The theme for this year’s World Book Night which took place on 23rd April was Books To Make You Smile, which is something we could all do with after the year we have had. Normally, there would be many public events taking place in libraries and other establishments to get people reading. Of course, these could not take place. My friend and colleague Louise and myself, who both work for Isle Of Wight Libraries decided to produce a Book Chat to discuss books which have made us smile. This can be found here. Just click on the link and Enjoy!
I am continuing my countdown of my favourite books I read in 2018.
5. House Of Stone – Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic 2018) Read and reviewed in November
Another title (like Claire Hajaj’s #8 rated novel) that I would never have come across if it were not for the good folks at nb magazine who sent me a copy to help out with the longlisting for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards. The shortlist is due to be announced this month and this is one title that certainly should be up for serious consideration as for me it was the best debut novel I read and narrowly misses out on being my favourite novel published in 2018. Zimbabwe born Tshuma is a real storyteller and here tells the history of the last fifty years of her homeland using an unreliable narrator who plots his way through and manipulates the other characters. I said of it “Along the way there are some brilliantly memorable characters and writing often outstanding in its vibrancy and power. The horrors are not at all shied away from but there are also moments of great humour and to put at the centre the dark machinations of the narrator is a stroke of genius. It’s a prime example of how a location can be seamlessly embedded into a plot and used to inform and enrich.” This is unlikely to be as easy to find as some of the works on this list but is definitely worth seeking out.
4. Ladder To The Sky – John Boyne (Doubleday 2018) – Read in June, reviewed in July
A great year for books with ladders in the titles (cf: Anne Tyler’s # 6 rated book). Irish author John Boyne reached the top of my personal book ladder last time round with his outstanding “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and this, his latest, is almost as good. Novels about writers tend to not be as good as they think they are but this look at the publishing industry with its emphasis on the creative process and the ownership of ideas is extremely strong. I said “this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew.” For the second year running John Boyne has produced the best novel of the year published in the year I read it.
3. Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)- Read and reviewed in March
My favourite non-fiction read of the year. I’d highlighted this as one I really wanted to discover before publication and I was certainly not in anyway disappointed. In fact, I enjoyed it even more than I had anticipated. Lucy Mangan explores the reading material of her childhood in a superb “book about books”. I said of it; “Thank you Lucy Mangan. This book has brought me so much pleasure. I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops.” I don’t think there can be much higher praise! I have recommended this book so many times this year and will continue to do so.
2. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (Definition 2006) – Read in September, reviewed in October
I actually had this sat on my bookshelves for quite a few years unread. I’d seen the film but I was so enthralled by Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” that I had to explore a bit of his back catalogue and read this, his most famous work. He really is a great find for me as an author and got very close to doing the unprecedented and being named the author of the Book Of The Year for a second year running. In fact, everything I had read by this writer has been a five star read with his 2015 children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain“, pretty much a companion piece to this just missing out on the Top 10 this year because of the number of outstanding books I’ve read (the other non-Top 10 5 star read was Kate Atkinson’s “A God In Ruins“). Bruno is relocated with his family away from the grandparents he loved to a house in the grounds of a place he believes is called “Out-with” peopled by men and boys in pyjamas behind a wire fence. Painfully sad and extremely powerful and an essential read, even if you have seen the film.
And the reviewsrevues book of the year for 2018 goes to:
1.The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (Penguin 1845) – Read and reviewed in December
I’m sure that this is just coincidence but for the second year running the Book Of The Year has been the very last book I’ve read. I don’t think this is because I forget the books I’ve read earlier in the year because I do carefully go through everything, it may be because I’m keen to fit in a book which has the potential to be a big-hitter before the new year dawns and this was certainly a big-hitter in every sense of the word. It took me a month to get through the 1200+ pages but it was certainly time well spent as it introduced me to a classic novel dominated by a fascinating character which will stay with me for the rest of my life. Brought to life in a vibrant translation by Robin Buss and recommended to me by my friend Louise, whose mission is to get everyone to reading this book. I certainly now think she has a point.
I’ve never read Dumas before and I’m certainly looking forward to reading more and he is a deserved addition to my awards list. Dumas becomes my first French author to join my ultimate favourites and the fourth translated work. It is the best nineteenth century novel I have read since I read “Jane Eyre” in 2000. Here is my Hall of Fame for the past 11 years:
2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)
2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)
2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)
2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)
2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)
2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)
2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)
2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)
2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)
2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)
2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)
Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2019!
The rest of my Top 10 for this year can be found in my earlier post here
For my final challenge in the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge I chose what felt like the momentous task of getting through 1243 pages of small, quite dense print in the Penguin Classics Paperback edition of this book which I had never read before.
One of the challenges drawn from the hat in this year long initiative was to ask a member of staff what their favourite novel was and then to read it. My co-worker Louise would offer this book as her most cherished but once potential readers saw its size they balked at the task (“What’s your second favourite read?”). So disheartened was she by this reaction that I said if I made it to the last challenge then I would read it. It has taken a month and the closing date for the challenge went by before I was mid-way through it but I am so glad that I took a month out of my reading commitments to experience this.
Written as a serial in the “Journal Des Debats”, beginning in 1844 Dumas was being paid by instalment and needed the money so kept things going. To maintain the plot movement over this length is a considerable achievement and to keep the readers’ interest over the twists and turns of the tale is even more of an achievement and Dumas manages both.
Part of this success is down to the robust, lively translation from Robin Buss which dates from 1996 and feels different from the somewhat turgid older versions which derive largely from the Victorian period where the text is mistranslated, bowdlerised and aimed to meet the needs of those who desired to read it purely as adventure fiction. On trips out, put off by the weight of my copy, I downloaded a cheap Kindle version which was an earlier translation and found myself largely stumbling through it. It was a relief to get back to Buss’ version of the text.
The bare bones of the story is likely to be well known through the myriad of adaptations in various media over the years. Edmond Dantes is accused of treason on the eve of his wedding by men who seek to benefit from his downfall. Imprisoned in the foreboding Chateau D’If he plots revenge on those who set him up and prevented him from proving his innocence. The rest of the novel takes in the 25 years of seeking to attain that revenge. It all goes much deeper than that, obviously, and there is actually less swash-buckling than I had anticipated. Central to it all is Dantes who adopts the role of the Count of Monte Cristo, a character who will provoke mixed emotions from the reader as he is a profound, enigmatic creation and who provides the lifeblood of the book even when less well-drawn characters are brought more into focus. It is his desire for vengeance which drives the reader onwards though some extraordinarily surprising moments in a plot that moves so fast it can at times leave the reader behind trying to piece together the significance of what has occurred. Its length made it a challenge but it was so entertaining that I wasn’t going to give up and I feel on completion that a major gap in my reading history has been filled and that it was all a pretty amazing experience.
The publication of The Count Of Monte Cristo first began in 1844. If you are going to spend as much time to read it as it requires I suggest you do not choose an early translation. I went for the 1996 translation by Robin Buss in the 2006 Penguin Classics anniversary edition.