Friday, March 23, 2012

Ellie's favourite books 2011

Ellie has had a very tricky time choosing her favourite books of last year. But here they are. If you haven't read them, put at least one on your 'to be read' list - and watch out for some of those new names because we feel you could be hearing a lot more of them.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

Police procedural with more than a dash of hilarity and magic thrown in.

This was one of those books that really stands out of the crowd. It’s fun, light but clever and hilarious too. I picked up on it when a few customers came in to pre-order the paperback and was rather intrigued by the description of it as ‘Harry Potter growing and joining the Fuzz’.  This is perhaps slightly misleading – don’t think that you’re going to be reading some kind of version of an older HP using magic to solve crimes – although it is quite a nice way to sum it up.

It really is very much a police procedural with a magical element – there is a crime to solve, and maybe a few vampires and rivalling gods and goddesses get in the way of solving this, along with the fact that the perpetrator isn’t your average criminal, but the fantasy aspect doesn’t make this a fantasy novel. It’s much more about the police aspect and the wit and interactions between some of the characters.

After a rather gruesome murder takes place in central London, trainee coppers PC Peter Grant and WPC Lesley May find themselves on the loathed graveyard shift covering the crime scene over night. Cold and bored, May goes off to get them some coffee. This however is the turning point for Grant’s career. Coming to the end of his training, with aspirations for CID, he’s been flatly told that he’s just not that kind of copper – his head’s too far in the clouds and he’s not focused enough – so has been assigned to the Case Progression Unit - a euphemism for a boring desk job.

In contrast, May is flying high, the epitome of a perfect police officer with great prospects, and she, much to Grant’s chagrin, gets appointed to the murder squad (about the most exciting job in the force). On this night though, Grant has a stroke of luck when he finds a witness to the brutal murder and quickly begins to take down a statement that could help solve the case. His interview, though, leads him to stumble upon evidence that the supernatural is real.

As any good copper would, he takes this in his stride but this encounter is followed by another with Chief Inspector Nightingale and the tables turn as he not only finds himself re-appointed to Nightingale’s team (of two) but also apprenticed to a wizard.

His new role leads him to investigate a series of connected murders that aren’t all they seem to be and liaising with the murder squad – and Lesley, who has found herself the general dogsbody and administrator. The evidence soon racks up that things aren’t quite as they should be and it’s up to Grant and Nightingale to track down the evidence and capture the culprit.

Alongside this investigation, Grant finds himself responsible, in his new role as apprentice wizard, for keeping the peace amongst the magical community in London. This means a job as mediator for the rival factions of Mother and Father Thames. This was really a wonderful element of the book and added to the hilarity as the interactions between Grant and the rivers of London (who are personified as feisty river spirits in the form of actual people) were just so funny. I loved how they were depicted – with the gods and goddesses of the city rivers living in glamorous and huge flats, dressed smartly and varying from street savvy to hobnobbing with the elite. The rivers outside London on the other hand were gypsies and country folk – hence the constant antagonism between the two.

Rivers of London is a really great twist on a police crime story that is quirky, hilarious and truly inventive. Incredibly readable and brilliantly witty, a couple of chapters in you'll soon realise it’s really a jolly escapade, albeit one set in London, disguised as a crime thriller and set against an urban fantasy backdrop, featuring a brilliant cast of characters. It had me hooked from the start, eager for the next at the end and I heartily recommend this fantastic and funny book.


Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks

A beautiful frontier novel following the life of Caleb Cheeshateaumauk – the first native American to graduate from Harvard College, 1665.

Based on fact, Geraldine Brooks has written a fantastic and evocative book about the life of Caleb Cheeshateaumauk, the first native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665.

Using the fictional voice of Bethia she is able to not only depict Caleb’s story, but to also paint a vivid picture of life in the mid-17th Century, in particular of women and Bethia’s own struggle for education and independence. This book has all the more impact and resonance because the life of Caleb is a little known story. Brooks gets the balance just right between portraying the great achievements of this young man against all the adversities and Bethia’s own struggles and life within the colony.

The daughter of a missionary, Bethia lives within a small Puritan colony on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, just off the coast of Massachusets. Living within a small area of the island, the colony keeps themselves distanced from the native Indians, maintaining certain rules and boundaries. Her father holds regular sermons both for the community and the Indians in attempts to convince them of their ‘heathen’ lives and to convert them. Living in a very religious community, Bethia has grown up being taught about these ‘savages’ although her actual contact has been minimal and only with those who have converted.

Her own position within the community is restricted by her gender, and though her father was happy for her be educated when she was younger, she gets to an age where he decides it is no longer suitable for her to continue. She now finds herself set outside of the community, more educated than most, cleverer than her brother, but unable to improve or use her education. Unhappy with the role of mother and wife she is destined to have she is powerless to choose anything else. Then one day she meets Caleb and they form a friendship built on a mutual desire for learning.

Bethia’s friendship with Caleb sets in motion events that will change her future and the future of the Indians. As their relationship develops she discovers that the Indian savagery she has been taught about is not entirely true and through their encounters they exchange lessons about their cultures and faiths. Bethia teaches Caleb to read and write and in return she learns his language.

Used to a life of hardship and loss, her family are tried by greater losses and her father becomes affected the most. A kind and gentle man, he quickly changes and his attempts to convert the local tribe become more forceful as he pits himself against the tribe’s Shaman, whose own powerful magic leads the minister to question his own abilities and convictions. This threatens to damage the delicate relationship between the Indians and the community but also leads the minister to take in Caleb and teach him in the European tradition with the intention of sending him to Harvard.

As Caleb comes over to the white culture, Bethia begins to have her own misgivings about her religion and is drawn in the opposite direction. Trapped by the narrow strictures of her faith and gender, and further by her position in her family and her own feelings of guilt, she seeks connections with Caleb’s world that challenge her beliefs and set her at odds with her community.

Bethia’s path is set to change though and entwined, as their lives have been since the age of 12 when they both set out on a journey of learning, Bethia and Caleb leave for Harvard College – he to study and she to be servant to a school master – an agreement made to enable her brother to attend the college as well. Whilst this places her greatly below her status it also opens up other doors and experiences for her that she would never have had on the island. Through her we see the many hardships faced both by women and servants, as well as the boys at the school – in particular the native Indian boys.

One aspect that makes this a truly unforgettable book, and one of my favourite last year, is the depth of Geraldine's research. It really stands out, particularly in her portrayal of these individual struggles and the conflict on the larger scale between the Native American medicine men and the English ministers. It really does feel like fact made into fiction and I was interested to learn more after reading the book.

Bethia’s voice is fundamental to the strength of this book, bringing the story to life and giving it further depth and perspective and making it much more than solely about Caleb. Brooks perfectly depicts the split between her faith and her sense of what’s right when she finds it hard to reconcile differences between herself and Caleb.

The relationship between Caleb and Bethia movingly explores the boundary between the two cultures and the inevitable difficulties, even between friends. It’s an emotive novel that will linger with you long after and leave you with much to think about. The writing is absolutely beautiful, perfectly conveying the mood and atmosphere and developing some unforgettable characters.  

I wasn't sure about this book from the description on the back, but it really was fantastic and didn't disappoint. It was an engaging, moving story and a truly wonderful read.
The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

An enchanting debut and a magical transformation of the circus as we know it.

This is a fantastic tale of magic and illusion and I found myself completely drawn in due to the incredibly visual world that Morgenstern creates – of wildly imaginative circus tents and fabulous acts, of stunning costumes and luscious dinners. This wonderfully enchanting style of writing, with evocative descriptions, almost invites you to explore this world and to re-imagine the possible. It’s a rare thing in books to describe a world so strikingly and memorably, but this makes the book all the more special and enchanting.

It’s a simple premise, about two powerful magicians who differ in the way they teach their students, and in an attempt to prove their way the best they compete in competitions played out by their pupils over many generations. Hector Bowen, also known as Prospero the Enchanter, performs in public as an illusionist, enthralling his audiences and for the latest game, he chooses his 6 year-old daughter, Celia, as his student. His friend and adversary is known only as Mr A H or the man in the grey suit and little is ever seen of him.

Unlike Hector, he picks an unknown orphan with no obvious magical talent. Their games, though, are complex and for most of the book the purpose is unclear. What is clear is that this latest competition is the most magnificent of all with the most exciting of venues.

It is still many years before the game begins and the arena for it is finally chosen – a circus known as the Night Circus or Le Cirque de Reves. Celia and her opponent, Marco, now live their lives in and through the circus – the most magical circus imaginable. It arrives without warning, opening only at night, and visitors come across the most fabulous of acts, passing through intricate paths to find and explore new tents. The most interesting thing of all though, is that it is completely black and white – from the tents and the paths to the costumes worn by the people. It’s the conception of Chandresh Lefevre and he devotes most of his time to making the circus exceptional and magical – without realising quite how magical it is.

As the game progresses, it soon becomes clear that the circus is not just a venue, it lives through Celia and Marco and everyone who’s a part of it depends on them – and the outcome of the game. The game in which neither know the rules nor how the winner will be chosen, nor that they are merely pawns in this game. As they discover this, they also discover something truly magical: Love.

Love, though, is not meant to be a part of this game and their relationship threatens everything.

The Night Circus is a real feast for the senses – the events unfurl slowly, and the beautiful, dreamlike writing conjures up beautiful scenes and delicious scents. The twists and turns in the story echoes those of the paths between the tents – each new tent is more exciting than the last. You must wonder what is real and what illusion as the unsettled feeling of the novel is reinforced by the shifting narrative – parallel stories are told about the circus in different times which slowly come together.

The elements of dark and light in the story – the black and white, the light used in the acts to enchant the spectators, from fire, to stars or illuminated ice – reflect the good and evil, the uncertain outcome of the game and the complex relationship between Celia and Marco, and you as the reader can feel the pull of both dark and light in the story. Despite the dark elements, that become more apparent as the game unfolds, it is exciting and hopeful, and with anything possible in this impossible world the imagination can be used to bend things to your will.

The Night Circus is all about crossing boundaries, between the real and the imaginable, and it’s the most wonderful storytelling, succeeding in transporting you to a place you didn’t know existed.

Be careful not to be put off by the non-linear time frame which means the story unfolds quite slowly. This works perfectly for the novel and is very much a part of the story, mirroring the disorientation felt by visitors to the circus and highlighting the timelessness of the circus itself. You soon find yourself swept up in the story and completely captivated.

It’s an enchanting debut, a story of magic, love and imagination, marked by its originality and spellbinding descriptions. It’s a kind of fairy tale but with people and real places where the familiar is transformed into something special. I definitely recommend it.

Delirium – Lauren Oliver

A dystopian world where love is a disease that must be cured, this is a story about love and fighting for freedom.

One of my residing impressions of this novel was that it had a real John Wyndham and Orwellian feel to it. It was fantastic writing and I really liked its premise, which was really well followed through with some fantastic characters. The dystopian world was convincingly created and I loved every minute of reading it.

Delirium is a novel set in a future of our world where there has obviously been some calamity or crisis. Whilst most people are relatively well off, they’re not as affluent as our society today – electricity is now rationed and cars are only for the rich. And love is now believed to be a disease. A disease that infects everyone if you’re not careful, is responsible for all the bad things in the world and must be cured.

At 18 you receive the cure, but without Love there is little emotion, which means the Government takes an active role in your life – in fact, it controls everything. Careers and marriages are arranged and everyone is matched with someone appropriate to their age, social status and personality. They encourage certain extra-curricular activities, whilst others are frowned upon, and the ‘Book of Shhh’ is obligatory reading at school. Music is regulated, along with books and films. Everyone is taught about the disease – its symptoms, what it does, what you must do if you suspect someone (a friend, a relative, a neighbour) has the disease.

Girls and boys are kept separate and interaction is not allowed. Young offenders are punished whilst persistent offenders and those who catch the disease are cured early or sent to prison, hidden away underground and never let out. Some offenders are punished with death. And to ensure people aren’t infected with Amor Deliria Nervosa, the neighbourhoods are policed by regulators who look out for signs of the disease, conducting random house checks. Everyone must carry their paperwork with them at all times and stick to an imposed curfew.

Anyone who originally refused the cure, now called Invalids because their citizenship has been invalidated, lived outside the electrified borders, in the Wilds, but are supposedly all dead now after the Wilds were destroyed during the Blitz.

Lena is a model citizen, has always followed the rules and looks forward to her cure. She is particularly afraid of the disease because her mother had it – she was cured several times before she finally killed herself. This isn’t the kind of thing you want in your background and Lena is afraid she’ll be like her mother, is tainted by her weaknesses. Everyday she focuses on what it will be like after the cure when she will forget about her mother and the nightmares will stop.

Until she meets Alex. Then everything changes and she realises the truth that has always been told to her is all lies and all the cured are really dead. The Wilds aren’t empty, but full and teeming with life. Love isn’t a disease, it’s freedom, even if it comes with a price.

This is outstanding writing and Lauren Oliver convincingly creates an alternative, dystopian future where everyone is afraid of love. I thought some of the little details she included were absolutely great – the symptoms of love (we’ll all recognise, sweaty palms, nervousness, heightened awareness, complete happiness, sadness) which get worse as it progresses and results in death.

There are nice touches with quotes from the health and safety handbook, the ‘Book of Shhh’, poems and recommended reading at the start of the chapters. Stories we are familiar with, such as Romeo and Juliet, are referred to, but as cautionary tales taught to children to show the danger of love.

It’s an exciting and thought provoking story and whilst partly a social commentary through the extreme of a dystopian world, it’s also a story of first love and what you will do to keep it, what you will sacrifice and what freedom truly means. An absolutely great teen novel, of excellent quality it’s the first in a trilogy, I couldn’t wait for the next one – which has now come out and I’ve devoured in a couple of days. Just as fabulous . . . it’s left me wanting more, thought the last one isn’t out for a little while yet!

The Dirty Life – Kristin Kimball

A compelling book about transformation on many levels, the rewards of hard work and what it means to be passionate about something.

I don’t often read memoirs but something about this one made me pick it up. I was interested in it partly because it’s about setting up a farm, although it’s a bit more than that. It’s about a city girl falling in love with a farmer and leaving her life of New York city sky scrapers, heels and cocktails for a life on the farm and hard graft from morning till night in order to pursue a dream.

It felt particularly relevant with the current focus on self-sufficiency and being green – more and more people are growing vegetables in their gardens or on their allotments, and even moving to set up small-holdings for all the family.

It was refreshingly unsentimental and didn’t really feel like a memoir. It grabbed me from the start with a gorgeous opening where Kimball describes a meal her husband is cooking after a long day on the farm from their own freshly grown produce. It sounded mouth wateringly delicious!

The start of the book explores her decision to give up her freelance writing in NY to move to the countryside and marry a farmer. A typical New Yorker, unused to the countryside, she met her (future) husband when she first went to interview him, turning up in heels and tight jeans and when asked to help out, found herself sinking into the soft soil, sweating under the hot sun and from the work of raking the soil to get rid of the rocks in the ground, ending the day with aching muscles and more than a few blisters.

Kimball breaks the rest of the book up into the search for a farm and their first year. I found it particularly interesting as I didn’t know much about how American farms worked; that they have co-ops where everyone pays an upfront subscription and then collect their vegetable baskets weekly thereafter. A practice that is beginning to come over here. Kimball and her husband wanted to go further than just providing the fruit and veg and wanted to supply all the daily groceries – including meat, milk, bread, herbs and more, and this was part of their challenge setting up their farm.

She goes into just enough detail about the daily operations of the farm and various crises that crop up (some rather large ones too!) to really draw the reader in and keep you invested in the outcome of their somewhat overwhelming undertaking.

It was a really powerful story, dealt with a light touch, humour and refreshing unsentimentally, describing both the rawness and romanticism of farming. The fantastic descriptive phrasing, particularly of some of the meals cooked, makes you want to step off the page. It’s much more than just about the farm, setting it up and making it work.

It’s also a love story – her falling in love with her husband, falling in love with the farm, the land and the very different way of life – and the community it brings. You might think it’s a memoir for those who know farm life or have an interest in it, but it really holds more for those who don’t. It’s a compelling book about transformation and the rewards of hard work and getting back to our roots and pursuing a dream. 

I was completely drawn into this from the first page and loved every minute of it. Simply told as it is, honest and heartfelt, it really grabs you from the very heart and depicts what it is to work hard to achieve a dream.

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