29 December 2011

Top Ten Books of 2011

So here is my Top 10 of 2011, as with the YA rundown, they aren't books necessarily published this year just books I discovered this year. I'd love to hear from others of the best books they've discovered this year or whether you've enjoyed the same books as me. Click on the title to see the full review.

10. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (2010) 
A close battle between this and The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, both on the Orange shortlist this year, but ultimately I found this to be more readable with a better ending. Very emotional story set in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as it attempts to rebuild itself after the civil war. Forna weaves lots of stories together in a moving yet pacy novel.

9. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (1992)
A complicated, historical epic about the French Revolution focusing on three of the main players: Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. The brutality of the period is brought to life as the lives of the three complex, fascinating men are explored. A bit of a project as it gets packed with names and politics but well worth the challenge.

8. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011)
An emotional novel about Harri, a Ghanian little boy growing up in central London and becoming involved with a knife crime incident in his neighbourhood. It is by turns uplifting and crushing as Harri tries to navigate the brutal life he finds himself in the middle of but does so with charm and humour.

7. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)
A beautiful looking book with a melancholic, careful story inside. The winner of the Man Booker Prize is a contemplative and literary look at life and memory as Tony reflects back on his school days, friendships and his first romantic relationship with the complicated Veronica.

6. One of our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde (2011)
The next excellent installment in the Thursday Next series. It's worth reading this series in order as this won't make much sense without some background knowledge so start with The Eyre Affair. The book follows the written Thursday Next trying to track down the real Thursday amidst the threat of war between Racy Novel and Women's Fiction. Complex, funny and clever and packed with literary jokes and puns.

5. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
I read four novels by Ishiguro this year and this is the first of two on the list. I am constantly in awe of his talent for language and story and I have enjoyed everything he has written. This is the lovely story of the butler Stevens and his meandering thoughts on loyalty, dignity and being a butler. Beautifully written and both gently humourous and wonderfully melancholy.

4. Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011)
A superb historical seafaring adventure for grownups. Jaffy is employed by Jamrach to look after the exotic animals in his menagerie which turns into an adventure to try and find a dragon for an eccentric millionaire. Superb characterisation and a story that is interesting, strange, dark and wonderful.

3. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (1995)
One of the strangest and yet most amazing books I have ever read. Bizarre and dreamlike from the outset,  Ishiguro really challenges what a novel is suppose to be. There is not a big reveal that explains the weirdness, just a literary meander through the amazing things a talented writer can do with words.

2. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (2011)
My personal choice for the Man Booker Prize, this is a darkly funny Western that follows the brothers and assassins, Eli and Charlie Sisters. Quirky without being weird with a superb first person narrative in Eli who is one of the best characters and narrators I have recently encountered in fiction.

1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
I just loved this book; magical, quirky and beautiful. The circus arrives and leaves mysteriously and contains wonders that teeter on the edge of possibility. A wonderful cast of characters surrounding the entrancing central relationship between Celia and Marco who have been pitted against each other in a war of magic outside their control. I didn't know whether to devour it all at once or spread it out and make it last as longa s possible.

Top Ten YA Books of 2011

These are my favourite ten young adult or children's books I've read this year - they weren't necessarily published this year. Click on the title of the book to link to the full review.

10. The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean (2010) 
A charming, quirky novel about a boys attempt to escape his prophesied death by his fanatical aunt who saw it in a vision. Told in a series of vignettes as Pepper has adventures around France. He meets a variety of bizarre characters and learns a little bit about himself and taking charge of your own destiny.

9. Grace by Morris Gleitzman (2011)
A thought provoking but quick read about a very charming heroine. Grace has grown up as a member of a strict Christian cult where she has to keep her hair long and is forbidden to talk to or touch the unsaved. When her Dad is thrown out for asking too many questions, Grace has to work out what her faith in God means she should do.

8. Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace (2010)
Another book that will provoke discussion, this is the tense story of Robert. He lives in Zimbabwe and goes to an all boys boarding school in the years following Mugabe's ascent to power. At school he has to work out what is right and wrong when nothing is clear cut. One for older readers as it contains some upsetting scenes but is a powerful story about friendship, family and race that will challenge teenager readers.

7. Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin (2010)
An excellently plotted, fast-paced historical drama and romance set in Spain during the Inquisition. Zarita is the privileged daughter of the magistrate who unwittingly condemns a beggar to death; the beggars' son, Saulo, ends up sold onto a slave ship governed by a flamboyant sailor and crosses paths with Christopher Columbus before a very dramatic finale where all the threads wind together under the genuinely frightening Chief Inquisitor.

6. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (2011)
A superbly written, very moving book about a little boy, Jamie, whose sister died in a terrorist attack and the effects it has had on his family. Jamie is a heartbreaking narrator as he desperately tries to stick his family back together. He also has to deal with life at a new school where his friendship with a student, Sunya, challenges what his father has told him about Muslims. 

5. Archer's Goon by Diana Wynne Jones (1984)
A bit of a nostalgic read for me as this was one of my favourite books as a child. The magical and witty story of a family embroiled in the arguments of a family of warring sorcerers who are secretly in charge of the entire town where they live remains an example of a near perfect children's story. Beautifully written, funny and wonderfully unique. 

4. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)
The other 'vintage' entry on my list, this was the 50th anniversary of this iconic children's novel which follows the bored Milo as he travels to Dictionopolis and rediscovers the magic in everyday life. A supporting cast of quirky, funny characters will entertain and appeal to everyone. A classic for a reason. 

3. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009)
A really unique and wonderful novel with a hugely appealing main character. Set in New York in 1979, Miranda starts getting mysterious letters from someone who seems to know things that have yet to happen. A great twist at the end which cleverly wraps everything up without being trite makes this a very satisfying novel to enjoy. 

2. Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness - The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)/The Ask and the Answer (2009)/Monsters of Men (2010)
This is a total cheat as I have put an entire trilogy at number two but if I'd separated them out I would only have had to miss off numbers 9 and 10 as they are all as brilliant as each other and are best enjoyed when when one after the other. This is a superb trilogy - moving, exciting, challenging and just generally outstanding. It has action, romance, science fiction and everything in between. 

1. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (2011)
So the top entry on my list is another book by Patrick Ness - his newest novel which wa sbased on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd. It is the story of Conor, whose mother has cancer, and the way in which he is forced to face and deal with the emotions of this. Bolstered by superb illustrations by Jim Kay, this is a tear jerking, magical read and the best young adult I have read this year. 

6 December 2011

Review 52: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

“1913 – Suffragette throws herself under the King’s horse. 1969 – Feminists storm Miss World. Now – Caitlin Moran rewrites “The Female Eunuch” from a bar stool and demands to knoww why pants are getting smaller. There’s never been a better time to be a woman: we have the vote and the Pill, and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727. However, a few nagging questions do remain... Why are we supposed to get Brazilians? Should you get Botox? Do men secretly hate us? What should you call your vagina? Why does your bra hurt? And why does everyone ask you when you’re going to have a baby? Part memoir, part rant, Caitlin Moran answers these questions and more – following her from her terrible 13th birthday through adolescence, the workplace, strip-clubs, love, fat, abortion, Topshop, motherhood and beyond.”

I found this an empowering, very funny and very true look at what it is like to be a woman today.  Whilst I didn’t agree with all of her opinions, that didn’t lesson my enjoyment of the book and I would highly recommend it to be read by all women, and indeed all men, for a look at the face of what to me is real feminism advocating less self-loathing and more self-control in terms of women having control over our own bodies, jobs and lives.

Review 51: Operation Eiffel Tower by Elen Caldecott

“Lauren, Jack, Ruby and Billy live by the seaside with their mum and dad. But their parents are always arguing, and one day their dad moves out. Lauren and Jack are desperate to get their mum and dad back together, and hatch a plan to do just that. Let Operation Eiffel Tower commence! A brilliant story about four children (well three really, Billy is just a baby so can’t do very much) who are worried about their parents – and take action!”

Story: Simple but involving.
Protagonist: Blandly likeable, the older sister has a bit more character.

Writing: Effective if unexciting.