Decembers, to me, are synonymous with rest, recovery, and immersing yourself in the depths of a good book or two. The South African festive summers simply lend themselves to hammocks, lilos and dragging old mattresses under rustling leaves of our favourite trees. And books, of course, should litter every inch of our pathway. They should be strewn like confetti around us.
But for avid readers, these literary proclivities present their own set of problems. For instance – with little time at our disposal, the choice of book needs to be perfect. We need to be sated. We cannot waste these precious days of workers’ hiatus on drivel. We are wary of reader’s remorse.
So, I thought I’d share my top book picks if you need your reading to be soulful, diverse, entertaining and worth your assiduity.
30 must read books to round off 2016
These books aren’t organised according to any type of structure or logic. They are old, new, fiction, non-fiction, drama, horror and other things. I’m notoriously crap at assigning labels to books, films, music and so forth. Some sortsa spurious correlation affliction. Regardless, I believe this book list will captivate, enthrall and quench your parched psyche or at least give you some room to breathe.
I’ve intentionally included books from different genres to cater to your individual taste.
1. Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
Having always had a yearning for travel, a dear friend gifted me the book Shantaram.
It had taken me a while to pick up the book. This, of course, is something an avid reader will often encounter having not read in a while. It’s like a gate one has to push open to enter a new world.
It is, without a doubt, the best gift ever gifted to me. Now, of course one will wonder throughout your journey with Gregory David Roberts, how much of this remarkable tale has been fabricated. My advice is not to think about it. The narrative is so compelling and authentic that it really makes no sense to question.
Roberts leads us on his escape from incarceration and from his personal demons to a new world – an India we’ve never seen. Roberts so carefully weaves the harsh realities of an impoverished country with its absurdly contrasting mirror image – a place of vibrance, glamour, violence, passion, love, friendship, foeship, faith and flavour. And as these two opposing faces of India consume each other it presents the protagonist and reader with an absolute and inexplicable redemption.
Roberts touches on the many facets of the criminal underworld, in India and other countries. He shows us the places one is privy to once you seek to claim the resilience within you. He examines the complexities of interpersonal relationships under strain of duty, affiliation and cultural inclination. He explores how our own analyses of others’ actions, words and motivations can be flawed and how we can never truly look into another man’s soul.
More than anything, Roberts poetic skill sets scenes and events which are beautiful in their retelling – even when their details are brutal. I enjoyed his narrative far more than his second book, the Mountain Shadow, wherein it often feels like the author is deliberately seeking to impress with haughty wisdom.
2. A Place of Execution – Val McDermid
I’m a sucker for thrillers. It’s undoubtedly my favourite genre – probably due to these novels being fast paced. It’s hard to really fuck up a thriller, but it’s also much harder to write a unique and gripping thriller.
A Place of Execution was another chance find purchased from a second hand store. I’d rarely picked up a book with so many twists and turns. Indeed, in most thrillers it’s quite obvious where the story is heading. Though I’d had my suspicions, it was hard to unravel, and not until the revelation was I sure about anything.
McDermid is a master storyteller and she seems to know so intuitively how to intercede narratives and plots. One thing which is absolutely certain is that McDermid is NOT a lazy researcher and writer. It is immediately evident that she’d spent time, effort and careful consideration into sculpting a story line which is both extraordinary and credible.
A Place of Execution mysterious, captivating and ingenious. It’s the epitome of craftsmanship and will leave you craving for more McDermid. Believe me – I own tonnes of her books!
3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
I’d mentioned before that a fine thriller is hard to get right, but humour is probably even harder. I’d found this book at the Pretoria Boeremark years ago. The pages had turned an aged brown and it bore that familiar book smell only emitted by geriatric publications.
It had once been loved, that much was for sure.
The strange thing about this novel is that I’d read it after watching the famous film. Usually I find it excruciating to attempt reading a novel after the story had already been presented me through the mind of a director, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was different.
In fact, it’s one of the few examples of a film and novel coexisting without all that competitive drama. But let’s get back to the book.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s nest is unique in that it is an indubitable tragedy, and yet also a tale of miraculous liberation. This is made possible through Kesey’s crafty cession of protagonist duties onto a new and unexpected character. The narrative reminds of a mercantile scale, where measure was noted through counterbalance – if one side was weighed down, the other was invariably raised. If there were any religious undertones, perhaps one could see it as a transitory reincarnation.
Of course, as readers, we do not want the system to win. We are yearning for victory by our protagonist. We forgive his laziness, brashness and the deceit which landed him in his situation in the first place, and vie for triumph over the cruelty of a rigged system. In reading Kesey’s humorous fable, we become the protagonists. We become both a foulmouthed, anarchistic anti-hero and a larger-than-life deaf-mute non-deaf-mute who ultimately “shows them”.
It is one novel you will not get tired of and will reach out to recap for years to come ad infinitum.
4. The Little Prince
Sometimes the best stories are the simplest.
The Little Prince is such a tale which speaks profound wisdom through the voice of a child.
It is reminiscent of the Alchemist, Life of Pi and the Prophet – yet much more effortless. Antoine de Saint-Exupery takes on complex issues afflicting humanity and simplifies thee dilemmas they present.
If one looks at things through the innocent and whimsical eyes of a child, sometimes the most outrageous solutions are also the most obvious and easiest.
It’s hard for me to explain the depth of de Saint-Exupery’s words. For a little book, it packs an enduring punch and will recalibrate the tint of the spectacles between your eyes and the world.
5. The Great Run
So here’s the thing. I am NOT into fitness or exercise of any kind. I go to the gym at times and have oft wandered the streets in the moments before and after sunrise – but those are hardly aimed at fitness.
I’d like to say I had an inclination in my younger years – after all, I was good at sport. But this was mostly a flaw of nature – a genetic advantage mistakenly doled out to the wrong beneficiary.
My dad was a magnificent athlete, and my sister pretty much excelled at any physical activity she’d put her mind to. In my case, the talent was ill-fitted. Competition and physical strain dismayed me. The only sports I ever adored were those which hid their kinetic intent behind a guise of entertainment.
Anyway, so I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d never in a million years have thought to buy myself any book with the word “Run” in the title. Especially not when preceded by the word “Great”. Of course. Sometimes the best surprises are dressed up as enemies.
I’d purchased The Great Run at Bargain Books in the Grove Mall a few years ago. It was a Christmas gift for my brother in law, bought on a whim without any idea what the story entailed. Of course, as I was only to see my family in a few weeks, the itch to find out what people interested in physical activities found in these types of books needed to be scratched.
What a magical decision!
Though, of course, it’s rather obvious that the book has something to do with writing, you’d be mistaken if you thought it the primary theme. No the book is a dissection of man’s destruction of nature. It is a testament to the power bestowed upon each of us to elicit change in the world and the interconnectedness of it all.
Malherbe takes his readers on a journey from his youth through adulthood. Through his inherent contrary behaviour, his self-belief, his dedication to the environment, flaws as husband and father, sorrows and successes. As with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth it is impossible not to be moved by Malherbe’s devotion, his passion and his perseverance. It is impossible not to be changed by this remarkable true story of endurance and morality.
Madlands was a chance find. One of my favourite bookstores, the Sungardens second hand shop on the corner of Lynnwood and Malabor drives in Pretoria also used to be one of my favourite procrastination spots.
I’d spend hours in this little shop scouring the shelves for books. Mostly, my choices were dictated by the book covers. And so it happened that I’d found a gem which would prove to be one of the most profound and moving books.
Madlands is a tale by South African author, Rosemund Handler. It reminds me a bit of the life of Ingrid Jonker in a sense. The fractured psyche. The torment of mental illness. The genius of the misunderstood. Dealing with one’s familial traumas and complexities.
I’d loaned the book to some of my friends who hadn’t felt the kind of attachment and wonder I’d experienced during my reading. I’d found it unfathomable that others couldn’t grasp or feel the things I’d felt during my reading. But, I suppose, this is the magic of words. Books, just like people, have the power to speak to each reader in a different tone, on a different level and reach things within them which others can’t access.
Madlands is a story about a woman struggling to find her place in a world which is cruel, disparate and unstable. It is set in current times in a post-apartheid South Africa, with strands of the plot reaching back towards the past. It touches so effortlessly on the true characters of humans, on their strengths and weaknesses without being presumptuous or heavy.
It is moving and transformational in the message it sows – or perhaps, it simply draws parallels between the life of the protagonist and the reader in a cunning and imperceptible way. It spoke to me, this one. And if you’re dealing with your own struggle to belong or your own demons from the past, I’d highly recommend adding Madlands to your shelves.
7. Country Of My Skull
Country of my Skull hadn’t been on my reading list. On the contrary, it had been prescribed during a literary module exploring South Africa’s history.
I had, foolishly, and not unlike much of white South Africa, been rather opposed to more politically heated reading. I’d had enough at this stage.
Being confronted with the harsh truths of one’s heritage and culture is harrowing, draining but ultimately essential. Country of my Skull is a book which is essential to any bookshelf – especially if you’re a South African.
What makes it so relevant is that white, Afrikaner South Africans will be well acquainted with the emotions felt by the author. Krog, a master poet, really scratches raw those wounds which had been festering within us for so many years.
The magic of it, however, is that one’s eyes are opened for the first time to the truth of one’s country. It’s sad to know that so many of my fellow countrymen and women are not aware of the true history of this beautiful country. They are still separated from their peers by years and years of brainwashing and ingrained bigotry.
I am forever thankful to Krog for opening a doorway of personal redemption for me through her recount of the events preceding and following the Truth and Reconciliation commission and her personal struggles with the burdens of accountability and guilt. I am thankful that someone else had managed to capture the loss of belonging and shame which has followed me around for so many years. I’m thankful that someone managed to write down the losses, brutalities and inhumanities inflicted on masses of our society so poignantly.
Country of my Skull is an undeniable key to unlocking your place in the rich tapestry of South African society. But be warned – you will cry. You will cry a lot.
8. Earth’s Children (series) – Jean M. Auel
Years ago while on holiday I’d borrowed my bookish friend’s edition of Clan of the Cave Bear.
Okay, so admittedly the first of the Earth’s Children series wasn’t the most riveting for me, but I was captivated by Auel’s grasp of prehistory – including medicinal, spiritual, cultural, genetic and geographic knowledge.
Of course, these books aren’t non-fiction and so one cannot say whether the customs and crafts depicted therein are true to life. But it certainly seems so.
My favourite of the series are The Valley of Horses (Earth’s Children, Book 2) and The Mammoth Hunters: Earth’s Children, Book Three but you’ll no doubt get different opinions from other Auel fans.
Be reminded that these are epics, and Auel’s prehistoric earth is even more complex than anything Tolkien or Martin could ever have imagined. You’ll definitely need to print out the maps and paste them against your reading wall if you’re planning on sitting through these novels. And I’d certainly advise that you do – it’s a bit hard to get back into the swing of things after a prolonged hiatus.
I suppose my attraction to Earth’s Children is multifaceted. I’ve always been the outsider, I’ve also always been a rebel and not felt an obligation to conform to societal hierarchies or cultural norms – this is perhaps the best description of Ayla. Although – Auel seems wholly aware of the fact that Ayla’s rebellion needs to still be relevant to the time and place of her existence. Though we want her to act or think certain ways, we will remain frustrated with the confines of her time, cultures and customs. It is not unlike the same imaginary boundaries imposed on society in modern times.
Earth’s Children is picturesque, exciting, riveting and a true adventure .
9. Outlander – Diana Gabaldon
Okay, so let me tell you one thing, I’d never been as surprised by a book (and series) as I’d been by this one.
Outlander had come up in my suggested reads across all book and reading platforms, but having read the description, I’d not at all expected that I would like it.
I am NOT one for sci-fi—so when a book extract describes time travel and burly Scotsmen, I kind of expect a wee bit of vomit to spill into my gagging mouth. Because let’s be honest, the amount of disgusting drivel surrounding sci-fi romance novels is enough to make anyone want to leave this here earth for good. (You need only look at the amount of shapeshifter time-travel erotica on Amazon to know that this fucking tasteless)
But that was NOT AT ALL what I discovered while reading Outlander. In fact, the time travel aspect of the novel is woven so intricately and authentically into the story that one almost forgets that it’s not exactly how the world works. I’m reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works which so effortlessly incorporate the reader into a mythical world. It all seems so natural.
Okay, so I have to be honest, the protagonist, Claire, does piss me off every now and then, but I am reminded that she was not created to be a wholly likable character—she was meant to be real and flawed and to develop over time.
I find Diana Gabaldon to be quite masterful. She leads the reader on a descriptive journey just long enough to avoid boredom before jumping back into a crisis. And as for those erotic moments—what a pleasure to read something which sets the reader a-tingle without resorting to gratuitous descriptions of bodily fluid exchanges which all revolve around words like “moist” (jitters). Tasteful, historically relevant and a fucking fantastic journey for anyone wishing to escape this sordid world for a little while.
10. Intensity – Dean Koontz
Intensity was the first book I’d ever picked up by Dean Koontz – and what a marvelous ride it was.
Let me first say that Intensity will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is violent and exploitative, but for those of us who love the thriller/horror genres it’s perfect.
Be aware that this book contains triggers and it’s not recommended for anyone who’s suffered trauma, abuse or physical harm. In fact, if you don’t like violence and terror, don’t try this at all. You will be disappointed.
It’s undeniably a nail-bite book and you will find yourself on the edge of your seat (or on the floor as was my case) with your heart racing. It’s a swift and racy read which is worth every penny.
The problem with being introduced to an author through a novel such as this is that I’d found it harder to digest his other works. They are far less sensational than Intensity. Nevertheless, if you want something packed with action. Koontz’s writing is plausible and vivid – his words form images in your mind and reads like a movie.
Of course, if you want to see the film based on his novel and are into horror, take a look at High Tension (Unrated Widescreen Edition). Apparently an English film based on the movie was also made, but I’d not seen it and based on the cover does not remind me of Koontz’s novel. So I’ll definitely recommend the French film.
11. Born for Love: why empathy is essential and endangered – Maia Szalavitz & Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.
Born for Love was recommended to me by a friend who’d heard somewhere that the book contained some information on language acquisition – something which, of course, was of great interest to me.
I suppose one could say Born For Love is a compilation of case studies with professional observations, theorems and conclusions. But it’s far more than that.
I’ve not encountered another non-fiction book aimed at professional analyses of broad psychological conditions which seems so much like fiction. It succeeds in that it is written in such an empathetic way – it almost seems like a hyperbole.
I’d not read it for its aesthetic value though. The knowledge garnered from reading this book is indispensable! As someone who’s rather isolated, eccentric and aloof, Born for Love not only opened my mind to the flaws in my own nature, but cracked open a intent at being more empathetic and understanding towards others.
As with The Great Run, Born for Love will leave you transformed. Highly recommended to anyone working with human psychology, sociology, linguistics or anyone else who wishes to understand human behaviour.
12. A Song of Ice and Fire (series) – George R. R. Martin
Oh! Oh! Oh!
What can I say about ASOIAF that has not been said already?
Strangely, It had taken years for me to pick up this series. I suppose I’m automatically judgmental of anything mainstream which has any type of bandwagon in its procession. So I’d not watched the Game of Thrones series either.
But it was December and I was looking for something to keep me occupied, and so I decided I probably had to read the books before attempting the Game of Thrones: The Complete Seasons 1-6 + Digital HD [Blu-ray] series.
I’m not usually drawn to fantasy novels. It’s very rare that you get a writer who makes the trip worthwhile and believable. A few exceptions are The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings (the Hobbit / the Fellowship of the Ring / the Two Towers / the, Duncton Chronicles (3 Book Series), Isaac Asimov’s The Stars in Their Courses, and I suppose Terry Pratchett’s Disc World series which starts with The Color of Magic (Discworld) (though you’ll notice the continuity of the series doesn’t quite work that way).
Anyway, back to Mr. Martin…
Would you believe me if I told you that I read all the books in 10 days (quite furtively as well, my family was rather peeved at my antisocial behaviour). This haste, of course, had something to do with the new season of the series being launched on television soon – but mostly it was involuntary. There simply was no way for me to put the books down.
And I was compelled to repeat the action of desecrating books (which I’d done with Lord of the Rings) in that I had to tear out and laminate some of the maps in the books for reference.
I supposed there are only two problems with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – firstly, he makes us all look like halfwit idiots for even attempting writing and secondly, he is solely responsible for the longest stretch of bookish angst and anticipation in the history of book series. I suppose I am exaggerating, I believe there was a time when things were written by hand on parchment but my melodrama is, of course, also a byproduct of patience. In engineering and psychological circles they call it the elastic limit – it’s the limit to which an object (or psyche) can be stretched and recover to its original state without warping. Once the elastic limit has been passed, the object (or psyche) is fundamentally altered and cannot “bounce back” to its original state.
I’m rambling again, but such is the quality of my angst. All of the drama!
Back to my “review” – let’s just say if you haven’t or don’t want to read A Song of Ice and Fire then I probably won’t like you all that much, or will harbour feelings of contempt and superiority whenever I see you. I cannot help it. It’s a type of book snobbishness I’ve yet to shake (Born for Love mentioned above is helping me with this issue).
The characters are loveable, hateable and slappable. You will find yourself changing your mind, often – which is refreshing in a book. You will find yourself wanting more and more and more – feeling quenched and parched all at once.
There’s too much to say about these books. Let’s just say it’s got all the gore, glamour, excitement, envy, sex, passion, violence and sorrow you could hope to experience in a lifetime.
Also – everyone dies. Which sucks. But we deal.
13. Rock Chick Regret – Kristen Ashley
Off from a truly remarkable work of fiction to something light.
Of course it’s not that light, as Rock Chick Regret contains its fair share of triggers, violence and angst. I suppose that’s what makes it so refreshing – you’d not expect something like that from a book named Rock Chick Regret.
So here’s the thing: every now and then I find myself reaching for something frivolous and weightless to page through while I disentangle myself from work stresses, life strain and society. The easiest way to get your superficial fix is reaching for a book which either bears a juvenile title or bears men and women on the cover in various stages of undress (take the ones with the models staring into the middle distance – we have to fool ourselves into thinking it’s at least somewhat deep and meaningful).
Okay, so in comes Rock Chick Regret – which was surprisingly well-written, resourceful and lengthy. Indeed, the plot takes quite a few turns. It’s silly, of course, for the serious subject matter it touches on, but strangely satisfying.
I’d attempted Kristen Ashley’s other novels following Rock Chick Regret, but found them to be wholly unsatisfying. Perhaps she’d just managed a way to balance the absurdity, romance, action and drama in Rock Chick Regret in a way which wasn’t possible with the other plots and protagonists.
Nevertheless, it works, which I can’t quite explain. But it does.
Don’t reach for this one if you want something life-changing, but you can surely read it if you’re putting your feet up, letting your hair down and looking for something to pass the time.
14. Full Dark, No Stars – Stephen King
It’s really hard for me to choose one Stephen King book out of the lot. Of course, there are a few of his works that I view as less successful, but I am rather biased – I am a total King groupie.
My love of King books started with Cujo. Though I’ll not review that book here, I was completely besotted with the way the author captured the intensity of a seemingly ordinary occurrence. I doubt that anyone else would be able to write a successful novel about rabies.
Anyway, following Cujo I’ve read numerous other King books over the years; the Shining, Carrie, Thinner, Tommyknockers, IT, Misery, Mister Mercedes, Bag of Bones, Dolores Clairborne, the Cell and, of course, Full Dark, No Stars.
As with Cujo, King’s collection of short stories served as a catalyst of sorts for my obsession with short stories. We so often associate writing success and dedication with the length and girth of books. The noteworthiness of a novel is somehow distended by the weight of the words in our hands. Oh how wrong we are!
I watched a cooking show today where the chef noted that it takes skill to learn when to stop – to allow yourself not to complicate a perfect dish for the mere sake of extravagance. This, I believe is the equivalent of King’s Full Dark, No Stars.
The collection of short stories each touch on a certain human dilemma or exposes the inherent flaws of the protagonists. It is bundled perfection – a stockpile of sensational shorts which lack for nothing. The stories are distinctly divergent in tone, narrative style and theme. If anything, it seems to be somewhat of an exhibition of King’s literary mastery. It’s a resume showcasing the range of his imagination and aptitude. I won’t give anything away, but please add this one to your cart!
15. Endurance – J.A. Konrath
Okay folks, brace yourselves cause we have some gratuitous violence, gore and angst up next.
Firstly, a word of warning – as with most of Konrath’s novels, the violence and shock is totally unjustifiable. And that’s why I like it so much.
As an avid horror fangirl, one can still catch those moments the authors have held back or censored themselves for the sake of selling their books.
There are, after all, not many people who can stomach the depravities which some humans are capable of. And yet they are capable of such depravities depicted in Konrath stories. It’s refreshing to find someone who doesn’t write to impress the mainstream audience, but instead attracts those of use who like our horror horrific and, real and inescapable.
Perhaps Konrath’s skill as author is exactly due to these moral liberties – writing without taboos lends itself to a unique, authentic and fresh plots and characters.
And the great thing is that this style of writing traverses all Kilborn’s works. If you’re a sucker for gore – you’ll crave Konrath books and Endurance will be well worth the read.
16. Beloved – Toni Morrison
Haunting is probably the best description for Beloved.
It haunts me still.
Perhaps it’s my experience of a country trying to shake off its racist ghosts which made Beloved all the more relevant and, in a sense, all the more painful.
It’s easy standing on one’s privileged pedestal to forget the divisiveness prevalent in society throughout the ages. It is also easy to forget the repercussions of these divides of race, class, education and privilege. It’s easy to forget how lasting and unrelenting the aftermath of inequality.
It is too easy to forget the realities of slavery – and so it’s crucial to read Beloved at least once in your lifetime.
This is not the principal theme of Beloved though. Though it carries undertones of something deeper, heavier and more substantial, it is also simply the tale of a love, loss and memories too painful to confront. It is a human tale. Something which, hopefully, will seem like fantasy to our great, great, grandchildren one day. Perhaps there is a future where the thought of slavery, racism and inequality is so absurd that it would not seem so real and scathing.
Until then, however, it’s good to immerse ourselves in the lives of ordinary humans in a time of unrelenting injustice.
17. Circles in a Forest – Dalene Matthee
I sincerely doubt that there’s any South African who hasn’t at some point read Circles in a Forest (Kringe in ‘n bos) by Dalene Matthee.
It’s one of the most prescribed books in South African schools – or at least it used to be when I was younger.
I haven’t read the translated version I’m referring to here, but assume it’s worthy of its Afrikaans predecessor. I cannot imagine the nuances and emotions having the same authenticity in a different tongue though. Something always gets lost in translation.
Circles in a Forest is perfectly explores man’s encroachment of nature and our relationship with our environment and society. It captures the duality of being both human and animal – of how our sense of belonging is so often one which is an either-or scenario; we are either part of nature or part of society.
Our protagonist is pigheaded, obstinate but also laudable for his protection of nature. The climax is quite foreseeable, and yet like a train wreck, you will not be able to turn away. It’s, to me, somewhat of a metaphor for climate change and how humans are leading our own demise.
18. Animal Farm – George Orwell
Ah, so let’s get back to one of the classics – Animal Farm.
If anything, Animal Farm has never been more relevant than this year. You know, of course, what I’m talking about, right? Brexit, refugees, Aleppo, Palestine, US elections, Gambian elections, South African elections – chaos abounds worldwide and it’s directly linked to our perception of those we see as “other” to ourselves. It’s demonstrative of a perpetual imbalance whereby one group of people place themselves above other groups.
It’s also a warning of how easily we can become the things we despise if spurred on by vengeance and fueled by a lust for power. Conversely, it’s also a warning to those who believe themselves invincible that tides can turn swiftly and absolutely.
It’s both absurd and shockingly real.
I won’t dissect Animal Farm any further – it’s been done to exhaustion and I suppose you’ll inevitably draw your own conclusions and have your own take-away from the story.
Hopefully you’ve read this one, if you haven’t you’d better move yo ass!
19. The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
I’d borrowed The Year of Magical Thinking from a friend years ago. But it is only this year that I’d managed to draw on Didion’s autobiography as balm for my own wounds.
2016 has been harrowing from a personal perspective. I’d suffered a death in the family which shook me to the core. I’d suffered professional adversity which has left me exhausted. I’d been compelled to sever ties with dear friends whose presence in my life had become burdensome, exhausting and pointless.
So, although I’d not read The Year of Magical Thinking again, its narrative and themes had certainly stuck with me. I suppose what I remember of Didion’s writing was her description of the illogical state of mind and being which afflicts us in our bereavement. It is simultaneously harrowing and magical, it both sends us to the brink of madness and clarifies mental complexities, it is hilarious and despairing. And grief has a life of its own – it shall not be moved, swayed or predicted.
It also cautions us to “touch wood” and not think one tragedy will reprieve us from subsequent tragedies. there certainly is no rhyme and reason to tragedy.
What Didion does seem to offer as a silver lining is that profound loss can lead to profound epiphanies – a requisite for personal growth and insight. If you are looking for a book which will move you, then this one’s for you.
20. A Genius in the Family – Hilary & Piers du Pre
A family member had given A Genius in the Family to me as a gift in my youth. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this family member had not actually read the book and simply purchased it for me on a whim.
I’m not sure whether I should be disgusted or impressed by the chance purchase, as it’s undoubtedly one of the most profound works of non-fiction I’d ever read.
I think the world seems to have this flawed belief that those with an affinity for classical music are calm, collected and stable people. I suppose, it’s probably the flawed view reserved for individuals who’d never truly listened to classical and instrumental music. It’s wild, emotive and divergent.
Nevertheless, I’d not have guessed that the girl on the cover of this book who seems so plain and poised would lead such a bizarre and extraordinary life. And what makes the tale all the more remarkable is that it was penned by Jacqueline’s siblings, Hilary and Piers.
It may not seem so remarkable from the onset, until you immerse yourself in the biography and realise how painful the writing had to have been for this family. Du Pre’s life mimics a soap opera at times and it’s hard to believe the some of the narrative.
But this makes it all the more worthwhile. Have a read.
21. Musicophilia – Oliver Sacks
Musicophilia had been a birthday gift which I’ll be eternally grateful for.
Another non-fiction, the book recounts the power of music in treating various neurological conditions. But more than that, it also speaks of the inexplicable affinity for humans to music.
It’s no surprise that I’m an avid groupie, vinyl collector and music whore. I could literally play and speak about musicians, lyrics, songs, albums, scores and composers for days on end. My favourite type of party is one where I have sole dibs on the stereo (music player sounds way too generic and impersonal) and uninterrupted stage for showering my listeners in my favourite songes (which is an infinite list), much to my guests’ dismay. Probably explains all the no-shows over the years. :’D
Nevertheless, Sacks seems to have collected the finest, most outrageous and subsequently invigorating examples of the almost metaphysical powers of music. I’m saying metaphysical here, because had Sacks not borne the Neurologist badge his observations would most probably have fallen into the Wolfian (no we’re not talking Virginia here) genre of gratuitous pseudoscience. Pseudoscience have always reminded me of the bizarre performance art which aims to teach people something deep about something which is utterly mundane and trivial. Exaggerations with the purpose of feeling purposeful. I’m suddenly reminded of Isaac Asimov’s jab at humanity’s obsession with nonsense dressed as science or religion in The Stars in Their Courses.
Anyhoo, Musicophilia is a must for anyone interested in neuroscience, behavioural science, music and good books.
22. Lone Wolf – Jodi Picoult
Lone Wolf was my first and last Picoult read. The first, merely because I’d not been acquainted with her writing before and last merely because I’ve so many other books on my dressers, shelves, coffee tables, beds, window sills and floors.
I’d picked Lone Wolf out of the Exclusive Books shelves due to the blue, yellow and purple cover (below).
I’ve a silly thing with this colour combination and find it rather irresistible. So I’d picked up my first Picoult without expectation and I was notdisappointed.
Perhaps it’s my penchant for nature shows or the strange history and amalgamation of my own family which made the novel so relevant. Whatever it is, I adore this book.
Lone wolf is awash with complexities and juxtapositions. It’s chockablock full of uncertainty.
On the one hand, it would of course be easy to judge our “villain” in the same way his protagonist daughter does. But we are reminded in Lone Wolf that relationships are never black and white. We are reminded that things are never quite as they seem. We are reminded that human nature will usually be at odds with decency and responsibility – but not to believe, for one second, that we are authorised to choose which of the two are more relevant, important or just.
Lone Wolf made me want to disappear into the woods for a while, to break away from the ties that bind – from the daily grind and the hustle and bustle.
Of course, I’m aware that this is probably Picoult’s aim. How are we to judge those who live controversial and nonconformist lives when we ourselves are envious of their lives?
23. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown
No, no, not Dan Brown. That man’s books will never feature in a “top” or “best” novel list of mine.
We’re talking Dee Brown, and the heartbreaking recount of the history and aftermath of the Wounded Knee massacre.
It seems many of my book picks are relevant due to the climate of the past few months and years. The Dakota Pipeline protests certainly reminded me to dust off this book and have another take at it. (Not to mention series like Westworld which hints at the days when white men and native Americans stood at odds… as they still do, I suppose).
Anyway, if you’re ready for your knees to be wounded and your heart to be broken, then I suggest you add this one to your reading list. Also be ready to hate humanity and wallow in shame and overwhelming feelings of futility and nihilism. Well, at least you will want to plunge yourself in despair for a bit. Wine and chocolate are perfect pairings for this book, although, the alcohol might just remind you of the extortion of native tribes – alcohol in exchange for land. What a ballsup!
And yet it is our ballsup – all of humanity. It’s a repetitive history of oppression and annihilation of all the things that are rugged and untamed and supposed to remain unexplored. It’s a wonderful read though, although harrowing. Essential I suppose.
Disgrace is another one of those novels I didn’t immediately take to.
I wondered at my dismay and irritation with the protagonist, only to realise that this is most probably what we as readers are supposed to feel. He is not likeable. He is imperfect. And so, I suppose, he is also real.
Disgrace casts South Africans in the aftermath of apartheid in a juxtaposition of right and wrong and wrong and right – it’s hard to say exactly what the proper reaction is to the violence, poverty and inequality inherent in divided countries. What are we to make of the violence? When are we to forgive and when are we to rage?
Disgrace, much like Beloved and Consequence leads us more on a journey of discovering what our own reactions and actions would be in others’ shoes. It’s not a book which will make you feel comfortable. On the contrary – you will feel discomfort and disquiet throughout the novel. Because it grates at the things you’d rather not face or consider.
And this – dear readers – is this not what writing is supposed to be? Transformative through the maze of analysis and discovery we trace during the reading process.
25. I’m not Scared
There’s something incredibly eerie and refreshing about Ammaniti’s I’m not scared.
I’d not had any preconceptions or expectations of this book before opening its pages and as is so often the case this is probably the best vantage point from which to start a new book journey.
Another plus is Ammaniti’s undeniable incapacity to hide his roots and culture. It oozes from his writing in such an effortless and considerate way – never tainting the story with the presence of its author as some other novels seem to do. Instead, you get the sense that the writing will simply not be as meaningful without the accent of the author hovering over the script.
I’m not Scared is a surprising and unusual read. It’s a miniature pandora’s box of tiny revelations and experiences which are just so slightly off kilter, ever so slightly off beat and off tone and off cue.
It makes you walk around with a bit of water in your right ear – just a bit, almost, almost invisible. A nearly, nearly indiscernible niggle in your spine. It’s unnerving. Check it out for yourself.
26. The Reader
The Reader is a strange one for me. It had taken me months to draw a conclusion about my perception and conclusion of the Reader. In some ways I’d adored it from the onset, in others there was something off kilter. Something uncomfortable and chafing.
Then again, I’ve found the most profound reads are sometimes quite intangible. They lead us towards emotions or ideas which are novel and inexplicable at first. It’s the same as learning a new word you’d thought had not existed until you realise it always had – you’d simply never known what to call it.
The Reader is complex.
It deals with the aftermath of a post-World War World where most people are piecing together lives, living with hidden traumas and guilts and, for some, it’s simply a normal world where they are attending school and coming of age.
It’s essential, of course, that the narrator be the voice of our protagonist – the youth whose youth he would give away for a stranger to whom he would eventually read. Sex and reading is such a mature combination. It would seem like the ultimate combination. But, of course, there’s much more to it…
The Reader questions the nature of complicity and accountability. It asks us to walk miles in someone else’s shoes and to have no conclusive answers after all those miles. We place ourselves in these shoes and wonder what we’d have done – knowing that it would be a futile question to ask out of context and out of duress. There’s something so strange about the betrayal we feel along with the protagonist and yet also the pride at his lover for keeping true to herself – as if it is the only thing left to her. Perhaps it is?
Have yourself a good existential crisis and add this one to your shelves.
27. Nikolai – Roxie Riviera
My mum will most probably have a mini stroke at the mention of a book featuring a supposed Russian posing his pecs. Why is it on an “essential books” list? Well, because it’s essential to be frivolous and entertained with testosterone-filled nonsense. And believe me, these books do place the heroines in the “Damsel in Distress” camp on occasion, but it’s not in the vomit-inducing way that Fifty Shades does it. For instance, I never felt like I wanted to gouge out the “hero’s” eyes with dirty nails and punch his ego back into his nethers as I did with the Fifty Shades series (if you sense some animosity, you are wildly understating my disgust. Let us not dweel).
Indeed, there’s no hiding from the corniness of Roxie Riviera’s books, but she’s not trying to hide it either – come on, it’s right there, in your face – ON THE COVER.
And yet, for the genre and readership it’s aimed at, Riviera’s series of Russian Protector books is quite mature in its plots, characters and narratives. It’s devoid of most of those Mills-&-Boon-ish fillers and drivel one would expect of a pseudo-erotic-action-romance. (I’m not quite sure what genre this falls into).
Okay, so don’t dig into these books hoping for something life-changing. Instead, expect nothing but some distraction and be prepared to be at least slightly surprised.
28. Into the Wild – John Krakauer
I’m not sure if Into the Wild is so fascinating due to the subject matter or if it’s Krakauers’s storytelling which is so artful.
Am I, for instance, drawn to Krakauer’s poetic craftsmanship, or to the unconventional, tragic and extraordinary life of Christoper McCandles? Who knows?
In life I’ve found these far-out nature-loving rebels to be rather unapproachable and set in their ways. Their lives are hardly as exciting and romantic as authors would make us believe. And yet, we are forever drawn to them. We are drawn to the freedom of not living by the code of society. We are attracte to those abilities which place some men and women above their fears, and above rules and above normality.
I won’t give the storyline away, so let me touch on other aspects.
For instance, Krakakauer seems to be the sommelier of authors. He know just which quotes to pair with which chapters and I find myself strangely impressed with this skill. I suppose this is the secondary draw of Krakauer’s book – it’s quotable almost in its entirety. And yet you never feel like you’s stuck in some philosophical prattle party. It’s natural.
Krakauer and McCandles just seem to have been made to play a part in each other’s lives – much to the delight of us readers.
29. Girl Afraid – Ciaran West
Now and then when the credit cards are maxed and I need some relief, I just enter my Kindle store and download an endless supply of free books. Most of it is garbage, but I was so pleasantly surprised by Girl Afraid.
It has hints of Konrath, and yet it’s an entirely novel narrative. Perhaps it’s the rough and tumble, unkempt and untamed nature of less experienced authors and the way their words, although crafted to their own measure of perfection, doesn’t emit the stink of mainstream, professional, been-in-the-business-all-my-life authors.
The novel touches on something which has always hit me right in the feels – human trafficking.
I’m not sure where my fascination with human trafficking and abduction comes from (years of reading about serial killers, mass murders, depravities and fictive horror from a young age will probably do that to you), but I’m so passionate about seeking solutions to this prevalent and taboo topic that I got an anti-human trafficking tattoo a few years ago. Where’s the point in supporting something halfarsed?
Be warned – happy endings are not in the works, as well they shouldn’t be. We cannot let on that human trafficking, abduction and abuse could ever have any conventional happy ending.
Yet, even though the novel speaks to me on a personal level – from a horror/thriller/indie perspective you can also simply take it for what it is, which is an awesome book you probably don’t own yet. Get it!
30. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is another book I read in “hindsight” – meaning I’d seen Smilla’s Sense Of Snow almost two decades before actually reading the book.
I’m quite grateful for this large leap in time as I could still feel Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne’s ghosts haunt the pages of the book as I read it. In a sense it made Smilla’s sharp tongue and unchecked honesty a bit more perverse – Ormond’s portrayal of Smilla in the film is not quite as unforgiving as Smilla of the novel.
I’m glad for having finally read the book.
Hoeg not only opens our minds up to a foreign world and cultures, but he seems to have a real sense of his characters – as if he’s lived with them all his life, observed them in quiet solitude.
Smilla’s sense of snow is mysterious, dark and also not like your usual psychological thrillers. Perhaps the milieu and its people simply lend itself toward a less conventional narrative, but it works nonetheless.
Thank you for reading!
Thank you for sitting through this endless book rant. Hopefully my first review will give you some reading to while away the festive season and be all antisocial with your family. Heaven knows us book lovers need no excuses to retreat to our caves.
This is but a taster of all the essential books, films, music and food we want to stock your shelves with. Be sure to check in again for the endless supply of (good) shit coming your way.