I was unable to split my two favourite books of 2015. Both unforgettable in their own way.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky. 5/5
This is a novel that doesn’t quite leave you. It may take you a while to complete it though. It is so detailed, racked with depth and intelligence. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have spent an inordinate amount of time this year aimlessly pondering its endless crevices. It is the story of the four sons of Fyodor Karamazov. Dmitri, Ivan, Alexei and Smerdyakov. Each of the brothers is extremely different in temperament and belief. This cocktail, mixed with a debaucher father, proves to be lethal when Fyodor is murdered. The writing is not lyrical, it is dense and detailed, allowable to consider the breadth of thought and ideas expressed by the Brothers. Their conversations consider God, suffering, morality, Love, honour. This manifests itself most famously in the ‘Grand Inquisitor’, a chapter where Ivan tells Alexei a story he had created about the return of Christ and his implication that the Roman Catholic Church would not welcome this. It is a brilliant and thought-provoking dissertation that my many hours of pondering often focused on. Alexei is the novel’s hero, and he is mine. Perhaps my favourite literary character. He is so humble, so honest, so good, a creation seemingly to be trampled upon, broken by those around him, yet he emerges as the hero and rises above. It is a brilliant work!
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Zafron. 5/5
It is novels like these that remind me of why I love literature. The Shadow of the Wind is exciting, heart-warming, heart-breaking, a pallet of emotion. It’s characterisations are real and authentic, yet Zafron never ceases in holding the reader’s attention. Set in post-war Barcelona, this is the story of a young boy who is taken by his father to the Library of Forgotten Books. He picks the Shadow of the Wind and falls in love with it. That is merely the tip of the iceberg. Zafron’s majesty lies in the way he brings the lives of a large group of disparate people together, leaving the reader breathless and moved.The story shifts from comedy, to tragedy, to social commentary on the Francoist regime. Barcelona comes to life, almost as a character of its own but is used only to advance the story, not as a means of laudatory propagation.
Perhaps it is strange to place the Shadow of the Wind on the same mantel as The Brothers Karamazov. It is true that they are two extremely different novels. Karamazov is intellectual and thought-provoking, where as The Shadow of the Wind is passionate and intense, almost the anti-thesis of the other. Yet for all their differences, they share a similar message. The way that ideas, dogmatically held, influence us all. It may not be the literary equivalent of Karamazov, yet I will never forget the way the Shadow of the Wind made me feel. The emotions that I experienced. For that reason, I cannot separate the two.
I’m Not Scared, Niccolò Ammaniti 3.5/5
What is perhaps surprising about Italian society, based on the two books I have read this year set in Italy, is just how recently violent its society was. Perhaps this is an unfair generalisation and I find myself somewhat confused by it, Italy is one of the largest economies in the world, with approximately 60 million people and millions of tourists who travel there every year, they’re not going to travel to a violent country, yet as recently as the 1970’s poorer communities in the south of Italy were kidnapping the children of richer families from the north for ransom. This is the focus of this short but chilling novel, about a young boy who finds a child in an old abandoned house. He presumes him to be a ghost, and written as it is from the perspective of a child, the novel retains its innocence through out, even as the reader figures out that this is no ghost and the reality is more frightening.
The Zahir, Paul Coelho. 3/5
Paul Coelho is best known for the Alchemist, a novel I have bought but yet read. Zahir is the Arabic word for obsession, this novel’s central theme. The main character’s wife leaves him and he becomes obsessed with finding her. The novel asks questions about love and life, about how much work is too much work, and what does it truly mean to be happy. Interestingly the novel ends up in Kazakhstan. It suffers from being too repetitive. Coelho makes the same point about happiness several times.
The Iron King, Maurice Druon 4/5
The first book in a series of historical fiction novels that document the fall of the Capet Dynasty in France. The Iron King details the brutal end of the Knights Templar and the curse placed on the Capet Kings by the final remaining Templar, as he burns to death. George Martin called it the original Game of Thrones. It is every bit as gruesome as GOT, only not fantasy, but very very real.
The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery 4/5
Arguably the most famous work of literature to come out of France. The Little Prince is a novella about a pilot stranded in the desert, who meets a Prince from a distant planet. It is written for children but arguably more so for adults. A touching, beautiful read, it teaches us not to forget the power of imagination. Not to loose the innocence and hope of youth.
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. 3.5/5
Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian author whose identity remains unknown. She has written a coming of age series set in Naples that focuses on two young girls Elena and Lila, growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. The first book in this four part series, focuses on their childhood on the streets of Naples. It is often violent and bloody. I was rather shocked by the extent of the violence but then again Naples is known for that. Other times it is literary and beautiful. They learn many different languages and push for their chance at education. It is very eloquently written. I am looking forward to reading the second part of the series.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn 4.5/5
Managing to hold the reader’s attention doesn’t necessary make a novel great, but in the case of Gone Girl, it is precisely this staying power that renders it unforgettable. I decided to read the book before I saw the movie, which came out last year. I picked it up thinking I would read a few pages, unsure of its premise, and found myself mesmerised. The novel is written from two very different perspectives, Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Nick returns home one morning to find that Amy has disappeared and very quickly the reader realises not to trust his narrative entirely. Running simultaneously is a diary written by Amy from the time her and Nick first met. This also proves to be very unreliable. There are points in this novel that are jaw dropping. It reaches a peak towards the middle and then just runs home from there.
The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith 3.5/5
The second book in JK Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike murder-mysteries. They’re wonderful reads that keep you fixated and engaged for long periods of time. This time it focuses on the murder of a not-so-successful author. At times it is laugh out loud funny, especially when Rowling re-creates sections of the dead author’s work. The reveal of the murderer at the end of this book was much better than in the Cuckoo’s Calling.
Memoirs of A Geisha, Arthur Golden 4/5
You are immersed in a world that you didn’t know existed, in a world that is now lost. It is often bleak, punctured by rare rays of light, with a similarly bitter-sweet ending. Golden has done his research and it shows in the descriptions of make-ups and dresses, of the training and classes Geisha’s went through, the unceasing need for the approval of ones clients. You can almost smell the perfume and taste the Sake. A novel I plan on returning to.
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene 4/5
I remained awake till early dawn to complete this book. I began it late one evening and before I knew it, it was three am and I was complete. It is different to other Greene novels in that it is so eloquently written. The story of a torrid love affair, between a married woman and a single man, it asks questions of love and life, and in typical Greene fashion, places Catholicism right at the heart of it.
The Quiet American, Graham Greene 5/5
This book reminded me a lot of The Year of Living Dangerously, which explains why I loved it so much. Based on Greene’s time as a journalist during the Indochina war, a British journalist in Vietnam befriends an American agent working undercover. The novel takes you close to the natives and the destructive nature of war. Piercingly anti-American, its focuses on the effects of colonialism as well as of the inefficiency of intelligence agencies. It may have been published 1955 but in many respects it remains very relevant today.
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini 4/5
I had been encouraged by several people to read this novel, stating that it is beautiful and heart-warming. It most certainly pulls on your heartstrings and you don’t forget how you feel after you’ve read it. Set in Afghanistan the book tells the story of a young boy and his father and how the Afghani wars on the 70s till now demoralised a nation and its people. Despite being well written, it is a very black and white story; there is no room for grey. The bad guys behave horrendously and the good guys can’t help but be victims of their horror. Real life is more nuanced than that.
Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel 5/5
The second book in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, Mantel focuses on the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Just as brilliant as Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is even bleaker. Despite knowing what will happen, Mantel manages to make these events fresh and exciting, keeping the reader engaged as she seamlessly and believably recreates one of the most controversial and mysterious events in English History. This maybe a revisionist history of Thomas Cromwell, but you still can’t help but despise him for what he does to so many innocent people, simply to appease the wishes of his despotic King.
A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel 5/5
I don’t think there’s anything of Mantel’s I’ve read that I have disliked. It isn’t as if she possesses a distinct style I find engaging. On the contrary, Mantel is known for the distinction between each of her books. A Place of Greater Safety focuses on three of the most important figures of the French Revolution, Maximillen Robespierre, Jacques Danton and Camille Desmoulins. Despite being unaware of the intricacies of the French Revolution, I found this book easy to follow. It is experimental, jumping from first person, to third person, sometimes mid-sentence. There are scenes written as scripts. After almost 900 pages, you are left with an understanding of the way the Revolution descended into a terror that destroyed its most hopeful aspirants.
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel 5/5
What could be more terrifying than living in Saudi Arabia? According to Hilary Mantel, not much. Based on her experience living in Saudi Arabia for three years, Mantel gives a tense, shocking incursion into what daily life is like in the Kingdom. Written in the gothic style, it reaches a terrifying climax, that leaves the reader with chills. In one particular scene the main character Frances Shore, is attempting to cross a street. She sees that a car is coming, so she pauses to let the car through. The gentleman in the car stops to allow her through. Just as she is about to cross, he revs his car forward slightly frightening Frances. He just stares at her not moving and Frances realises he does not want her to cross, so she turns and goes another way. I cannot know for certain, but I feel that Mantel may have experienced this herself. As with any Mantel novel it is beautifully written, but as in any Mantel novel, it is unlike anything else she has written. She very clearly portrays the divide between eastern and western values that have for so long plagued relations between them. A very relevant tome in our times.
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro 3.5/5
I hadn’t heard of Ishiguro until a snippet of his latest novel appeared in the UK Telegraph. What struck me was the calm, poetic tone of his writing. The feeling one gets reading Ishiguro, is the feeling one gets reading when it is cold, gloomy and raining. It is the best time to read. The Buried Giant is set in Anglo-Saxon England. It is a re-imagining of a world that still remains in our imagination because we know so little about it. Yet it tells a story of the universality of love and the fickleness of memory. A theme that recurs quite often in his works. It suffers at time from an inauthenticity of voice.
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro 5/5
Like Graham Greene, Ishiguro’s novels tend to be short and snappy. They make their point without lingering unnecessarily. The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro’s most famous work, and won him the Booker Prize. Set in the 1950s, an old Butler, Stevens, who serves in a former great English estate known as Darlington Hall, takes a journey to visit Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper. In extensive flashbacks over the three-day journey, Steven looks back at the previous thirty years of his life and considers his actions, assesses his regrets, especially the blindingly obvious but unacknowledged love between he and Miss Kenton and affirms the importance of his job as a butler. It has an interesting side-story about, the once owner of Darlington Hall, Lord Darlington’s attempts at conciliation and appeasement with Weimar and then Nazi Germany.
An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro 4.5/5
Ishiguro’s second novel. Set in post war Japan, from the perspective of Masuji Ono. During the War, Masuji was not only an artist of Japanese Propaganda but also a police informant. He finds himself discredited in the new Japan, embarrassed of its imperialist and jingoistic past and his daughter struggling to find a husband because of the reputation of her father. Like the Remains of the Day, Ishiguro patiently makes these revelations through flashbacks and conversations. This is perhaps Ishiguro’s most heartfelt story as Masuji Ono slowly begins to understand the impact of his life’s decisions.
A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro 4/5
Ishiguro’s first novel. This is one strange read. After I finished it I spent a couple of hours on the Internet attempting to make sense of it. Etsuko in England is saddened by the suicide of her daughter Niki. She reminisces about Sachiko a single mother she met when she was still living in post-war Japan. The novel moves at a simmering yet predictable pace until it alters towards the end and the narrator, Etsuko, proves to be very unreliable. There are many different theories on what it means, Ishiguro has admitted that he made it too ambiguous, but nonetheless there is an element of enjoyment in attempting to decipher the ambiguity.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro 4.5/5
When you get to the end of this novel you don’t know whether to cry for the characters or be happy for them. Set in a dystopic England where the main characters are clones of other humans, raised to donate their organs, and then eventually die ‘complete’ from the complications. Without ruining any of the story, this is inherently a novel about death and how we humans struggle to accept it, constantly looking for ways to avoid it, rarely accepting that we can’t do so. Probably Ishiguro’s most thought-provoking novel.
When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro – 4/5
According to Wikipedia, this is considered Ishiguro’s weakest effort. Even he says so. ‘This is not my best work’. It may not be his best, but considering the consistent quality of his work, it is still of a high calibre. Set during the inter-war years, it focuses on successful detective Chrstopher Banks’ desire to find out how and why his parents disappeared in Shanghai when he was a child. The novel’s themes are similar to other Ishiguro works. The unreliability of memory, the effects of war, the unspoken but obvious. The flashbacks to Shanghai are absolutely brilliant; nobody quite does flashbacks like Ishiguro, who seamlessly fits them into the narrative. The second half of the novel is weaker than the first. Something about the Banks, returning to Shanghai because he believed his parents to be alive, struck me as unconvincing, there are also times when the novel lulls, but overall it’s a beautiful work.
Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson. 4.5/5
It isn’t very often that you come across a novel that is so unique; it possesses its own texture and depth. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very much this novel. It is very dark and tense. Every turn of the page, the reader fears what may happen next. A murder mystery into the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, it is more a parable on the violence women experience and why it often goes unreported. Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s titular character, is inverted and strange, but we identify with her. She has struggled; some of these struggles receive very detailed documentation in the book, others remain a mystery. A truly unique experience.
The Girl who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson 4.5/5
The second novel in the Lisbeth Salander series may not be a clear-cut murder mystery but it is equally thrilling and intense. Not to mention equally gruesome. Written in that distinct style, the second book encompasses more characters and takes an even more political tone. Journalists become involved and shady underworld figures gain prominence. Once again Larsson focuses on female injustices, this time sex-trafficking. Lisbeth Salander only becomes more fascinating as we learn more about her mysterious past.
Life of Pi, Yann Martel 3.5/5
For such a popular book, it may seem a very low rating. That is because the middle section of the book is often quite boring. The movie suffers from the same problem. Others may disagree but I found myself often skimming the middle sections. The plot is simple. Pi, is a deeply religious young boy, practising, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. His family leave India to Canada. On the way, their ship gets destroyed (how exactly, we don’t know) and Pi ends up shipwrecked with a Tiger known as Richard Parker, (his family owned a Zoo in India and were transporting the animals to Canada). Part 1 and Part 3 are brilliant and thought-provoking. Pi survives the ordeal and ends up on the shores of South America. When explaining the story to the Japanese Insurance Company investigating the crash, they don’t believe him, stating his story doesn’t make sense. He can’t have survived with a Tiger on board with him. So Pi tells them another story, which is more believable, instead of animals, they are people. Which story is true? The first story with the Tiger, explains Pi, has God, the other doesn’t. The Japanese choose the story with Tiger, because the story is always better with God. A very though provoking novel.
The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly 3/5
An easy, couple of hours read, about a Great Zoo built in China. Its main attraction; Dragons. It has a well-constructed plot and moves incessantly. No literary awards are coming its way, but it was a great easy read.