My favourite reads of 2008, part 1

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again. Time to look back on a year’s worth of novels and choose the ones I liked most. You might think this would be a fairly difficult task, but it’s quite easy when you’ve employed a rating system. Essentially this list comprises all the books I awarded a five-star review in 2008.

Come back tomorrow for another list comprised of books that made a lasting impression regardless of the number of stars they received…

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my top 10 favourite fiction reads of 2008 (in alphabetical order by book title):

 

‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra (first published 2007)
‘Khadra definitely knows how to write a thrilling, often thought-provoking, narrative so that it forms one powerhouse of a novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring the wider implications of faith and cultural identity. Given the times in which we live, The Attack is an important book and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.

‘The Christmas Tree’ by Jennifer Johnston (1982)
Judging by the title alone The Christmas Tree sounds like it could be sentimental claptrap — and the somewhat dated illustration on my cover doesn’t do much to dispel that assumption. But this is truly a case of never judge a book by its cover, because what lies within is an exquisitely written tale about an Irish woman who returns home to die, and not once does Johnston resort to mawkishness or saccharine touches to achieve a deeply affecting story.’

‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber (2003)
Despite the constant debauchery (for want of a better word) that fills the pages, The Crimson Petal and the White never feels pornographic, nor sensationalist. Instead, because Faber has such an eye for detail and is a stickler for historical accuracy, the novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope — or want — to visit.

‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy (1997)
There are some scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; others so shockingly brutal you’re not sure you want to read on. I found myself not knowing whether I should be grimacing or chortling throughout. But it’s this very fine line between comedy and tragedy that makes The Ginger Man work — on so many different levels. The beauty of this rather marvellous novel is that it paints a very human portrait of a man so desperately troubled — financially, emotionally, mentally — that it’s hard not to empathise with him just a little.

‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ by Sloan Wilson (1955)
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit 
is described as the quintessential 1950s novel, mainly because that’s the era in which it is set and written, but putting aside the sexism and the “traditional” family life — man goes to work, woman stays at home and looks after the children — depicted within its pages, it is still highly relevant and tackles themes and issues that are pertinent today.  For instance, at what point does one acknowledge that it is more important to enjoy one’s work than it is to make as much money as possible from something you detest? When do you stop worrying about the future and start enjoying the present? Should you tell people the truth or tell them what they want to hear? Is rampant consumerism the path to happiness?

‘Mariette in Ecstasy’ by Ron Hansen (1991)
‘This sparse, beautifully written novel, is an exquisite, mesmerising read. Open any page and the words are impeccably arranged to read like poetry.

‘Silent in the Grave’ by Deanna Raybourn (2008)
Silent in the Grave
is a rollicking good story that ploughs along at a furious pace, ably assisted by page-turning cliff hangers at the end of each chapter, so that you begin to wonder whether you will ever put the book down! The plot is terrific, with enough red herrings to keep you guessing, right up until the dark and somewhat unexpected denouement.

‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ by Richard Flanagan (1997)
At its most basic level The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the strained relationship between a father and daughter, but it is far more complicated than that, touching on a wide range of issues including poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence and wartime atrocities, all set within the social and historical context of Australia’s immigrant past.

‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner (2008)
This is a novel about death and friendship, about drawing lines and crossing them, about facing up to hard truths and shying away from things we’d rather not confront. But it also embraces other uncomfortable issues, including whether it is permissible to believe in alternative therapies if Western medicine does not have a solution, but all the while it never preaches, never comes across as heavy or patronising.

‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh (1948)
‘On the face of it, this book does not have much of a plot. It’s essentially a series of vignettes, held together by the passing seasons, but it is written in such beautiful, evocative prose, it’s difficult to find fault with the narrative. There’s a quiet, understated grace to every sentence that makes it a powerful and affecting read. I never thought I would say this, but I loved this book so much I’m afraid the late John McGahern, my favourite Irish writer and possibly my favourite writer per se,  has a rival for my affections.’

What books did you most enjoy this year?

Advertisements

30 thoughts on “My favourite reads of 2008, part 1

  1. So many good books! I can’t wait to tackle the copy of The Sound of One Hand Clapping that you were kind enough to send me. It’s high on my list for 2009.

    Like

  2. I’ll have to look into reading some of these, especially The Sound of One Hand Clapping, which sounds really interesting. My favorite book this year was Away by Amy Bloom, followed in close second my The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I just finished and haven’t found to words to blog about yet. Happy reading in 2009!

    Like

  3. I wish Jennifer Johnston’s entire works were more readily available here in the states. I’ve read a couple of her novels, want to read them all.

    Like

  4. I loved one hand clapping – Flannagan’s best IMO and the gray flannel suit is one of my favourites, it is besides the themes you mention all about that generation of men (and women) who return from the war (where paradoxically they felt truly alive despite the horror) to the stifling mundane nature of the newly emerging suburbs and the corporate world (the main character gets into mkting / pr or something from memory) which is so banal. As you say these themes are if anything more relevant now in their way and the image of the ‘commuter’ pretty much a new idea at the time stays with me. As to Tarry Flynn, I’ve had it on the shelf for a few years (bought it on a trip to Ireland as you do) and to hear you say better than McGahern – well, I’ll have to dig it out and read it with some haste – right after I finish amongst women!

    Like

  5. I seem to have missed your review of The Crimson Petal and the White, though going back to read it, I agree wholeheartedly with your review. This was a favorite of mine years ago (5?) and one of the things I loved was the ending. I love when a book challenges my moral beliefs. What Sugar did in the end was wrong, but I had a hard time finding fault with what she did.
    Some of my favorites this year: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, The Likeness by Tana French, and The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. All of these were stellar, in my opinion.

    Like

  6. I’d agree with you about The Spare Room and Silent in the Grave, both very different books which achieve what they set out to.
    I’m sorry to say I hated The Crimson Petal and the White. Your review almost persuades me to give it another chance.
    I haven’t heard of most of your other picks, so will look out for them.

    Like

  7. Ouch, I have only read 1 (Michel Faber)! Well, that promises some good future reading 😉 I did like ‘The Crimson Petal’ a lot but wouldn’t have given it a 5-star rating, I think. But it’s a long time ago (2003).
    I will get back to you later when I have decided on _my_ best reads for 2008. First I have to finish a book that has been highly recommended by many people I know: Wild Berries by Jewgeni Jewtoesjenko.

    Like

  8. My 2008 favorites are Salley Vickers, of whom I read both “The Other Side of You” and “Miss Garnet’s Angel”, and Alberto Moravia, of whom I read “Conjugal Love”, “The Conformist”, and “Time of Difference”. I read Salley Vickers based solely on your Top 10 lists of 2006 and 2007, and she is indeed a fine author. My favorite offbeat read of 2008 was “Martial’s Epigrams”, a collection of wild and wicked epigrams from a first-century AD(CE?)Roman.

    Like

  9. I would agree re The Spare Room as it is up there with my top 10 for this year also along with The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Flanagan another favourite from a past year.
    A few other honorable mentions from my list are Engleby by Sebastian Faulks for one of the most evil protagonist’s in recent literature who got right under my skin.
    Fred and Edie by Jill Dawson for it’s narrative structure that had me enthralled to the end.
    Breath by Tim Winton for his sheer effortless mastery of the written word.
    Finally The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide which tackles a dark subject but manages to be a suprisingly uplifting and frequently warm and humorous.
    I have just begun the new Wally Lamb ‘The Hour I first Believed’ and it is going to be a Top 10 book first up for 2009.

    Like

  10. Andi, judging by other reviews I’ve seen of The Sound of One Hand Clapping, it is one of those books you either love or hate. I do hope you fall into the former category and not the latter. Let me know when you’ve read it.

    Like

  11. Haven’t read Silent in the Sanctuary. Having just looked on the Amazon website, I see it only became available here in the UK shortly before Christmas, so that might explain why I’ve never seen it in the shops. Must contact the publisher for a review copy…

    Like

  12. Have read several favourable reviews of Away so must add it to the wish list. I must say, however, that I do prefer the cover of the US edition to the UK one — it’s much prettier, not that one should ever judge books by their cover, right? As to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that’s another I want to read at some stage…

    Like

  13. Tony, she’s hard to track down here too. Sure, you can buy them all online, but go to any bookstore and you’ll struggle to find any of her stuff in stock. If, by chance, they do have something it is usually the latest — Foolish Mortals. Such a shame she is not more widely appreciated. I think she is a superb writer and am slowly working my way through her back catalogue, reading them as I acquire them (usually very battered second-hand copies).

    Like

  14. I loved Flanagan’s Unknown Terrorist, although I don’t think it was well received in other quarters. I’ve got the new one — Wanting — in the reading queue, but the subject matter doesn’t immediately grab me (a “typical” Australian convict story set in Tassie), so will need to be in the right frame of mind to read it.
    You’ll have to dig out that dusty volume of Tarry Flynn — I thought it was an amazing book, and quite hilarious in places.

    Like

  15. Did you read the “sequel” to Crimson Petal and the White? In the intro to that book he writes about all the very many letters he received from readers asking what had happened to Sugar. His response was “how should I know?” I thought that was funny.
    Thanks for naming some of your favourites. I’ve heard a few mentions of the Stein book on various other blogs… and I have Tana French’s first book in the reading queue.

    Like

  16. Silent in the Grave isn’t typical of my reading habits, but I did very much enjoy it and thought the whole historical element of the story was very well done.

    Like

  17. I think Crimson Petal and the White is one of those books you definitely need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy. I had it sitting in my queue for about three years, and only picked it up last summer because I was on holiday and needed something hefty to get through while lying in the sun!

    Like

  18. Hmmm… done an online search for Wild Berries by Jewgeni Jewtoesjenko and absolutely nothing comes up. Now I’m intrigued… Perhaps it’s only available in Poland?

    Like

  19. Good old Salley Vickers, how I love those two books. I have Mr Golightly’s Holiday in my reading queue… I tried to read it earlier this year but it just wasn’t “clicking”, so have cast it aside for another go at another time.
    Martial’s Epigrams does, indeed, sound off beat — and a little too highbrow for me.

    Like

  20. I’ve got a review copy of The Hour I First Believed and just couldn’t believe the size of the thing when the postman delivered it!! It does sound like a mighty fine story though.
    Thanks for your other suggestions. For some reason I’ve not been interested enough to read Engleby, probably because I don’t think the author could possibly top the sheer beauty of Birdsong. I read his On Green Dolphin Street (is that what it was called?) and just didn’t like it very much.

    Like

  21. Martial’s Epigrams is a high-sounding name, but the book is about as lowbrow as a book can be and still get published. It’s a wicked, dirty book – I liked it.

    Like

  22. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson really sticks out from this list. I think I also like The Ginger Man. So many good books from this list that I’ll have to check out. What intrigues me the most is that I have never read any of these authors.

    Like

  23. I absolutely agree with your assessments of The Crimson Petal and the White and The Spare Room!
    I have a copy of the first and second Deanna Raybourn and have meaning to get to them for some time. Maybe in 2009?
    And I think I mentioned snagging a cheap copy of The Attack and look forward to it in 2009 too.
    Also, I have decided not write off (pun intended!) Richard Flanagan and have bought his latest Wanting. Everybody deserves a second chance 🙂

    Like

I'd love to know what you think, so please leave a comment below

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s