Top 10 Books Of The Year -Part 2 (The Top 5)

Without any further ado here are the five books that did it for me in 2015.  To find the full reviews please click on the titles

5. Work Like Any Other – Virginia Reeves (Scribner 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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This is the one that should have made the progression from the Booker longlist to the shortlist.  An astonishing debut.  It’s 1920s Alabama and a plan to bring electricity to Roscoe Martin’s farm goes badly wrong.  It’s the second tale of rural survival on my list but is imbued throughout with hope -throughout the darkest moments there’s hope and Reeves conveys this beautifully.

4. His Bloody Project – Graeme  Macrae Burnet  (Saraband 2015) (Read and reviewed in August)

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My pick of the Booker Prize shortlist.  Published by a tiny Scottish independent this was one that would have slipped through my net had it not had the Booker nod.  A historical novel that reads like true crime is an interesting concept but what makes this special is the real feel of the crofting community of the Scottish highlands in 1869 through  a prison journal, witness statements, official documents and court transcripts. Sold well after its Booker recognition but a win would have turned this into one of the year’s big books.  It is certainly a big book in my opinion.

3.Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden (Virago 1939) (Read in June and reviewed in August)

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Love the film but have never actually got round to reading the book.  Neurotic nuns up a mountain – what’s not to love?  I wasn’t sure if Godden would have been able to convey the technicolour lushness of the film but she certainly does.  Hopefully in 2017 I’ll be able to seek out more by her.

2. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson  (Doubleday 2013) (Read in April and reviewed in May)

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2013 Costa Novel award winner. I am the last one around to read this?  Structurally superb, risking accusations of style over substance but producing a novel which is both technically surprising and first class. “Practice makes perfect” is a theme of the novel and Atkinson here gets close to perfection.

Time for the long silence before the winner is announced (oh, can’t do long silences on a blog so I’ll get straight on with it .The reviewsrevues Book Of The Year 2016 is……….

1.  Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016) (Read and reviewed in May)

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In any other year there could have been as many as three Wieringa novels in my Top 10 as the other two I have read are hovering outside the Top 10 and are both very good.  This is also how I felt last year with his “These Are The Names” published by Scribe and which saw them embarking on a programme to of bringing out his earlier Dutch novels translated by Sam Garrett. A 2009 debut this was apparently the biggest ever selling Dutch debut in his homeland and it deserves a huge audience here.  A coming-of-age novel about Frankie, who has survived a horrific accident and becomes swept up by the antics of newcomer Joe Speedboat.  Like all the best books it provokes a myriad of emotions- it is touching, unpredictable, outrageous and laugh out loud funny.  Scribe have been a great support to this blogger this year, but there’s certainly no favouritism.  This book has reached my summit on merit.

This is the second year I have gone for a book in translation for my top pick.  Last year’s Top 5 can be found here.  I have probably read more translated novels this year but that is because of authors such as Tommy Wieringa.  If there is a pattern, and I wouldn’t have said there was, but looking at my ten titles I can see that there may very well be one, it is to make my top 10, authors, set your novels in the past.  I wouldn’t have said I was a great historical novel fan but this list suggests otherwise… We’ll see what 2017 conjures up.  Bring it on!

As I read a lot more books this year than I normally do there are a number of titles that I feel bad about missing out on my Top 10 – so here are a few special mentions for recent publications.  The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale, Hot Milk-Deborah Levy, The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh- Marina Fiorato, Eileen -Otessa Moshfegh, Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeliene Thien,  Rembrandt’s Mirror- Kim Devereux, Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker ( incidentally a nominee for the newbooks Book Noir book of the year) , Angel Of Highgate – Vaughn Entwistle, Himself- Jess Kidd (the last four authors I have had the great pleasure of interviewing this year- always one of my personal highspots of reviewsrevues.com)

In my next post I’ll honour the re-read that gave me the most pleasure this year.

See my Top 10 Books Part 1 – numbers 10-6 here

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100 Essential Reads – Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden (Virago 1939)

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“You have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad.”

In just this sentence, one of the characters, the rather naive Indian “general” Dilip sums up Rumer Godden’s twentieth-century classic.  I was familiar with the 1947 Powell and Pressburger film starring Deborah Kerr, which I love, but have never got round to reading the novel- until now.

A murmur or flap (collective nouns- looked them up- both would be acceptable) of nuns arrive at a remote disused palace in Mopu, a trek away from Darjeeling.  Here in the mountains they intend to set up a school and a clinic in a location already abandoned by a group of monks who had stayed just five months.  The women have to deal with winning over the locals and developing their plans in an environment that dominates.  There’s something about this book and the same thing is also in the film which I just love and it’s to do with its almost hypnotic atmosphere.  The location gives a lushness and a sense of heightened emotions which borders upon the overwrought.  It should be a calm retreat for the Sisters but it is not.

Partly this is to do with the local agent, Mr Dean, who gets some of the nuns a-fluttering with his unconventional behaviour, partly to do with the local traditions and people and also other characters such as Ayah, the female caretaker; the flamboyant Dilip and the smouldering Kanchi who is being housed at the convent to stop her trying to seduce Mr Dean.

Whilst a holy man remains silent and serene in the grounds the nuns attempt to change old traditions, which they cannot comprehend, but their lives are equally bound by restrictive tradition and routine.  With so much turmoil stirring aournd it’s never going to end well.

The cover of this Virago paperback terms the book “a haunting classic” and there are comparisons to Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” and both seem fitting.

You can tell that this is written by someone who knew the India she fictionalised.  Godden grew up in Narayangay and spent many years in India.  Published on the eve of World War II it is both a tale of a lost world and an attempt to tame that world, something which would have resonated with its early readers.

From the Sister Superior, Clodagh, with her need to be in charge, from the endearing Sister Honey who throws herself (perhaps too much) into this new setting and to the neurotic, tense Sister Ruth these are vivid and memorable characterisations that will haunt me long after the book has been put back on the shelf.

I think I’m ready to watch the film again now……..

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Black Narcissus was first published in 1939.  I read the Virago paperback edition.