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.

802630-5

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?

Kim Echlin: The Disappeared (2009) Literature and War Readalong March 2015

The Disappeared

Friends of mine visited Cambodia. They loved the country for its beauty, but they told me that it wasn’t an easy country for travelling as you’re not allowed to move as freely as you’d like because of the danger of the land-mines. A friend of mine is half-Cambodian. He was born in Europe, after the war, but spent a couple of months in Cambodia where he joined a bomb disposal unit. He came back changed and traumatized.  He wouldn’t speak for months. Thirty years of war ravaged the country and left the deadly long-lasting legacy of millions of land-mines. Cambodia is among the ten countries with the most landmines. Currently there are still 8 – 10 million. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of disability. Since 1979 there are some 40 amputations per week. To clear Cambodia of its land mines could take up to 100 years.

The war as such isn’t easy to understand. First there were the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, later the Vietnamese invasion. Mostly these wars were genocides. Depending on which side was in  power it would try to wipe out the other side using torture, rape, mutilation and shootings.

I usually don’t start a book review with so much back information but I felt it was needed in this case, although it’s still not nearly enough.

Kim Echlin’s novel The Disappeared begins right after the Khmer Rouge have fled the country. Anne Greves is in Phnom Pen looking for her lover Serey. She met him in Montreal ten years ago when she was only sixteen. Serey, a student and musician, fled Cambodia during the rise of the Khmer Rouge. He has no news of his family. The two young people begin a passionate love affair until Serey returns to Cambodia. Anne hopes he will keep in touch but he doesn’t. She waits and waits and the years go by. She has other lovers but she can’t forget Serey. Meanwhile she has learned the Khmer language and decides to travel to Cambodia and search for Serey in all the clubs of Phnom Pen.

When she finds him she discovers he too couldn’t forget her and they become lovers again until the day Serey disappears once more.

The Disappeared is a stunning novel. Beautiful and harrowing. Through the eyes of Anne we discover the beauty, tragedy, and horror of Cambodia. Thanks to her lover, and because she speaks the language, she is able to immerse herself fully. While the Pol Pot regime is over, Cambodia is still in a state of war, people are still hunted, tortured an executed.

The book is written like a lament. Often Anne addresses her lover.

I see your long silence as I see war, an urge to conquer. You used silence to guard your territory and told yourself you were protecting me. I was outside the wall, an intoxicating foreign land to occupy. I wondered what other secrets you guarded. Our disappeared were everywhere, irresistible, in waking, in sleeping, a reason for violence, a reason for forgiveness, destroying the peace we tried to possess, creeping between us as we dreamed, leaving us haunted by the knowledge that history is not redeemed by either peace or war but only fingered to shreds and left to our children. But I could not leave you, and I could not forget, and I did not know what to do, and always loved you beyond love.

Serey stands for millions of disappeared people. Most relatives never find out what happened to their loved ones, but Anne, fuelled by her passion and because she’s a foreigner who cannot fully comprehend the risk she’s taking, doesn’t let go until she’s found out what happened to the man she loves.

Many of the chapters are like short vignettes. Some contain not much more than lists of atrocities. War is awful but genocide is even much more horrible. To read about what is done to women and children, even babies, is hard to stomach.

Nonetheless it’s a beautiful, captivating book. Anne is passionate about her man and his country, discovering everything, breathlessly. This gives the reader the feel of being on a trip through a foreign country, led by a highly knowledgable guide. It is foreign but you feel like you’re quickly becoming a part of it.

The language is the language of a poet although Kim Echlin doesn’t write poetry. It’s lyrical and full of powerful images.

Kim Echlin managed something admirable. She captured the universality of grief, loss, and war, but at the same time she brought to life a country’s story that we’re either not familiar with or not interested in. In this, the novel is a call for compassion.

Why do some people live a comfortable life and others live one that is horror-filled? What part of ourselves do we shave off so we can keep on eating while others starve? If women, children, and old people were being murdered a hundred miles from here, would we not run to help? Why do we stop this decision of the heart when the distance is three thousand miles instead of a hundred?

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.

I’m going to end this post with one of my favorite scenes from the book. It takes place in Montreal. I think it shows what a wonderfully expressive writer Kim Echlin is and illustrates her style, how she renders dialogue.

We rode your bike to the great river. Stars and water and night. Down the riverbank, wrapped in darkness. You led me along a dock where boats were moored in narrow slips and we jumped onto the deck of a sloop called Rosalind. You took a small key from your jeans pocket and unlocked the cabin door. I followed you down the three steep steps into a tiny galley and you opened a cupboard door and took out a box of floating candles. You said, At home it is Sampeas Preah Khe, the night we pray to the moon. My grandmother always lit a hundred candles and sent them out on the black river.

Why?

To honor the river and the Buddha.

You handed me a book of matches and I lit them with you, one by one. We sent out the ninety-ninth and hundredth out together and wathched the trail of small flames drifting away. You said, My grandmother told me in the old days young people did this and prayed for love.

Other reviews

 My Book Strings

Vishy (Vishy’s Blog)

 

 

*******

The Disappeared is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2015. The next book is the Vietnamese novel Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Huon Thu huong. Discussion starts on Friday 29 May, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong March 31 2015: The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

The Disappeared

Kim Echlin’s novel on the war in Cambodia is the first title of this year’s Literature and War Readalong.

I chose The Disappeared for various reasons the most obvious being that we haven’t read anything on the war in Cambodia so far. The fact that it was nominated for many awards and has been translated into 19 languages made it a worthy choice as well. Another reason was that it came highly recommended by one of my favourite bloggers (Gavin from Page247) who sadly has stopped blogging in 2013.

Kim Echlin is a Canadian author, journalist, and educator. She has published a couple of other novels before The Disappeared and a new novel is due this year.

Here are the first sentences

Mau was a small man with a scar across his left cheek. I chose him at the Russian market from a crowd of drivers with soliciting eyes. They drove bicycles and tuk tuks, rickshaws and motos. A few had cars. They pushed in against me, trying to gain my eye, to separate me from the crowd.

The light in Mau’s eyes was a pinprick through black paper. He assessed and calculated. I chose him because when he stepped forward, the others fell back. I told him it might take many nights. I told him I needed to go to all the nightclubs of Phnom Penh. The light of his eyes twisted into mine. When I told him what I was doing, the pinprick opened and closed over a fleeting compassion. Then he named his price, which was high, and said, I can help you, borng srei.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin (Canada 2009), War in Cambodia, Novel, 336 pages.

After more than 30 years Anne Greves feels compelled to break her silence about her first lover, and a treacherous pursuit across Cambodia’s killing fields. Once she was a motherless girl from taciturn immigrant stock. Defying fierce opposition, she falls in love with Serey, a gentle rebel and exiled musician. She’s still only 16 when he leaves her in their Montreal flat to return to Cambodia. And, after a decade without word, she abandons everything to search for him in the bars of Phnom Penh, a city traumatized by the Khmer Rouge slaughter. Against all odds the lovers are reunited, and in a political country where tranquil rice paddies harbour the bones of the massacred, Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But there are wounds that love cannot heal, and some mysteries too dangerous to know. And when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers a story she cannot bear.

Haunting, vivid, elegiac, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.

Literary fiction of the highest order, this is an unforgettable novel set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s savage killing fields.

*******

The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 March 2015.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.