On this cold, snowy morning, as I welcome in the new year, I’m enjoying a hot cup of chai and thinking about what I’ve read in the past week and the best books and audiobooks I’ve enjoy over the past year.
I read couple of books this past week. The first is a book that has been much praised and recommended as one of the Top 100 Books of 2015. Outline by Rachel Cusk is set in Athens over the course of two days, where the main character, the nearly-nameless narrator, is teaching a writing course. Beginning with her flight from London to Athens, she describes her interaction with her seatmate, an elderly Greek man with whom she strikes up a conversation, and whom she refers to as “my neighbour”. She then relates conversations with various people she meets up with over the next two days, some people she already knows, some she has just met. She is invited to accompany her neighbour on a boatride to a small island. (I kept expecting the Greek man to say “My father was a very big man”, but alas, the story never became that interesting!) She meets a friend for coffee. She describes her students and relays their stories. She meets another friend for dinner. And then, it is time for her to go home. My expectations of this book were pretty high, and I have to say, I was very disappointed. The writing was skillful, and there were moments of great insight, but without a story, there seemed to be nothing to hold this narrative together, which is funny, because many of the conversations are about writers and writing, what makes a good writer, and what makes a good story. In fact, this seemed not so much a novel but a series of short stories loosely connected by the narrator, the writer who is teaching the course. Any one of these conversations could have been the basis for a really great novel, but they never actually went anywhere. As one character refers to herself near the end of the book as “an outline”, so, too, did I feel that these stories, these conversations, were merely outlines for great novels that were never written. I don’t mind when an author does not reveal the narrator’s name to the reader, which is used as a literary technique to achieve a particular end, and so it seemed with this book, too… but then, her name is revealed, just once, near the end, and I found myself wondering “Why?”. It seemed to feature different stories told by different (mostly middle-aged) characters, all seemingly suffering some degree of mid-life crisis, and discussed relationships between men and women, relationships between parents and children, and relationships between writers and their works. It ended up being pretty repetitive, and I realized that this was because the story told by every character was told using exactly the same voice, despite the stories being “told” by different characters. There was no distinction between voices, and so I found myself, in the middle of a “conversation”, having to flip back to see who was speaking. This was very annoying. Cusk certainly has skill with her use of language, and I may someday try reading one of her more “conventional” novels (if she has any), but this book was ultimately disappointing - at least it was short!
I read another Red Maple nominee written by Canadian children’s author Allan Stratton called The Dogs. This novel was very different from We Are All Made of Molecules, in that it deals with very serious topics and an eerie atmosphere pervades the story until all is resolved at the end. Cameron and his mom have relocated five times since leaving abusive husband and father Mike. This time, they have moved to an abandoned farmhouse near Calgary, just outside of a small town called Wolf Hollow. This farmhouse may be haunted by a young child named Jacky, and possibly also “the dogs”, vicious animals that are rumoured to roam the property at night. Cameron has an active imagination at the best of times, and his mother is always on high alert for signs that her husband has found them, so, fed by zombie games and a sensitivity for the supernatural, Cameron’s paranoia pervades the story. The reader is never quite sure what is real and what are his dreams and imaginings, and so we are always led to believe the worst. This psychological thriller is scary and serious, and deals with themes of bullying and stalking, but it also features characters who are supportive and caring, and we as readers experience the drama along with these characters and, like them, we expect the worst but hope for the best, until we finally reach a conclusion that is both satisfying and hopeful. Not a light read like Molecules, but written with skill and sensitivity, this was an awesome book.
And I finished listening to an audiobook yesterday, The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz, read by Derek Jacobi. This is the first novel featuring fictional detective Sherlock Holmes that has the endorsement of the Conan Doyle estate. The story begins with an art dealer, Edmund Carstairs, seeking the assistance of Holmes in locating the man who has been seen following him over the past few weeks, a man who requested a meeting but then never showed up. The man’s identity is revealed to be Keelan O’Donoghue, one of the leaders of the Flat Cap gang from Boston, a gang whose other members, including Keelan’s twin brother, have been killed in a confrontation over the theft of money and destroyed paintings on a train headed to Boston from New York. Carstairs fears that Keelan has followed him back to England to seek revenge for the death of his brother. This investigations leads to the discovery of a murder, at which point, according to Watson, this otherwise trivial case becomes “interesting”. When the disappearance and death of a child follows soon after, Holmes is more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the mystery, feeling somehow responsible for this death. He must determine what the House of Silk is, but his interest lands him in jail facing charges of murder, and it is up to Watson to continue searching for clues that may lead them to discover the truth. What they find is so terrible they are reluctant to even speak of the nature of the crimes, and feel that the conviction of all involved can never undo the harm that has been committed. I have never read any original Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but I enjoy watching the Sherlock Holmes series starring Benedict Cumberbach, and I can see how so many of the features in this book are similar to the BBC series. Having nothing except this series to compare it to, I would say that Horowitz did an amazing job of capturing the essence of the original stories: he used the correct language and terminology, and the characters were well-drawn, at least resembling those in the series, although the Holmes in the series is more critical and less “friendly” towards Watson than in this book. I will have to read some of the originals to make a comparison. By the way, British actor Jacobi did an excellent job of narrating this novel. And there is a follow-up to this book, Moriarty, by Horowitz, which I have taken out but then returned to the library unread, as I had too many other things to read - I should check to see if it is available as an audiobook!
Speaking of free time to read, since I am no longer writing reviews for the local paper, I now find myself with time to read books on my own bookshelves that have been waiting patiently to be read, sometimes for years! I would like to devote the next year to reading some of these titles. I have a few in mind already, Border Crossing by Pat Barker, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander and Solar by Ian McEwan, as well as some of the "Sherlock Holmes" stories.
And now, as is my tradition for my New Year’s post, I have a list of my favourites from 2015 (these are just books I read or listened to in 2015, not necessarily books published last year). I read 68 books this year, and listened to 22 audiobooks, and there were so many great books that I’ve had to make 3 lists:
10 Best Adult books:
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Hunger of the Wolf by Stephen Marche
Nothing Like Love by Sabrina Ramnanan
A History of Loneliness by John Boyne
Exceptional Circumstances by John Bartleman
The Past by Tessa Hadley
Punishment by Linden MacIntyre
The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry
The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling
The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger
5 Best YA Books:
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
The Fall by James Preller
We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen
Say You Will by Eric Walters
Love is a 4-Letter Word by Vikki VanSickle
5 (+1* ) Best Audiobooks:
Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
The Sea by John Banville
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nicole Bernier
The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin
*The Uncoupling by Meg Woolitzer (this one wasn’t amazing, but it was worth listening to)
That’s all for today. I hope 2016 is filled with good friend, good times, and of course, plenty of great books!
Bye for now…