Best Novels of 2015

Kreative Leidenschaft

This wasn’t a great reading year. At least not during the second half of it. I’ve read so many books, I didn’t even bother reviewing because they left me cold. On the other hand I read a lot of nonfiction I loved but didn’t review either. That’s why, for the first time, my list was very easy to compile.

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. From my review:

Pick it up. It’s really worth it. If you love post-apocalyptic stories, you’ll read it anyway. If you don’t, maybe it will show you that not every book about the end must be traumatic. Certainly not one that makes you grateful for everything we have and, ultimately, shows that it’s possible to find beauty, no matter what will happen to our world. Nothing illustrates the message of the book better than the reversal of Sartre’s famous quote L’enfer c’est les autres – Hell is other people. In the novel Kirsten thinks that he’s wrong. She has come to the conclusion that hell is the absence of people you feel close to.

After Julius

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s  After Julius. From my review:

I found it hard to believe at times that this book was written in 1965. The open discussion of abortion and sexuality seemed far more modern. It made me wonder if we’re not living in more prudish times now.

Before ending this post I have to mention Elizabeth Jane Howard’s descriptions. They are stunning. When she describes a room, a scene, clothes, anything, she makes full use of these descriptions. It’s never just a random description but it always contributes to the understanding of a character, enhances the mood, sets the tone.

It’s still early but I wouldn’t be surprised if this book would be among my best of this year. Since she reminded me of many writers I absolutely love —Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen — I know I’ll be reading more of her.

The Leopard

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo – The Leopard From my review:

I haven’t done this book any justice. It would deserve a whole series of posts. One could say so much about all the individual elements. I’m sure I’ll re-read it some day. Maybe I’ll write a series then. For the time being I would just like to urge everyone who hasn’t read it yet to do so.

I expected a great novel, a novel that I would love, but I didn’t expect it to be this subtle and nuanced, this melancholic and funny. It’s truly one of the greatest works of literature.

Five Children on the Western Front

Kate Saunder’s Five Children on the Western Front. From my review:

Five Children on the Western Front is a delightful story inspired by E. Nesbit’s famous children’s book Five Children and It. I’m still surprised how much I loved this book. I’m not always keen on sequels of classics, but since I haven’t read Nesbit’s tale yet, I couldn’t compare. And I’m aware that the main character of the book “It” – or Psammead -, the sand fairy, is Nesbit’s creation and not Saunders’, nonetheless her book offers many new elements.

( . . . )

I really recommend this novel. It’s charming and sad. I thought she did well not to modernize it. The children sound like children of the time, which gives the story a nostalgic feel.

Farewell, my Queen

Chantal Thomas’  Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine. From my review:

Farewell, my Queen is unlike any other Marie Antoinette novel I’ve read. It could only have been written by someone who has done extensive research. Still, it’s moving and nostalgic and really beautiful. It’s almost as good as my favourite historical novel L’allée du Roi  – The King’s Way by Françoise Chandernagor, which tells the story of Mme de Maintenon. The two novels complement each other, as we see Versailles still under construction in The King’s Way and abandoned in the later book.

A Month in the Country

J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. From my review:

I can’t praise this novel enough and would really like to urge everyone to read it. It’s not only a joy to read but illustrates what great writing can do. It will be on my “best of list” at the end of the year and I might even add it to my all-time favourites.

I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes

It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in place, regretting his land of lost content. And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart— knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

Eva Rice’s  The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. From my review:

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a smart, charming, exuberant book, filled with witty, endearing and eccentric characters, whose sharp insights, clever repartee, and uncrushable optimism are a delight to follow. If you need some intelligent cheering up—this is the book for you.

One Fine Day

Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day. From my review:

One Fine Day is intense and lyrical, a novel for those who like introspective books and don’t need a lot of action. But it’s also masterful because of the delicate way Mollie Panter-Downes uses motifs and other recurring elements that reinforce the themes of loss, change and – more positively – transformation. And how she juxtaposes the lives of her two main characters, who undergo, in one single day, a whole transformation, believing at first that they each want what the other has – an independent life, leisure to savour what a day brings -and then discover – it’s already there – they just have to grab it.

Jardì vora el mar

Sorry, this one hasn’t been translated yet.

Mercè Rodoreda’s Jardí vora el mar. From my review:

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is easily one of my top ten favourite novels. I also love The Great Gatsby. I enjoyed Rodoreda’s book a great deal, but I only loved the descriptions of the garden. In choosing a gardener as her narrator, as wonderful a character as he may be, we stay much more spectators of the characters, are never fully immersed. We only see what they do when they are outside; we never see them interacting inside of the house. Most of the things we learn, are things the gardener himself was told by someone who heard it from someone. Seeing characters from afar, doesn’t allow to get as close to them as we would wish. Plus, the main protagonists change. Every summer, someone else gets close to the gardener, visits him in his small house. Those are the most intimate moments in the book, the ones, other than the descriptions of the garden, that I enjoyed the most. It’s not always good to compare a book with such famous novels as The Great Gatsby or The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but in this case it helped me understand, why Rodoreda’s book left me a little cold, although it’s a fantastic book that I might even re-read some day.

Of Kids and Parents

Emil Hakl’s Of Kids and Parents. From my review:

As I said, I’m really grateful Stu suggested this book. I loved every moment of it. It’s so rich, intense, and full of life. But also highly intelligent and lucid. It says a lot about being human and getting older. About history and how it repeats itself again and again. And about the humans who think they are the crown of creation while they are not. And I shouldn’t forget to mention that, at times, it’s a very funny book.

The Disappeared

Kim Echlin’sThe Disappeared. From my review:

The book explores the question of how much we can really understand of a foreign country. I liked that Anne never accepted to stay an outsider. She wanted to be part even if that meant that she put herself in danger.

The Disappeared isn’t easy to read but I loved this haunting book. It’s an amazing achievement, an intense, lucid, lyrical, and compassionate novel about a devastating conflict and a love that surpasses everything.

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Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness. From my review:

I expected The World My Wilderness to be a lot like Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day but it’s much more like a novel by Colette. Helen herself reminded me a lot of Colette and some of her heroines. She’s such an uninhibited, freethinking, sensual woman. While Helen is a cheerful woman, in love with life and love, she’s also a tragic figure because she was deeply in love with her second husband.

The World My Wilderness is also excellent in the way it describes post-war London with its ruins and struggling population. Everything is still crumbling—the houses and the society. It’s a world in change in which destruction is found right along a wild, mysterious beauty.

*******

As you may have noticed I decided to leave out the crime novels, although in terms of thrillers and crime, the year wasn’t bad at all. I even discovered four authors I really liked and want to read more of: Phil Rickman, Elly Griffiths, Louise Millar, and Laura Kasischke.

How was your reading year?

Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man

While I’ve devoured all of Chandler’s books, I’ve hardly read any Hammett. Way back when I started this blog, I read and reviewed The Glass Key – book and movie – and while I liked it, I never returned to him until now. Although I had both The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man on my piles, I picked the latter. I’m pretty sure they are not in the same league and it wasn’t s as hard-boiled or noir as I expected. On the contrary. It has even some elements of a screwball comedy.

It’s the Christmas season and our hero, Nick Charles, is back in New York with his young wife Nora and their schnauzer Asta. Nick used to be a PI in New York before he met Nora and followed her to San Francisco where they share a business.

While waiting in a speakeasy for his wife who is Christmas shopping, a young woman walks up to him and introduces herself as Dorothy Wynant. Nick used to know her father and her when she was a kid. Dorothy hopes he’s got her’ father’s address but he hasn’t. He hasn’t heard from Wynant in years. Shortly after this encounter, Nick hears that Wynant’s secretary and former lover Julia Wolf has been found dead, shot four times, and that Wynant is missing. Interestingly, the dying Julia has been found by Wynant’s ex-wife, the manipulative, bitchy Mimi. Everyone, including the police, is convinced that Wynant shot Julia, only Nick doubts this.

While the readers are kept guessing who shot Julia, I can’t say that the crime-solving is the most interesting element in this story. What I enjoyed the most is the description of the couple Nick and Nora and the way they spend their days and nights. Most of the story takes place in their hotel room and a huge number of people drifts in and out. Friends, acquaintances, police men, criminals. Every one is constantly downing a drink. The last thing Nick does before he goes to bed – drink, the first thing he does when he gets up – he pours himself another drink. Nora and the others aren’t much better.

Nora might not be the best developed character but she’s fun. She’s the opposite of a nagging housewife. No matter what Nick does or what happens to him, she never gives him a hard time, never freaks out. She’s almost twenty years younger than her husband and very fascinated by his old life. When he’s dragged into the investigation of Julia’s murder, she joins him eagerly and tries to help him find out who killed her.

The tone and humour throughout the book, especially in the dialogue is very dry. Not as dark as in other novels of the era but refreshingly brittle.

I only found out after finishing this novel that Hammett wrote it for the women’s magazine Redbook where it was serialised in 1934. That may explain why it’s not as dark and why there are so many female main characters. There’s Nora, Nick’s wife, the hysterical Dorothy, Mimi, her bitchy mother and Dorothy’s aunt. The male characters are rather pale in comparison.

The THin Man is certainly not Hammett’s best but it’s fun.

Has anyone seen the movie?

Boston Literary Magazine – Winter Issue 2015

BLM

I guess this is what happens when you write for years, never sending out anything and then decide – it’s time.

I feel very fortunate and glad to share more good news. My quick fiction piece Freeze Frame has been published in the Winter Issue of Boston Literary Magazine.

It’s a great issue with wonderful short fiction, prose poems, and poetry. My short piece is part of a cycle I’m working on.

Here’s the link, should you like to read it. It’s very short.

 

Today I’m Over at Shotgun Honey

Shotgun Honey

Today, I was going to write a review on Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man but I came down with the flu. Just as well because I have some news to share.

I’m really thrilled to let you know that one of my short crime pieces You Got It All Wrong has been published by Shotgun Honey. I’ve been a fan of the magazine for a while and so I’m really happy about this.

If you’d like to read it – here’s the link.

 

Rose Macaulay: The World My Wilderness (1950)

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What a beautiful and peculiar book. Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness was her second to last novel. The first after a ten-year hiatus brought on by a lot of heartache and sorrow. In 1939 she caused an accident in which her lover was injured; in 1941 her apartment was bombed and she lost almost all of her possessions and then in 1942 her lover died. Before that Rose Macaulay was a successful author of mostly satirical books. The World My Wilderness is quite different; it’s a compassionate book that reflects her own sorrows as well as other elements of her biography, like childhood years spent in Italy.

The book is set in the South of France, London, and Scotland. The main character, 17-year-old Barbary, is sent to London to live with her father and go to art school. The war is over and her mother Helen wants to get rid of her for different reasons. She and her step-brother have gone wild during the war. They joined the maquis (resistance), and may or may not have been involved when Helen’s second husband, Barbary’s stepfather, known as collaborator, was killed by the resistance.

Barbary’s father has remarried as well and Barbary and her new stepmother, a very conventional woman, clash immediately. Barbary is profoundly miserable, misses her mother and France, but finds solace in the company of her stepbrother. Together they explore the ruins around St.Paul’s cathedral and discover that this wasteland bears some resemblance with their beloved maquis. The ruins are like a wilderness, and, like the maquis, populated by petty thieves and delinquents. Barbary, who is a talented painter, draws postcards of the ruins and sells them to tourists.

The main story is about whether or not Barbary will be allowed to see her mother again and return to France. But since this isn’t a plot-driven novel, its strengths lie elsewhere. This is a book full of lush descriptions and fascinating characters. They are all flawed and complex and whenever we think, we know them, they do something that surprises us. One technique that contributes to see the characters in all their complexity is a frequent change of point of view. Often we’re introduced to a character, seeing him/her through her own eyes and then, right afterwards, we see them through the eyes of others. The result is quite arresting. My favourite character was Helen, Barbary’s mother. She’s a free-spirit who loves art, men, freedom, and a good life. Conventions are not for her. In France she lives as she likes, while she was a constant source of scandal and gossip in London.

Here’s Helen’s take on country and family:

“One understands so well,” said Helen, languidly teasing a small green lizard cupped in her hand, “the desire not to work; indeed I share it to the full. As to one’s country, why should one feel any more interest in its welfare than in that of other countries? And as to the family, I have never understood how that fits in with the the other ideals—or, indeed, why it should be an ideal at all. A group of closely related persons living under one roof; it is a convenience, often a necessity, sometimes a pleasure, sometimes the reverse; but who first exalted it as admirable, an almost religious ideal?”

I expected The World My Wilderness to be a lot like Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day but it’s much more like a novel by Colette. Helen herself reminded me a lot of Colette and some of her heroines. She’s such an uninhibited, freethinking, sensual woman. While Helen is a cheerful woman, in love with life and love, she’s also a tragic figure because she was deeply in love with her second husband.

The World My Wilderness is also excellent in the way it describes post-war London with its ruins and struggling population. Everything is still crumbling—the houses and the society. It’s a world in change in which destruction is found right along a wild, mysterious beauty.

Summer slipped on; a few blazing days, when London and its deserts burned beneath a golden sun, and the flowering weeds and green bracken hummed with insects, and the deep underground cells were cool like churches, and the long dry grass wilted, drooped, and turned to hay; then a number of cool wet days, when the wilderness was sodden and wet and smelt of decay, and the paths ran like streams, and the ravines were deep in dripping greenery that grew high and rank, running over the ruins as the jungle runs over Maya temple, hiding them from prying eyes.

I wish I had been able to review this book right after I finished it but that was just before German Literature Month. It would have deserved a more careful review. I still hope you can tell, that I loved it. It’s a marvelous novel.

A Bunch of Mini Crime and Thriller Reviews

The Ice TwinsCop TownChemistry of DeathUntil It's OverDisclaimerMurder on the Orient EXpress

I went over my stacks of read books during German Literature Month and was startled when I noticed how many books, especially thriller and crime novels, I had read but not reviewed. I could probably write longer posts but decided to write a few very short reviews instead. That way, you might still hear about a book worth reading or one you should avoid and I don’t have to post every single day until the end of the year.

Disclaimer

Renée Knight’s Disclaimer is possibly the thriller disappointment of the year. The premise was interesting – a woman receives a novel in which the authors describe something that happened a long time ago and that she never told anyone. I think the book has two major flaws. One is that it’s not believable. I hate it when plot relies on one character suspecting another without questioning things. That alone would have annoyed me but I also thought the story was highly unbelievable. Sometimes a book can be salvaged through great atmosphere and description. Not so this novel. In my opinion that’s the second flaw of Disclaimer. While it’s said to be set in London, it might as well have been set on the moon. Not once did I see the city. Unbelievable story, wonky psychology, and zero atmosphere.

Murder on the Orient EXpress

Murder on the Orient Express was another disappointment. I picked it because I was in the mood to read a locked-room mystery and because I haven’t read any Agatha Christie in a long time. So far I’ve only ever read her standalone novels and one or two Miss Marple novels. While they might be formulaic, I still really enjoyed them. This was my first Hercule Poirot. I never picked them up because for me, as a native French speaker, the name is so silly. It sounds like poireau – leek – or poivrot – drunkard – . Plus Hercule? Really? I expected him to be on the boring side and that’s what he is. I wasn’t fascinated by his deductive skills. Still, it was a quick read and I loved the setting. I only found the murder and the way it was solved a bit lame. Still, if you like a great setting – a train in winter – and are in favour of cozy crime and whodunnits – especially locked-room mysteries – this might be for you.

The Ice Twins

The Ice Twins had a lot to offer. Stunning descriptions and atmosphere. After the death of one of their twin daughters, Angus and Sara Moorcroft move to a remote Scottish island. Such eerie, creepy descriptions and certainly not a place I would have chosen to live in, after the awful loss of a child. It gets creepier when the surviving twin begins to claim that she’s the other one. The part that affected me the most and which is the creepiest is the favouritism. While the father openly preferred one kid, the mother preferred the other. What does it mean, when you suddenly think that it’s not your favourite who has survived?  The Ice Twins was psychologically compelling. The descriptions are great. Unfortunately the end was a bit of a disaster. Not only was it disappointing and far-fetched, I also found it misogynistic. When I bought the book, I thought S.K.Tremayne was a woman but after finishing, I started to doubt that. And indeed, S.K. Tremayne is a man. I’m not surprised. The ending leaves no doubt.

Cop Town

With Karin Slaughter’s standalone novel Cop Town I finally enter the territory of the books I loved without reservations. Like Nicci French or Sarah Bolton, she is one of my favourite mainstream crime writers.  I’ve been reading her series for years, but when I heard she’d written a standalone novel, set in the 70s in Atlanta, I was interested immediately. What sounded particularly great was the research she’d done for this book. The period details are amazing. Her choices of two female protagonists make this a very feminist novel, as it’s in part a murder mystery – there’s a shooter killing cops – and a book about women on the police force, a workplace that’s dominated by white males who are sexist, racists, anti-Semites, homophobic . . . you name it. Into this explosive environment comes Kate, a rookie cop. She’s recently widowed, her husband died in Vietnam. Kate comes from an upper-class, Jewish family. The Vietnam angle, is another well-done angle.  Her first day is a shocker, but to the surprise of everyone, even her partner Maggie, she doesn’t give up. Maggie comes from a cop family. Her uncle and her brother have joined the force. They both didn’t want her to follow them in their footsteps and the aggression and violence she has to endure, are appalling. Notably her uncle Terry is the prototypical male white homophobic sexist racist. The shooter’s been active for a while, which infuriates the cops and even leads them to plant false evidence.  Maggie and Kate decide to take matters into their own hands. A dangerous idea. Slaughter’s writing is tight, as usual, the period details so well captured, the story is gripping. A remarkable achievement. It works as a crime novel and as a novel on the 70s, Atlanta, gender issues . . .  It’s shocking to think what women had to put up with to fulfill the dream of working in a male dominated  job. A word of warning—I’m not the most squeamish but there’s some violence in this book that was very hard to read and get out of my mind again.

Until It's Over

Everyone reading this blog knows how much I love the author duo Nicci French. I’m slowly reading my way through their novels. Surprisingly I wouldn’t have heard of Until It’s Over, if it hadn’t been mentioned by one of my readers a year ago (I’m really sorry I can’t remember who it was). I got it back then and kept it for later. A while ago, I read a review of it and that’s how I remembered I had it on my piles. I’m glad I read that review before reading the book because, with the wrong expectation, I might have been disappointed. They did something very unusual here. They wrote two distinct parts. Part one is told from the point of view of London Cycling Courier Astrid, part two from the point of view of the perpetrator. It wasn’t easy to adapt to part two because I loved part one so much. Astrid lives together with a group of friends in an old house, in an area of London that hasn’t bee gentrified yet. Suddenly people around her are murdered. What has it got to do with her? While the story is suspenseful, it’s not what I liked best. I liked to read about this group of friends who share a house. Loved the setting, which Nicci French captures so well- the bars, the parks, the houses. London is as much a character as the people. Part two is very good too, but I would have loved to go on reading from Astrid’s point of view. Once I had gotten used to the new narrator, I liked part two almost as much. I’ve read a lot of Nicci French’s novels. Some I loved, some I found OK; this was one of the best.

Chemistry of Death

The Chemistry of Death is another book that has been lying on my piles almost since it came out. For some reasons, I didn’t think I would like it because I got a bit tired of serial killer novels. In theory I would like them, because, for me, a great serial killer novel is like a realistic ghost or horror story. That’s why setting, atmosphere and mood are so important in this subgenre. Sadly, many authors just use the trope to avoid to have to dig for good reasons for murder and many of those “products” are as far from psychologically compelling as can be. However, there’s one thing I don’t like even in the best serial killer books —the showdown ending. All these books get frantic towards the end and there are recurring elements that are frankly annoying – e.g. hero/heroine tries to avoid killer and runs right into his arms. While The Chemistry of Death does have a formulaic ending, the rest of the book is so astonishingly well done, that it hasn’t only become one of the favourites of this year but I think it’s possibly one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. I loved the mourning, depressed narrator, loved, the almost gothic descriptions of murder scenes and locations. The atmosphere is brooding, haunting. Don’t be put of by the serial killer thing— this is so well written and atmospheric, it would be sad to miss it.

Have you read any of these? Does anyone know a good locked-room mystery?