Saturday, 30 November 2013

Best of the Books Part Three: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

It's been a very good year for books - not all of them have been published in the last 12 months, but I've read some crackers in 2013. Admittedly, I've also read some shockers, but for the most part, I've enjoyed almost every book that came my way. However, my end-of-year list is reserved for my absolute favourites, so I've had to be a bit pickier than I normally am, but that doesn't mean I want to ignore all those other books I loved. So now, before I go into my review of my best book, I'd like to make a mention of a few that almost, but didn't quite, make it into my top ten:

  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple - this wasn't one I enjoyed at first, but grew on me, and sometimes the growers are the ones you appreciate the most. This erratic tale of a mother gone AWOL was a little too clever for me at first, but eventually found my funny bone.
  • And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini - as mentioned in the Top Ten for 2013, it was Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns that really got to me, but it was And The Mountains Echoed which turned me onto Hosseini's writing, so it deserves an honourable mention. A fantastic story in it's own right, it follows two estranged siblings across the years and over continents as they struggle with the paths they find themselves on, each always aware of the absence of the other.
  • The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers - this would've made it into the top 10 somehow if I'd ever finished it, but the truth is, I'm still struggling. It's not the story that's the problem - it's the sheer size of the book. It's bloody massive - look how huge it is in comparison to an average-sized paperback!:
    So you can see why I've not finished it; it's a bit impractical for reading. But that doesn't mean I don't love it. This tale of a Bluebear's life, lived in caves of pitch-black, on ships with mini-pirates and on islands that look like paradise but will actually eat you is the kind of eccentricity that you usually only get in Monty Python. With some fantastic illustrations and some excellent use of font, it's no wonder this is such a huge book; it's just a shame its size makes it difficult.

So, with the honourable mentions out of the way, I'd like to round off my Best-Of list that started with Rules of Civility and was almost topped by Gods Behaving Badly, by presenting to you my absolute favourite read of 2013: The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey.

I must confess, there was never really another contender for the top spot of this list: The Snow Child simply amazed me when I first read it in March of this year, and has hovered in the back of my mind ever since. It's set in the 1920's and is about a middle-aged couple, Jack and Mabel who, after burying their stillborn baby, move to Alaska to start afresh. When we join the couple at their new homestead, they are struggling; Jack is doubting his ability to farm the land, and Mabel fantasises about disappearing between the ice of the nearby river. It is not until they are befriended by their nearest neighbours, the sturdy, brash Bensons, that life becomes possible, and it is not until the mysterious child Faina appears on their doorstep that life becomes worth living. But who is the child who came to them on the night of the first snow, and what will become of her in the summer?

At first it was hard to put my finger on what I loved so much about this book, as there is so much to enjoy. The language is beautiful, with descriptions of landscapes and people being neither too flowery nor too vague; you learn enough about them in time, as you would with any relationship. There's a touch of humour to it as well: Esther Benson, the kindly, larger-than-life Alaskan farmwife provides a lot of the earlier warmth that the novel lacks, whilst a few sweet moments - impromptu snow-angels and snowball fights - take the edge off a bleak first third. However, it was the raw, feral beauty of the Alaskan setting that really caught me: the way in which the suffocating nature of snow and the claustrophobia of winter is portrayed is remarkable, especially to a town-mouse like me who has never really experienced that kind of extreme weather.

There is also the way in which Jack and Mabel rally to their cause, with their mysterious foster-daughter and the kindly Bensons, that makes this book a joy to read. The novel has it's dark moments - Mabel's recalling of the days after her child dies is harrowing, and sometimes I found myself frustrated with the setbacks the couple encounter - but that, I suppose, is the nature of life; not everything is plain sailing. Having said that, for the most part the story is a tale of love, family and triumph, and despite it's cold physical setting, it is a novel to warm the heart, and one that will stay with you long after you close the book.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Best of the Books 2013: Part Two

So here we are, carrying on my countdown of the best reads of 2013. If you're joining us for the first time, these are the best books I've read for the first time ever in the past 12 months, so they won't necessarily have been released this year. As per last year, I'm doing this in 3 parts, so pop on over to Part 1 to get the lowdown on numbers 10 through to 6, then scurry back here for 5 to 2. We'll wait for you, don't worry.



... Ready?

Okay, here we go...

5. Instructions For a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
This book followed me all year. Not in a creepy, weird way, just in that I kept noticing it everywhere. It popped up on posters on my way home, in papers I read and was even recommended to me by Amazon (who once tried to sell me Miranda Hart's Is It Just Me? based on the fact I'd read Wuthering Heights. Yeah, I didn't get it either). So this was one of those books that nagged at me for ages, tempting me, drawing me in. I tried to elude it, thinking it didn't sound like my cup of tea, but eventually I succumbed and I am so, so glad I did; it's a warm, witty story of a dysfunctional family on the surface, but has a darker core that deals with the secrets within that family. It begins in a blistering summer in the seventies, when Robert Riordan, a man who lives for his routine, goes out for the paper and uncharacteristically doesn't come back, leaving his loud, brash, Irish-Catholic wife to inform their three adult children of his disappearance. As the brood descend on the familial home to support their mother and ponder their father, it becomes evident that each is relieved for the distraction from their own secrets and disappointments - but, as anyone with a family will know, secrets eventually come out. It's not nearly as menacing as I think I've made it sound, but there's certainly a few moments where I caught myself holding my breath. Yet it's the unexpectedly funny aspect of the writing that secured it's place in the top 5 of my list, proving that you can write a serious novel and be humorous at the same time.

4. Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
Now this is a novel that blew me away. From the outset, it's a churning, mysterious ball of building tension, where you're never given enough information to form an opinion, but just enough to keep you hanging on. Whilst reading this book, I gasped out loud several times, had to re-read several pages because I couldn't believe what had happened, and at one point actually looked up from it in shock to peer round at my fellow commuters, as if to ask them if they knew what the hell had just happened in my book (they didn't know). It all starts with a woman in the dock, being prosecuted for an unknown crime, with an unknown accomplice sat elsewhere in the courtroom. Within pages, the prosecutor mentions a location - the titular Apple Tree Yard - and at this point it becomes clear that this place is about to be the undoing of our nameless narrator. This is one of those excellent examples of where first-person narration can be the best thing yet; our narrator plays all her cards close to her chest so right to the very end, you never know where you stand. I don't think I've given away too much but I shan't say anymore, just in case. I will end on this though: it was almost impossible to put down. Only sleep, work and food got in the way of this one.

3. The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
I read this book before I saw the film, and as per usual, it's the book I prefer (though obviously kudos to the fantastic Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who both deserved their Oscar win/nomination for their performances). I just found Pat's character to be far more sympathetic and less humorous, which is unusual for me because I love laughing. His recovery from his emotional breakdown - and the slow release of the reason for the breakdown - is much like watching a little boy try, and sometimes fail, to understand the world around him, and captures that feeling of bewildered innocence I'm sure we all felt at one point. He's not necessarily a likeable character - at times you share his family and friends' frustration with his almost blind determination to avoid the truth, but for the most part he's a wonderfully sweet character. Tiffany, Pat's friend, provides a healthy dose of brashness and bluster to prevent this from being a sickly-sweet story, although she is harbouring a hurt just as great as Pat's. It's a sensitively-told story about the effects of mental illness and stress, with just enough humour to keep it light, but most of the focus on the recovery of the main characters.

2. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Now anyone who knows me personally will be able to make a pretty good guess as to why this book is so high in this list. For the unaware - I flippin' love Greek mythology. I love it so much, I did my degree because of it. This is a book about the gods of Ancient Greece - Apollo, Hermes and all the rest of 'em - living in modern day London. The reason? They're immortal, but no one believes in them anymore, so they have to eke out some kind of appropriate living - Dionysos owns a bar, Aphrodite answers dirty calls, Artemis walks dogs - whilst they wait for a solution to restore them to their former glory. Meanwhile, a timid would-be mortal couple called Alice and Neil find themselves inextricably mixed up in a squabble between Apollo and Aphrodite, which is about to blow everything apart for Olympians and their mortal associates alike. As you might expect, it's a humorous novel - though not without its poignant moments - and is full of in-jokes and references that Greek-nerds like me go nuts for. It's also really well imagined; for example, the underworld is a suitably eerie space with a genuine feeling of infinity, which is something hard to convey in print. With a pacy plot, fun characters and some great writing, it's a book I think many of you will enjoy - but for the Ancient History nerds out there, you'll love it.

So there they are, four of my top five. When you're ready, the Best Read of 2013 awaits you...

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Best of the Books 2013: Part One

Well it's that time of year again - it's time for me to review my top ten best reads of the year. I'm starting a little earlier than I did last year, but that's because I'm simply too darn excited about all the books I have read and I want to tell you about them. In fact, some I have been holding back on especially for this time of year (what can I say, I'm a planner). Sadly, this does mean that any books I read after this point won't be eligible, but if I find any that I go nuts for then I'm sure I'll let you know.

As per last year's format, I'll be reviewing in three parts, counting down to my all-time, best book of the year, which will get itself reviewed in full. It's also not a list about books released in the past year; it's the best ones I've had the pleasure of reading in the past 12 months. If you fancy refreshing your memory on what made the top last year, and why, have a quick gander here (for part one), here (part two) and here for the winner.

Right. Ready? Well then, let's go. Kicking off with....

10. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
I once complained a bit how I never got given books as presents, but it seems that dry spell is over because The Boyfriend came good with this one. It's about a young woman, Katey, living and working in New York in the 1930's, and the tense, unbalanced relationship she has with her best friend, Evie, and the handsome stranger who enters their lives one New Year's Eve. It's one of those books where you kind of know how it's going to end, but in no way does that ruin or affect your experience of the book. It's slow-paced but well written, with beautiful descriptions that whisk you out of the 21st century and back to the thirties (after the Depression but before the war). Having said that, it's in no way idealistic; Katey wrestles with her Russian heritage whilst Evie struggles to get a foothold in the glamorous New York social scene. It's not a happy book, but it's not a sad one either - I suppose what I enjoyed most was that it manages to convey the absurdity of time, when certain things matter so much in the present but lose their importance and become almost trivial as time passes.

9. Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch
I've been working my way through these, the PC Grant novels, as slowly as I can - it's been tempting to dash through them because they're really very, very good. And maybe it's because this is the most recent one I've read, or maybe it's because Aaronovitch has really gotten into his stride, but this, the third of four books, is my favourite of the series so far. It's got a more solid, cohesive plot than the previous titles, with PC Peter Grant using his magical skills to help solve the murder of a young American, found dead on the tracks of Baker Street tube station having been stabbed with a shard of pottery. With his one-time love interest Lesley and the mysterious Nightingale as his partners-in-crime-solving, Peter has to delve into the dark tunnels of London's famous underground network as he discovers that there's more than just a stabbing to this death. It's no secret that part of the appeal in this series is the familiarity of the settings - London is full of landmarks both famous and banal - but there's also the charm of the main character and the originality of the story to help make such an entertaining read.

8. You Had Me At Hello by Mhairi McFarlane
Now, I'm not one for chick-lit; I will read it from time to time, but generally it ends up reminding me why I don't bother with the genre much. This, however, has restored my faith somewhat. Yes, the love story has the most prominence - two best friends reconnect after years apart - but it also doesn't patronise the reader. Rachel, the protagonist, is very suddenly single at the beginning of the book, having abruptly broken off her engagement with her long-term boyfriend/fiancé, Rhys. Naturally, now would be a good time for an old kind-of flame to make a reappearance - and, naturally, he does. Ben, her best friend at uni whom she had always kind of fancied, moves back to the university city that she never left, and they start seeing each other again, causing Rachel to reassess her time at university and question the decisions she made. With a slightly predictable yet likeable supporting cast of friends, it's a genuinely funny story with a few twists, and it is full of nostalgia for those heady uni days when daytime drinking and lecture-skipping were the biggest concerns. I was wary when I bought it, but enjoyed the read so much I've pre-ordered McFarlane's next story. I suppose it's because it's a chick-lit story that doesn't actually feel like one.

7. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Everyone must know this name by now, surely; Flynn pretty much blew everyone away with Gone Girl, the twisty, turny, gasp-out-loudy tale of the most messed up relationship ever. I certainly enjoyed it - couldn't put it down - and on finishing, promptly decided to read the other two Flynn had written previously. I have to say, Sharp Objects unexpectedly turned out to be my favourite. Camille, a journalist with a troubled history, is forced by her editor to return to her hometown in Missouri to cover the violent, odd murder of two little girls. It's a place that holds nothing but bad memories for Camille, which resurface violently when she finds herself back in her menacing mother's house and speaking to her old high school friends, all of whom now seem to be carbon-copies of each other. There's just the right mix of paranoia, tension and secrecy that I've come to expect from Flynn, but with the added bonus of a sympathetic main character - unlike Gone Girl and Dark Places, Camille is a protagonist that is likable, so you care just that bit more about what happens to her. Maybe a bit slower than Gone Girl, but worth it.

6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I'm a little late to the Hosseini party, but I got here eventually. I read his latest offering, And The Mountains Echoed, first, and was so enchanted by his writing style that I decided to go for another one. A Thousand Splendid Suns charts the lives of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, who are coerced into marrying the same man, and the ensuing relationship that sprouts between them. Told over the course of several decades that bridge either side of the Taliban's rise to power, it has some brutal scenes that caused me to physically recoil as I read them, but for the most part this is a heartstring-tugger, with the focus of the story being on the familial love between the women and the strength they draw from each other. It didn't move me to tears, but it certainly made me stop and think about how lucky I am to live in a world where I have the freedom to dress how I like, work where I like and marry someone I love, and I think that makes it a novel worth reading many times.

Stay tuned for part two, counting down 5 to 2...