I didn’t try to limit myself this year in terms of how many books made the cut. No cuts. Out of just over 200 books read during the year, there were lots of hits, and a few misses, but just over 40 of them stood out for me as books I’d like to revisit sometime. Any books I rated 4.5 stars and up is included in this list; a four-and-a-half star rating, in my personal system automatically pointing to my favourites of the year, that I’d want to read again, and five stars indicating my all-time favourites (which I would read “again, and again… and again!”). So here is my list of
Favourites of 2015:
★★★★★ Five-star reads:
The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (review)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (review)
Les gens de l’ours by LB (manuscript)
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
West with the Night by Beryl Markham (review)
★★★★½ and up, in reading order:
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (review)
The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace
Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen
Clockwork by Philip Pullman (review)
Lamentation by C. J. Sansom
The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier (review)
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
Small Gods: Discworld #13 by Terry Pratchett (review)
Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim (review)
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (reread – tutored read with Liz)
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (reread)
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
The Leopard by Guisepe Di Lampedusa
Ross Poldark by Winston Graham (review—sort of)
The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble (review)
The Accursed Kings: The Iron King (Part 1) by Maurice Druon
The Accursed Kings: The Strangled Queen (Part 2) by Maurice Druon
The Accursed Kings: The Royal Succession (Part 4) by Maurice Druon
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (reread)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (mini-review)
Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess (review)
The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
Parle-leur de batailles de rois et d’éléphants by Mathias Enard (review)
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (reread)
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (comments)
Farthing by Jo Walton
Cecilia by Fanny Burney
Le liseur du 6h27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (review)
Man-Tiger by Eka Kurniawan
Rumpole at Christmas by John Mortimer (comments)
How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (comments)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (comments)
Book #99: ♫ Parle-leur de batailles de rois et d’éléphants / Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants* by Mathias Enard ★★★★½
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Audiolib (2011), Unabridged MP3 CD; 3h20
Awards & Distinctions: Goncourt des lycéens (2010)
Goncourt Shortlist (2010)
Original publication date: 2010
I picked up this amazing little book because it came highly recommended in a “best of” directory consisting mainly of French writings (La bibliothèque idéale RTL edited by Bernard Lehut); it has not been translated into English yet, but it can only be a matter of time given it won a prestigious French literary award, its vastly famous protagonist—the artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, aka Michelangelo—and the compelling premise that the great Italian Renaissance master had made a trip to what was then known as Constantinople in 1506 after being invited by Sultan Bayezid II.
From a few verifiable facts, Mathias Enard has weaved a highly poetic tale on the premise that following the Sultan’s invitation, (which Michelangelo’s famous biographer Giorgio Vasari noted in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), the great master did in fact accept the invitation and spent three months in Constantinople to present plans for a bridge connecting the Eastern and Western parts of the great capital. Sultan Bayezid II has been mostly forgotten by history, but it seems he was a great visionary who promoted learning, fine arts, poetry and earned the epithet of “the Just” because of the smooth running of his domestic policies. Among other things, he organized the evacuation of Jewish and Muslim Spanish civilians who were evicted from Spain as part of the Inquisition, and granted them full Ottoman citizenship. Bayezid II was keen to have a bridge designed by one of the great Italian Renaissance masters, and asked Leonardo da Vinci to submit his designs first. This drawing is still in existence today, but it seems the proposed bridge was deemed impossible to build with the technology available at the time and it was rejected by the Sultan’s engineers, after which Bayezid II turned to Michelangelo.
The story he weaves here begins with Michelangelo’s arrival to Constantinople in May 1506, where is he given shelter by an Italian merchant and greeted by one of the Sultan’s protégés, the Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina. The two men couldn’t be more different; Mesihi, though now still considered as an important contributor to Ottoman letters, having died young in an impoverished state and total obscurity, while Michelangelo went on to become rich and famous and died towards the end of his ninth decade. Mesihi enjoyed much food and drink, and openly courted both men and women, while Michelangelo was of an ascetic nature, refusing all drink and eating little. But here Enard imagines the two men developing an unlikely friendship and the poet introducing the renaissance artist to a performer of great beauty and indefinable sex during one of their outings. The language is sublime, and we are privy to some of Michelangelo’s actual correspondence with one of his brothers, which Enard has translated into French for his book.
As for the intriguing title of the short novel, the author took the sentence from Rudyard Kipling’s preface of Life’s Handicap, a short story collection. This preface contains a fictive conversation between Kipling and “Gobind the one-eyed”, a holy beggar, who explains the art of telling stories:
“Tell them first of those things that thou hast seen and they have seen together. Thus their knowledge will piece out thy imperfections. Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike. All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night”.
Such a beautifully told tale that it’s well worth reading twice in a row.
*Proposed translation for the English title
♫ Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth ★★★★½
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 19h26
Original publication date: 2012
Partly based on the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force—a cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV—who was banished from the court of Versailles by the King for a series of scandalous affairs to live in a nunnery, this book interweaves her own life story with the fairy tale we’ve come to know as Rapunzel. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, or Mademoiselle de La Force, was a French novelist and poet, and her best-known work was her 1698 fairy tale Persinette which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as the story Rapunzel, though it seems this story originally came from an Italian folk tale which Mademoiselle de La Force would have had no way of becoming acquainted with, and Kate Forsyth uses her ample skill as a novelist to suggest how this now famous fairy tale might have been transmitted to her.
When Charlotte-Rose arrives at the convent where she is to spend the rest of her life locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, she meets with a harsh and brutal reception. Stripped of her luxurious court garments and shorn of her cascading locks of hair, then systematically bullied by her overseer, she is eventually taken under the wing of an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who comforts her with an old Italian folk tale about a young girl who was taken from her parents because her father has stolen a handful of bitter greens; before little Margherita was born, her mother nearly died during the pregnancy because she was unable to eat. At her request, her husband stole a handful of herbs from the garden of the renowned courtesan next door. According to the story, Selena Leonelli was a famous courtesan in the Venice in the 16th century, the favourite model of a great painter, and by that point also a powerful witch with dark powers. When she catches Margherita’s father stealing the herbs, she threatens him with declaring him to the authorities, the punishment for theft being the cutting off of both hands. A bargain is made, and so the parents must agree to eventually give their daughter away. On her seventh birthday, Margherita is taken away, first to a convent to receive a proper education and then into a tower where she is shut off for years, her only visitor being Selena Leonelli on monthly calls and blood rites. There are monstrous secrets hidden in the tower, which has no doors nor stairs, and Margherita must drag around yards of hair which the witch uses to climb up to the only window every month, and the only company the girl has the rest of the time is her own beautiful voice to distract herself, with the hope that someday somebody might hear her and come to her rescue.
Kate Forsyth has a gift for storytelling and we get a narrative from three points of view: there is Charlotte-Rose, locked away in the convent and looking back on her youthful follies and excesses; Margherita in her tower, becoming a woman and looking back on her childhood while learning to outsmart a powerful witch; and Selena Leonelli, telling her own fascinating life story starting in the plague-ridden Venice of the early 16th century and explaining how and why she became Margherita’s jailer. The long narrative of her life is perhaps the most fascinating of all.
I haven’t yet read Angela Carter, and looking forward to redressing that omission, but from the descriptions I’ve read about the way she retells fairy tales, it seems Kate Forsyth has also adopted a very modern, adult and feminist point of view which is rich, dark and fascinating. Certainly miles away from the Disney folks and their ilk. A thrilling book with which to start the year, and heartily recommended.
Out of the 233 books I read in 2014, I tried to narrow down my selection of favourites to a top 5, or even a top 10, but couldn’t do it. So I guess fourteen favourites is an improvement over the 31 I came up with last year—not as far as quality of course, only in terms of paring down the numbers.
In reading order:
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (review)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (review)
Lady Susan by Jane Austen (review)
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (review)
The Quick by Lauren Owen (ARC) (review)
Dissolution by C. J. Samson (review)
The Unstrung Harp: Or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey
Restoration by Rose Tremain (review)
The Waiting Game by Bernice Reubens (review)
Breakfast With Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist by Geordie Greig (review)
The Ruby in Her Navel by Barry Unsworth (review)
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Le joueur d’échecs / Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
I may yet review the few I managed to overlook so far.
♫ The Ruby in Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth ★★★★★
Edition: AudioGO (2007), Unabridged MP3, 12h22
Awards & Distinctions:
Booker Prize Longlist (2006)
Original publication date: 2006
This book by the fine historical novelist Barry Unsworth is set in 1149 Palermo, Sicily, where power struggles between East and West have left King Roger hard pressed to maintain his throne. Both the Pope and the Bishop of Rome refuse to recognize his rule, and Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the West) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the East) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their powers. Palermo has always been tolerant to various ethnic communities, but a Christian group is making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other “outsiders” to take over power.
Thurstan Beauchamp narrates this story. He is a young man still, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. He works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his employer is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a Muslim man with political savvy and of unimpeachable honesty who is willing to help Thurstan become influential if he can avoid falling into one of the dangerous political games the various factions are playing against each other. Traveling throughout Europe as “Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows”, Thurstan finds a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer with uncommon talent, and immediately hires them to come to Palermo to perform for the king. He is drawn to Nesrin’s great beauty and allure, but things take yet another turn when he meets again with the Lady Alicia on the same trip, once his great love when he was still a boy and she then just a girl also. Now she has returned from the land of Jerusalem as a widow of considerable wealth and power, and she seems just as taken with Thurstan as he still is with her, when he finds his love for her has not abated over the years.
We learn early on in the novel that Thurstan’s most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia’s return on the scene and the considerable influence of her relations, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo. Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with, though he makes many grave gaffes and mistakes, and much as his naïvety and youth show he has yet much to learn and ought to know better, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.
A jewel of a book which I can’t wait to reread to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed upon first reading; I also loved Andrew Sachs’ narration in this audio version; a well-earned five stars for this gem, which only makes me want to read yet more of Unsworth’s wonderful prose. Lucky for me, I still have his 1992 Booker Prize winner Sacred Hunger and it’s follow-up, The Quality of Mercy, as well as The Songs of the Kings, all historical fiction novels also, as well as the travel memoir Crete to look forward to in my vast personal reading and listening library. It’s not unlikely I may end up trying to get hold of everything Unsworth has written in his long and fruitful career, during which he published a total of 17 novels, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times.