Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
SEPTEMBER

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 September reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

gods without menA young autistic boy disappears on a trip to the California desert, a disappearance that echoes other incidents in the history of this empty and mysterious place. Kunzru takes the reader back through the history of the various people who have visited this place or made their lives there. Each is fundamentally changed by their experiences there. A beautifully written novel, enigmatic enough to allow for different interpretations. For me,  it is about the search for faith – the desire for belief. The fascinating characters bring so many gods to the desert over the years, and it seems that the desert absorbs them and weaves them into its mystery. But the book is not preaching a particular line – the overwhelming feeling left at the end is that, for the author as well as for some of the characters, the question of whether there is something beyond the rational remains unanswered, perhaps unanswerable. I’ve been waiting for four years to read Kunzru’s next novel… still waiting.

 

2012

 

my heart is my ownIt was John Guy’s brilliant biography of Thomas Becket that reawakened my enthusiasm for reading historical biography after a lapse of many years. This earlier book of his is a sympathetic portrait of the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots. Meticulously researched, as Guy’s books always are, but he’s also a great storyteller who makes his books as enjoyable as they are interesting. He set the standard that I’ve looked for ever since in non-academic histories – that is, to assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way. Mary is one of the endlessly fascinating characters in history, still attracting supporters and denigrators centuries after she died. Guy is undoubtedly a supporter – in fact, at times I almost felt he’d fallen a little in love with his subject. But then it seems Mary had that effect on many men…

 

2013

 

the bones of parisIt’s 1929 and Paris is filled with avant-garde artists leading the bohemian life. So when Harris Stuyvesant, ex-FBI agent turned private investigator, is hired to find a missing young American woman he fully expects to find her so immersed in this exciting world that she’s simply forgotten the folks back home. That is, until he meets Inspector Doucet, a man worried about unsolved disappearances stretching back for years. As Harris plunges into the strange and twisted world of surrealist art, Grand Guinol theatre, decadence and drugs, he begins to realise that the glittering artistic society hides a dark secret…

A fairly slow-burn thriller, this works well as a standalone although it’s the second book in the Harris Stuyvesant series. Some of the adjectives I used in my review were macabre, gruesome, dark, sensual, disturbing. The story somewhat takes second place to King’s brilliantly convincing picture of the amorality of the bohemian scene in 1920’s Paris.

 

2014

 

rebel yellI feel I’ve been banging on about this book forever, but since it won my Book of the Year Award last year, it could hardly not be the best book of the month! So, since I have nothing left to say about it (other than – read it!), I’ll just apologise instead for nearly reigniting the Civil War on Amazon US! It all started with one comment on my review from someone who felt I shouldn’t have shown any admiration for a Confederate. I replied with a fairly bland response to the effect that of course I wasn’t intending to imply any kind of support for slavery. I then got blasted by another commenter who felt the need to explain to me – at some length, I may say – that the Civil War wasn’t fundamentally about slavery. (He had clearly failed to spot I’d just read a 400-page book on the subject.) This did not please Mr First Commenter! (Yes, of course they were both men – did you ever doubt it?) He replied forcefully and at equal length. A ding-dong ensued, which gradually spread to about a zillion people all hurling Yankee and Confederate insults at each other. I dropped out of the conversation at about the fifth comment but it still rumbles on, as a new reader comes along, reads the thousands and thousands of words, leaves their own comment and starts them all off again…

 

2015

 

the voices beyondA difficult choice, since September was filled with 5-star books, but this is one of the best crime/thrillers I’ve read in a long time. Set in two timelines, this takes us to present day Öland in Sweden, and back to Stalinist USSR at the time of the Great Terror. While the present day story is good, it’s the USSR strand that lifts the book so far above the average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times. Back in the present, the main protagonist is 86-year-old Gerlof, and his characterisation is another of the book’s major strengths. This is the fourth book in Theorin’s Öland Quartet, all featuring Gerlof, and led to me immediately adding the other three to my already groaning TBR…

* * * * * * *

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

 

30 thoughts on “Five of the Best!

    • Haha! Good luck! Some of the comments are nearly as long as the book… 😉 I enjoyed The Bones of Paris very much, but my old reading buddy, Lady Fancifull, was quite strongly of the opposite position. But then it’s the fact that we so rarely agree that makes it fun!

  1. Oh, these all look so good, FictionFan. And I remember how well you liked Rebel Yell in particular. It’s good to hear that you enjoyed the Theorin so much, too. I really like his Gerlof Davidsson stories (and the character as well!). It’s a good job my TBR didn’t see me sneaking over to visit your blog today… 😉

    • Haha! These TBRs need to be shown who’s boss occasionally! Yes, Rebel Yell is a great book, but there are so many great factual books now – doing this round-up has shown me how often my favourite reads come from the factual side, a thing that wouldn’t have been true until the last few years. I really must find time to read the other Gerlof books…

  2. So the one that had me thinking it might have my name on it is your 2011 read (which probably, given your review here, isn’t surprising – in theory it sounds wonderfully fancifull friendly!

    • I hate to say it, but I really do think you’d enjoy Gods Without Men – I’m surprised I didn’t attempt to twist your arm at the time! (Isn’t it strange to think we’ve been chit-chatting online for nearly five years now? Strange but good… )

      • Dear old five year virtual buddy!!!! Sorry, I mean of course Dear five year old virtual buddy!!! No, I don’t, I mean, dear virtual buddy, for five years.

        Look smug now – THIS year you have managed to recommend the MOST books which I read and reviewed – and I think all of them got reviewed on here which means 4 stars at least! Well done (American Pastoral is still waiting and I think Gods and Men might too!)

        • You can mean anything you like – except OLD!!!! I wonder how many of each other’s recs we’ve read over that time? I think my reading habits have changed a bit, partly due to your influence. I read more ‘proper’ fiction now, even though we don’t always (!) agree about them.

          Hurrah! I feel very smug now! Stuffing the TBR with GAN quest books means I’ve not had so much room for other people’s recs this year, but there have still been a few that have moved from your list onto mine too… I just need to find time to read more of them!

      • Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh come on, I just grooved on over to Az, and not just you, but E. Annie Proulx and one of my very favourite authors David Mitchell are raving about it. 3 such different people of discernment can’t be wrong, surely. Bought on a nice little marketplace used for a penny and postage. Wood book, not arriving instantly, is what I need. Time to clear a space for it on the wobbly pile, thanks FF.

        • These marketplace things are wonderful aren’t they? Often cheaper even than the Kindles. I’ve been using them more and more, and also Abe Books, which seem to be cheaper than Az for older books too. I hope you enjoy Gods – I shall await your review with my usual mixture of anticipation and apprehension…

    • I love these posts – they remind me of some great books and authors, though that has the unfortunate side-effect of increasing my TBR every month! A good choice – I thought it was brilliant, well-written and interesting. 🙂

  3. I’m adding Rebel Yell to my TBR! Although histories and biographies aren’t my genre of choice, this one sounds excellent. Growing up in the north (but with Southern parents), I realize much of what I learned is probably slanted!

    • Hurrah! It really is a brilliant biography – a real example of how much better written they tend to be these days. And yes, I think it’s always good to try to find out more about the ‘other side’ – and this one, I felt, wasn’t too politically biased. It was definitely more about the people involved rather than the politics. I hope you enjoy it!

  4. Lol on Rebel Yell! I never doubted the gender. I hope you socked someone good though! Intellectually speaking, of course. Time to borrow the Professor’s katana and head over to Amazon. I believe I have a pitchfork somewhere in my drawer of mismatched socks….

    • Haha! It’s alllllllllways men! I did give them both a fairly stern ticking off as I flounced out of the discussion, on the lines that they really shouldn’t make judgements about historical figures based on contemporary attitudes. They both completely ignored me and went straight back into battle! Genuinely some of the comments are longer than my review… a katana would have come in extremely useful! I do love how passionate people get on Amazon US though – in the UK the comments are usually shorter, ruder and not nearly as good spelling… yesterday I had one that started “Whoever wrote this review must have been drunk or delirious…” I wish!

  5. Thanks again for the shout-out and I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read any of them although I’m tempted by them all except perhaps the Rebel Yell where I have to go and check out the war you ignited! Your comments about Your Heart is My Own encapsulate exactly how these historical biographies should be written, they’ve lapsed off my radar probably due to too many writers not understanding what us readers need!

    • It’s a strange batch this month – looking back I think September must be a big month for factual books, ‘cos I seem to have reviewed loads of them and not so much crime. Haha! The factual reviews quite often start wars on Amazon US – they get so passionate about them. Sadly, they also seem to think that reviewing a book makes you an expert, so I quite often get questions like “So in summary what would you say were the main causes of WW1.” To which I reply, “This is a great book – you should read it!” 😉

  6. Well, the rebels have a point, don’t you know? They chose to separate themselves from Mother Britain, and they then wanted the same privilege from to leave the colonies themselves on this round.

    • Yes, I reckon a few people are still so entrenched that they’re not willing to see that it was a much more complex dispute on both sides than it’s sometimes made out to be. And unfortunately those few people all decided to read my review… 😉

  7. Mary! Hmm…I thought she was dreadfully wicked? And ugly. But I suppose I might be wrong.

    *laughs* You started a war! Over here, you wouldn’t believe the sentiments about the Civil War. Especially if you stand with the Confederates and say that the war wasn’t about slavery–which I do! *puts on gray uniform and grabs cool sword with yellow tassel*

    86 year old protagonist? Nice! About time my age group starred in things.

    • She was not ugly!! Hmm… I don’t know that she was any more wicked than most Royals, but I have mixed feelings about her. But she did have to put up with John Knox preaching at her – that would be enough to bring out the rebel in any girl, I feel…

      I know! And I didn’t mean to! Yes, if the thousands of words of comments taught me anything it’s that some people won’t even try to see that there might have been more to it than slavery. I think I’m on the Confederate side a bit too, but that might just be as a result of reading this book… *leaps onto Little Sorrel and rides into battle*

      *laughs* Yes, but you’re much better preserved for your age than Gerlof. I bet he couldn’t even dance!

      • So, was she nice looking then? *laughs* You really dislike Knox, don’t you?

        On the Confederate side? What an interest! I would never have thought it of you, actually. But the cool thing: You started a war of words! It’s so funny. Debating is. And that’s one topic that riles people up the most.

        Was he that stiff? Poor thing. I can’t dance either, the sudden. Only one dance.

        • Apparently – the pic on the book cover makes her look quite pretty, don’t you think? *laughs* No more than he would have hated me, the old misogynist!

          Really? Why not? It makes me laugh when they write thousands of words full of quotes, and then totally ignore what the other person says and just write the same whole thing again in the next comment. But in the middle of that war, two of the commenters hit it off and started flirting for a little bit – that was quite funny…

          You can! And you will! And what’s more, you’ll enjoy it! *nods confidently*

  8. Rebel Yell may well be my book of the year, and I enjoyed Guy’s book too (I always do enjoy his books) despite not being a great admirer of Mary – now all the Scots will come after me!

    • Really?! Oh good! I knew you enjoyed it, but I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it that much. 🙂 I’m kind of ambivalent about Mary – I’ve swayed backwards and forwards over the years depending on what I last read. But I always enjoy Guy’s writing whether I’m in full agreement with him or not.

  9. As always some really interesting books – and I’ve not read any of them! The one that stands out because I like historical biographies is John Guy’s book and I haven’t come across any of his books. Definitely an author for me to look out for – I like the sound of the Becket book as well as the Mary one, although I’m not as fascinated by her as he sounds. 🙂

    • I really preferred the Becket to the Mary book, partly because I knew so little about Becket it was almost like reading a thriller! Usually he seems to stick to the Tudor era, and I’ve enjoyed everything of his that I’ve read. It’s so good that so many historians are writing in a much more accessible way these days… 🙂

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