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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

I officially completed my Around the World in 80 Books challenge back in April, having started on the first of January this year.  The project has been both delightful and enlightening, and I have so enjoyed immersing myself in so many portrayals of countries and their very diverse cultures.  Whilst I have no plans to repeat the challenge in coming years (particularly as I found it rather difficult to find a single tome which I was interested in from several of my previously chosen countries), I have found the process to be a wonderful one.

I chose to travel to one continent at a time, beginning with my home country, and sweeping through each of them in turn.  If you wish to see a full itinerary of this year’s ‘travels’, then please click here.

I thought that it would be a nice idea to gather together my favourite books which I encountered during my challenge.  They are in no particular order, but I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, and highly recommend them.  Included alongside them are snippets of my reviews.

 

1. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (France)
I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s fiction; all of her books are markedly different, despite sharing similarities in terms of traits and characterisation. As ever, Stewart’s real strengths here come with setting the scene, and building her protagonists. Nine Coaches Waiting, which takes place just a few miles away from the Swiss border, has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it.

2. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace. His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful. When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes. Soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone.’

3. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (South Korea)
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

97818702068084. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis (Wales)
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

5. The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
‘Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.’

6. Guiltless by Viveca Sten (Sweden)
I had not read the first or second novels in the series, but that did not seem to matter at all. I found that it worked very well indeed as a standalone novel. Guiltless takes part on a small island in the Swedish archipelago named Sandhamn, and is engaging from its very first page. Throughout, the novel is really well plotted and structured, and its translation is fluid. The sense of place and characters are well built, and I found Guiltless overall to be so easy to read, and so absorbing.

7. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) 17237713
From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

8. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

97800071729179. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

10. Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (India)
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Have you taken part in this project before?  If not, have you been inspired to?  Which are your favourite reads from around the world?

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Books I Wish More People Would Read

I have just come across a Goodreads list entitled ‘Books I Wish More People Would Read’, and have stolen its title for my own purposes here at The Literary Sisters.  A lot of the books which I read seem to slip under the radar, and there are several which I have adored, or very much admired, of late, which I rarely see others reviewing, or even reading.  I thought that I would therefore make a list of six books that I would happily thrust into the hands of every reader whom I meet.  (Please note, it is entirely a coincidence that all of these books were written by women!)

 

185908911. Don’t Go To Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories by Celia Fremlin
Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark (1972) was the first gathering of Celia Fremlin’s short fiction, a form in which she had published prolifically – for the likes of She, Playmen, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine – while building her reputation as a novelist of psychological suspense.  Female characters predominate in these tales, as does the doom-filled atmosphere that was Fremlin’s metier. She explores her familiar theme of strained mother-child relations, but she also delves into the supernatural realm as well as the psychological. As ever, her capacities for making the everyday unnerving and keeping the reader guessing are richly in evidence.

 

2. May We Shed These Human Bodies by Amber Sparks (review here) 15701573
May We Shed These Human Bodies peers through vast spaces and skies with the world’s most powerful telescope to find humanity: wild and bright and hard as diamonds.

 

321449223. A House on the Rhine by Frances Faviell
Having made her publishing debut with The Dancing Bear, a superb memoir of life in Berlin immediately after World War II, Frances Faviell applied first-hand knowledge to fiction, telling the riveting, harrowing tale of one large, troubled family in Germany nearly a decade after the war’s end.  In a town near Cologne, rebuilding is proceeding at a frantic pace, factory work is plentiful and well-paid, and the dark days of near-starvation have ended. But Joseph, a former Allied prisoner of war, and his enormous brood–his wife having received a medal under the Nazis for bearing more than 10 children–face new problems ranging from the mother’s infidelity, the oldest child’s involvement with a brutal youth gang leader, and a beloved adopted daughter’s plans to marry an American soldier.  Vividly portraying the love and conflict of a large family and the dramatic, sometimes tragic social change of Germany’s postwar recovery, A House on the Rhine is a powerful, heartbreaking tale from the author of the London Blitz memoir A Chelsea Concerto.’

 

4. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood 18760917
A privileged young wife on a large Cornwall estate gains responsibility and confidence when her husband leaves to fight overseas. This English home front saga then becomes something more when she leaves for France herself to rescue a friend from danger.

 

9773745. Daughters of the House by Michele Roberts
Booker Prize Finalist, Daughters of the House is Michèle Roberts’ acclaimed novel of secrets and lies revealed in the aftermath of World War II. Thérèse and Leonie, French and English cousins of the same age, grow up together in Normandy. Intrigued by parents’ and servants’ guilty silences and the broken shrine they find in the woods, the girls weave their own elaborate fantasies, unwittingly revealing the village secret and a deep shame that will haunt them in their adult lives.

 

6. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna 17237713
Aminatta Forna has established herself as one of our most perceptive and uncompromising chroniclers of war and the way it reverberates, sometimes imperceptibly, in the daily lives of those touched by it. With The Hired Man, she has delivered a tale of a Croatian village after the War of Independence, and a family of newcomers who expose its secrets.  Duro is off on a morning’s hunt when he sees something one rarely does in Gost: a strange car. Later that day, he overhears its occupants, a British woman, Laura, and her two children, who have taken up residence in a house Duro knows well. He offers his assistance getting their water working again, and soon he is at the house every day, helping get it ready as their summer cottage, and serving as Laura’s trusted confidant.  But the other residents of Gost are not as pleased to have the interlopers, and as Duro and Laura’s daughter Grace uncover and begin to restore a mosaic in the front that has been plastered over, Duro must be increasingly creative to shield the family from the town’s hostility, and his own past with the house’s former occupants. As the inhabitants of Gost go about their days, working, striving to better themselves and their town, and arguing, the town’s volatile truths whisper ever louder.

 

 

Have I convinced you to pick up any of these unfairly neglected novels?

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Around the World in 80 Books: Some Reviews

9781843430452Death of a Prima Donna by Brina Svit (Slovenia) ****
I have read very little Slovenian literature in my time, and decided to choose an intriguing tome for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I really enjoyed both the central idea and the structure of Brina Svit’s Death of a Prima Donna, and felt that everything about it – and particularly with regard to the use of a non-linear narrative – worked well. Engaging and cleverly structured, the novel kept me guessing throughout. It is a perceptive and quite intimate book, and one which I would highly recommend.

 

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) **** 97814088431611
I very much enjoyed Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love when I read it a few years ago, but for some reason, I hadn’t picked up any of her other work since. I remedied this for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge by choosing The Hired Man for my Croatian stop. From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

 

9781860460586The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andric (Bosnia-Herzegovina) ****
I had high hopes for Ivo Andric’s The Bridge Over the Drina. I loved the central idea, of a bridge being the entire focal point of the novel, and great swathes of Bosnian history unfolding around it. In terms of its chronologically organised and largely fictionalised history, in fact, it is a sweeping tour-de-force, rich in cultural detail, involved with politics and social conditions, and filled with memorable characters. Andric beautifully evokes his homeland, and whilst I certainly preferred some of the separate stories over others, I still very much enjoyed reading the novel in its entirety.

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