Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
DECEMBER

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ve been 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. And so now we reach the last month of the year. December is the hardest month for me – I read as much as always, but tend to write very few reviews, leaving them till January. However, I’ve still managed to find five books I highly recommend.

So here are my favourite December reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

one pair of handsThis is an interesting and entertaining memoir of the period when Monica Dickens (great-granddaughter of Charles of that ilk) decided to work for a time as a cook-housekeeper. As a daughter of a well-off family in the ‘30s, she had no need to work for money but, bored with a life revolving around social events and parties, she signed up with an employment agency and found herself, despite her inexperience and self-confessed inefficiency, in a series of jobs ranging from cooking and cleaning in the flat of a bachelor to being the cook in a large country house.

Living below stairs but with a healthy curiosity about those above stairs too, Dickens gives humorous and mostly affectionate portraits of the various people she meets, and some insight into the life of the domestic servant at the point when they were becoming a dying breed. Although it was written over 70 years ago, it’s still an enjoyable read – Miss Dickens’ wickedly observant eye and lack of deference has allowed it to age gracefully.

 

2012

 

Gravity's Engines‘What I’d like you to take away from Gravity’s Engines is both a sense of the cosmic grandeur we have discovered and a feel for the great scope and ingenuity of human ideas at play.’

So says Caleb Scharf in his introduction to this very accessible account of the current thinking on black holes, how they formed and the effect they have on the universe. This was the book that reignited my interest in popular science after a gap of several years. I was delighted to discover that in the interim science writers had worked out how to write accessibly for the non-scientist, and Scharf is a fine example of this. He doesn’t skimp on the complex ideas, but explains them in a way that meant I was rarely left with the baffled expression I normally wear when reading science. And his boundless enthusiasm for his subject is catching – I was left in awe, not just of the amazing phenomenon of black holes, but of the scientists who have gone so far towards understanding and explaining them.

 

2013

 

we need new namesThis is the story of Darling, a young girl living in a shanty town in Zimbabwe. When we first meet her, she is ten and spends most of her time with her little group of friends. Through them, we get a child’s-eye view of the devastation that has been wrought on the country during the Mugabe period. At the half-way point, Darling is sent to America to live with her aunt in Michigan, and the second half is taken up with seeing the immigrant experience as Darling learns about this society that is so different from anything she has known.

I found Bulawayo’s writing style hugely skilful in giving an authenticity to Darling’s voice throughout and allowing her language to grow and change as she moves through adolescence. Although I had a problem with the tick-list of horrors she takes the reader through, I still found myself moved deeply on several occasions, and in particular by the short chapter at the centre of the book – an interlude between the two sections, where Bulawayo describes the exodus of a generation from her troubled homeland in language so beautiful and evocative it could fairly be described as a prose poem.

 

2014

 

f daniel kehlmannThis is a brilliant novel, sparkling with wit and intelligence. The fact that I have no idea what it’s about really didn’t affect my enjoyment of it in any way. F is for family, or failure, or faith, or fraud, or fear, or fate. Or possibly it isn’t. When unsuccessful author Arthur Friedland takes his three young sons to see a stage hypnotist, he doesn’t expect it to change his life. But a couple of hours later, he lets the boys out of the car and drives off, not to be seen or heard of again for years. The three boys, identical twins Ivan and Eric and their half-brother Martin, are young adults when suddenly Arthur’s new book, My Name is No One, becomes a sensation.

The main part of the book takes place over three lengthy chapters, each told from the viewpoint of one of the brothers and each covering the same short time-frame. During that period an event happens that has ramifications for all three but, although the reader knows what happened, the brothers don’t, and this is partly what gives the book its air of slight farce. The writing is superb – Kehlmann can squeeze a mountain of characterisation into a few telling phrases, allowing him plenty of space to treat us to some fairly tongue-in-cheek philosophical asides. And he forces the reader to collude with him in mocking, but affectionately, the worlds of art, literature and religion.

 

2015

 

the dungeon houseTwenty years ago, in a drunken fit of jealous rage, Malcolm Whiteley shot his wife and killed his daughter before turning the gun on himself. Or did he? DCI Hannah Scarlett’s old boss was never convinced, but could never find evidence to put anyone else in the frame. Now Hannah and her cold case team are re-investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl three years earlier when another girl goes missing – the daughter of Nigel Whiteley, who is now living in his uncle Malcolm’s old house, the Dungeon House, where the tragedy took place. Hannah begins to wonder if the three cases might be linked in some way…

With excellent plotting and a strong sense of its Lake District setting, there is a slight Golden Age feel to this mystery – hardly surprising from someone who is the author and editor of several books on classic crime – but brought bang up to date. I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

 

* * * * * * *

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

63 thoughts on “Five of the Best!

  1. FEF!!! Sorry, I’m somewhat excited today.

    Monica Dickens…what an interest! And I like the thing about aging gracefully. That’s me, the sudden. I’ve aged gracefully.

    Malcolm Whiteley has some very real anger management problems, I think. Someone should hack him down with a lawn mower.

    Anyways, Happy New Year!!

  2. What a super selection here, FF! I remember your review of F (can’t believe that was 2014! where does the time go?) and am very, very tempted by the Monica Dickens. But I am abandoning all books for writing at the moment… so on my little list it goes!

  3. You’ve already got it (Flanery) GREEN, positively GREEN. I had an email from the publisher to say I would get a copy in the New Year, but have not received anything yet. Whimpers jealously.

    Did you get it on da Vine or from the publisher?

  4. So glad to see you put the Edwards on your list, FictionFan! I think he’s very talented, and can write about crime fiction just as ably as he writes fiction himself. You’ve got a nice mix, too, of fiction and non-fiction, and of different sorts of fiction. And I must read that Dickens!

    • Yes, I’m looking forward to reading more of Edwards’ series – I do like crime to contain a proper mystery element! December’s always a bit of a funny month for me reading-wise – trying to clear the decks a bit before Santa brings sackfuls of new books! But it’s been a lot of fun looking back over the last five years and remembering some of the great reads… 🙂

  5. Monica Dickens was one of my favourites when I was in my teens -think I’ll have to dig One Pair out for a very overdue reread. I haven’t got around to any of your others yet, but I remember thinking they sounded interesting when you reviewed them ( except “F”, which sounds not at all my kind of thing).

    • I keep meaning to re-read One Pair of Feet, though from memory I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hands. Yes, my December picks are harder because I don’t review as much as usual. Most of my best December reads tend to show up in January. Not sure whether any of these are completely your kind of thing, except the Martin Edwards’…

  6. I love One Pair of Hands and her other books! I’m glad I’ve avoided the Bulawayo – I love reading about the immigrant experience but am not good on horrors, although obviously acknowledge they exist.

    • I’ve only read this and One Pair of Feet – someday I must try her other stuff! There are some pretty harrowing parts in We Need New Names – but you should sneak into a bookshop and just read the middle chapter – Leaving in Droves. It’s very powerful and it’s only short so you won’t get thrown out… 😉

  7. Happy New Year! I’m trying to get back to my pre-moving life and finding it difficult. But I’ve got to find Bulawayo’s book. It’s hiding somewhere in my boxes. When we moved, I agreed to keep my books (at least the ones I’m not using for work) under wraps until the new built-in bookshelves were finished. I only brought two of my old wooden bookshelves with us. So I’m going through withdrawal of the worst kind. The Monica Dickens book sounds like it could be quite funny, but it may be one I’d have to pull off the library shelves. And making the science behind black holes accessible? Who knew such a thing was possible?! That one may make it to the black hole of my TBR pile.

    • Happy New Year! I thought you might actually have been sucked into a black hole – which I’m not convinced would be altogether a bad thing. Firstly, I believe one gets longer and thinner as one approaches, never a bad thing, and secondly, one would live forever – except for the little flaw of being crushed to death before one got in. There’s always a flaw…

      Built-in bookshelves – the very thought makes me swoon with envy! I shall start making lists of new books you can acquire to fill them… vicarious book acquisition is such fun!

  8. Gee, the Monica Dickens sounds particularly interesting — as does The Dungeon House. Guess I’ll have to add them to my list, as I have other irons in the fire right now and precious little time for much other than work. Sigh. Perhaps a cup of hot cocoa would help??

  9. I’m really keen on the Monica Dickens, how fascinating that she chose to do that type of work despite not needing too. And of course I was already interested in s the Martin Edwards but since I’ve bought three of his books recently… need to put that willpower hat firmly back on my head 😉 Sad the year has come to an end I did enjoy choosing my books each month.

  10. Monica Dickens sounds fascinating and I really want to read Martin Edwards as I’ve enjoyed his writing on th Golden Age but never read any of his own fiction – clearly some who to teach can also do!

    • The Monica Dickens is very good – I first read it in my teens, and it stood up just as well on re-reading several – well, OK, many – years later! Yes, I think you can tell with Edwards that he’s so knowledgeable about rhe Golden Age. Though this one was bang up-to-date, it has lots of the aspects of a Golden Age mystery in it. Very enjoyable – I’m looking forward to reading more of his stuff, both factual and fiction.

  11. I’ve read exactly 0 of your books here, but I have read one of Martin Edwards’ series – the first one and I can’t think of the name right now. I’ve meant to continue it. And the 2nd and 3rd probably will qualify for my ‘read your own shelves’ quest. Yay!

    • The Coffin Trail? I’ve added it to the wishlist – as usual I’ve jumped in in the middle of the series. This could be why my TBR is always in the state it’s in! But I do think it’s a series that will be well worth catching up on… 🙂

    • I was hesitant to re-read it too, but it really did stand up to my memories of it – still beautifully humorous but I probably was more aware this time round of the class divides and the sheer hard work and ridiculous hours servants had to put in. Yes, I’ll definitely be reading more of Martin Edwards’ books!

  12. Oooh black-holes! I was in the black-hole phase for a bit after Interstellar released.. 😛 There’s a book by Kip Thorne called ‘The Science of Interstellar’..it’s very interesting..apparently Nolan consulted with Kip Thorne for all the science in the movie, so the book reveals how much of Interstellar was exaggerated or true..explains all the gravity and black hole stuff for the layman..I got out of the phase before I finished the book, but it’s really good .. 🙂

    • Haha! You were lucky you got out – it’s not easy to escape from a black hole! That book sound interesting. I must investigate. For a while after I read this one, I was a bit of an expert on black holes, but I’ve forgotten it all again now. The story of my life… 😉

  13. I’m surprised none of her employers recognized Monica Dickens. Or perhaps they did? Or perhaps she seldom ventured into society? I need to read the book to find out. It sounds fascinating!
    As usual you have quite the array of books!

    • I think most of her employers weren’t really posh enough to know the Dickenses socially – she was a rotten cook, so she only really got jobs with people who couldn’t afford decent servants! It’s a very enjoyable read – I’m actually tempted to read it again now…

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