Saturday, 15 December 2012

Topnotch Reads of 2012: Part Two

The countdown of my favourite reads from the past year continues on from my previous post, so if you haven't seen numbers 10 through 6 yet, quick! Head over there now and familiarise yourself! Otherwise, stand by, because this time we're on to numbers five through to two. Brace yourselves...

5. The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin
This has the dubious honour of being the first book I read on my Kindle, and it had quite the tough job. I was a reluctant convert to ereaders, and my first experience with one was not great; for a start, I struggled with getting used to reading off a screen, and secondly, I managed to ruin the big twist of The Stepford Wives because the ereader automatically loaded the foreword as the first page - I started to read the foreword and three lines in, guess what? The big twist was revealed. So I was not happy - which makes it all the more impressive that I enjoyed this book so much, considering I was in such a black mood when I started it. The plot follows the Eberhart family as they move to an idyllic suburb called Stepford. Things seems so perfect at first, but Joanna, the lead character, struggles to find anyone she can connect with, as all the men spend all their time at an exclusive mens-only hunting lodge, whilst nearly all the women are submissive, house-proud dullards. Joanna eventually finds a few like-minded women, but it becomes apparent that not everything in Stepford is as perfect and unspoilt as it looks... It's a chilling story, even if you do know the end already, but also pretty funny in places - the dialogue is witty and I did laugh out loud a few times. Joanna is a great character, a woman who is not a perfect wife or mother but does the best she can, who is frustrated by the lack of potential friends in her new home. There's loads to relate to here - feelings of inadequacy, loneliness in a new town, confusion when faced with a new culture - but as the suspense builds you'll be oblivious to any of that, just because you'll be desperate to find out what really is going on in Stepford.

4. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
I read this purely because it's one of those books that you kind of have to; it's one of those great English novels that never seem to age. However, I did not want to read it; I'd read Animal Farm by the same author a few years back, and it had thoroughly put me off Orwell. Yet the presence of a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in my house made it increasingly difficult to ignore, until finally, I bit the bullet and just got on with it. I was delighted to discover that I absolutely loved it. I mean, as much as you can - the story, as told from a man called Winston Smith's view, details a dystopian future in which an organisation called The Party runs the country, with the sinister Big Brother as figurehead. In this future, there is no privacy or secrets, and merely thinking anti-Party thoughts is a punishable crime. It's a terrifying novel to read, but at the same time, it can be surprisingly funny, and that's what I wasn't prepared for; in all I'd heard of Nineteen Eighty-Four, no one had ever mentioned how witty and sharp it was. There were, however, moments when I felt the book lagged a bit; there's a chunk in the middle which is basically a history of how the Party came to power, and whilst I understand it is crucial to the novel, I got quite bored with it, which meant my attention wandered. Once it turned back to Winston, though, I was back on board, and I have to say that I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone - it's bleak, the language is a bit out-dated now and there are some parts that will make you squirm but it'll make you think, and that's the important bit.

3. The Ancient Guide To Modern Life, by Natalie Haynes
This is the only non-fiction title in my list, and as it features pretty high up, I'm sure you can appreciate already that it's a cracking book. Looking at how the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome compare with how life is today, it's a disappointingly short book, humorously covering subjects such as philosophy, politics, entertainment and women's rights (which is in the hilariously titled chapter Frankly, Medea, I Don't Give A Damn. Well, hilarious if you know who Medea is and you're familiar with Gone With The Wind). My favourite part - personally - is when Haynes compares ancient rulers to modern politicians: 'JFK was Titus, loved by the people, but destined to die young. Tony Blair was Augustus, the master of spin. Berlusconi [was] Domitian, running his state amid secrecy and lies. Kim Jong-Il [was] Claudius, disgusing physical weakness... with a streak of war-mongering machismo.' Comparisons like this, between then and now, are peppered throughout the book, making the ancient world appear more relatable and understandable, especially in cases where you only have a basic knowledge, if that, of ancient events - I myself learnt a lot from this. It can be a bit of a drag at times - so many names, so many ending in -ius! - and it's not exactly a book you can curl up with and get lost in, but I enjoyed every page I read, and I was really annoyed when I got to the epilogue and realised there wasn't going to be much more.

2. The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley
I only reviewed this very recently, so I won't go into too much detail - however, as accidental book-findings go, this was a dream. I had downloaded it on to my Kindle when I first got it, then promptly forgot I had it to read. It wasn't until I was overcome with guilt at the fact I had spent money on this book and not even glanced at it that I finally sat down to read it. The plot follows a character called Myfanwy Thomas, a woman who has amnesia, as she struggles to regain some knowledge of the life that was hers before she lost her memory. The twist? Before she lost her memory, the woman she was then knew that at some point she would suffer some incident that would rob her of all knowledge of herself, and so was able to write a series of letters, guiding the amnesia-ridden Myfanwy through life. It sounds like one of those weepy, something-traumatic-has-happened-to-me-but-I-am-a-strong-woman type novels, but it's really, really not. Myfanwy is actually a high-ranking, powerful official in a secret organisation that monitors and controls the supernatural in the UK, and there's something rotten at the core that pre-amnesia-Myfanwy was investigating. And if that wasn't enough, an ancient threat from Europe appears to be making waves in the direction of the UK. There's politics, intrigue, more than enough monsters, and a healthy dash of humour to it, making for a hugely entertaining read that's incredibly difficult to put down.

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