Books that nailed it and books that failed it 2013

I read a lot of books, some bad, some good, some terrible. Here is a selection of what I read in 2013 for your interest and amusement, assessed by the only meaningful yardstick in literary criticism – whether they nailed it or failed it…

The Stornoway Way
Kevin MacNeil

Featuring copious amounts of swearing, Gàidhlig and alcohol, this was the first novel about the Western Isles I read that didn’t make me want to be sick. Freewheeling R. Stornoway is both defiant and pitiful as he blunders through his return home to the island of his birth. The book is hilarious, full of in jokes that only islanders could get. My favourite joke is the made-up Gàidhlig village names in the footnotes, each of which is given overblown, exotic, paragraph-long definitions to mock those who revel in minority languages’ archaic untranslatability. A joke for which the critic Berthold Schoene fell, claiming they were the best part of the novel for showing “the peculiar expressiveness of the Gaelic language as unrivalled.” As a man damaged by the ongoing custody fight between his two different cultures and languages, its perhaps no surprise what R. Stornoway is driven to do in the end. But its handled delicately,  bringing a fitting close to a life lived the Stornoway Way. NAILED IT!

The Girl on the Ferry Boat
Angus Peter Campbell

Angus Peter Campbell is the prose equivalent of Sorley MacLean – read An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn if you don’t believe me. But he writes in English too. His latest novel made history by being the first book simultaneously published in both Gàidhlig and English. It’s probably neo-colonialism or something but when I went into the Waterstones in Oban – yes, in Oban – they only had the fucking English version, which I then proceeded to spend a nice bus journey reading. Like all of Campbell’s stories set in the mid-20th century Gàidhealtachd, its whimsical and nostalgic, full of wonderful snapshots of island life – I especially loved the boatbuilding. The titular Girl enters the narrator’s life on a Calmac ferry to Mull, and her shadow follows him through the rest of the clumsy expositions of his life and improbable career trajectory. They eventually do meet again and fall in love in their old age, which is portrayed rather beautifully by Campbell, but in all honesty the Manic Pixie Dream Girl on the Ferry Boat doesn’t really seem to be the point of the novel. Unafraid to use Gàidhlig when he wants to, Campbell seems more to be celebrating the narrator’s (and his own?) life as a young man from the islands. NAILED IT!

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Siddhartha Mukherjee

Just today this week The New Statesman ran a story claiming we should stop using the word Cancer. It covers too broad a spectrum of fates and diseases,  the surgeon Adrian Marston claims, terrifying patients and sending them scurrying after quack treatments. This Biography of Cancer (or the Crab) covers similar territory, celebrating the sheer variety of pathologies, people and pills involved in the story of the illness. From ruthlessly carved radical mastectomies to cocktails of chemotherapy drugs to the magic of gene therapy, we follow the hunt for the cure, the science clearly and imaginatively explained. But it’s the scientists, the patients, the doctors, the campaigners that make this book worth reading – the personalities of those hundreds people who have devoted their lives over the centuries to fighting this ineffable, unknowable enemy. NAILED IT!

The Bone Season
Samantha Shannon

Written by 19 year old Oxford student Samantha Shannon, of course I had a high hopes for this one. I even ordered a review copy from Bloomsbury, which I duly read while traipsing through the Rhodopi Mountains of Bulgaria. And its gripping stuff: fast-paced, well-written, settings beautifully drawn. Well, at least while Paige Mahoney, our protagonist and member of a clairvoyant criminal syndicate, is in the effortlessly-cool world of Scion London, a high-tech Edwardian city of séances and state suppression. But then she goes to Oxford, and it all falls apart. She gets captured by the weird angel human trafficking ring that run Oxford (who also defend our world against random dog-monsters). One angel takes her in as her ‘Keeper’ and she lives with him in a Magdalen tower, forcing the reader through the most excruciatingly boring slow-burning relationship I’ve ever read. Dystopian fiction with sassy female protagonist who falls under spell of an older man? Well, at least the book will make money. And, thankfully, its only a partial disappointment, as the sequel won’t be set in Oxford – more Scion London please! FAILED IT!

Mortal Engines
Philip Reeve

My favourite series a child – there’s even a quote from my Tumblr on the back of the newest editions! Over Easter I reread the series, and without a doubt, book one is still the best. (Please just ignore the hideous Xbox-game-like cover!) In a post-apocalyptic world, moving cities have taken to giant caterpillar tracks in search of scarce resources. And on the hunt for each other in a new economic system called Municipial Darwinism, where cities eat each other and whose God is called Thatcher! The characters are beautifully-drawn, from earnest Tom, to the inhuman Shrike, to the ruthless but kind Anna Fang. And of course, Hester Shaw, scarred, evil yet full of love, who is without a doubt the greatest character in all of YA fiction. This is an amazingly mature book that deserves to be made into a film, fast-paced and swashbuckling, yes, but with characters whose fates were and are still close to my heart. NAILED IT!

Veronica Roth

Another in the seemingly limitless number of really awful young adult dystopias. The entire plot seemed to basically be a sanitized in-door ripoff of the Hunger Games, less violent but with more “badass” tatoos. Worldbuilding makes no sense whatsoever – why would a society divide its populace up by attributes using words so archaic as ‘Dauntless’ and ‘Amity?’ But they’re still making a movie. FAILED IT!

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Carrie Ryan

A rare creature indeed – a good YA dystopia. Zombies and Catholicism. What more can I say? The protagonist Mary grows up inside a walled village in a dark, boundless forest – a forest inhabited by the Unconsecrated, cannibalistic zombies who’ll feed on any human they see. I know what I’ve described sounds just like The Walking Dead, what with the prison village and fences keeping mindless ghouls out. But there’s more depth here – the dystopia, the horror of the story, is the village itself not the monsters in the wood. The Sisterhood that runs the place and their culture’s obsession with marriage and purity made me read this as a parable on Catholicism. But maybe that’s just me. NAILED IT!

Guide to Research Techniques in Neuroscience
Jennifer Shieh

Neuroscience is a science defined not by its tools or its theories, but by its object of study. As my UCAS personal statement said (to my eternal shame): “The most extraordinary object in the known universe in my own brain.” This paperback-sized volume contains within it almost every possible technique one might use to study this organ – from junkyard electrophys to the twisted creations of the transgenic mice brigade, its all there, conveniently distilled into a couple of paragraphs per technique. A lifesaver while I was working in a lab over the summer using an electrochemical technique I barely understood. NAILED IT!

The Failed Anthology 2013
The Failed Novelists

The best writing Oxford University has to offer, from failed writers of all kinds. Highlights include Selena Wisnom’s play Ashurbanipal, a soap opera of courtly intrigue set in the barmy world of ancient Assyria, beautiful poetry but also rather moving. And full of pretty awesome prophecies. Perhaps suitably, the anthology ends with a sharp little slap-in-your-face haiku from Emma Levinkind, a massive fuck you to the pretentious dolts (like myself) who came before. NAILED IT!

Beautiful Creatures
Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

I’m a sucker for Young Adult Fantasy, even if most of it is trash. But this book took the shitness to a whole new level. Gothic witch-girl has a manufactured choice to make between good and evil, and only the all-American High School poetry-reading Jock can save her. Featuring morally ambiguous characters with English accents and women of colour with racistly convenient witch-doctor magical powers, this book wins the prize of the worst book I read in 2013. FAILED IT!

1491: The Americas before Columbus
Charles C. Mann

Americans like to talk of the wide, empty continent they populated with all the free peoples of Middle Earth after the New World was discovered by Columbus in 1492. This book sets the record straight, a broad survey of all the major artistic and scientific civilizations European diseases wiped out, challenging all those Eurocentric preconceptions about heart-eating Aztecs our educations inculcated within us. The breezy, journalistic style made this hefty volume an informative companion during my daylong train journey from Novi Sad to Bratislava in the summer. NAILED IT!

The Wise Man’s Fear
Patrick Rothfuss

Felurian. Just Felurian. How could this brilliantly inventive fantasy novel series go so wrong? Yes, Kvothe is a super talented, good-looking, charming genius, but he’s unlucky, he falls on hard times, that’s why we liked him. He worries about sex and how to pay the bills, just like any normal student. So why, Mr Rothfuss, in some act of high school nerd wish-fulfilment fantasy did you have to send him into Felurian’s arms? How could on earth can you explain how a snotty-nosed virgin was good enough in bed to impress the greatest lover your misogynistic conworld has ever seen – yet still be able to learn something from her to become an even sexier Mary Sue of a character? Mate, grow up and get back to the good stuff, is all I can say. FAILED IT!

In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind
Eric R. Kandel

The fascinating biography of one the 20th century’s greatest neuroscientists. A mixture of family tales and the history of the Jews in Vienna, plus an in-depth account of the development of the field of synaptic plasticity, where Kandel rode at the forefront. Above all, a tribute to that great sea slug, Aplysia, from whom all our knowledge of plasticity has sprung. NAILED IT!

The Court of the Air
Stephen Hunt

A fantasy novel so inventively absurd, it has shamanic machine-men, squelchy amphibian things, a flying secret world government, a fairyland border between England and France, a blitz on London by the Royal Navy, and a daring rescue in the centre of the earth by a representative of the Fleet Street Press. Seriously, the novel is this inspired mashup of passable steampunk fair and original fantasy. Sad to say however, in the execution it all becomes so jumbled and badly-written that we seem to be introduced to a new in-world term in every sentence and a new character in every paragraph. As for the main characters (or strategic cameras to see another part of the wonderful world), I’ve forgotten their names. FAILED IT!

The Death of Grass
John Christopher

A virus has infected the staple grass crops of the world, causing harvest after harvest to fail. Humanity faces a long, painful death by starvation. Engineer John and Civil Servant Roger journey north with their families to the safety of his brother’s farm in Cumbria, spiralling further and further down a moral crevasse of murder and theft as they drive. When, in the end, John’s brother refuses to let them all into the valley, they take it by force. John, consciously aware that humanity has regressed to a tribalistic age of violent strongmen takes controls of the farm. Although old-fashioned with a very boys’ own adventure feel, this is an evocative description of man’s descent into amorality in the face of disaster.

The Last of the Free
James Hunter

A history of the Highlands and Islands, encompassing the Gàidhlig-speaking Highlands and Hebrides, as well as the Shetland and Orkney Isles. Traditional Scottish history is written from a Lowland perspective, with the defeat of the Kingdom of the Isles and later crushing of the Jacobite cause regarded as triumphs by the Scottish nation against alien barbarism. This book, however, argues that the we in the Highlands and Islands have succeeded most when we have political control over our own fate – that it was our assimilation into the Scottish, and British states, that left the region so economically deprived in the 20th century. At a time when the islands of Scotland are seeking greater autonomy in the Our Islands Our Future campaign, never has this book been more relevant.

Learning and Behavior: A Contemporary Synthesis
Mark E. Bouton

During the 20th century, a particularly desolate group of psychologists spent their days flashing lights and ringing bells while feeding bored-looking lab rats processed food pellets. Sometimes levers might also be involved. This book is a painfully dull account of the ‘theory’ underlying the classic work of the likes Kamin, McKintosh, Rescorla and Wagner. Though good for copying out essays wholesale, it will condition you to hate Psychology. FAILED IT!

World War Z
Max Brooks

Please don’t associate this genius book with the dreadful Brad Pitt film of the same name. Told in documentary style, we learn of the zombie apocalypse and fightback through the words of those who experienced it. Compelling, convincing and addictive. Just read the damn book. NAILED IT!

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