I recently posted about the 52 books I read in 2017, and am sharing with you my Top 20 books from that year.
The following four books I really enjoyed, and rated 4 out of 5.
THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND – Endō (1964).
Wow. This is a really sad yet beautiful novel. A salesman (Yoshioka) seduces and then abandons Mitsu, a sweet and honest village girl, who he considered beneath him. It’s set in Japan shortly after World War 2, and you get a really good insight into life in Tokyo in those days. The characters are strong and thoughtfully put together, and throughout the novel you get the story from both character’s perspectives. This shows really well how the betrayal of Mitsu effects both their lives as the years pass. I really loved this book, and if any that I gave a 4 to probably should have been a five, this is the one.
THE LITTLE PRINCE – Saint-Exupéry (1943).
What can one say about The Little Prince? One of the sweetest stories ever, adorably illustrated, and full of heart. It’s one of those children’s books that contains profound meaning and insight that can stay with someone all of their lives.
ANNA KARENINA – Tolstoy (1877).
This novel, a literary classic, is approaching it’s 150th birthday. I’m not a history buff by any means, but I appreciate books like this which are time capsules from the time they were written. And one thing that makes this so important is that the Russia that Tolstoy so vividly described was swept away in the 1917 Revolution. Of course, ANNA KARENINA is about Countess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, who, despite being married, is seduced by Count Alexei Vronsky. It’s also about Princess Ekaterina “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya, who was counting on an engagement to Vronsky. And Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Lëvin, a friend of Anna’s husband and a suitor to Princess Shcherbatskaya. It’s a wonderfully detailed and complex novel, which I highly recommend.
THE CHILDREN OF MEN – James (1992).
This is a dystopian novel, similar to that of Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE as both are set in the near future under totalitarian governments after massive infertility epidemics. The people of James’ world have about given up on the survival of humanity, as no cure to the epidemic has been found, and no child has been born for over 20 years. The protagonist is contacted by a local resistance group, who have become aware of some of the crimes the government has been hiding. It’s a really clever story, but does lack the intensity of the 2006 movie adaptation.
Ok. Now are the books that I rated as 5 out of 5. With the previous fourteen, I’ve pretty much listed them in the order I read them, but the following five I am going to list in order of my preference.
#6 THE REAL STORY – Donaldson (1991).
I gave this book 5 out of 5 because it is the absolute best set-up story for a series I’ve ever read. THE REAL STORY (Book one of ‘The Gap Cycle’) we are introduced to Captain Angus Thermopyle, an absolute brute of a space-pirate, the lowest of the low, who is the sole crew of his ship, Bright Beauty. Nick Succorso is the opposite of Angus, a clean, handsome, and seemingly honourable captain of Captain’s Fancy. And appearing with Angus at one of the scummiest bars on Com-Mine Station is ensign Morn Hyland, a beautiful young woman who works for the United Mining Companies Police. From the outset everyone knows that something’s up, and everyone has a plan for getting what they want. Donaldson has put this together so cleverly, every chapter there’s a new critical piece of information that’s revealed, or a new perspective that’s provided that changes everything. If you like sci-fi, read it. But be warned, It’s not for the squeamish.
#5 DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? – Dick (1968).
Oh, the humanity! That’s what it comes down to, for me. It’s probably no secret to you that Philip Kindred Dick is one of my favourite authors. What he does so well is write the stories of regular people; people with issues at work, people with not-so perfect relationships, people with drug issues, and put them in mind-bending sci-fi settings. So he wrote a lot about what it means to be human, and that doesn’t change whether it’s a story set in the 60’s, or on a post-apocalyptic Earth, or on Ganymede. And here he’s writing about a bounty hunter trying to eliminate androids that are so well made that he has to determine their humanity, in a world where real animals are almost extinct and imitations are everywhere. He’s writing about ‘specials’ – people impacted by the radiation and their humanity. Where does one draw the line? And by the way, I prefer the book.
#4 A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA – Le Guin (1968).
Ursula Le Guin is a remarkable author, and like P. K. Dick, writes about humanity. She has taken on issues like politics and gender in other unforgettable stories. In A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, and in the tradition of epics, Le Guin challenges us to think about our place and responsibilities on Earth. The story is about a boy who, through trials and struggles, becomes the greatest Archmage of the islands. It’s amazing because Le Guin’s magic system and dragons are the best that I’ve read, and the prose is so deep, simple and profound that I have no words. It’s a simple story, but it stays with you. It’s quite simply perfect.
# 3 A SCANNER DARKLY – Dick (1977).
Yes, I know. Philip K. Dick again. A Scanner Darkly is a semi-autobiographical book, focusing on the lives of a group of drug users. The protagonist, Robert Arctor, is an undercover narcotics officer, who is given the job of spying on himself. The police are trying to discover the source of the deadly Substance D, Arctor’s drug of choice. Over time, the drug starts to impact on Arctor, and he becomes more and more unstable, and is forced to go to a rehab clinic. Was he a pawn in the hands of the police, who knew his addiction and impossible task would lead him there? At the end, Dick dedicates this book to the friends he had lost or who were permanently damaged due to the drugs they took, which I found really touching.
#2 A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – Burgess (1962).
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is one of my all-time favourites. Why it’s so great is the creative use of language, the devotchkas, the tolchocks, the droogs, and all the ultra-violence. Very horrorshow. Burgess created a new language ‘Nadsat’ which is borrows heavily from Russian for this novel, and while it may take a while to get used to, there’s usually enough context provided to understand the words. As a reader, as someone interested in languages, I just love it. It’s so creative and brilliant and just gets in your head like nothing else. But Burgess’ linguistic skills aside, the story itself is just great. Put simply, the message from this book is that children will always rebel. No matter what the schools or parents or police do, the kids will always do their own things, and discover who they are in their own way. But they will not stay miscreants and hooligans forever, they will grow up and grow out of the madness of their teenage years.
#1 ALONE IN BERLIN – Fallada (1947).
This is an extraordinary book. It was one of the first anti-Nazi novel to be published in Germany after World War II. ALONE IN BERLIN (also titled ‘Every Man Dies Alone’) tells the story of a middle aged working-class husband and wife who, after receiving word that their son had died serving their country, join the resistance. This is based on a true story, the couple wrote messages denouncing Hitler and the Reich (“Hitler’s war is the worker’s death,” for example), and dropped them throughout Berlin. They knew this was a capital crime, and should they be caught, would be executed. So it’s the story of ordinary heroes against impossible odds. But it’s also the story of the ordinary Berliner during the war years, the menacing and dangerous times they faced, especially those who disagreed with Hitler’s policies and just wanted the war to end. And that’s one of the reasons that I’ve given this book the Number 1 position. My mother’s family were Berliners who hated Hitler, so it gave me a profound insight into what they endured.
That’s my list. One of the things that’s clear is that very few recent books made the top 20, only THE KING’S JUSTICE and MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN. So, out of the 52 novels I read last year, what else was published since 2010? I read THE LONG EARTH (Pratchett & Baxter), to which I gave three stars. HERE I AM (Safran Foer) was lucky to get two stars – absolutely awful. THE LORDS OF SALEM (Zombie) got three stars. THE MARTIAN (Weir) also got three stars – good, funny, engaging but zero character development. READY PLAYER ONE (Cline) got two stars. I’ve shared this is because it’s painfully obvious that I need to diversify what I read. Not only were the majority of 2017’s books published over twenty-five years ago, way too many of them were written by white men. I shall soon share my Top 20 books from 2018, and I am hoping you will see a bit more diversity there!
- Originally published February 2019