Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Books of 2015

2015 wasn't a spectacular reading year for me but I've still managed to pick ten books from the forty-five that I read. It's still a varied list with two non-fiction novels, two fantasy books, three modern classics and one thriller. I'm writing this post right now on my phone whilst at a beach resort with a crappy internet connection so please forgive the brief descriptions of each book. Here's my top ten of 2015 in no particular order.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
The final novel in the Neapolitan series. It's as brilliant as the previous ones.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
The last book I read this year and exactly what I needed after the longest book slump. Light, fantastic, intriguing and magical.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
Funny, bizarre and so interesting.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo
I'm not a big fan of short stories but these ones were truly haunting and unforgettable. My favorite one was The Imposter.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
A fugitive hides out at a deserted island where nothing is as it seems. Sublime.

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng
A lovely book about a very taboo love affair.

Silence by Shusaku Endo
A truly profound novel about Portugese missionary priests in 16th century Japan.

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King
This cat and mouse thriller was the best crime novel I've read all year. It's the first of a trilogy. The second one, Finders Keepers, was just as good.

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi
Loved this highly original, weird and whimsical novel that reads like a fairy tale. Two friends, one beautiful and one not, and their quest to find true love.

Love is a Mixed Time - Love and Loss One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield
I chose this for my book club and although only one other person enjoyed it,  I still loved this heartbreaking memoir about Rolling Stones' writer, Rob Sheffield,  and his wife Renee.

I know I haven't been blogging much during the past few years but I always make it a point to post a year end list. If you are still reading my blog then thank you. If you are on instagram and still interested to see what I'm reading then please do check out @theliterarystew. I seem to be posting more there these days. Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Books Read in 2015

Books Read in 2015

1. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay ***
2. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins ****
3. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (reread) *****
4. Just Kids by Patti Smith  ****
5. Silence by Shusaku Endo *****
6. The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson *****
7. The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson ***
8. A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison ***
9. And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi **
10. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum ***
11. Matilda by Roald Dahl ****
12. This Can't be Happening at McDonald Hall by Gordon Korman (reread) *****
13. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson *****
14. So You've Been Shamed by Jon Ronson ****
15. The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly ***
16. Go Jump in the Pool! by Gordon Korman (reread) *****
17. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares *****
18. Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb **
19. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker ***
20. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr **
21. Disclaimer by Renee Knight **
22. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng *****
23. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter ****
24. Chocky by John Wyndham ****
25. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper ***
26. Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield *****
27. The Stranger by Albert Camus ***
28. Talking to Girls about Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield *****
29. Turn Around Bright Eyes by Rob Sheffield ***
30. Little Girl Blue, The Life of Karen Carpenter ***
31. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky ****
32. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante ****
33. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee ***
34. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes ****
35. The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen by Lindsay Ashford **
36. The Vanishing by Tim Krabbe ***
37. The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi *****
38. Emma Vol.1 by Kaoru Mori ***
39. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King *****
40. Finders Keepers by Stephen King *****
41. The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford ****
42. The Elementals by Mchael McDowell **
42. The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez ***
43. In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware ***
44. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs *****
45. Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Life After the Elena Ferrante Books

I have avoided reviewing the Neapolitan books by Elena Ferrante because how does one write about three of the most perfect books in the world? There has already been so much written about this series and their reclusive author. The internet is awash with praise and glowing reviews. And yes dear reader, believe the hype, all the accolades are deserved.

In case you're one of the few people who hasn't heard of Elena Ferrante, she has three published novels so far in her Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The fourth and last in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, will be released on September 1st. The books cover the complicated friendship between two Italian women from childhood onwards for a number of decades. I know this isn't exactly the kind of blurb that will make you run out and buy the book. But believe me, the story of these two friends, their friendship's twist and turns, their love lives, the colorful cast of characters that make up their families, friends and neighborhood....ah, all of  it...was just ...Glorious!

This blog post isn't going to review the Ferrante books in detail because others have done a much better job than I can ever do. This is a post about life after Elena Ferrante and how she has opened reading pathways for me.

The Neapolitan series swept me off my feet last November and December that to be honest my reading life plummeted afterwards. There was simply no book that I could pick up that matched the feeling I had while reading Ferrante's books. I raced through summer thrillers that gave me some brief satisfaction but ultimately still left me wanting. What seemed to work for me was actually getting out of my comfort zone: going back to the classics, reading non-fiction and short stories and most importantly delving into translated fiction. Yes, its been a strange and slow reading year so far but also very rewarding. I know for a fact my reading wouldn't have taken these directions without Ferrante.

I got immense reading pleasure in discovering new writers particularly a married Argentinian couple I'd never heard of before, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. They are my current literary crushes. Both were friends and contemporaries of Jose Luis Borges and are published by NYRB. The Invention of Morel by Casares was brilliant and I'm still reading the haunting short stories Thus Were Their Faces by Ocampo. These books have nothing in common at all with Ferrante's novels other than being translated fiction. But this is what I mean when I say that Elena Ferrante led me to them somehow and they in turn will lead me to others. Ferrante, through her publisher, Europa Editions, also led me to Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng which I reviewed in my previous post. I had never heard of the author but I simply had to read it. Its risqué plot didn't turn me off because Elena Ferrante has taught me that yes, we might not always agree with the protagonists in the books we read but we also can't judge their choices. Everyone is fighting their own battles after all. 

Ferrante has not only opened up my mind but she's opened up my reading life to include books I never bothered to check out before or never even knew about. Just when I thought I'd read everything I want to read in my life, in comes Ferrante and a bunch of other writers who've existed all along but where out of my radar. Now isn't all this just wonderful?

If you have read Ferrante, then I would love to hear about the books that impressed you afterwards.

Update: I've just finished the fourth and final book of the Neapolitan saga, The Story of the Lost Child. It's as brilliant as the previous ones but sadder and more harrowing. The girls are now middle-aged and elderly women and through the course of this final book will be dealt a few but still very harsh blows in life. Like real life Ferrante leaves some questions unanswered. There are some things we will never know unless she writes another sequel. It's not my favorite among the four books but in spite of that it's still an important part of this incredibly wonderful and moving series that I will surely reread again. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng

"Doesn't intimacy foster reverence more completely than anything that can be taught?"

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness was such a lovely book although when I first read the blurb my reaction was 'yikes!' A 41-year-old married librarian and mother of one, falls for a 17-year-old boy. I almost gave it a pass but it's a Europa Edition so I had to have a closer look. This is Elena Ferrante's publisher after all! I decided to sample it on my Kindle and then I just couldn't stop. 

"It began at the library."

Jennifer Tseng writes exquisitely. I was immediately sucked into Mayumi's island world: her work at the library, the quirky colleagues and patrons, her 4-year-old daughter Maria and even her aloof husband, Var. Into her small world steps a never named young man and she becomes completely obsessed with him. Don't be turned off by this taboo love affair because Tseng handles it with elegance and grace. The result is a beautiful novel about two lost souls (bookworms in fact) who unexpectedly become lovers, meeting once a week on Fridays at a cabin in the woods. 

Mayumi and her lover's lives are enriched because of their liaison even though they don't talk much about themselves. They discuss and share their love of books. While this is going on, Mayumi slowly starts to develop a friendly relationship with the boy's mother, Violet, who seems to know nothing about the affair. She's also a reader and they meet and discuss Elena Ferrante's books among others. Through all this, Mayumi struggles with her moral compass and her desires. 

As you can guess this is a book for book lovers but it's also a book about life and personal growth. I don't want to give away what happens next but let me just say that it was heartbreaking but beautiful. One of the best books I've read this year. Mayumi will certainly stay with me. 

"He smiled the family smile of happiness and pain. I smiled too, a smile that has taken some time to leave me, a smile that I can still retrieve in full."

Monday, February 2, 2015

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Before reading the memoir Just Kids my knowledge of Patti Smith was limited to the song Gloria and I'd vaguely heard of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe but couldn't for the life of me recall any of his photos. These people didn't particularly interest me but I was in the mood for a memoir and this one beckoned. In spite of not knowing the protagonists I ended up loving this book about these two struggling and hungry artists in sixties and seventies New York City. I was captivated by their friendship, their love of art and their journey to find their mediums and themselves. It's a coming-of-age tale and a true one at that. 

At this point in her life Smith wasn't a singer or a musician and Mapplethorpe wasn't even interested in photography. Smith never thought she'd be a rock star. She just loved poetry and art and like Mapplethorpe she loved creating collages, necklaces and knick knacks. She became a rock star purely by accident and Mapplethorpe picked up photography when a friend gifted him with a Polaroid camera. It's actually incredible how these two found their niches when all the time they hungered for success they didn't even know what it was they were meant to do. 

Smith's passion for writing shows in Just Kids. The writing is wonderful, evocative and flows beautifully just like poetry. 

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