December 2020 reading round-up

December reads

It’s been a cold, wet, grey end to a difficult year. Which means we’ve spent most of the last week curled up indoors with blankets and hot drinks. I think even Beckett is feeling the cold, despite her double fur coat, as she’s been cosying up to us more than she had for a couple of months. It’s either the cold, or she’s just grateful to have more of our attention while we’re not working for a week and a half. Next week could be stressful for her.

This month I finished seven books, which is pretty high for 2020, though it should be said that includes two books I started last month and one that I started in October. I blame Christmas and my dead/dying laptop for my not having written a book review despite having had a week of holiday.

I think I badly needed to unwind this past week. And the quantity of TV that I’ve watched suggests I’ve not done too badly at that. I have watched and thoroughly enjoyed both seasons of Home For Christmas, a Norwegian romcom about a nurse who lies to her family on 1 December that she has a boyfriend who she will be bringing to her parents’ on Christmas Eve, and then spends the next three weeks trying to find a suitable man. It’s not cheesy or simplistic, the characters are all interesting and varied, but it’s still fun and very Christmassy.

I also watched the first season of Dash & Lily, another show set in the run-up to Christmas, this time set in New York and based on the books by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. As there are multiple books I’m guessing they hope to do another season, but they probably couldn’t shoot it this year so the teen characters might look rather older when next we see them! This one was also enjoyable but quite cheesy and fluffy, and I am starting to get a little annoyed by the trope of the bubbly, happy-go-lucky girl being paired with a sulky, constantly negative boy.

And of course I have finished watching season two of His Dark Materials, based on the books by Philip Pullman. It’s an excellent adaptation of some excellent books, and I’m not just saying that because the woodland scenes in the final episode were filmed in a part of the Forest of Dean barely a mile from my childhood home. Or because the scenes in physicist Mary Malone’s office include the tiniest glimpses of a stack of Physics World magazines – the publication I have worked on for 10 years. But I do think both those things are pretty awesome.

Books read

Kindred by Octavia E Butler
It’s 1976 and Dana and Kevin have just moved into their first proper house in the California suburbs. But before the two successful writers can settle into their new home, something starts happening to Dana. She time travels to 19th-century Maryland, where she saves the life of a small white boy called Rufus before finding herself back home. It’s on her second trip to the past that she begins to be really scared, because her skin colour means she is assumed to be a slave. As she repeatedly jumps to the past, she learns about the realities of slavery, but she also finds that as she spends more time on the plantation it feels more like home than the house waiting for her in 1970s California.

This is a fascinating look at historical truth, at what people are capable of getting used to, and at why people of colour don’t fantasise about travelling to the past in the same way that white people do. It’s also one of the more carefully thought through representations of time travel I’ve read – not the science behind it, but the practicalities.

Published 1979 by Doubleday.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
After watching the film back in the summer, I wanted to read the book that Northup himself wrote about his ordeal. I read it slowly over a couple of months alongside other books, including Kindred, and it was interesting to read that modern classic of SF alongside one of the historical accounts of slavery that almost certainly formed part of the research for it.

Like most 19th-century writers, Northup’s style is a little too formal and stilted for this to be a gripping read, and tends more to facts and descriptions rather than emotions or morals. But the details of Northup’s experience are plenty enough for readers to reach their own emotional and moral reactions, which I would guess was the intention. Many of the details are horrific, and made more so by the knowledge that these things and worse happened to so many people – this one man’s account is not an aberration.

Published 1853.

A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String by Joanne Harris
Short stories with a bent toward the mysterious or outright magical, including a few with a Christmas setting. I loved some of these, while others left me indifferent. In “Ghosts in the machine” a technician at a radio station anonymously romances a listener via e-mail, and it manages to be sweet rather than creepy. In “There’s no such place as Bedford Falls”, a man who is obsessed with Christmas finds himself losing the joy he finds in all the Christmas rituals as the day itself rolls around.

Published 2012 by Doubleday.

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas by Maya Angelou
The third volume of Angelou’s autobiography, this book truly reveals the extremes of her life. A young single mother in San Francisco, all she wants as this volume opens is to earn enough money to live with her son properly. From working in a record shop to her brief marriage to working as an exotic dancer, she is struggling. But things start to get better when patrons of the nightclub note her talent as a dancer and start inviting her to parties. Meeting the right people leads to opportunities and before long she is passing auditions for Broadway shows. Angelou’s writing is lyrical without being flowery, and I can’t wait to read more of her life story.

Published 1985 by Virago.

Anne’s House of Dreams by L M Montgomery
I needed something light to read late at night while Beckett was going through a phase of not sleeping and this perfectly fit the bill. The fifth book in the Anne series, this tells the tale of Anne’s first few years of marriage. It’s largely happy and sweet, but adult life brings its sorrows just as her early childhood did. This is actually a better book than I had remembered, and really made me want to go to the seaside.

Published 1917 by McClelland, Goodchild and Stewart.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier
Another short story collection, this time by one of my favourite writers. I love the way du Maurier writes, and I found all the stories gripping. However, a couple of them feature male lead characters who I found thoroughly detestable, including one who uses a lot of racial slurs. And in both these stories, the men have a wife who is painfully quiet and dutiful. Perhaps they are intended as sad, lonely tales about the sacrifices women make, but they made me uncomfortable. There is certainly a dark, sad edge to all these stories, which is maybe why this was another book that took me a couple of months to finish.

Published 1959 by Gollancz.

The Lost Spells by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris
This is a collection of poetry, or “spells”, by MacFarlane with gorgeous illustrations by Morris. It’s a sequel to their first collaboration The Lost Words. The poems are intended to be read aloud, and feature clever rhyming schemes and rhythms, but they also have a bonus for the print reader in that most of them are acrostics – the initial letter of each line or verse spells out the title. Every poem is about some form of British plant or animal, from the red fox to the oak tree to the swallow. And every poem is spread over a few pages so that there is plenty of space for Morris’s amazing artwork. This book is a thing of beauty indeed.

Published 2020 by Penguin.