Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
AUGUST

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 August reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

shutter island

Teddy Daniels, US Marshall, is a capable and attractive hero, a decorated veteran battling with memories of the horrors he saw during WWII and the more recent memories of the death of his beloved wife in a tragic fire. Sent to investigate the escape of a patient from a high-security asylum for extremely violent and insane offenders, Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule come to believe that the break-out would only have been possible with the help of one or more members of the staff. From this promising start, the book then spirals through ever changing conspiracy theories, which buffet and batter the reader much as the asylum is being battered by the hurricane that has cut off communication with the mainland. As the book progresses, it becomes harder and harder to know what is true and who is sane. An excellent and disturbing psychological thriller that reminded me a little of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in its questioning of the nature of sanity and madness. The cause of some lost sleep…

 

2012

 

knowledge of sins pastThe second in Lexie Conyngham’s fine historical crime series, this one sees Charles Murray of Letho, estranged from his father, taking work as tutor to the young sons of Lord Scoggie. Lord Scoggie’s domain is divided between hill farmers and fishermen between which communities there is a long-standing feud. And when old India hand Major Keyes comes a-wooing the Scoggie daughter, simmering resentments come back to the surface…

Set in 19th century Scotland, Conyngham does her usual excellent job in combining a look at aspects of post-Enlightenment Scottish society with a decent murder mystery.  In this one, Charles’ interactions with his young pupils give scope for a good deal of humour which lightens the tone, and his position as tutor gives him an entry into the worlds of both masters and servants. This has been one of my favourite series for a while now, despite a little disappointment with the most recent one. Although each book works as a standalone, to get the full benefit of the characterisation I would recommend they should be read in order, starting with Death in a Scarlet Gown.

 

2013

 

PU239Kalfus lived in Russia during the period 1994-1998, when his wife was appointed Moscow bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing him to get to know the country and its people. The result is this collection of six short stories and a novella, all based in the Russia of the USSR era. Overall, he gives us a grey and grim depiction of life under the Soviet regime, but leavened with flashes of humour and a great deal of humanity. In each of the stories Kalfus personalises the political, creating believable characters struggling to find a way to live under the Soviet system. He doesn’t take the easy option of concentrating on dissidents and rebels; instead, he shows us ordinary people, often supporters of the regime, but living under the constant fear of stepping out of line. As a collection, these are insightful and thought-provoking, and Kalfus’ precise language and compelling characterisation make them an absorbing read.

 

2014

 

the sun also risesIf the sign of a great book is that it takes up permanent residence in the reader’s mind, then this one must be great. It’s one of those books that I appreciate more in retrospect than I did during the actual reading of it. This tale of the feckless ‘lost generation’ drinking their way across Europe while taking turns to have sex with the ever willing Lady Brett irritated me intensely with its constant descriptions of drunkeness and long passages of tediously banal dialogue. But as I stood back after finishing it, I realised what a stunning depiction of machismo and masculinity it actually is, while the beauty of some of the descriptive writing has left indelible images in my mind – of the dusty streets, the restaurants and bars, the bus journey to Spain, and most of all of the rituals surrounding the annual bullfighting fiesta and running of the bulls in Pamplona. The characterisation is patchy, often using cheap racial stereotyping, and the structure is messy but, despite all its flaws, in the end the picture that emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all.

 

2015

 

waiting for sunrise coverWhen young actor Lysander Rief gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. The book is about lies, deception and self-deception and, despite some dark moments, has a layer of wit bubbling beneath the surface which keeps the overall tone light. Lysander has been visiting a psychiatrist who introduces him to the concept of ‘parallelism’. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. When Boyd is on form, as he is here, then there are few more enjoyable authors.

42 thoughts on “Five of the Best!

  1. Such an interesting variety here, FictionFan! I do like the influence of history on your choices, I must say. And a very nice array of different settings, too! Spain, Russia, the US, Scotland, Austria… Impressive! I really must try the Boyd; I’ve not yet, and you’re not the first to say I should.

  2. Wow. Your reading list is incredibly varied. That’s fantastic. Waiting for Sunrise sounds like a mind trip. Would love to know what inspired the author to write that book.

    • Well, eclectic is my middle name! 😉 Apparently he was living in Vienna and became obsessed both by its early twentieth century history and by Freud and psychoanalysis – according to wiki, anyway. But all his books tend to take in parts of the broad sweep of twentieth century history, mainly European. I suspect he has a bit of an obsession with spies too – they tend to crop up often in his books. Definitely an author worth investigating!

  3. OK, so Waiting for Sunrise sounds interesting. Love the idea of parallelism, the creation of a new, false path. There’s an article in the NY Times today about an actor who invented his harrowing escape from a burning twin tower on 9/11. I believe he engaged in parallelism for the betterment of his career, and is just now coming to terms with his false memory and apologizing to those who actually were there. I have a hard time believing that no one in the media who interviewed him ever checked his story.

    • Ah, you thought you’d got away with that one, since it was while you were away! But I brought it back just for you! 😉 Yes, there’s been something on the news about that story over here today too, though I haven’t listened to it properly. It seems to be a thing that these major tragedies lead to people using them as an excuse to either disappear or make themselves seem more important. Very weird, and sometimes quite sick. But I did like the idea of parallelism in this book – especially since the event Lysander wanted to change was so very cringe-makingly funny… poor man!

  4. Interesting selection. We agree on the Murray of Letho, but I disliked “The Sun” when I read it, and I haven’t read the others. So many books, so little time…..

  5. I am reading (along with “I Am Legend,” which I do like, and will finish!), a book about ’20’s Paris, told by Jimmy Charters, who was the most famous and genial bartender of the time, and has all sorts of stories to tell. He of course met Hemingway and so many others. He says that there was a real model for Brett Ashley, and for at least one of the other male characters in the story. Apparently “Lady Brett” was not at all happy about the book, but then got over it at some point. This to me puts a different slant on the novel. There is nothing wrong with taking characters from real life; the art is in recasting them, and in the descriptions. But if indeed these were all Hemingway’s friends and acquaintances, and he was in journalistic fashion (that was of course his career before he wrote novels) simply recounting events as he experienced them, this is not as impressive to me. The book is still very good, though; as I mentioned earlier when you reviewed it, I think that this is the time where Hemingway’s style perfectly fit the story, and particularly the sense of numbness following the characters’ experiences of the horrors of WWI; the effort to take some pleasure from nature, and from masculine pursuits such as fishing and running with the bulls, while essentially bereft of long-term hope or purpose.

    • Interesting! Yes, I’m never quite sure where the line should be drawn between taking characters from life and fictionalising them. It’s a debate that Lady Fancifull and I have had a few times – on the whole she takes a harder line than me, but generally we’ve both agreed that there’s something not quite right about using real people in this way, especially if they or their children are still alive. The further back in history the more liberties an author can take with a real-life character I suppose, but even if they stick rigidly to the truth it can be uncomfortable if the person is still around. I felt a bit put off by Mantel’s recent ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ for those reasons – yes, she was a public figure and an extremely divisive leader, hated as much as she was loved, but she had only recently died when the story came out, and one assumes her children were still grieving.

  6. I’ve not read much Russian work, but that’s the one that sounds most interesting to me right now. I rather enjoy short stories — take a lot of ability to create a full story arc and well-rounded characters and settings in just a few words!

    • I liked it because it wasn’t written by a Russian! There’s something about the Russian method of writing that leaves me cold. But I really felt Kalfus had got an authentic feeling for what life must have been like for people living in the USSR, and several of the stories are really great – variable, of course, as most collections are, but I love the way he writes.

  7. You’ve got quite the assortment here. In keeping with my ‘creepy’ reading right now, I’m thinking that Shutter Island would be my pick out of the five. I honestly can’t believe I haven’t read that one yet. Did you see the movie?

    • No, I’m hopeless for watching movies. I always plan to, but never do. With this one, I can’t quite imagine how they would do it as a film – avoiding spoilers, there’s so much in the book that goes on inside people’s heads. Must, must watch it and find out if it’s as good as the book…

    • I’ve really enjoyed looking back – though nearly every review ends with ‘and I shall certainly be reading the rest of this author’s work’ which I still haven’t done! So it’s frighteningly bad for adding to the dreaded TBR… 😉

  8. Love these posts! I had completely forgotten Lehane wrote Shutter Island so I’m going to give that a go. Loved the movie so the book ought to be awesome.

      • I’ll confess the only novel of his I know about is Live by Night which won the Edgar Award in 2013 I think – I’m betting that’s a good one if you’re interested…I’ve not read it myself though. I reckon you’ll get to all the books you’ve been meaning to read when the time is right and if you don’t…oh well! 🙂 You’re an inspiration to us all in your TBR endeavours!

  9. Ohhh I have Boyd’s latest book, Sweet Caress on my TBR pile as I keep hearing wonderful things about him…& here he is again.

    Love this idea by the way 🙂

    • I haven’t got hold of Sweet Caress yet – sounds good though! I find him variable but never really less than good. And when he’s on form, he’s great! Hope you enjoy it. 🙂

      Yes, the Five of the Best has been great fun to do – reminded me of lots of authors I really meant to read more of… even more for the TBR pile! Oh, well!

  10. A US Marshall! Can you imagine how cool it would be to be a US Marshall?! I would dig it.

    Anyone with the name Lord Scoggie can’t be taken seriously, I say.

    I see you finished the book about my endangered species.

    • It would be! And I could be your deputy – but not Deputy Dawg! I quite fancy wearing a gold star…

      *laughs* You’re so right, Chicky-Woot-Woot! Names should always be sensible!

      I did and very excellent it was too! Sadly, things didn’t work out too well for your species though – your five surviving relatives are all in a zoo now, and refusing to breed. Admittedly if I had 400 naturalists and scientists watching my every move I probably wouldn’t feel much like breeding either! I’ve decided you can’t be a Northern white rhino, but you can be a Southern white rhino instead – more of them and still in the wild. I wonder if they have Southern accents and rebel a lot…

      • *laughs* We’d have silver stars!!

        They should, why… *slants eyebrows* Hey! I see what you did there!!

        *laughing* Now, if I had to be a rhino, I’d want to be an endangered one! Then everyone would fuss when I made my escape. All the glory see. People would write about me. Then I might even impale some people.

        • Silver? Oh… but it tarnishes so badly. You’d have to clean mine every morning…

          Ooh, I’m jealous! I don’t think I can slant my eyebrows… though of course I can raise both individually, unlike the Professor… *smiles smugly*

          But they’d stick a ring through your ear and do experiments and stuff on you! *shudders* And they’d all be watching impatiently for you to breed. *shudders more* You should definitely impale them!

          • Only if you made me hot chocolate… *looks down at the mug in front of him* I’m almost sure there shouldn’t be little things floating around.

            You know, I’ve decided–the sudden–I don’t have any eyebrows! Now that’s a wonder.

            *laughing* But I never would breed just because! Very wise, though. I should just stay an orc.

            • You have hot chocolate?! And you didn’t give me any? I’m glad you have floating bits!!

              But then you’d look like… a fish! *suddenly wonders if Bubbles has eyebrows*

              Oh, that would be so unfair on the gene pool! I wonder if there are girl orcs…

            • Oh you’re so cruel and mean and cruel and mean! You wouldn’t want this. But you would be glad to know, I’ve perfected the process. No chunks in today’s bits.

              *laughs* A fish? Ew!

              Girl orcs…now that is an interest. Bet they’re filthy!

    • Shutter Island was great! As usual I meant to read more of Lehane’s books, but still haven’t got round to it. I love doing this post – so much fun looking back and deciding which books were the best… 🙂

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