Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
MAY

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.

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

 

2011

 

last-man-in-towerUK3002011 was the first year I chose a ‘Book of the Year’ and this was the book. For me, the best fiction must shed some light on the society in which it’s set, provide memorable characters and tell us something about the ‘human condition’. This book does that in spades. Masterji, the last man of the title, has become one of those rare characters who have gained a permanent place in my fictional landscape. As the Vakola area of Bombay begins to come up in the world, the inhabitants of an apartment block are offered money by a developer to move out. One man, Masterji, a retired teacher, wants to stay. This is the story of how the promise of wealth changes and corrupts a community. But it’s also so much more than that. The author takes us into the lives of Masterji and his neighbours, letting us see their thoughts and dreams and fears. With humanity and humour he paints a picture of the friendships, favours and shared histories that bind a community together; and then shows how small envies and old grievances are magnified when that community is divided. A great book.

 

2012

 

bring up the bodiesWhen a book is as good as Wolf Hall, a sequel is sometimes as much to be dreaded as anticipated. Here, though, Mantel succeeds in giving us a second instalment that is worthy of the first. As Anne Boleyn fails to give Henry his much-wanted son, Cromwell finds himself facing a similar situation as his mentor Cardinal Wolsey had – to find a way to rid the King of one Queen and replace her with another. Ever mindful of Wolsey’s fate, Cromwell is determined to succeed where he failed; and to settle a few old scores along the way. In this book, Cromwell is still presented as urbane, intelligent, mannerly and a loving father. But we also get to see more of his dark side – the man who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends. As the Seymours seek to rise to power on the back of Henry’s longing for the quiet Jane, we are given a clear picture of how women were schooled and used as objects of barter. But in the end, the outstanding character in this sequel remains Cromwell who, in Mantel’s confident hands, has become one of those literary characters who will remain in the mind long after the book has been read.

 

2013

 

someone to watch over meWhen a residential unit for disabled people is burned down, all the residents are killed bar one. Jakob has Downs Syndrome and a grievance – he never wanted to be placed in the unit and he doesn’t like it there. It seems to be an open and shut case but, because of his disability, Jakob is sent to a secure psychiatric hospital rather than prison and it looks like he’ll stay there for life. At least, until one of the other inmates asks lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to try to get the case reopened. I’ve discovered over the last few years that I don’t really get on very well with male Nordic writers, but enjoy some of the female ones a good deal. Haven’t quite analysed why this should be, yet. Sigurdardóttir manages the difficult subject of disability in this book without ever becoming mawkish or sentimental, and there’s a beautifully creepy strand woven through the main plot, which adds an extra layer of tension. One day I’ll read the rest in the series…

 

2014

 

a princess of marsArriving naked on Barsoom (Mars), John Carter finds himself captured by huge six-limbed green Martians, also naked, repulsive to look at and vicious by nature. However, endowed with superior strength and agility by the low gravity on Mars, the brave Carter has soon killed enough of these creatures to win their admiration and to be made a chieftain among them. This comes in handy when he meets his true love, in the guise of a (naked) red Martian, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. She has been captured by the green Tharks and is soon to be tortured to death for their amusement. But Carter is entranced by the beauty and spirit of Dejah Thoris and sets out to save her and return her to her own (naked) people, the Heliumites. In truth, the ‘best’ book I read in May 2014 was The Road, but this one has given me so much fun in terms of reading, reviewing and chatting that it has to be the winner. I’ve since read two of the sequels and expect to return to Barsoom again…

 

2015

 

you zoran drvenkarGrim and brutal, darker than black, and written almost entirely in the second-person present tense, so I should have hated it. But it’s brilliantly written, with language and imagery that would easily fit into the ‘literary’ category, and with a depth and range of characterisation that is rare in any kind of fiction. Although there’s no supernatural element to it, it feels strongly like a particularly savage fairy-tale. Fundamentally, it’s about evil. Three strands – a gangster looking for the person who left his brother dead and stole a stash of drugs, a group of teenagers worrying about a missing friend, and a serial spree killer. The viewpoint revolves through thirteen characters with the reader being put inside each of their heads in turn. Drvenkar handles the complexity in a masterly fashion and the second half of the book in particular whirls the reader on towards a climax that is almost operatic in its high drama and totally satisfying inevitability. It’s noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled – and quite stunning.

 * * * * *

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

34 thoughts on “Five of the Best!

    • Yes, indeed! It’s funny, since I started doing this it’s really made me aware of how there are some months when there are so many good books it’s hard to decide which to choose. Haha! I didn’t either but they’re great for a bit of light entertainment. 🙂

  1. 2014 was a naked year, I’d say! But good choice over The Road. I’ll take naked Martians over naked dialogue any day. Cormac never did like to dress up his prose with pesky punctuation… Maybe we should start a clothing drive for the Martians. Then again, Carter may not fall in love with a clothed princess. Being Princess of Helium, I’m wondering if she had a high voice?

    • It was – and 2015 has been much the same! Ten in the series – three down, seven to go. Yes, much though I admired The Road, for some reason it didn’t make me chuckle nearly so much. 😉 I have thought of opening a clothing franchise on Mars – I reckon there’s a fortune to be made! I was delighted to find that when they all went off to the frozen north, they dressed appropriately – naked in freezing temperatures is so not a good look. Haha! That would have been fun, especially when she stood behind Carter while he was fighting, singing battle songs… Oh, I love these books!

  2. Such interesting choices, FictionFan! The Mantel and the Yrsa don’t surprise me: both are, in my opinion, excellent books. Which means of course that they are excellent. 😉 Seriously, though, what I like in your selection here is the different sorts of books you’ve chosen. Goes to show that the genre really is wide and varied.

    • Haha! Well, if we both like them, then that proves they’re good… 😉 I love reading all different kinds of books but it does mean I never get as deeply into one genre as I’d like. Hence the massive TBR… *sighs*

  3. You had some extremely varied choices for these years…and that’s a good thing. The only one that I might see myself reading is Someone To Watch Over Me, but I’ve already decided to try that author. So, it’s all good!

    • Yes, I like to read all sorts of different stuff but it means I never have time to follow up on the authors I enjoy. Yrsa Sigurdardottir is great though – I’ve read a couple of her books and a couple of short stories and have thought they’ve all been way above average. Enjoy!

  4. Lots of good stuff here, FF — I so appreciate your monthly annual review (is that a even a phrase??) Anyway, Someone To Watch Over Me sounds like the best of the lot (naked Martians doesn’t sound terribly interesting, sorry to report!)

    • It’s a phrase now! 😉 What! Naked 14-foot aliens with tusks and four arms don’t appeal to you? I’m thinking the next party I throw will be held on Barsoom – no need for fancy-dress costumes…

  5. Well you’ve come up with some brilliant books and I haven’t read any of them although two are on my TBR; the Mantel which I feel guilty for not reading and Someone to Watch Over Me which has been sat on my kindle for a very long time.

  6. Oh, YOU! I’m still trying to get up enough courage to start another long book….but it may not happen until a little break in July or August. Who knew that writing would ever trump reading? 😀

  7. Barsoom any day. I’m really so glad you are enjoying these. I read them as a child, and hadn’t reread them as an adult until you started reviewing them. I think they still stand up quite well. All the others sound good too.

  8. What a fantastic list! I read A Princess of Mars years ago, so I’m glad to see it on your list. The others really intrigue me. I’ve heard of Hilary Mantel because of her winning the Man Booker prize. But I haven’t yet read her books.

    • I’m enjoying the Barsoom books much more than I’d have expected – fun! Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are both great – I wish she’d hurry up and finish the last one. I’ll have forgotten these two before she does at this rate!

  9. Bring Up The Bodies is the only one I’ve read but I agree it was absolutely fantastic. We went to see the plays of the books that they did recently and they were also brilliant.

    • Oh, I’d have liked to have seen those. Though I must admit I avoided the TV adaptation – I think I’d rather wait and read the third book first so the characters stay as I imagined them. Wish she’d hurry up though!

  10. Gosh, was the Mantel really 2012? The years fly in a frightening way – and I’m astonished also to see that your 2011 choice was the last time we both read the same book! The Mantel kind of sat on a TBR, as I’d had reservations about Wolf Hall, probably because a couple of other Booker shortlists in that year had grabbed my boat more strongly. I am kind of tempted by your passionate advocacy of You, though there are various descriptors which make me hesitate. I seem to be strangely resistant to the lure of naked Martians, and have perhaps been a bit overkilled by Scandi Noir, so can pass these by serenely. Maybe if those Scandis removed all their clothes and went to Mars? Mardi Noir? Hot Stuff on Ice? Cue Torvill and Dean…………..

    • I know – every time I do one of these lists I’m amazed at how long ago certain books were. I wish she would hurry up with part 3! I’m not at all convinced that you would like You – our tastes do cross over on fiction some of the time, but rarely on crime. I don’t like to put anyone off a great book, but be warned! Firstly it felt Nordic-ish (for some reason German crime always feels Nordic to me) and secondly the teenage girls reminded me of Megan Abbott… maybe read the sample before you decide. On the whole, I think you should just remove your thermals and head for Barsoom – but make sure you don’t land near the man-eating plantmen…

      • Oh, I think the Megan Abbott is a good warning, as I know we rapidly ran in opposite directions on her. Will have a look inside. I got on well with Tana French’s teens in The Secret Place, but not with Abbott’s.

        And I did like Scandi, a lot, at one point, but then everyone was doing the Scand (or maybe it was the Strand, with Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music!) and I began to lose interest.

        I will for sure have to read Bring Up The Bodies before Part 3 hoves into view.

        • I don’t get on very well with the Scandi men – I think they’re less highly evolved than the women perhaps! But a couple of the female writers have worked for me and Sigurdardottir is probably the best actual writer I’ve come across from that region. But on the whole I wouldn’t describe myself as a huge fan of the whole Nordic scene. When push comes to shove I really prefer British crime fiction.

  11. Good to see John Carter made the list–I think! You seem to rip it while you praise it, you know. Besides, I’ve come to the conclusion that John Carter isn’t naked, everyone else is. He wears a black cape.

    If Henry wanted a son so bad…don’t you think he should’ve adopted one?

    • You ripped it first! It’s highly rippable. He does? I thought he probably wore cargo pants, like all the great heroes do.

      You will be shocked to know that I have held for years that Anne Boleyn should have had a son with someone else and passed him off as Henry’s! It’s not advice I would normally give, you understand, but better than getting one’s head chopped off, don’t you think? (I mean, if Paul can have children with a woman not his wife, why shouldn’t Anne have done the same?)

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