FIVE 5-STAR READS
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…
This 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.
‘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.
This 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.
This 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.
Twenty 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.
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If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for December, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…