described in one indulgent sitting. The mix of fear and sexuality and cynicism plays out fairly well, and although I wasn’t exactly terrified as I read it, I did find myself turning on all the lights in the house when I was alone… hey, it’s a haunted house story, what was I supposed to do?! Old school horror, give it a shot if that’s your thing.
Book 51: A Cool Head by Ian Rankin
Okay so I also this as an e-book, and didn’t realise until I was halfway through (in about 20 minutes) that this was in the ‘QuickReads’ series. It’s about 120 pages or something, and in that time Rankin tries to pack in a whole crime mystery that isn’t terrible but doesn’t quite live up to the previous stuff I’ve read by him. There’s not much to the actual plot, which is sort of rushed through and doesn’t allow time for the switches and twists that a detective novel normally has, although Rankin’s skill as a writer is in no doubt – he flits between third person and a first person narrative from the perspective of a slow-witted and oblivious accomplice, and in the short space of the book I really warmed to ‘Gravy’, the character in question. I guess it’s palatable enough, and it helped me to reach my target ultimately but it’s not really a book I’d recommend as it is inconsequential and somewhat forgettable. Sorry Mr Rankin!
Book 52: Stoner by John Williams
What a book to finish the year on. Stoner has been at the top of the bestsellers list in Waterstones for a while now, due to word-of-mouth and a number of favourable reviews, and despite being first published in 1965, it holds up today.
I loved it. I don’t know how to write a review about a book like this, it made me sad, angry, triumphant – all these things because of one unassuming, fictional man. The story is about William Stoner, son of a humble farming couple who is sent to university to study on a new agricultural course that could be of some help to his parents. During a compulsory literature review course, he is enchanted and bewildered by Shakespeare’s poetry and changes his major to English, thus starting a lifelong career in academia. His life is in no way spectacular, but the little battles that Stoner fights – his wife Edith’s instability and selfishness, his colleague Lomax’s underhanded bullying spiralling from a single event – made me actually angry, I found myself balling up my fist as I read certain parts where Stoner is mistreated by the people around him. And behaviour that would normally make me disappointed in someone, namely embarking on an extramarital affair, actually made me happy for Stoner, because it was like seeing a downtrodden friend finally get something that he wants and deserves, to be loved and appreciated. Charting a man’s life from birth to the inevitable could be a boring thing to read in some cases, but this book is so well-written and heartbreaking that you should absolutely read it. This has been one of the best books from my entire year of reading, and it deserves to be read by anyone smart enough to appreciate the life and tragedy within it.
Well that’s 52. I’m so pleased that I managed it – with a kind of stressy start to 2013 I did have moments where reading was the last thing on my mind. But the purpose of this challenge was to rediscover the love I’ve always had for reading, and to spur myself on to finally start on the books I’ve always wanted to read, as well as challenge myself to try new genres and novels. I did plan on doing a new reading challenge this year, to cover a certain number epic novels in 12 months, but to be honest I’m far too content with the books I received for Christmas and am happy to pursue a year of reading with no limits or goals other than to just enjoy some well-written literature. You can follow/add me on Goodreads, I’d love to hear if you’ve got any upcoming reading challenges or if you have completed one yourself this year.