Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
OCTOBER

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

 

2011

 

american psychoI 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.

 

2012

 

Testament of MaryThis 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.

 

2013

 

a time to killThe 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.

 

2014

 

a separate peaceOne 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.

 

2015

 

the blue guitarA 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.

* * * * * * *

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

 

63 thoughts on “Five of the Best!

  1. You’ve got some great choices there, FictionFan! A Time to Kill is such a powerful book, I think. And A Separate Peace is one of those books that a lot of people think is an American classic. Very glad you enjoyed that one. And I remember how much you liked The Blue Guitar. That’s one of those books that I would like to read; unfortunately, there aren’t 50 hours a day to do all the reading I’d like…. *sigh*

  2. Genesis! They’re a cool band. Not sure about Whitney Houston, though. I probably should know her… *thinks hard*

    The Blue Guitar made the list! Awesome. That is such an interest of a book. Mainly because of the title, you know.

    • She sang the horrendous ‘I will always love Youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu’ from the Titanic – sadly she did not go down with the ship! Genesis are not cool!!

      You could paint your guitar blue! The fun of that review was the backing music, though.

      • I’m not sure I know that song, I fear. But it sounds awful! I will always love you…yucketh. They are a bit. Just a bit, you must admit.

        No! I couldn’t do that to the beautiful creature. That was fun! You’re something of a tech whizz these days.

        • Lucky you! But I bet you’d recognise it – your subconscious has probably suppressed it. I shall kindly not give you a link! I musn’t admit it at all!

          I’ll have you know I was considered to be a bit of a computing guru in the glory days of DOS and WYSIWYG!! *laughs at the Prof’s befuddled face* In fact, some of my… er… maturer acquaintances still come to me for advice – the blind leading the blind, as I repeatedly tell them…

          • Thank you! James Horner did do a great job with the soundtrack, though. I’ve played it in wind band, see.

            *laughing* I’m not surprised at all! You seem very competent at that sort of thing. That’s cool. Yes, I’m wearing a befuddled face. But I do know DOS. I will know who to ask questions to now…

            • I don’t really remember the soundtrack other than that song. And it’s a film I will most definitely never watch again!

              *laughs* I fear my DOS skills may be a little rusty! WYSIWYG stood for ‘what you see is what you get’ – the very early programs where you didn’t need to know computer language to use them because it all worked in the background, and the screen was formatted. Thank goodness! Of course, this was all in a past life ‘cos obviously there’s no way I’m old enough to remember it!

            • Really? It’s a film I’d have thought you would’ve loved. But then again…maybe not.

              That’s so cool that you did that sort of thing, though! Cool name for that program thingy, too. See? Just goes to show you that you’d be awesomely adept now, if you wanted to be!!

            • It was OK, but a bit soppy – and long!! And I hate that song so much…

              *laughing lots* You’re so sweet! I feel so old now… but I can still work the blu-ray player too. Aren’t you proud? *giggles hysterically*

            • Very soppy! I’ve only seen the way end, though, so it’s not fair. The boat sinking is a little cool.

              *laughs* So glad you can, cause I’m always having trouble with mine. You should fetch it out for me.

  3. American Psycho is a great book, despite the naughtier bits. I still have The Blue Guitar on my list, although I can’t seem to get round to actually reading anything just recently. There is a little pile building by my bed that I am now using to balance my tea on!

    • It is – I got talked into it against my better judgement, but I’m glad to admit I was wrong! I’m pretty sure it’s only the piles of books that are holding my house up – that’s my excuse for not getting rid of any of them!

    • I’ll be interested in what you think of the Banville – it seems to have gone down better with people who haven’t read his other stuff. Some exisiting fans think this is a bit light compared to his other books. The Toibin is wonderful – but then I always think his stuff is…

  4. I’m with you on the Knowles and the Toibin – I remember you steering me towards the Toibin but I managed to discover Knowles all by myself! Well, that won’t be quite true, I have a feeling that it was someone on Radio 4, extolling its virtues a few years ago. The Banville will probably be got to at some point, following your and other reccs.

    I have trouble with BEE. he’s a crafted writer but I can’t hear humanity in him.

    But all in all, I think you had a very good month in your 5 years of October!

    • I can’t remember what put me onto the Knowles now – maybe somebody suggested it on a GAN quest post. I think you’d enjoy the Banville, for the pure pleasure of the prose if nothing else.

      I wouldn’t say it was the most human book in the world either – more political, with a small p. About society more than the individual. But to be honest, much though I enjoyed AS, I’ve never been strongly tempted to read any of his other books.

      Yes, it was a hard choice this month – October being the month all the pre-Christmas books appear. Though in the end I’ve gone for more oldies than newbies…

      • I have no problem with someone writing from a cooler place about society. What I objected to in the BEE I read was a kind of superior disdain. I should try AP, though I suspect I’ll find my prejudices about his voice get in the way. I think a book written with such caricature and spite about a different group of people might have been seen quite differently. I probably agree with his view of that culture and society, but it’s the place he writes from that I find off – putting. A kind of superior delight in himself. Certainly in the one I read.

        • Hmm… too long since I read it to really remember. But American Psycho seems to be generally accepted as his best one, so maybe I was lucky in choosing that one to try. If memory serves me right (and it doesn’t always) he did show some sympathy for Patrick trying to find his way through the awfulness of life…

  5. I’ve read most of Grisham’s books, and I find his storytelling exceptional. A Time to Kill didn’t disappoint. I haven’t read the one about Mary. Really depends on how the story is told as to whether I’d enjoy it. The Blue Guitar sounds interesting — “fabulous prose” is high praise indeed, so I’ll definitely check that one out — thanks, FF!!

    • I love Grisham – he’s variable, yes, but I always find him readable and his best books are great! The Testament of Mary met with a lot of criticism from some Christians, to be honest, but others seemed to like it. I think it’s important to read it as a fictionalised account – I kinda wish the son in question hadn’t been Christ, because it’s an absolutely brilliant portrait of a mother’s grief and guilt. And The Blue Guitar is great… 🙂

  6. I read A Separate Peace years ago in high school and have been contemplating visiting it again. It was one of the few assigned books I really enjoyed reading at the time.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, because I had to laugh when I was reviewing it on Amazon. There were about 40 reviews on there, obviously all from a class who’d been forced to read and review it as some kind of school project – and most of them had given it one star! Poor things! I do think they sometimes force these books on people who’re too young for them. Well worth a re-read, that’s for sure! 🙂

    • It’s very different from his other stuff, isn’t it? I always enjoy him, but that book is much more powerful. Haha! Don’t worry – I’ll keep reminding you… 😉

  7. I loved Testament of Mary and I’m saving Blue Guitar for reading during Christmas hols! Intrigued to see Whitney and Genesis listed together – my Whitney-liking family describe my prog-rock Genesis-past as my ‘old hippy phase!’ as if there were decades in between! Maybe am not so ancient after all!!!

    • Haha! They do seem like a different era somehow, don’t they? But also a real gender divide – in my day Genesis was definitely a band for boys (as opposed to a boy band!) while it was the girls who loved Whitney’s love ballads! Personally I had impeccable taste – Marc Bolan for me! 😉 I hope you enjoy The Blue Guitar – I think you will!

  8. Sometimes I despair – I think I’ve read A Time to Kill – but maybe I haven’t. I thought I’d read all of Grisham’s early books, so I must have read this one …

    On safer ground with the other books – I haven’t read them. I think I’d like the Banville and Toibin books and know I wouldn’t like American Psycho as I can’t stomach extreme graphic violence and I can’t stand Whitney Houston.

    • Thta’s partly why I started reviewing – couldn’t remember which books I’d read and which I hadn’t! I have a feeling Time to Kill was published before he became known – like you I thought I’d read all the early ones, but hadn’t read this.

      Both the Banville and Toibin are great reads, but, yes, American Psycho is definitely overly graphic – I’m still surprised I liked it so much, only because the violence became so ridiculous in the end it stopped offending me and started amusing me. Haha! The psycho’s liking for Whitney was one of the surest signs of his madness, I thought… 😉

  9. It’s interesting that the favorite of many people is Grisham’s first book, one that didn’t really go anywhere until The Firm became a bestseller.

    I never read A Separate Peace. Now you make me want to read it.

    • Yes, I wonder how he feels about it. But it’s much more powerful than most of his stuff, much though I enjoy them as a rule.

      I loved it – so beautifully written. Well worth reading!

    • I certainly wouldn’t put you off reading it since it’s a great book. But you could get away with reading Sycamore Row first – although it’s set in the same town with some of the same characters the plots have nothing to do with each other. The only problem you might find is that there might be a small spoiler or two for A Time to Kill in Sycamore Row.

    • I’ve been enjoying a lot of American classics recently – as a Brit most of them are quite new to me though they’re pretty much standards over there. Just had a look at your blog – great reviews!

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 🙂

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