Tag Archives: Helene Wecker

My Year In Books: Best Reads of 2014

It’s that time of year again: the last day before New Year. As with last year, it’s time to look back and consider the books I’ve read.

This post will deal with my favourite reads this year. Worst reads (of which there weren’t that many!) will come later – follow this link to see them! So this is, I suppose, like the Booker Prize… Except that there’s no money on offer… And that these are books read in rather than published in the last year.

So not very much like the Man Booker at all really! Although there will be some overlapping books.

Right let’s aim for a top five.

#5 The Golem and The Djinni by Helene Wecker was actually my first read of the year! Beautiful depictions of immigrant cultures to New York and compelling on many levels: sociological, fantastical, personal and a rollicking good plot!

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#4 Room by Emma Donoghue. A powerful and poignant story of a mother and child brought up in the most appalling situation as captives. Donoghue said she wanted to create that story at a distance from the horror and terror of the kidnapping when rituals had been established and tedium set in. And the most beautifully realised child’s voice I’ve read.

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#3 Harvest by Jim Crace which was a Man Booker nominee in 2013 – as Room was in 2010. An absolutely astounding evocation of a moment in time and a wonderfully breathy summery feel to it which makes it wonderful to recall in this grey weather.

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#2 The History Of The Rain by Niall Williams.

I really did love this book, a Man Booker longlist nominee. I loved the poetry of the language, the literariness of it, the humour and humanity.

Just absolutely wonderful.

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#1 The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton.

I only came upon this book and Catton because of her Booker-winning The Luminaries which was also wonderful. But for me The Rehearsal was sublime. It was coruscating and complex and writhed like a snake under the reader’s eyes. Exquisitely discomforting.

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Ahhh… But now I’m already worrying about this list. Am I happy with the order? Should The Luminaries have been included? What of all the other books that were great but I’ve not included.

So a handful of honourable mentions, perhaps?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Good Omens by Messrs Pratchett and Gaiman

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Read The Golem and The Djinni If You Liked

This is my first blog post and my first book of 2014 and, do far, it’s a gorgeous and haunting book! It’s the story of two beings out of time: Chava, a Golem woken up in the middle of the Atlantic en route to America in the 1800s; and Ahmad, a Djinni trapped for perhaps a thousand years in a lamp and released in New York at the same time. There is a wealth of transformation so far with the novel as the useless becomes useful, the old becomes renovated, history becomes myth and I suspect that will be the metaphor at the heart of the book. Chava herself of made of clay and therefore malleable; Ahmad, as a djinn is a creature of winds and fire and therefore equally protean. Both Chava and Ahmad have, however, become fixed in human form which I suspect is more significant than a mere plot device! Even their names are imposed on them by others in an attempt to transform them.

Interwoven with these two eponymous stories are others: those of the craftsman who made the Golem, a doctor whose encounters with a djinn have affected him, the rabbi who took the Golem in. Admittedly I’m only 100 pages in but it really is a gorgeous novel!

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If you enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, you might like the mythologies mixing in the melting pot of Nineteenth Century New York and the exploration of immigrant and outsider communities adjusting to a new life.

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The mix of acutely felt and sensed historical fiction and the fairy tale or mythological elements might appeal if you enjoyed either Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

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Ghul and Ghoul

I had started reading The Golem and the Djinni as an end of year treat to myself and so far absolutely loving it! Only two chapters in but loving both the Golem and the Djinni! A few rather Frankensteinesque moments I. The creation of the female golem. Brilliant!

But the Djinni reminds us that he is only one of many djinn creatures including the ifrit (familiar to any player of Final Fantasy and star of a rather tender body-exchange gay sexual encounter in Gaiman’s American Gods)

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I was intrigued. I had never heard if a ghul save for Batman’s Ra’s al-Ghul. The book describes the ghul as

loathsome and flesh-eating

which did wonder whether there was a connection between the ghul and ghouls beyond mere phonological similarity.

And there is: ghouls which have somehow always struck me as a particularly British and somewhat archaic synonym for ghost is actually a bastardised image of an Arabian shape-shifting desert demon.

Who knew?

Well, the writers at DCC Comics presumably!

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2013 in Books

2013 drags itself damply and limply to an end this week. Unlike Dr Who, whose Matt Smith incarnation went out on Christmas Day with a bang, the final days of 2013 remind me of the lines from Eliot

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Anyway, I thought that I would bring the year to a close with a review of 2013 in books. And, to preface, this is books read by me in 2013 rather than written in 2013. There are still some 2013 books I’ve not got round to reading yet: The Luminaries and Jim Crace’s Harvest among them.

So. Here goes.

Top of my list is the Man Booker shortlisted A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

20131228-074227.jpg Utterly compelling and intriguing narrative voices, engaging characters, thoughtful, thought provoking and haunting. It is a book about reading and the relationship between reader and writer and genuinely made me think. And as my family and students will tell you, I try to avoid that if necessary! My somewhat gushing review is here as is a link to what happens when you gush too much about your book, here.

Second place on this wholly subjective list would go to Neil Gaiman whose beautiful Ocean At The End Of The Lane was powerful, touching, mythic and domestic all at the same time.

20131228-074349.jpg And a rollicking good read! Again, my review of it is here.

And at number three, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

20131228-075235.jpg Unexpected, tender, utterly humane. Simply a genuinely lovely book about an ordinary man and his ability to simple journey to say goodbye to an old friend who is dying. There were so many ways this could have become cloying or sentimental or just go wrong… but Rachel Joyce judged everything perfectly! Another link to my review.

Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet certainly needs a mention. As I do this I question whether ranking them has value… Maybe just my top ten. I also realised that February was a great month for my reading!

20131228-080537.jpg I loved this book: again it was remarkably tender and quiet and personal and with a remarkable sensitivity to light. The descriptions were gorgeous – especially of the glass feet themselves. Yes it is that literal a title! My review of this modern fairy tale is here.

I think The Woman in Black by Susan Hill needs a mention too. A great book with a cracking plot and so consciously crafted by Hill’s own apparent delight in the gothic. It has been an ideal book to teach simply because of that conscious crafting of language. And also genuinely chilling and creepy. Some notes on it can be found here and here.

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The film adaptation of The Woman In Black was, however, a massive disappointment… which leads me onto another of my books of 2013 which also had a really bad film: World War Z by Max Brooks.

20131228-085920.jpg The book is your standard zombie-fare: for unknown reasons, the dead rise and kill and convert much of humanity before the human race makes a stand. What I enjoyed about it – and what was taken out of the film – was the multitude of voices and stories which took an unmanageably large global narrative and reduced it down to domestic individual stories. My original blog, follow the link.

And 2013 was a good year for the undead for me: Justin Cronin’s first two books of The Passage trilogy were a powerfully and occasionally lyrical post-apocalyptic vampiric vision with one massively evocative protagonist, Amy Harper Bellafonte. The US military discover a virus capable of imbuing great strength and healing and predictably attempt to create a super soldier serum which in fact creates vampires who – somewhat inevitably – take over the world. My review of The Passage is here and the slightly less satisfying The Twelve is here.

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To continue I do want to include the Man Booker shortlisted Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín.

20131228-093945.jpg. This is a hauntingly sad novel of the gospel story of Christ from the point of view of his mother trying to deal with the crushing fact of his death. I just wish I’d read this without having seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian! My review is here.

Finally, I’ll mention Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett just because it is by Terry Pratchett and therefore a ways going to be a great big fun read! My review of this is here.

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And what will be my first books of 2014?

Well, I’ve just bought The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

20131228-100005.jpg The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

20131228-100058.jpg and The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison

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