FIVE 5-STAR READS
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 October reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…
I started this book with some trepidation given that I knew it contains a lot of extremely graphic sex and violence. What I hadn’t expected was to find the book so very funny. The blackest black comedy I have ever read, Ellis lays bare the shallow and self-obsessed world of ’80s yuppie culture and does so superbly. The obsessions with brand clothing, with pop icons such as Genesis and Whitney Houston, with nouvelle and fusion cuisine and most of all with conspicuous spending – all combined to remind me of the awfulness of the laddish greed culture so prevalent at that time.
The violence is indeed graphic and gets progressively more extreme as the book goes on. However, given the theme of excess in all things that runs through the book, I felt it stayed in context. In fact, it eventually became so outrageous that, for me, it passed from being shocking to being, in a strange way, part of the humour of the book. Brilliantly written, extremely perceptive and amazingly funny – still surprised I enjoyed it so much.
This short novella is an amazingly powerful account of a mother’s love and grief for her son. The fact that that son happens to be the Son of God is secondary. Beautifully written and with some wonderful, often poetic, imagery, Tóibín shows us Mary as a woman who lives each day with guilt and pain that she couldn’t stop the events that led her son to the cruel martyrdom of the cross.
Emotional, thought-provoking, at points harrowing, this book packs more punch in its 104 pages than most full-length novels. Its very shortness emphasises Mary’s driven urgency to tell her tale before her chance is gone. Despite the subject matter, it will appeal to lovers of great writing of any faith or none – this story is first and foremost about humanity. This was the book that first introduced me to Colm Tóibín – now firmly in place as one of my favourite authors.
The story begins with the horrific gang-rape and beating of a young black girl by two white men. The two men are quickly arrested and there is no doubt about their guilt. However, Carl Lee Hailey, the father of young Tonya, is not ready to let justice take its course and sets out to take his own revenge. When he is in turn arrested and charged with murder, he asks Jake Brigance to defend him. While there’s a lot of sympathy for Carl Lee, especially amongst the black townsfolk, there is also a sizeable slice of opinion that vigilantism, whatever the provocation, is wrong; and then there’s the minority of white racists who think Carl Lee should be lynched. Soon the town is plunged into fear as the Ku Klux Klan take the opportunity to resurrect the days of burning crosses and worse.
This is an ambitious, sprawling book that looks at racism, ethics, fatherhood, friendship, politics, gender and, of course, corruption and the law. As always with Grisham, the writing is flowing, the plot is absorbing, the characterisation is in-depth and believable and there’s plenty of humour to leaven the grim storyline. Grisham says that often people he meets tell him this is their favourite of all his books – if I ever meet him, I think I’ll be telling him that too.
One of the joys of the last few years has been reading my way through some of the American classics, including this one. The book begins with an adult Gene returning to visit the school that he attended as a teenager during the middle years of the Second World War. We very quickly learn that some major event occurred during his time at school and that, in some way, this visit is intended to help him face up to his memories of that time.
This shortish novel is beautifully written. The New England landscape is vividly described, often in war-like metaphors, as we see it change through the seasons from the hot summer days to the deep frozen snows of winter. The life of the school is sketched with the lightest of touches and yet it becomes a place we feel we know and understand – a place in a kind of limbo, suspending its traditional role as educator and feeling rather uneasy in its temporary purpose of training and indoctrinating these young men to play their part in the war. And though the book rarely takes us beyond the school boundaries, we see how the boys are being affected by the news from outside, of battles and glorious victories and horrors in places they can’t even point to on a map. But the most special thing about the book is the truth of the characterisations. A lovely book, intensely emotional and with a true heart.
A difficult choice, since I also loved Resurrection Science in October, but I’ve decided to stick with the fiction choice.Olly Orme used to be a painter, but his muse has left him. He’s still a thief though. He doesn’t steal for money – it’s the thrill that attracts him. He feels it’s essential that his thefts are noticed or they don’t count as theft. Usually it’s small things he steals – a figurine, a tie-pin. But nine months ago, he stole his friend’s wife, and now that theft is about to be discovered.
This book about the narcissist Olly may not be the deepest or most profound novel I’ve ever read, but the characterisation of Olly is brilliant and, most of all, the prose is fabulous. I could forgive a lot to someone who makes me enjoy every word, whether deeply meaningful or dazzlingly light. And Banville dazzled me while Olly entertained me – I’ll happily settle for that. And will most certainly be backtracking to read some of Banville’s other books.
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If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for October, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…