Tag Archives: Dystopian Novels

Novel Insights’ Top 12 Books – 2011

I am savouring my last day off work today and feeling a little bit smug to be sat indoors out of the rain with nothing more taxing to do than mull over my favourite books of the past year. Actually, I say it’s not taxing but I started by trying to pick five books, then changed it to ten, and then bumped it up to twelve – whoops! Well that is one for every month – a perfectly good excuse in my opinion. Here they are:

How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran

5 stars 5/5

“…challenges all the stupid things that women are told (and tell themselves) with a big bucketful of humour…” Read full review.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

5 stars 5/5

“…an important book and one that I think is up there with some of the best dystopian novels.” Read full review.

Never Let Me Go

In Love & Trouble, by Alice Walker

5 stars 5/5

“…each time I picked up Alice Walker’s collection of short stories, I felt as if time was suspended and I was transported completely to heat of the Southern America… The richness and vitality of Walker’s writing makes this book an utter pleasure to read.” Read full review.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

5 stars 5/5

“The stories sound barmy, and there is a heavy dose of the surreal, but at their heart Petrushevskaya’s tales  are real human experiences of grief, love and loss.” Read full review.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Purls of Wisdom, by Jenny Lord

5 stars 5/5

“…a book that I know I will refer to time and time again. I love the informal writing style because it feels just as if a friend is teaching you…” (AKA the book to blame for my knitting obsession in 2011!) Read full review.

Purls of Wisdom: The Book of Knitting

Mr Chartwell, by Rebecca Hunt

4.5 stars4.5/5

“I struggle to think of many other books that convey what is a very serious message with so much originality and seemingly so effortlessly.” Read full review.

Mary Anne, by Daphne du Maurier

4.5 stars4.5/5

“…a book, packed with with witty lines, and a richly described period setting which creates the backdrop for the story of a fascinating protagonist based on du Maurier’s own great-great-grandmother.” Read full review.

The Mermaids Singing, by Val McDermid

4.5 stars4.5/5

“I think that I might have found a new favourite crime writer to add to my list!” Read full review.

The Mermaids Singing

A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis

4 stars4/5

“Of course, this is a sad book to read, but also so beautifully and eloquently written… In an odd way, I believe that this little book could be comforting at a time of loss, if only because of how openly the author shares his experience.” Read full review.

Fateless, by Imre Kertész

4 stars4/5

“… a novel that will stay with me, because it is unique in the way that it addresses the experience of concentration camps. The writing is deceptively simple, and peppered with imaginative ideas…” Read full review.

Fateless, by Imre Kertesz

Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb

4 stars4/5

“…has the qualities that I associate with a real classic… A rich and many-layered story.” Read full review.

Before I go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson

4.5 stars4.5/5

“…smartly plotted, written compellingly and the premise is well-executed.” Read full review.

Before I go to Sleep

A retrospective look at Novel Insights tells me that in 2011 I read a total of 43 books which is a whole 30% lower than last year’s count of 62. I don’t get too hung up about the number of books that I read because I don’t like to over-organise or analyse the things I do for pleasure and for this reason I don’t really make reading resolutions.

That said, I do think that my reading and blogging can be seen as a bit of a barometer of how I’m feeling. While sometimes I read less because I’ve been occupied with nice, fun stuff (including quite a lot of knitting this year!) I have felt quite busy over the past few months and it is one of my resolutions to find a better balance between work and my leisure time.

Well that’s my little bit of naval-gazing over and done with! How was your 2011? Do you have any reading resolutions? What books really stood out for you this year?

The Godless Boys, by Naomi Wood

3.5 stars3.5 / 5

An evening event at Picador brought debut author Naomi Wood to my attention. She read aloud from her new novel The Godless Boys, while looking effortless in a pair of stylish trousers and simple blouse. (I was feeling bedraggled at the time and hence, a little envious). Sartorial choices aside, Naomi’s reading was engaging and I was left with the impression that her new story might be mentally taxing or it might be just very interesting so I thought I’d find out which.

The Godless Boys, Naomi Wood

Picador, 2011 edition, paperback, 320 pages - review copy.

I do like the odd dollop of speculative fiction once in a while and I got on very well with Never Let Me Go recently. It is a curious journey to be lead down the path of an alternative reality.

The Godless Boys is set in the 1980’s. England is controlled by the Church, and members of the Secular Movement have been expelled to an island. References to home-made bombs and guerrilla terrorist activity evoke images akin to those that occurred during The Troubles in Ireland. Segregated, the population live a simple life but an unsettled one. A gang of young men has formed – Nathaniel and his ‘Malades’. They skulk about hunting for signs of religious devotion amongst the islanders and keen to punish those who have strayed. When flame-haired Sarah Wickes arrives on the island seeking her mother, she becomes caught up in more than one type of conflict.

I was a little bemused about where this island actually was. Sarah is from Newcastle, and the novel often refers to Warkworth bay and cliffs, however I couldn’t place where the island would actually be. Poetic licence I suppose, although I did think it would be interesting if it had been set in Lindisfarne (Holy Island) due to the theme of religious conflict in the novel. Wood’s descriptive capacity really is wonderful though – I could really sense the briny atmosphere and the dramatic sense of isolation amidst a stormy sea.

I found interesting the idea of younger generations taking up a cause that they would have no living memory of, especially in light of the recent attacks on police officers in Ireland. Is it because of the scars left behind through the generations, some innate human desire for conflict or a result of deprivation? The answer probably lies somewhere between all three causes and to be honest, it’s probably best if I don’t dwell too much on the downsides of the human condition!

I really warmed to the characters of Eliza and Arthur, a seemingly star-crossed pair, and I also liked Sarah. She was feisty but with a very real sense of peril. Nathaniel was convincingly charming yet there was always a sense of threat lurking under the surface. When I was first introduced to the ‘Malades’, I must admit that I felt they were too much reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex and his ‘droogs’ especially with the boys’ obsession with tight trousers and shaved heads. I also found that in parts of the book, Wood was working a bit hard to get all of her ideas across – that said, she did a rather excellent job of portraying quite a detailed world, with its own topsy-turvy dialect, code of ethics and history. I could really picture it and was drawn into the hopes and fears of the islanders. The tension was racked up in the second half of the book because I really cared about what would happen to Eliza and Arthur, Sarah and Nathaniel this really carried through to the end.

So was The Godless Boys original? Well, kind of… I felt that the novel borrowed and built on ideas from other speculative novels yet had a definite style of its own. Was it interesting? Yes. Ms Wood’s angle on human belief systems and reasons for conflict is conveyed through a well-paced plot with convincing characters. I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops her style in the future.

Do you enjoy speculative / dystopian fiction and if so what books have really made an impact on you in this genre?

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

5 stars5/5

My latest book group at work gave me an  opportunity to choose a book  that had been on my to-read list for a while and one that I thought would be brilliant to talk about – Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Fortunately I wasn’t wrong about it being a good book for discussion.

Never Let Me Go

Faber & Faber, 2010 edition, paperback, 304 pages - book group choice

I had prepared by bringing the Faber reading guide along to yesterday’s meeting. It gave us a brilliant starting point, however it wasn’t long before we were having an animated discussion with a momentum all of it’s own!

The key characters in Never Let Me Go are Kathy, Ruth and Tommy who are all at school together in the idyllic-sounding Hailsham. It is told from the perspective of Kathy, who is now in her thirties. She looks back at her life and her memories of growing up with the other children at Hailsham school. The early pages of the novel are full of vivid descriptions of school-life, the relationships and day to day dramas that occur between pupils.

The first part of the novel is very detailed and the Kathy tells her story at her own pace. Slowly, Kathy drip-feeds the reader pieces of information that hint that something unsettling is going on under the surface. Some of the children at the school seem wary and fearful of the outside world, while others are emotionally disturbed.

I think that it is worth noting at this point that some members of the group found this pace a little frustrating at first. I’ve also heard people comment that they didn’t like the cold, detached style of the narrative voice, however I wasn’t put off by this and I liked that the language felt simple yet full of meaning.

An important part of the experience of Never Let Me Go is the way that the book creeps up on you so I really don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot. It is possible to guess, pretty early on what is going on, yet it is not until the end of the book that you really start to see the whole picture.

Kathy’s calm and sometimes disconnected voice ensures that for most of the novel the reader feels emotionally detached. The only character that I really felt any empathy for throughout the story was Tommy, though perhaps this is because Kathy herself feels connected to him as a character. Having said that, you do go on a very intimate journey with all three characters. I was actually quite surprised by how I felt at the end of the novel because it is not until the final pages that the impact of what Kathy is relating really hits the reader. Ishiguro ensures that the emotional impact of the book is most intense right at the end. It is as if he comes out and whacks you over the head – not with any real ‘twist’ exactly, but with a particular weight of feeling.

I’m so pleased that I discussed Never Let Me Go in a group, because even though I would have enjoyed reading it on my own anyway, the conversations within the group drew out all the different intricate layers of meaning and some of the more subtle nuances were highlighted that might otherwise have been missed.

Never Let Me Go affected me profoundly because of how beautifully constructed it was and how well the ideas were conveyed. The events of the novel felt a bit too possible, which made the story even more disturbing. It is an important book and one that I think is up there with some of the best dystopian novels such as Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Brave New World.

A must-read and absolutely worthy of being called a ‘modern classic’.

On a side note, I was really taken aback at how different the style of Never Let Me Go was to the only other Ishiguro novel that I’ve read, which was An Artist of a Floating World which I wasn’t a big fan of (maybe I’ll have to revisit). Have you read any  other Ishiguro novels that you would recommend?

For other book-groupers, a PDF guide with reading notes and questions from none other than the lovely Savidge Reads can be found here.