Category Archives: Top Ten Tuesday
We’re approaching the mid point of the year so what better opportunity to review the last six months and pick my favourite reads to date. Top Ten Tuesday this week in fact is all about the best 10 books of 2017. Of the 30 books I’ve read so far there were eight that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel: I never thought to find myself choosing a sci-fi novel as a favourite read. But this was outstanding. My review noted: The combination of beautiful style of writing and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Not only is this one of my favourites of 2017, it’s high up on my list of favourite Booker Prize winners because of its glorious characters and dazzling language. My review is here
Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Bold and brash, this is a novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of the underbelly of Cork in Ireland. But as much as the drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs will have you rolling your eyes in despair, there will be times you can’t help but feel a wave of sympathy for their predicament. As I noted in my review, this is a novel which poses serious questions about salvation and guilt.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather: It took me long enough to get around to reading what is considered one of Cather’s finest novels. It celebrates the pioneering spirit but not in a rose-tinted glasses way; there is plenty of sorrow mixed in with the nostalgia. My review is here
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey: “a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits” is how I described this Booker Prize winner in my review. It has some wonderfully surreal scenes including one where a gangly young priest is hoisted aboard a steam ship in a cage normally used for transporting animals.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnett McCrae: a cleverly constructed novel that purports to be a true account of a young Scottish lad accused of three murders. It’s presented in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial so readers get witness statements, a newspaper account and an investigation by a criminologist. My review is here.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: This has to be the most bizarre and disturbing novel I’ve read this year. It begins with a decision by a Korean housewife to stop eating meat and traces her mental and physical decline. My review summed up my reaction: This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: this is quite an extraordinary novel which covers a dazzling array of topics and themes. Zen Buddhism; environmental degredation; bullying; suicide; memory – to name just a few. The result should be a complete mess but it’s a surprisingly mesmerizing story of a Japanese teenager writing a diary to express her feelings of dislocation – that diary is found many years later washed up on a beach in British Colombia. I haven’t got around to reviewing it yet in full.
It will be Father’s Day in the UK this Sunday, in honour of which the Top Ten Tuesday prompt this week is all about fathers in literature. Some literary dads we love to love; others we love to hate and give thanks that we are not their offspring.
1.Let’s get the obvious one of out of the way first. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird is a dad most of us would love to have. Dignified, courageous, loyal, kind and loving, he imparts lessons in life to his children through both his words and his deeds.
2. Jean-Joachim Goriot in Old Goriot by Balzac is a successful member of France’s burgeoning bourgeoisie and yet the only thing that gives him any pleasure is the happiness of his daughters. Unfortunately for him, they see this as a green light to fleece him blind, bringing him to bankruptcy. If you’re a money-grabbing scrounger of a child then you’d probably be delighted to have a father who is willing, even on his deathbed, to sell his remaining possessions so you can go to a ball. The rest of us will wince.
3. My next father; Michael Henchard from Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge; is a complex character. As a young man with too much of a liking for drink, he auctions off his wife and baby daughter while under the influence. He hides his guilty secret for years so he can rise in the world. When they reappear he tries to do right by them but his jealousy and pride lead him to bully his daughter. At times Henchard is a man who, even if we don’t like him, can at least feel sorry for when he loses his position in the town and is ridiculed by his neighbours but then he goes and spoils it all by his treatment of his daughter.
4. All book lovers will appreciate the father figure in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón in which the young boy Daniel is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his widowed bookseller father.
I was hard pressed to find other positive role models or dads for whom we can show sympathy. Maybe its more fun for authors to create characters we dislike?
5. In Little Dorrit Charles Dickens created a father who abuses the love his children have for him. William Dorrit’s entire family go down with him when he is declared a bankrupt and sent to Marshalsea prison. He pretends not to know that his daughters are forced to find menial work just to put food on the table. Instead of appreciating the love his youngest daughter Amy shows for him, he repays her with criticism. A thoroughly self-centered man whom it’s difficult to love or to whom we feel any sympathy.
6. But Mr Dorrit could still be considered preferable as a father to Heathcliff. The brooding protagonist of Emily Brontë’s Gothic novel Wuthering Heights fathers a sickly child called Linton whom he despises. Heathcliff harshly uses him as a means to exact revenge on the Lintons over the death of his beloved Cathy, to the extent of forcing him into a marriage.
7. Speaking of fathers who manipulate their children to serve their own ambitions, takes me to The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. Allie Fox is a man who gets it into his head that America has gone to the dogs. To protect his family he uproots them and moves to a South American jungle where he plans to build a utopian society closer to his own ideals. But in his effort to achieve his dream he lies to his children, bullies them and puts their lives in danger.
8. At least Allie shows an emotional connection with his children which is more than can be said for Mr Ryder senior in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. This is a man who enjoys rare books more than he does his son’s company. Having barely registered the fact that his son Charles has even been off at Oxford University for many months he can’t wait to see him gone again, eagerly encouraging him to Go off to visit his new chums at Brideshead or Venice. Anywhere is preferable to having him at home.
9. Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son is another cold fish. He is desperate for a son who will join him in his trading company. When his unfortunate wife gives birth first to a daughter, his dismay is so great that he barely acknowledges the girl’s presence. She grows up without any sign of affection let alone love from her father and every overture she makes towards him is repelled. But still she loves him.
10. The father/son relationship is central to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe where it is used as a theme around the expectations and cultural definitions of masculinity and success. Although Unoka is a kind man with a number of positive traits he is also shown as a failure because he lives in debt and does not provide well for his family. The personality of his son Okonkwo is shaped as a response to his father, as he determines to be everything his father wasn’t.
The examples below are from novels I’ve read. If you have other favourites do share them in in the comments field.
This week’s topic in the Top Ten Tuesday meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish is a free choice. Since I have been spending a few hours today clearing up the spreadsheet I used to keep track of all the books I own but have not yet read, I thought I’d share the ten titles that are growing beards because they’ve been on my shelf so long.
Riddle of the Sands: 1903 novel by Erskine Childers that I’ve had since the late 1970s. I bought it at a time when I was reading some of John Le Carre’s fiction and heard that his potrayal of the world of spies was influenced by the realistic detail found in Childers’ novel. I’ve tried to read it a few times but never got much further than chapter 2 – I was irritated by the amount of detail about sailing.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: bought in 2011 in Chicago airport on the recommendation of the assistant. Opened it just after take off to discover it was a non fiction account of how two men created the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago. A lesson here – don’t buy a book when you’re in a desperate hurry.
Contested Will by James Shapiro: Also acquired in 2011, this time as a birthday gift I think. Shapiro revisits the debate about who wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, assessing the various conspiracy theories and the list of people variously named as the real author. It’s a follow up to his book 1599 which is a very readable study of a decisive year in the playwright’s life.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth: yes I know this is considered to be one of the ‘great American novels’ but I’ve not read it. Come to think of it I don’t believe I’ve read anything by Roth. Looks like I bought it in 1998 presumably after I’d seen a lot of commentary about it since it was published the previous year.
Armadale by Wilkie Collins. My copy is a second hand edition that came into my house after September 2000. I know this because it has a message (with a date) on the flyleaf which makes it clear this was a birthday gift for someone called Cath. I’ve read all the major novels by Collins and a few of the minor ones (sad to say he wrote some duds) – this one seems to have divided opinions. T.S Eliot said it was melodrama and nothing more but other critics have found
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. This was given to me as a Christmas gift in 2011, the year it was published. I’d read an interview with the illustrator in which he explained how he approached the tricky task of depicting a monster without scaring the hell out of young readers. The examples accompanying the article were superb so I wanted the book just for that reason.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. This is a slim novella so I don’t even have the excuse that it’s a chunky book.
George Eliot , The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes: this is a hard-backed copy that came from a sale at my local library. It’s largely a biography but also includes some analysis of her major works.
The Comedians by Graham Greene. One of the few Greene novels I haven’t read.
And the prize for the oldest of them goes to….
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. How could I have completed an English literature degree programme without having read this landmark text? Wouldn’t you have thought it would be required reading especially since Woolf was one of the authors we studied? Maybe that tells you something about the nature of literature studies in the 1970s?? I bought a copy anyway, put it in a prominent place on a shelf in my college room so I could impress my visitors. And on a shelf it has stayed all these years.
This week’s Top Ten topic relates to books that are unique. Impossible to come up with a list of 10 I thought given Christopher Booker’s premise that there are just seven basic plots in fiction:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
Even adding in the permutations of setting, period, narrative voice and structure it would be hard, bearing in mind the millions of books in print in the world, to identify something truly unique in the sense of being one of a kind. You have to dig deep to find that spark of truly unique thought that makes one novel unlike every other novel out there – how many novels are breakthrough texts in the vein of Joyce’s Ulysses? Even when an author finds an approach that’s different, it won’t stay that way for long – bestselling novels and even complex ones can easily be imitated after all (just look at all the ‘me-too’ versions of Fifty Shades and The Twilight Series).
It got a bit easier when I started to think about the word ‘unique’ as being distinctive, remarkable, notable and extraordinary. I ignored experimental novels like Will Self’s Umbrella with its 400 pages of unbroken stream-of-consciousness dotted across three time frames and four points of view, and with barely a paragraph break. I appreciate authors trying to break free of constraints but often they turn out to have more fun than I do as a reader. I opted instead for novels that were individual in style, approach, narrative structure or voice.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: Catton paid homage to the great traditions of 19th-century narratives with this 2013 Booker Prize winning novel even to the extent of including, like Dickens and George Eliot, a precis at the top of each chapter. Not even Dickens, known for his intricate plots, ever came up with a structure where each chapter shortens in length as the book progresses (chapter 1 seems to be 300 pages long) and where each character is ascribed a personality typical of an astrological sign.
How to be Both by Ali Smith: As superb as the writing was in this 2014 novel, what made it stand out was that two versions were published. Depending on which copy you picked up at random, readers either began with the story of a troubled teenager or with an Italian fresco painter. The two connected and twisted around each other but the reading experience was different according to the starting point.
Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou: This is a stream of consciousness novel that breaks free of its associations with psychological introspection as in the hands of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. In Mabanckou’s novel set in the Congo, words, images and literary allusions freewheel with barely a pause or a full stop in a teasing satire about political figures and Congolese men. It’s a novel that designed to amuse and entertain rather than encourage deep thoughts.
Dom Casmurro by Joachim Maria Mated de Assis: A classic of Brazilian literature this is a novel that completely messes up the idea of a linear narrative structure. Purporting to be an autobiography written by a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, the chapters are not connected in any organised fashion so you have to pick up the clues of the story piecemeal. It sounds incoherent but it’s a blast in comparison to Finnegan’s Wake.
Harvest by Jim Crace: Creative writing classes advise you to be specific in order to make the narrative sound authentic. Crace confounds that advice with a novel that gives few clues about its setting or time period. Yes we can pick up signals that it’s dated before a time when common grazing land was enclosed by private landowners. But are we in the twelfth century or the thirteenth? Astute readers who know their plants will spot that this is set somewhere in England but are we in the south or the west or the east? The very timelessness and lack of location give this story of a rupture in man’s relationship with the land, a universal quality.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel: An object lesson in how to tell a shaggy dog story convincingly – and win a Booker Prize for the effort. It tests our ability as readers to believe what seems unbelievable, offering us an alternative version of truth.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: Anyone who has read – or attempted to read – Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy will know how frustrating/perplexing an experience it can be when a novelist keeps breaking up the flow of text with seemingly disconnected digressions. The abrupt and extreme changes in narrative flow and the multiple digressions and contradictions make reading Midnight’s Children a heady experience,
The Many by Wyl Menmuir: It surprises me that this novella didn’t get more critical acclaim. It deals with a highly topical subject – environmental degradation – without coming across as rather preachy or Doomsday. The most significant aspect for me however was that it contains so many unresolved, unanswered questions. It’s effectively a mystery novel where the reader feels constantly they’re on unsettled ground.
Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime by Mark Haddon: It’s the identity of the narrator that distinguishes this book. Child/young person narrators are common features but until Haddon came along I don’t recall one who was also autistic. Christopher is a budding maths genius who understands numbers better than he understands people. When his neighbour’s dog is killed he applies his logical skills to solve the murder in the style of his favourite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. This is a book littered with diagrams and figures. Reading it is an education – you’ll learn how to find prime numbers, the reason the Milky Way looks like a line in the night sky and the mathematical reason for the change in population density in a school frog pond.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: I saved this one to last because it’s distinctive in more than one way. First it introduced a new genre in the form of the sensation novel when it began serialisation in 1859, inspiring a number of imitators like Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Secondly, few novels have quite as many narrators as this one – nearly all the principal characters get their turn at telling the story giving the effect we are hearing witness statements and presentation of evidence in a court of law. And finally this is a novel that gave rise to a slew of merchandising tie ups. Back in the 1870s you could buy Woman in White perfume, dress in Woman in White cloaks and bonnets and dance a Woman in White waltz or quadrille. For all its t-shirts, wizard wands and theme parks, Harry Potter went as far as a dance tie in….
Some occasions cry out for a short (ish) book. You may have just finished a 600 pager and want a change of pace. Or you might be about to head off for a weekend break and really don’t want to lug that heavy tome with you. Speaking of weight, the measly baggage allowances set by low cost airlines almost force you down the path of lighter (ie shorter) reading material.
So for those occasions here are some short reading options – I’m reluctant to call them quick reads because that implies lightweight content. In fact these are all novels that should get you thinking…
All the links take you to my reviews.
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata: An enigmatic, rather bleak, tale of a love affair between Shimamura, a wealthy intellectual from Tokyo and Komako, a young geisha.
The Many by Wyl Menmuir: Another enigmatic story, this time set in a fishing village in Cornwall, UK that is contending with heavy pollution by “biological agents and contaminants” that has impacted its fishing grounds.
Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: This is a touching novella about a young couple of newlyweds who arrive at a coastal hotel. They want their wedding night to be perfect but a problem arises which threatens their future.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: How is it possible for a book of little more than 100 pages to contain so much depth? Yet Steinbeck does it with this parable about people who are life’s losers yet never relinquish their hopes and ambitions for a better life.
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul: From Denmark comes a crime story that confounds most of the conventions of that genre. Yes it has a murder and a detective but the discovery of the killer’s identity isn’t really the point of this novel. It’s more about the sense of loss and feelings of regret about failed relationships triggered by the murder.
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen: In a harsh Finnish winter, a mother and her two children try to walk to St Petersburg in search of bread. It’s their only hope of avoiding death through starvation.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: An odd little tale of a friendship between a Professor of mathematics who has severe memory problems, the woman sent to look after him and her son.
Disgrace by J, M Coetzee: A Booker-award winner set in post-apartheid South Africa that raises questions about sexual predatory behaviour, denouncement and reconciliation.
Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb: A young translator from Belgium falls foul of cultural expectations when she begins working for Yumimoto, a prestigious international corporation run on strictly hierarchical lines.
The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thierault: This is a lightly plotted story of a postman who falls in love with a young teacher in Guadeloupe, a woman he knows only via her letters and poems.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and the Bookish requires me to list 10 novels on my to read list this Spring. An impossible task I fear for one who finds planning and reading do not make for happy bedfellows. I’ve tried – really I have (quit rolling those eyes would you please) over the last five years. I have pledged my allegiance to various challenges short and long and dutifully listed what I would read as my entry ticket to such events. The list making is the fun part. After that it all goes down hill rapidly. The minute a book title goes on a list, I seem to lose all interest in reading it and instead much prefer something lurking in the darker recesses of the bookcase. So I’ve given up essentially and just read what takes my fancy at the time.
My list of 10 is therefore offered with full disclosure that I might read all of these. I might read some of them. It’s conceivable, being as fickle as I am, that I will read none of them. I reserve the right to completely change my mind in the next few weeks (scratch that, I mean next few hours). The most likely one I will read is the book I drew in the Classic Club Spin – Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.
My one and only commitment is that whatever I do read, it will be from the collection of books I already own – this is in support of my 2017 goals.
Hell’s Gate by the French author Lauren Gaude is due for publication by Gallic Books in April.I have a NetGalley copy for review. Gallic describes it as “A thrilling story of love, loss, revenge and redemption in Naples and beyond.”
GhostBird by Carol Lovekin: Another title by the independent Welsh publisher Honno Press that I picked up as part of my plan to read more fiction from my fellow countrymen and women. This was Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops
Book of the Month in April 2016.
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane: One of the titles I have in mind for Reading Ireland 2017 – I’ve read only one novel by Keane (Devoted Ladies – under her other name of M.J Farrell) so I’m keen to see if this one resonates more with me.
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen, translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers. It’s described by The Independent newspaper as a tense family drama. I was more interested in their assessment that “When The Doves Disappeared is indeed a thrilling page-turner but it is equally a shattering family drama and an unsparing deconstruction of history.” I bought this as part of my quest to broaden my reading horizons with authors from many parts of the world.
Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis, I picked up a second hand copy of this about four years ago. Its one of only two books I own by an author from Indonesia. The cover has a rather dark, retro feel which apparently matches the mood of the book. It was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest, and depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. A historical thriller that was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. I meant to read it before shortlist was announced and got a bargain electronic copy but it wasnt the right format – I wanted to be able to flick back to previous chapters etc which is never easy on an e reader. But now my sister donated her print copy to me, I have no more excuses.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (note that I erroneously had this attributed to Dodi Smith until an astute reader spotted the error). I know, I know, you are astounded I have never read this classic. So am I. And so I will. At some point
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. One of the remaining titles on my Booker project list. It has its fans and its detractors. I’ve read the opening chapter and enjoyed it.
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. Another Booker prize winner that has been highly recommended by many of you who follow this blog.
How many of these will I actually read? I dare you to make a forecast…..
It being Valentine’s Day today, the theme for Top Ten Tuesday hosted by the Broke and Bookish is naturally love. It’s an emotion which comes in many guises. Here’s a list of ten different depictions of love in fiction that I’ve enjoyed over the years. Links are to my reviews where the book is one I’ve read in the last five years.
Young love: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Adolescent/teenage love is the mainstay of a lot of young adult fiction but that’s not a genre I read. So my choice is from the pen of a man whose ability to tap into human emotions would be difficult to surpass. Romeo and Juliet is probably the most famous love story in the English literary tradition. It’s a play about intense passion where love is a violent, ecstatic, overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties, and emotions.
In their first meeting we see all the wonder and yet doubts of early love:
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay,’
And I will take thy word: yet if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false; at lovers’ perjuries
Then say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou think’st I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse an say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo:
But Shakespeare doesn’t give us a hearts and flowers, happy ever after version of love, but the kind where love overpowers all other considerations and sets the participants against the world – in the course of the play, the young lovers are driven to defy their families, friends and their ruler.
Mature love: Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. Passion isn’t confined to the youngsters, nor does love get any easier with age. In Anthony and Cleopatra Shakespeare shows the two principal characters at war with each other and with themselves. Throughout the play emotion is constantly in battle with reason. In their first exchange the two argue whether their love can be put into words or does it transcend reason.
CLEOPATRA: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
ANTONY: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
CLEOPATRA: I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.
ANTONY: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.
Anthony may be a military hero and an esteemed statesman but he cannot help be swept along by the force of Cleopatra’s character, even at the cost of his cherished honour and, ultimately, his life.
Jealous love: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Greene is a master of storytelling involving tortured souls. In this moving tale of adultery and its aftermath, Maurice Bendrix, falls in love with his neighbour’s wife, Sarah. She suddenly breaks off the affair, leaving him wracked with anger and jealousy that she continues to live with her husband. The reason for her actions becomes apparent only later in the novel. It’s a superb and compelling portrait of an illicit love affair that one person cannot accept is over.
Unrequited love: Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. I challenge anyone to read this and not feel desperately sorry for Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting. They are young, newly-wedded and are on their honeymoon. But their first night together goes disastrously wrong. They try to reconcile but angry words are exchanged from which there seems no way back.
Thawrted love: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Charles Ryder, who narrates this novel, comes from a wealthy but emotionally bankrupt family. Befriended at Oxford by the wealthy Lord Sebastian Flyte, Charles is introduced to an eccentric set of friends, to Sebastian’s socialite sister Julia and their ancestral home at Brideshead Castle. Years later Julia and Charles, now both married, embark on an affair and plan to marry. But Julia suddenly realises she cannot turn her back on her strict Catholic upbringing. To marry Charles would be a sin so she abandons him. Charles, who has always struck me as a bit of a cold fish, is forced to confront his emotions.
Parental love: Silas Marner by George Eliot. You can find a multitude of books on the theme of motherly love but not as many featuring paternal love. In Eliot’s novel, the weaver Silas Marner is thrown out of his Calvinist community having been (falsely) accused of stealing their funds. He makes his new home in the village of Raveloe, becoming a recluse who devotes himself entirely to his weaving and to hoarding money. His life changes when a small child finds her way to his door in a snowstorm. Silas keeps her and raises her as his daughter. Through the strong bond he forms with the girl, he finds a place in the rural society and a new purpose in life.
Destructive love: Medea by Euripedes. A more perfect example of ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ it would be hard to find than Medea. Abandoned by her husband who fancies a younger model, she plots revenge. Does she throw all his clothes out of the window? Stalk him? Send notes to his new wife telling her what he’s really like? No, all too easy for this tempestuous woman. Poison and the dagger are her weapons of choice and she’s not afraid to use them even if it means innocent people must also die.
Female love: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I had no idea what this novel was about when my mother recommended it as a novel her book club had enjoyed. I’ve never met her book club chums but I imagined them as ladies in their seventies whose reading tastes would be conservative. Once I realised that it featured a hot-blooded love affair between two women, I had to completely revise my thinking.
Obsessional love: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. This a great example of what can happen when you believe – mistakenly -that someone loves you. Charles Arrowby retires from his glittering theatrical career, to a house on the coast. He discovers that opne of his first girlfriends lives in the nearby village. He gets the idea that she still loves him and needs to be rescued from her unhappy marriage despite the fact she doesn’t give him any indication she is either unhappy or in love with Charles. But he is not a man to give up once he gets an idea in his head so sets about kidnapping her. It’s an ill-thought out plan that crumbles but not before damage is done.
Murderous love: Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. Zola’s heroine is unhappily married to a sickly and selfish railway worker when she embarks on a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of friends. The two lovers plot to kill the husband. But what thought was the solution to the problem, proves to be just the start of a nightmare. Haunted by the memory of the murder they suffer hallucinations of the dead man, seeing him in their bedroom every night, preventing them from touching each other and quickly driving them insane.
This week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.
Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.
Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.
From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.
By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.
And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.
If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.
Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.
I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character. Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.
And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
The Broke and Bookish has chosen as the theme for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday: 10 books released in 2016 I meant to read – but didn’t. I read more contemporary fiction last year than in previous years but even then couldn’t keep up with so much that was new. Here’s my list of the ones that got away….
The Sellout by Paul Beatty – the novel that won the 2016 Booker prize. I have a signed copy awaiting me….
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: I read a sample of this when it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize and was struck by the strong voice of the narrator. It’s had mixed reviews since then but I have my own copy now so will get around to reading it. Someday..
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: I wanted to read her collection of short stories before starting on this novel but never got to finish the collection.
Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello: This is an unusual choice for me because it’s essentially a story of love but it’s set in one of my favourite cities (Paris). I know from Isabel’s blog that she researched the setting extensively.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, the debut novel that ‘everyone’ seemed to be talking about last year
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet- another Booker contender. I’ve taken this out of the library twice now and each time had to return it unread. Third time lucky maybe.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I saw a number of reviews all recommending this but couldn’t get it via our library system and I don’t typically buy novels in hardcover on the grounds of cost so have been waiting for this to come out in paperback.
Old Soldiers Never Die by Frank Richards. This account of life in the trenches of World War 1 was published in 1933. It was given fresh life last year through a new edition by the National Library of Wales
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. Another popular novel from 2016 that I missed. Usually the more attention a novel gets the less likely I am to want to read it but this one refused to go away.
Human Acts by Han Kang. A very intriguing novel but before I get to this I’d better hurry up and read her earlier novel The Vegetarian