Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
APRIL

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it. I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite April reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

pureWhen I reviewed this, I only gave it 4 stars, but remarked that some of the images in it would stay with me for a long time. Indeed they have, and I’ve felt for some time that I did it an injustice and that it deserves the full 5 star status. Set in pre-Revolutionary France, it is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young man contracted to clear the overcrowded cemetery of les Innocents in Paris. The sense of time and place in the novel is truly remarkable, and the book allows us to see the build-up of Revolutionary ideas from the perspective of the ‘ordinary’ man. As Miller describes the malignant stench and rotting horrors of the cemetery, parallels can be drawn with the glimpses we get of the corrupt state and political system. My review does it no justice – this is one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade.

 

2012

 

dare meA dark journey into the mind of adolescent girlhood, this book tells of the jealousies and tensions amongst a group of high-school cheerleaders. Abbott’s use of language is innovative, imaginative and often poetic. Throughout the book, she uses the physicality and danger of the cheer stunts to heighten the sense of tension and fear at the heart of the story, and changed my condescending Brit view of cheerleading for ever. When a new coach arrives to lead the cheerleading team, she will prove to be the catalyst for a dangerous reassessment and realignment of friendships that have lasted for years, and will eventually lead both reader and characters to some very dark places. The body is an important theme throughout – the punishment the girls put themselves through, the intimacy of their physical reliance on each other, the underlying sexuality and sensuality of these girls on the brink of womanhood. Dark and wonderful.

 

2013

 

and the mountains echoedA beautiful and very moving book from the pen of a master storyteller, this tells the tale of various members of one extended family affected by war and poverty in Afghanistan. Though many of the events of the book take place in Europe or America following characters driven abroad in the diaspora, Afghanistan remains at the heart of the novel, because it remains in the hearts of the unforgettable people who populate the pages. In structure, this feels almost like a series of short stories, but Hosseini brings them all together in the end in one perfect circle. Truth is, I sobbed my heart out over this book, starting at page 5 and not stopping till about two weeks after I’d finished it. And even now, I only have to think about the first chapter to find myself reaching for the Kleenex again. But alongside the sorrow and sadness, there is love and joy here, and a deep sense of hope…

 

2014

 

the birdsSix short stories from the mistress of supenseful terror, this collection starts with the story on which Hitchcock based his famous film The Birds. While he made some changes to it, mainly so he could find a role for one of his famous blondes, all of the tension and atmosphere comes from du Maurier. The other stories may not be so well known but they stand up very well to the title story. One of my favourites is The Apple Tree – a tale of a man who becomes obsessed with the belief that the tree in his garden bears an uncanny resemblance to his late unlamented wife. The whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

 

2015

 

the martian chronicles Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars. It’s episodic in nature and the Martian world that Bradbury creates doesn’t have quite the coherence of some fantasy worlds. But like all the best sci-fi, this book is fundamentally about humanity and Bradbury uses his created world to muse on, amongst other things, loneliness, community and the mid-20th century obsession with the inevitability of nuclear self-destruction. Many of the stories, especially the later ones, are beautifully written fantasies that are both moving and profound. It certainly deserves its reputation as one of the great classics of the genre but, in my opinion, it goes beyond genre – it is as well written and thought-provoking as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do.

 

* * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for April, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

And Kay has joined in too, over on kay’s reading life, but with a twist – she’s highlighting books from 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago. Here’s the link…

32 thoughts on “Five of the Best!

  1. We parted company on the Abbott but I was nodding gamely on all the rest. And now I must head over to not just Cleo’s, for tea and cake, but to the reviewer doing 5, 10 and 20 years. I think that requires a three course meal and fine wines!

    • It’s frightening how much these lists can add to the TBR. Personally I think they should all be banned – except mine! It’s incredible to think we were chit-chatting about books way back in 2011… *big smile*

  2. You know, Dare Me seems interesting. I could never stand cheerleaders either. But then again, when I pull for the Pats I’m something of a cheerleader. Wait. Strike that. I’m more of a hurrah-leader or something like that.

    What an interest! You said Kleenex…

    • Please….pleeeeeeease…don’t put the image in my head of the Professor in a cheerleader outfit! You know I’ll never get it out again!!! Go, Prof!!!

      *worries* Does it mean something… different… in the US?

      • You take that out of your head this instant! It’s such an awful image. You know, I can’t picture myself like that, so I can’t imagine how you can! Imagine! I don’t want to! How horrid. *holds ears*

        No, not at all. It’s just I’ve always called them that, too. But I figured they were known as tissues else where. It’s just an intense interest. I actually like it lots. It’s cool.

        • *laughs wickedly* I can’t, I fear. I’m wondering if Hector’s skirt was a sign that secretly he wanted to be a cheerleader too! Talking of which, what happened about the kilt-wearing Professor?

          At last we’ve found a word we not only both use but both spell the same way… *smiles contentedly*

  3. Some excellent choices, FictionFan! If you’ve not read Abbott’s historical noir (e.g. Die a Little, Bury Me Deep) I recommend it. And although you know how I feel about Bradbury, I do agree with you that The Martian Chronicles is a classic of science fiction writing. Whatever else, the man could tell a story.

    • I’ve been meaning to read her noir stuff for ages, but… well, the old story! But one day…

      Yes, I think ‘The Martian Chronicles’ is one I’ll return to often – a great book!

  4. I didn’t know you when you reviewed Daphne de Maurier’s short stories, which sound superb. I’m going to have to look into that one — thanks!

    • No, it’s a while ago now – but the mark of a good book is how well I remember it and I remember all of the stories in this one very clearly. A really great little collection – she’s so good at building up the atmosphere… 😀

  5. Well you did better than me; I’ve only read one of these And The Mountains Echoed (great choice) I have the Du Maurier short stories on my TBR and you’ve reminded me that I should try Meg Abbott.

  6. The Birds takes me back to my teens. My mother was huge fan of Daphne du Maurier and she would pass on books to me after reading them. I vividly remember the movie too (long before the days of video or DVD or netflix).

    And Pure, what a great book! I am a huge fan of Andrew Miller. Have you ever read his first novel Ingenious Pain? It is quite wonderful.

    • I love the way du Maurier builds up atmosphere, and always leaves room for a rational explanation. The movie still terrifies me, especially since I’m already a bit scared of birds flying near me.

      D’you know, one of the things that horrifies me about doing this selection is that I end nearly every review with ‘I’ll certainly be reading more of this author’s work’ and then I never do. No, I’ve been meaning to read Ingenious Pain for four years – I shall have to shove it up the priority list. I’m trying to get out of the habit of concentrating so much on new releases…

  7. I totally did not know that a story by Daphne du Maurier was the basis for The Birds. I need to read that short story collection and some of the others you mentioned. (Already read Martian Chronicles.)

    • Neither did I till I spotted this book on NetGalley last year. The story is just as scary as the film though in a slighlty different way, and some of the others in the book are brilliant too. Definitely worth reading if you can get hold of a copy! 🙂

  8. Oh, I love your list. And thanks so much for the link love. I’m having such a good time going back 20, 15, 10 and 5 years. OK, I’ve read one Megan Abbott book, The End of Everything, but not this one. Think I might have it on my Kindle. The one I read was disturbing. I think all of her books are a little out there – part of why they are either love or hate by readers I suspect. I’ve also read other books by Hosseini, but again, not this one. It’s on my list. I did read the story The Birds, but have not read other stories by du Maurier. Again, I’ve meant to. Love your comment that he added a character to fit one of this blondes. Hitchcock was an odd little man I think. Enjoyed this!

    • My pleasure! 🙂 I know – it;s great fun looking back, but it keeps reminding me of all those authors I meant to follow-up on and haven’t yet. I loved The End of Everything, maybe even slightly more than I loved Dare Me, but it’s a close call. I haven’t read any of her noir stuff though. And I’m the other way round with Hosseini – this is the only one I’ve read, though The Kite Runner has been on my TBR for ever, it seems like. And I keep meaning to read more du Maurier too… *sighs*

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