Continuing the list of books which have made an impression over the last ten years(ish).
Until I Find You by John Irving
I’m not sure if this was the first book by Irving I had read and I’m not sure if it’s my very favourite as I have read all of them over the last few years and enjoyed them all. I suppose it was a toss-up between this, The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp.
Until I Find You is a book about memory, the memories of the adult Jack of his childhood. The novel follows Jack from childhood, as the son of a tattoo-artist mother in Toronto, through to adulthood, taking in themes of abandonment by his father, abuse and the search for a family. Geographically it moves from Canada through parts of Europe to the United States. I found it rich and evocative with memorable characters and an engaging storyline.
If you like a good story well written I would recommend any of Irving’s novels.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
This is the story of the Blackwood sisters, Mary Katherine (‘Merricat’) and Constance, who live with their uncle, Julian, in a rambling house with extensive grounds near a village. The rest of the family died six years earlier, poisoned at dinner and, since then, Constance has not left the house. Constance was charged with the murder as she was the only one at the meal who wasn’t poisoned (the poison was in the sugar and she didn’t have sugar on her blackberries), but was acquitted at trial. Uncle Julian was poisoned though he survived, although his wife was one of the victims. Merricat wasn’t at the dinner as she had been sent to bed as a punishment.
Bit by bit the story comes out, partly through the notes uncle Julian is constantly making for his proposed autobiography. A cousin, Charles, arrives and begins to get close to Constance, although Merricat is suspicious of him. I won’t say any more about the plot as I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a strongly atmospheric story giving a strong and sinister sense of the house, the grounds and the two sisters. Jackson is a terrific writer and deserves to be much better known. She was an influence on, among others, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.
I would also recommend her novel The Haunting of Hill House and short story The Lottery.
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
The novel covers just over a year in the life of a 13-year-old boy, Jason Taylor, growing up in Worcestershire in 1983. It’s semi-autobiographical, both Mitchell and Taylor have stammers and both live in Worcestershire. It’s less experimental than some of his works; Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten and The Bone Clocks, but does feature a number of characters from his other works.
Although I have enjoyed his other novels, particulary Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, this is my favourite. It has a feel for time and place, with strong characters, especially Jacob, the narrator, and an engaging storyline.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
The novel is about the Bangladeshi community living in Tower Hamlets in London and focuses on Nazneen who moves to London when she is eighteen and marries a much older man, Chanu.
Chanu is a fantastic comic creation, always looking at new schemes and very proud of his knowledge. He is ‘an educated man’, and he is forever coming up with new schemes to make money which never work out. The book focuses on Nazneen’s family and contrasts it with that of her sister back in Bangladesh. It does this through the letters that the sisters write to each other.
The picture we get of life in this community is vivid and I was fascinated by this glimpse inside a culture about which I know very little. A great read.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
This is one of the strangest novels I have ever read. It is a huge novel, set in a fictionalised Tokyo in 1984 (hence the title, which can be read as One Q Eighty-Four or Nine-Q Eighty-Four.
I won’t go into the plot, which is rather complex, but will just say that it involves two worlds, the ‘real’ 1984 where the book starts, and an alternative 1984 where things are strangely different (for instance in the alternative world there are two moons).
The novel deals with a number of themes including; love, religious cults, murder, family and love.
I have also read The Wind-Up Birds Chronicle by Murakami, which is also very strange.
I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
If you’ve ever had one of those emails from Nigeria asking you to help in the transfer of funds and offering you huge sums of money if you help, then you know what this novel is about. Its central character is Kingsley Ibe, an engineering school graduate in Nigeria who still lives at home and can’t find a job. He is offered a job by his Uncle Boniface (‘Cash Daddy’) who runs an internet scam (a 419 named, I think, after a Nigerian law). Kingsley gets rich and the book follows his progress from poverty to riches and how he changes as a person as a result.
The book is very readable and Kingsley is an engaging and interesting character.
The Gift of Numbers by Yoko Ogawa
This novel is about the relationship between a housekeeper, her ten-year-old son, and a retired mathematics professor who is unable to remember anything for longer than eighty minutes.
The three come together over a shared love of mathematics and baseball, which has a major effect on each of their lives.
The book is short but is beautifully written and very moving.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
A casual vacancy is what happens when a local councillor dies and another has to be elected in their place. Barry Fairbrother, a local councillor in the small town of Pagford, dies and the book follows the events which lead from this.
A varied cast of characters including Krystal, the daughter of a heroin addict who lives in the local council estate, ‘The Fields’, Howard Mollison, the leader of the parish council and Colin ‘Cubby’ Wall, the headmaster of the local comprehensive school.
The novel deals with politics, race, social class, drugs and computer hacking among other things and is a mixture of humour and pathos, pathos especially concerning Krystal, her relationship with her mother and with her four-year-old brother, Robbie.
I have read The Casual Vacancy twice and wouldn’t be surprised to find myself picking it up again and some point. A terrific read (and nothing like Harry Potter).
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe
The fifties again! This novel deals with working class life in Nottingham and centres around the character of Arthur Seaton, a lathe operator at a bicycle factory and his relationships, particularly with married women.
The book is split into two parts, the major part being taken up by Saturday Night, followed by a shorter Sunday Morning. Saturday Night focuses on Arthur’s exploits and dreams and his various affairs and their consequences, while Sunday Morning is more about the aftermath. I don’t want to say too much about it as I hate it when people spoil the plot when writing about books.
The book has a strong sense of place and clearly shows how working men (and women) in the 50s were trapped by a system which allowed them very little chance of escape.
Way Station by Clifford Simak
Science Fiction again. This is another of those books that I had read many years ago and revisited recently to see how it still holds up. Well, it does (hold up I mean). It’s a beautiful, elegiac story about a Civil War soldier, Enoch Wallace, who becomes the caretaker for a Galactic Transfer Station. In the process he has to hide from his neighbours the fact that he is unageing, still walking the fields around his house (the waystation) over a hundred years after he was recruited.
This may not sound like much but, in Simak’s hands, the hands of a sensitive and thoughtful writer, the story is very moving.
He has written other thoughtful SF novels, in particular City, which I would also recommend.
Okay, enough for today. I’ll post more favourite books soon.