Category Archives: Reviews

My Top 10 Books of 2016

What a year 2016 has been!

Thankfully, there are books to keep us happy. So here’s a round up of my favourite reads from the year:

  1. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

To think, I wasn’t even going to buy this. I needed a third book in a 3 for 2 at Waterstones, I was in a hurry, and this was being promoted. A piece of good fortune, and proof that we should always challenge our reading habits.

Here’s what I said about it on Goodreads:

A profound portrait of an individual and a community. The vignette-style chapters of characters who are emotionally damaged, close to illness and death, combines with the rough beauty of the Maine landscape to create an oddly affirming account of what it can mean to be alive. Olive Kitteridge is scathing, no-nonsense, pragmatic; and completely invested in her garden, the blooming of her tulips.


2. The Crossing, by Andrew Miller

This book isn’t exactly long, but it takes you on an amazing journey. In the character of Maud, the author has created someone both mysterious and scientific, rooted in the world. When she’s met by tragedy her journey alone across the Atlantic, one moment calm and the next terrifyingly wild, is gripping. I wasn’t so sure about the ending, but this seems to me a resonant book for our times.

3. Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty

A great adventure mystery story for middle grade / young teens, set in the rambling Biltmore estate and the dark woods surrounding it.

4. The Music of Chance, by Paul Auster

I read Moon Palace by Paul Auster many years ago and didn’t get on well with it. Then last year my wife bought a secondhand copy of The Book of Illusion in a lovely little bookshop in Alfriston. I read it and was an immediate convert (even re-reading Moon Palace, which I enjoyed much more this time).

Here’s an excerpt from my Goodreads review of The Music of Chance:

Don’t expect any answers. This story of two unlikely companions being undone through a game of cards with two equally unlikely partners just gets darker and darker…. Nashe, the hero, is a rationalist, but his burning of two wooden figures of the guys who beat him and Pozzi and inflict the ‘punishment’ of building a wall on them opens up all possible explanations, even supernatural. I loved this gripping book, although in the face of so much deftly handled ambiguity, the ending felt like too easy a way out.

5. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

A lot of my reading is inspired by what I’m going to write next. I’m currently drafting the fourth book of The Secret of the Tirthas, The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, set in a country house. The novel has a strong mystery element, so I thought it was time to read my first ever Agatha Christie novel.

My only criticism of this fantastic book is that I would have liked more of it. More detail about the characters, more description of the setting. It almost defines ‘pared down’. But it’s brilliant nevertheless.

6. The Magician, by W. Somerset Maugham

Again for inspiration in my current writing, I reread this classic by Somerset Maugham. It’s an absorbing gothic tale of the tragedy that overtakes young lovers when they come across a vain, malicious and darkly ambitious Occultist in 1920s Paris.

7. Rilke’s Book of Hours, tr. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Reread over the Christmas period. It’s the one period in the year most of us get (at least some) time to reflect on life. I haven’t read any of Rilke’s other poetry, and I normally struggle with poems that are totally abstract – but I was struck by how some of the images in these poems relate to the need for an observer to shape the world. I read The New Scientist magazine and, as the universe gets increasingly weird and less likely the more we discover about it, I like how poetry written a hundred and fifty years ago can still resonate with current theories.

8. Wild Swans, by Jung Chang

I finally got around to reading this amazing book. Here’s my Goodreads review:

This is a whirlwind story, focusing around the tragedy of China throughout much of the last century through three generations of women. The greatest havoc is wrought by Mao Zedong and his wife, particularly through his Cultural Revolution in which young people are pitched against teachers, intellectuals and artists in a highly successful attempt to divide and rule. It’s like Lord of the Flies meets real life. Read this book, especially if you don’t know much about China – it’s an education.

9. The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell

I loved this book about a siege that reflects the physical and metaphysical crumbling of the British Empire in India. As the residents of the compound try to maintain their routines under increasingly desperate circumstances it’s darkly humorous, at times reminiscent of Carry On Up The Khyber.

10. Doctor Who: Ghosts of India, by Mark Morris

I haven’t read a Doctor Who book since I was about 10 years old, but was glad to return to them with this one. Having written my first novel about India, I couldn’t resist this title when I saw it in a secondhand bookshop. Here’s an excerpt from my Goodreads review:

India just after the second world war is masterfully depicted, with the hope, mystery and exuberance nicely balanced against the ominous clouds of coming strife with partition. The adventure has a good blend of villains, from the ghastly white ‘half-dead men’ to crazed Army Majors, crocodiles and cobras. The meeting of Gandhi with the Doctor is wonderful, and it’s left to Donna to draw parallels – and the Doctor to highlight the one key difference between them. A fun ride, with a pointed note of sadness at the end.

That’s my top ten from 2016. Let’s hope 2017 proves a good one – or at least a little bit less tumultuous than 2016.

Happy New Year!

Author Review – Katherine Rundell

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I recently finished The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, one of my favourite children’s authors. Like Rooftoppers and The Girl Savage, this book is highly original and poetic, with a very driven heroine. Feo helps her mum re-wild the no-longer-wanted wolves who have been tamed as status symbols by the elite of Tsarist Russia. The story takes a treacherous turn when a wolf kills a farm animal and wicked General Rakov tells Feo and her mum that all the wolves need to be killed – something they are determined not to let happen.

Relationships between girls and their mothers are key to the set up in all three novels. In Rooftoppers, Sophie is hunting through Paris in the belief that her mother, declared dead after their ship sank when Sophie was a baby, is still alive. In The Wolf Wilder, Feo is similarly on a quest to St Petersburg to free her mother, imprisoned by the loathsome Rakov. The Girl Savage is different in that Will is not seeking her mother, but rather rebounding from the cruel actions of a controlling stepmother, who has sent her away from her carefree life in Zimbabwe to boarding school in a wet and miserable England, where she is bullied by other girls.

All three books laud the spaces outside of civilisation as bastions of freedom and joy, the snowy forests of Russia, the wide open spaces of Zimbabwe, and even the rooftops of Paris. Society, represented by the aristocrats of St Petersburg who treat wild animals as playthings or the oppressive routines of English boarding schools, is seen as crushing to the spirit and innocence of childhood. In The Girl Savage I’m not sure I really buy the message of compromise of the kindly grandmother of Will’s new friend Daniel. It seems a step too far in contrast to the majestic description of Will’s early life in Zimbabwe. It feels rather that British society has failed to make happiness an option for children.

What makes all three novels stand out is not only the characters and the fabulous settings, but the awe and beauty in the language. ‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.’ Like Lyra Belacqua in His Dark Materials, Rundell runs the rooftops of Oxford colleges in her spare time. No wonder she’s a favourite of Philip Pullman.

Buy these books:

Hands Full Mama blog – review of The City of Light

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Just received a very nice review of The City of Light from Maureen, a Massachusetts book reviewer, on her Hands Full Mama blog. Here’s an excerpt:

“This was a lovely book. I loved the way that Indian culture, religion, and mythology was incorporated into the plot. Griffin’s descriptions of Kashi are vivid and realistic. I also liked the mystery element; Lizzie begins to suspect that someone else is using the portal – for sinister reasons. She isn’t sure who she can trust – and who she should suspect… This is an exciting story, and even readers who have moved on to “Young Adult” books might enjoy this book. I am looking forward to Lizzie’s next adventure!”

Like getting another Christmas present…

If you want to read the full review – and perhaps subscribe to Maureen’s excellent blog – you can do so here:

The City of Light (Secret of the Tirthas) by Steve Griffin