Phil Rickman: The Smile of a Ghost (2005) Merrily Watkins Series

Smile of a Ghost

In the affluent, historic town of Ludlow, a teenage boy dies in a fall from the castle ruins. Accident or suicide? No great mystery, so why does the boy’s uncle, newly-retired detective sergeant Andy Mumford take his personal fears to diocesan exorcist Merrily Watkins? More people will die before Merrily, her own future uncertain, uncovers in those shadowed, medieval streets, a dangerous obsession with suicide, the nature of death and the afterlife.

I bought The Smile of a Ghost by accident, thinking it was the first in the Merrily Watkins series, but it’s already book seven. I think it says a lot about a series though if new readers do not feel left out and don’t get the impression that there’s a huge amount of backstory that would be annoying for those already familiar with the books.

When you read about some of the elements of the novels, notably that they are set in small English towns and that the main protagonist/investigator is a vicar, you might be led to thinking this is cozy crime. You’d be very wrong. The series is far edgier than you’d expect. And in some ways quite eccentric. Think Trollope meets the Gilmore Girls and you have a pretty good idea of the flavour of the series.

The main investigator is thirty-six-year-old Merrily Watkins, vicar of Ledwardine, in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border. Merrily isn’t only a vicar she’s also a deliverance minister – in other words an exorcist. And she’s the single mom of a teenage daughter and dates a rock musician. With these ingredients it’s not surprising that the books offer a mix of solid mystery, with a gothic flair and a very realistic look at life in contemporary Britain.

In this seventh book of the series Merrily has a lot of trouble with the church. Exorcist is a role that many among the clergy want gone. It whiffs too much of medieval superstitions. But Merrily persists. She’s not entirely sure herself whether she believes in ghosts, all she knows is that there are phenomena nobody can explain and if people feel the need of a priest to help them, why should the church refuse this. It’s decided that she can go on doing what she does but only after consulting with a whole group of people first, one of which a retired, pompous psychiatrist.

Merrily is a very independent person. She hates these new rules. But she’s got more troubles of her own . Her boyfriend, rock musician Lol, has moved to Ledwardine and they try to keep it a secret for the time being. Someone knows though or they wouldn’t receive hate mail. Jane, Merrily’s feisty daughter, starts to investigate, only to find a few other worrying things.

When a young boy, Robbie Walsh, falls from Ludlow castle, it looks like an accident at first. His uncle, newly-retired police investigator Mumford doubts it was an accident. As usual the boy stayed with his grandparents for the holidays. He loves staying at Ludlow. His own home is anything but peaceful. His mother is a druggie and pregnant with a much younger guy’s kid. Robbie’s a history buff and knows everything about Ludlow, including its ghost stories. Shortly before he dies he’s seen with Belladonna, an eccentric goth musician who has bought a house in Ludlow. She’s often seen at night in a dark cape, possibly naked underneath, holding a flickering candle. Does she have something to do with Robbie’s death? Was it a suicide?

If Mumford’s mother wouldn’t pretend she’s still seeing Robbie and he’s talking to her, Merrily might not have been drawn into this, but since there’s the possibility of a haunting, Mumford asks her for help.

Shortly afterwards Mumford’s mother is found dead in the river and a girl jumps from the castle. There’s clearly something very sinister at work here. A suicide cult led by Belladonna? Drug-dealing youth who force others to throw themselves from the ruin? Murder?

I loved this book and will return to this series again. It has such an arresting mix of elements: a suspenseful mystery, elements of ghost stories, a strong sense of place and setting, social commentary and a lot more. The characters are wonderfully well drawn. Merrily and her daughter Jane are a great team. They made me think of the Gilmore Girls more than once. The only reservation I have is the length of the books. None is shorter than 500 pages, many are over 600 and a lot of these pages are filled with church politics. It didn’t bother me too much because everything else was so different and fresh. And I had a tiny problem with the occasional use of vernacular though. It’s just something I don’t like.

I highly recommend this series. It offers a terrific mix of elements, wonderfully likable characters, and great setting and atmosphere. I was almost sad when I came to the end of the novel and didn’t have another one at hand. And I would love to visit Ludlow Castle.

Ludlow Castle

Marcus Sedgwick: Floodland (2000)

Floodland

Marcus Sedgwick has been on my radar for a while. I’ve seen more than one enthusiastic review of his books. He’s regularly nominated for awards and has won a few, notably the Branford Boase Award for first children’s book for Floodland. When you come to a writer who is as prolific as Marcus Sedgwick it’s hard to know where to start. Last year he even published a book for adults A Love Like Blood, that’s high on my TBR piles. I first wanted to read Midwinterblood but then decided to start with his first novel Floodland.

Floodland is set in the UK in the future. Most of the country is flooded, some of the higher regions building small islands. Food is scarce and people try to flee from the smaller islands to a larger part of the mainland. Zoe is left behind on the island of Norwich when her parents leave. During a moment of total chaos they boarded without making sure that she was really following them. Zoe’s been fighting for herself ever since. She’s a loner and most people leave her alone that’s why, when she discovers a boat, she’s able to hide it, and make it seaworthy again. One day she leaves the island, looking for the mainland. Instead of finding the mainland she’s stranded on an even smaller island than Norwich. Dooby, who is only a few years older than Zoe, is the leader of the people on that island. Food is even scarcer and so is shelter. Most people live in an old cathedral. Dooby confiscates her boat and Zoe’s forced to stay on this island on which people have turned into barbaric mobs, periodically overrun by other mobs who they torture and kill, if given a chance. Her only aim is to find her boat, flee and find the mainland and her parents.

I thought that the idea of Norwich being an island was pretty uncanny. I liked how this book was structured and divided into three parts “before”, “then” and “after”. Each part is subdivided into short chapters. At the beginning of every part and every chapter we find haunting wood carvings by Marcus Sedgwick.

Floodland is a short novel and so it may not be surprising that the writing is taut. There’s no superfluous word here. It all moves along at a steady pace and is very suspenseful.The middle part, which is the longest, was reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. It was also the part which carried the strongest message. There’s only one elderly person on that island and he makes Zoe understand how important it is to tell stories if humans want to keep their humanity.

The end felt a bit rushed but I still thought it was well done. Overall I enjoyed this adventurous story a great deal. Zoe’s a wonderful heroine and the world Marcus Sedgwick created felt realistic. There’s not too much backstory but we still understand it’s all a result of global warming. For children this may be a very emotional book because Zoe wonders until the end why her parents didn’t come back to find her. There’s one thing I didn’t like and that’s the idea that people turn into animals when they lose their humanity. I’m not keen on the dichotomy animal/human. The people in this book lose their compassion and their altruism because they are in a very precarious situation. They are cruel and depraved. That doesn’t make them animals. Animals don’t know cruelty.

If you’d like to find out more about Marcus Sedgwick here’s his website Marcus Sedgwick. It’s one of the most appealing writer’s websites I’ve come across. He also writes a blog where I found this quote that sums up his writing

I’m not a writer who tells you something five times. I usually say it just once, and if I say it any more in a first draft, my editor makes me take it out in a rewrite anyway. That’s one of the reasons that my books are sometimes shorter than other people’s. And that’s one of the reasons why I wish some people would read more slowly. Books are patient; you can afford to take your time when you’re reading for pleasure.

Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014)

The Narrow Road To The Deep North

In December I left an overhasty comment on Bellezza’s blog (here). She’d reviewed Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, saying that it was very hard to read. I was about 100 pages into the novel and commented that I didn’t think it was all that bad. Unfortunately, I still had 350 pages to go and those were anything but easy. They were extremely hard and I kept on wondering “Why am I reading this?”. I’m not sure why I thought like that. I’ve seen many movies on POWs, have read more than one book and never had this reaction. It wasn’t even anything new. I was familiar with what the Japanese did to their prisoners. I knew about the vivisection on American soldiers. I just felt that it’s too much. Too graphic. After I finished the book I chatted with Vishy about it and he told me that Claire had written about the book (here), having a similar reaction. She couldn’t even finish it. I’m still not entirely sure why I reacted like this. I just know that I didn’t get anything out of reading this novel. If it hadn’t been for the brittle writing style and the mostly non-linear structure, which I both found very engaging, I would have given up. And I bought a hardback. It’s one of a few rules I try to stick to; if I buy a hardback, I finish it. I think I have to stop buying hardbacks.

The largest part of The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of the surgeon Dorrigo Evans. Before the war he’s engaged to Ella but just before being shipped overseas he meets his uncle’s young wife Amy and falls in love with her. The love affair is intense and passionate and will haunt him all through the war years and even after the war. There’s a reason why they don’t get together at the end of the war and this plot line was the one I liked best because it illustrates so well how sometimes a whole life can take another turn just because of some small element.

The book is divided into several parts, one of which tells about Dorrigo’s time as a prisoner of war on the Burma Death Railway. In this section, like in the sections in the last part, the point of view changes from one Australian prisoner to the next, and from one Japanese officer or guard to the next. The parts told from the prisoner’s point of view are awful. The descriptions of the horrors, the beatings, the wounds, infections, illnesses  . . . they are so detailed and graphic, it’s too much. And the parts told from the point of view of the Japanese are very disturbing. I’ve never read anything as disturbing as that. We are in the mind of monsters who believe they are superior beings, who go on and on about honor and shame, who constantly rationalize their evil deeds and sadism,  and find not only excuses but reasons that make them believe they are “good men”.

On returning to the camp late that afternoon, Colonel Kota gave Nakamura a dressing down, his rage driven by his own shame at having forgotten a haiku and thus having been unable to behead a prisoner—and this in front of a Korean guard. In turn deeply ashamed, the Japanese major found the Korean sergeant whose name he could never remember, slapped him hard a few times, got the name of the prisoner who was apparently—of all things—hiding out in the hospital, and ordered a parade to be called and the prisoner to be punished in front of the assembled POWs.

After the war Dorrigo gets married to Ella, becomes a famous surgeon and turns into a philanderer.

He (Dorrigo after the war) was a lighthouse whose light could not be relit. In his dreams he would hear his mother calling to him from the kitchen: Boy, come here, boy. But when he would go inside it was dark and cold, the kitchen was charred beams and ash and smelt of gas, and no one was home.

In the last part we’re spending a lot of time in the mind of the Japanese war criminal, officer Nakamura. And once again that’s even more disturbing than anything else.

Flanagan’s writing style and the way he structured the first parts of the book made me finish it. It’s his strength of writing vivid scenes and descriptions that made the book worthwhile, but at the smae time these qualities also made it extremely hard to read. It’s debatable how graphic and explicit a novel should be. I think he did the right thing in being this explicit, only, I didn’t want to read it. Not at this time. However, I have other points to criticize. The book is too long. The last part felt as if he wanted to add too much. We didn’t need to read about the vivisections and there was a scene involving a fire, almost at the end, that I found superfluous as well. As if Flanagan didn’t exactly know when and how to end the book.

The brittle, vivid style makes me want to pick up another of his novels. But I wish I hadn’t read this one.

Lauren Oliver: Rooms (2014)

Rooms

This is a carryover review from last year. I finished the book before Christmas and wasn’t even going to review it at first – like so many others – but since it’s new, I thought it would be good to write about it anyway.

Rooms is Lauren Oliver’s first book for adults. She’s famous for her YA novels, Panic, Before I Fall and the Delirium trilogy. I haven’t read them, so I came to this novel without any preconceptions. I only knew it was said to be a rather unusual ghost story or – to be more precise – a haunted house story. I do love ghost stories and haunted house stories and the mini-review I read was so appealing that I had to try it.

Richard Walker died, leaving behind a huge country house. At the beginning of the novel his estranged family, – his ex-wife Caroline, his daughter Minna, her young child Amy, and his son Trenton – arrives to take possession of the house and his things.

The house is occupied by two bickering ghosts, Alice and Sandra. Unlike other ghosts who haunt houses these two are woven into the fabric of the house. They have become the house. They are in the walls, in the plumbing, everywhere. That’s an unusual idea and could have been really spooky, but it wasn’t because Rooms focuses too much on the story of each character. With the exception of little Amy, they are all troubled. The ex-wife is an alcoholic, Minna is a sex addict, Trenton is a suicidal teenager, Sandra, one of the ghosts, was shot, and Alice has secrets of her own.

The story moves along quickly, the descriptions are evocative, and the end is, although foreseeable, not bad. The biggest problem is that there are too many characters and, especially the ghosts Alice and Sandra, are too alike. They have different names and a different story but that’s not enough to tell them apart. The voices are too similar, even though they use another vocabulary. The same goes for the family members. They are all equally dysfunctional but if they were not so distinct through age and gender, they would blend into each other as well. Some of the descriptions of alcoholism or Minna’s and Trenton’s behaviour are spot on but they seem to exist in a vacuum. They have no history other than that the father was a bastard. We don’t understand Caroline’s drinking. We have no clue why Minna’s this bad, popping pills, jumping every guy that enters the house. Trenton’s the only character we get to understand a bit better.

Although I wasn’t too keen on this book, I think some readers might like it. Lauren Oliver knows how to write a scene or a description. However, overall this felt like a highly artificial attempt at a ghost story. The worst was maybe the lack of atmosphere. We don’t always need to know why a ghost is haunting a place but we want to feel the haunting. Atmosphere is a key element. As the story of a dysfunctional family it doesn’t work either because it lacks depth; for a character to be interesting he/she needs a bit more than being dysfunctional.

Maybe she’s better at writing for YA. Since I’ve got te first in the Delirium trilogy and Before I Fall I’ll certainly find out sooner or later.

Have you read any good ghost or haunted house stories lately?

 

Letters From a Lost Generation – Literature and War Readalong December 2014

Letters From a Lost Generation

Vera to Edith Brittain

Malta, 15 December 1916

I do wonder if I shall ever see Edward again; it is very hard that we should be the generation to suffer the War, though I suppose it is very splendid to, & is making us better & wiser & deeper men & women (at any rate some of us . . .) than our ancestors ever were or our descendants ever will be. It seems to me that the War will make a big division of ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the history of the World, almost if not quite as big as the ‘B.C.’ and ‘A.D.’ division made by the birth of Christ  . . . ( . . . )

I finished reading Letters from a Lost Generation on December 22nd. Only when I put it aside and picked up Testament of Youth did I realize that Vera Brittain’s fiancé Roland Leighton was shot exactly 99 years ago and died on December 23rd 1915. When I chose the book I didn’t know about this; reading it exactly during that time made it even more moving.

The first half of the book contains mostly the letters between Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. There are a couple of letters between her and her brother Edward and between her and their best friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, but the major part is the correspondence between Vera and Roland.

Reading these letters was very difficult. They are not graphic or gruesome at all – at times I wondered whether the four men really served in the trenches – but they are so unbearably tragic and sad. These five people were such close friends, that each time one of them dies, they all suffer terribly. Since Roland is the first to go and seems the one everyone liked the most, his death overshadows all the later letters. He’s mentioned constantly, quoted, remembered, and after a while I started to feel the loss almost as badly. No wonder people still visit his grave in France.

After Roland is killed Vera dedicates herself with even more verve to nursing. She first stays in England but then moves to Malta and later to France.

What spoke to me is the way they deal with grief. It shows how very important it is when you lose someone you love to know exactly what happened. In each case, and also in the case of friends who are not as close, they try, like detectives, to find out what happened. It’s particularly painful for Vera to know that Roland was wounded on the 22nd and only died one day later, after having been conscious the whole time, but didn’t write her a goodbye note. They find out later that he took an unforseen turn to the worse and might not have known he was going to die. Other aspects of his death become painful only later. Some of the friends are wounded and killed during battles, not so Roland. His death is rather an accident and Vera sometimes wishes that he’d died in one of the big battles so that his death would forever be linked to that name.

What I found extremely shocking is that Roland’s clothes – the stinking, muddy, bloody uniform and shoes – were sent to his family. I’d never heard of anything like this before. Vera describes the particular stench and the horror of the sight in great detail and I felt so sorry for them. How cruel and thoughtless. In Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room is a scene in which the sister takes out Toby’s clothes and speaks of the stench of the trenches. I’m pretty sure Pat Barker was inspired by the description of Roland Leighton’s clothes.

Letters from a Lost Generation is an important document on how the perception of the war changed. The four men signed up enthusiastically, spoke about honour and glory. Even war is glorified. The longer the war takes, the higher the losses, and the more futile it all seems, the more that perception changes.

Reading about the work of a nurse was especially interesting and showed to some extent why it was possible for so many people in England to ignore the mutilations. By the time the wounded men arrived, they had already been patched up as good as possible.

Another aspect that struck me is how humble the five friends were. None of them complained much or made a big fuss. Not about the cold, the mud, and the rain, nor about the battles and the fear of death. Not even when they are wounded.

I still wonder how Vera Brittain managed to survive the death of the four people who were closest to her. After the war she met the writer Winifred Holtby who became her best friend and helped her to overcome her grief. Sadly Holtby too died an early death in 1935. Another great loss for Vera.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection of letters this quickly and as soon as I finished the book I started Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth. I want to know more about her, about them. Letters from a Lost Generation is as important as it is beautiful and moving. It’s a document of deep and heartfelt friendship, a testimony of grief, loss and sorrow, and a valuable contribution to understand a generation and its motives.

Other reviews

 

 

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Letters from a Lost Generation was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is The Disappeared by Kim Echlin. Discussion starts on Tuesday 31 March, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Best Books 2014

mail.google.com

I had a feeling this wasn’t a good reading year, but when I went over my posts I saw that I was wrong. I’ve read some outstanding books some of which will stay with me for a long time.

Best Literary Fiction

Evening

Here’s what I wrote about Susan Minot’s Evening

It’s not easy to capture the beauty of Susan Minot’s gorgeous and ambitious novel Evening. If Virginia Woolf or Proust had written page-turners, that’s what it could look like.

In beautiful prose which explores how memory and consciousness work Evening captures the story of Ann Grant’s life. It is 1994 and Ann is terminally ill; she’s lying in her bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. Scent transports her back in time. The morphine induces hallucinations, which are rendered in brilliant stream of consciousness paragraphs. These chapters and paragraphs, are very short, fragments only; the main story however simply moves back and forth between 1994 and 1954, the summer in which she met Harris Arden.

It’s a beautiful book and strangely uplifting. Possibly because it testifies how intense an interior life can be and that nothing is really lost. Everything we’ve ever experienced, imagined or dreamed is still somewhere. In its best moments Evening reminded me of Virgina Woolf’s The Voyage Out, in which we often see people or houses from outside. They are motionless or sleeping, but we catch a glimpse of their inner lives, which are rich and deep and passionate.

My review

The Killer Angels

Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels is the only Literature and War Readalong title that made the list.

Here’s what I wrote:

Books are not always the way we expect them to be. Still, I’ve only rarely been this wrong. I was afraid Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winner would be dry, heavy on tactics and military jargon. It wouldn’t have been too surprising if it had been like that, after all, Shaara tells the story of the three-day battle at Gettysburg. But The Killer Angels is anything but dry or heavy. It’s a beautiful, lyrical novel, which focusses much more on the moods and emotions of the main characters than on tactics.

I don’t know what other books the year will bring, but I have a feeling this one could make it on the Best of List. I love books which are rich in atmosphere, capture quiet, introspective moods and manage to bring the most different characters to life. I certainly didn’t expect to find all that in a war novel. The Killer Angels is a gorgeous book on an awful subject, reading it felt like seeing all the major participants of the battle during their most intimate moments. I’m grateful to Kevin who said I would be missing out, if I didn’t read it. He was right.

My review

The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth 

Here’s what I wrote:

It took me far over two months to decide whether I wanted to review The House of Mirth or not. For some reasons, I found this book profoundly disturbing.

While reading  The House of Mirth I felt like I was watching a fly getting trapped in a spider’s web. At first, when they notice that they are trapped, they wiggle frantically, hoping to be able to free themselves but, in doing so, entangle themselves even more. Comparing the stunningly beautiful Lily Bart to a fly isn’t doing her any justice, but the way she’s trapped by the society she lives in, and the way in which she tries to free herself, is not much different from the poor fly. I’m still a bit shocked. I knew nothing about The House of Mirth and to find that Lili Bart is just as tragic – maybe even more so – as Effi Briest or Mme Bovary (only without the adultery), came as a huge surprise.

My review

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams

Ellen Gilchrist’s In the Land of Dreamy Dreams is the best short story collection I’ve read this year and one I want to read again some day.

Here’s what I wrote:

I came across Ellen Gilchrist by chance. I was looking for books set in New Orleans and saw one of her short stories Rich in an anthology. I wasn’t familiar with her and looked her up and finally ordered a used copy of her first collection In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. It’s very rare that I read a whole short story collection in a few days, but I did in this case. There was a unity of setting, mood and atmosphere, and even one returning character that it read almost like a novel in stories.

I haven’t read anyone quite like Ellen Gilchrist but she still reminded me of a few authors. Tennesse Williams came to mind – A Streetcar Named Desire as much as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone – because of the setting and some of the older characters. But she also reminded me of Julie Orringer whose intricately woven sentences and lush descriptions are similar and there’s some of Yoko Ogawa’s cruelty in this collection as well. Funny enough Ogawa’s last short story collection has the English title Revenge. One of Gilchrist’s best stories is called Revenge as well. Coincidence? Who knows.

If you like rish, complex short stories, full of allusions and sensual descriptions, sometimes mean, sometimes dreamy – then do yourself a favour and get a copy of this wonderful book.

My review

Molly Fox's Birthday

Deirdre Madden was another great discovery this year. I absolutely loved. Molly Fox’s Birthday 

Here’s what I wrote:

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book by a new-to-me author and felt like reading everything she’s ever written.

Molly Fox’s Birthday is a wonderful celebration of the interior life, art, theatre, friendship and it’s an exploration of how daily life, despite the struggles, doesn’t have to turn into something dull and devoid of authenticity. There’s always meaning, you just have to look for it.

My review

The Very Dead of Winter

I hadn’t heard of Mary Hocking before and have to thank heavenali who hosted a Mary Hocking Week for the discovery.

Here’s what I wrote:

I really liked The Very Dead of Winter are great deal. Not only for its wry humour and psychological insight, but also for some lovely descriptions. It’s not a flawless novel, there are a few instances of shifty point of view, but that didn’t diminish the experience one bit. I’ll certainly read more of Mary Hocking, might even re-read The Very Dead of Winter.

My review

The Warden

After reading Trollope’s The Warden I wasn’t sure whether it would make it on the list but I must admit- it’s a memorable book.

Here’s what I wrote:

Memory is a funny thing. For years I have been haunted by a sensual impression of a place. I remember being in England and walking along a row of houses. It’s a very peaceful, mild, warm autumn afternoon. The houses are part of a larger compound, overshadowed by a huge cathedral. I remember walking away from the cathedral close and coming to a small river that was flowing through the grassy meadow, on the same level as the soil. There were weeping willows and sheep. Walking around that place was like visiting a time long gone. These haunting images returned periodically. The light outside of my windows sometimes triggered the memory. It was always nice to go back in my mind, the only trouble was – I couldn’t remember where this had been. I’ve been in England many times, stayed there for a couple of months or weeks. I’ve visited many places and many cathedrals, but as much as I thought about it – I had no clue where I’d been on that warm autumn afternoon. Not until reading The Warden. The moment I opened the book and read the description of Barchester I knew – this is where I had been. But how could that be? Barchester doesn’t exist. Although I like to keep the introduction of a book until I’ve finished it, I had to read it to find out more. In the introduction I learned that Trollope based Barchester on Salisbury and Winchester. I immediately went online and looked up photos of Salisbury cathedral, the cathedral close and the meadows around and, yes, indeed, that’s where I’ve been some years ago. I found it pretty uncanny that Trollope was so capable at describing a place. I still don’t know why I forgot that the images were images of Salisbury. I’ve never forgotten a place like that. Maybe because it was so dreamlike?

I’m glad I read The Warden. It made me remember my stay at Salisbury and I loved the descriptions. I liked his choice of themes and think they are just as important today as they were then. I also think he’s a wonderful satirist.

My review

Weights and Measures

This too will stay with me. Joseph Roth’s Weights and Measures – Das falsche Gewicht is such a powerful short novel.

Here’s what I wrote:

How does an upright, steadfast man survive among corruption, hypocrisy, and crime? Roth’s answer to this question, which lies at the heart of Weights and Measures – Das falsche Gewicht, is pretty simple: he doesn’t. Either he is tainted or he will go down.

What I liked most is how Roth used the descriptions of the place and the weather to show Eibenschütz’s emotions and to underline the wild remoteness of this region. There were many beautiful small scenes and episodes. Eibenschütz is upright and stiff, but he’s also very emotional and feels deeply. His life as a soldier sheltered him emotionally; experiencing heartache and passion, unhinges him. When he falls in love he discovers nature. Before his “awakening” nature is just a phenomenon he sees but barely notices. The changing seasons bring rain or snow, breaking ice or sunshine, but that doesn’t affect him. Once he’s “awake” he feels the seasons, feels he’s part of it.

My review

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 09.12.22

Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek was another winner.

I often read the best books of the year in December. Sometimes they don’t make it on the Top 10 list because I read them so late in the year. Luckily I’ve read Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth novel  A Game of Hide and Seek  just in time. This is my third Elizabeth Taylor novel and every time I read her I’m amazed to find out again how good she is. As much as I liked Blaming and Mrs Palfrey at the ClaremontA Game of Hide and Seek is even better. It’s larger in scope, richer in themes, with many more protagonists, and stretches over decades. The mood and atmosphere reminded me a lot of Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer and David Lean’s movie Brief Encounter, both of which are favourites of mine.

I’m aware I wasn’t able to capture this book because it contains so many themes (childhood, first love, passion, married life, women’s rights, work, education, memory, growing older . . .) and is so rich— there’s a wonderful, bitter-sweet love story, accurate descriptions of a period, lifelike, flawed characters, and humourous observations. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I even added it to my list of all-time favourite books.

My review

Best Mainstream Fiction

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

I read  Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls in January but it’s still present as if I’d read it a couple of weeks ago. It’s such a lovely book.

This is what I wrote then

I’m not sure what exactly made me love this book so much. Was it the elegant writing, the dreamy mood, the sense of seeing a long-gone world, the tragedy of the story or the characters?

I loved the way DiScalafani captured the setting and the period. I liked how she showed the end of an era without turning this into a mournful book, but into one that shows that people can free themselves from their stifling upbringing if they are true to themselves. Thea is a character who is true to herself at all times. This comes at a cost but one she’s aware of and willing to pay.

If you like a rich, beautifully told story, with mystery and a lush setting, if you are fascinated by the Great Depression and big Southern Families and enjoy a coming-of-age story, which is at times quite steamy, then I’m pretty sure you’ll love The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls.

Best Crime

It was a great crime reading year. I can’t say I’ve read anything that I didn’t like to some extent, so the choice wasn’t easy but my two favourite books this year were

The Winter of the Lions

Jan Costin Wagner was a real discovery this year. I’ve read his first three. They are all good but I only reviewed this one.

Here’s what I wrote:

What made me love Wagner’s books even more was his writing style. This is crime at the literary end of the spectrum. The sentences are short, spare, and very precise.

As if all of this wasn’t enough there’s a haunting atmosphere in every book and the Finnish setting is another bonus, especially since each book takes place during another season. I loved to read about the long nights in winter and the endless days in summer.

Should you wonder why a German author chose to set his books in Finland —Wagner is married to a Finnish woman and spends half of the year in Finland.

This is one of the best crime series I know. Haunting, atmospherical, with philosophical depth and impeccable writing.

My review

Dead Scared

S.J.Bolton is certainly one of my favourite crime writers and I’ll read all of her books eventually. Still, this was the best so far. I loved it.

Here’s what I wrote

Dead Scared was my third novel by S.J. Bolton. It’s the second novel featuring Lacey Flint and DI Mark Joesbury. I liked Sacrifice and Now You See Me a lot, but I really loved Dead Scared. I think it’s one of my all-time favourite crime novels. It’s got everything I like in a plot-driven crime novel. Great setting, evocative atmosphere, appealing characters, a well-paced plot and a really great story. For once she didn’t even stretch believability all that much.

My review

Best Sci-Fi

Fuzzy Nation

I loved John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation. Funny, entertaining and thought-provoking with one of the best beginnings ever.

Here’s what I wrote:

Fuzzy Nation isn’t only an adventure story, in which cute little animal-people are suddenly in great danger and other people have to make some tough decisions, it’s also an exploration of what makes a human. Is it understanding, intelligence, dexterity, the aptitude to use machines or language? In any case, once you’re declared a sentient being, you have the right to possess things. Before that, everything you own can be taken and destroyed.

 Here’s the review

Best Children’s Book

Skellig

I’ve read so many children’s books this year that I didn’t even get the time to review them. Two stood out Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock and David Almond’s Skellig.

Here’s what I wrote about Skellig:

I often think that the best books for children are not just books for a particular age group but timeless tales for any age. Just think of Antoine de St Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It’s a children’s book but it is so much more. And so is Skellig, David Almond’s wondrous, lyrical novel of love and healing.

Skellig is such a magical book. Lyrical, spiritual and philosophical, but very realistic too. It’s an elusive book, that is hard to describe without breaking its spell. It’s a story of love and loss, grief and joy, inspired by tales of angels, the evolution of birds and William Blake. Every reader interprets Skellig in another way. After I finished it I’m still not sure what Skellig is but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to feel how inspired David Almond was when he wrote this novel. Skellig is pure magic; an image, a deeply haunting feeling, that carries a truth that predates words. I think it took courage to write a book like this and to leave so many questions unanswered. David Almond seems to have been sure that even if we didn’t “get it” intellectually, we would still be able to understand it on an emotional level. I really love that.

And the review

Best Non-Fiction

It's Easier Than You Think

It’s Easier Than You Think by Sylvia Boorstein.

I didn’t review it but it made a huge impression on me. Especially the parts about impermanence. I told all of my friends about it, urging them to read it.