As a another year draws to a close we reflect on what has passed. At this time of year, we see a plethora of lists that seek to capture the past 12 months under some topic or another.
So here is my contribution. My best reads for 2016.
I am an avid reader and try to read as many books as I can. The ones I list below were the more memorable for one reason or another. I would recommend or gift them to friends, so I recommend them to you.
My tastes are quite eclectic; fiction, history, murder mysteries, real life crimes, cooking, politics, business etc. So I am sure there is something here for everyone. These are not necessarily recently released books, some are quite dated but I came to them recently.
They are in no particular order.
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (2011 – 2015)
These four novels were first released in 2011, with the final book released in 2015. The story is set (primarily) in Naples hence the name of the series.
The series kept me coming back for more. The four books “My Brilliant Friend”, “The Story of a New Name”,“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and “Story of the Lost Child” (in that order) trace the lives of two women, Elena Greco and Lilla Cerullo. The story starts in the 1950s when the girls are in school and concludes in contemporary times.
The story is told through the eyes of Greco but the main protagonist is Cerullo. Her life is no ordinary one as she experiences some exhilarating highs and quite depressing lows. But her determination and drive is unending and for most of her life she is admired by Greco.
I found the ending an anti-climax, certainly no Hollywood finish here. But on reflection, the trajectory of their probably lent itself to this type of conclusion.
There are many twists that will keep you guessing and enthralled. The writing is exquisite and represents literature at its finest even though it has been translated from Italian.
The author is anonymous. Even though the series has been highly acclaimed and there is a rumour that the rights have been bought for a 36 part television series, the author has clung to anonymity.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (2016)
I found the premise of this book quite intriguing. Ellie Shipley, an art student, trying to make ends meet, discovers she has a gift for restoring paintings. One day she is presented with a painting by 17th Century artist, Sara de Vos, to copy. The reason for the copying is plausible but she suspects some underhanded dealings.
The painting to be copied (by Sara de Vos) captures Shipley’s imagination and she accepts the commission.
Fast forward 40 years, the student is now a respected lecturer attached to the Art Gallery of NSW. The gallery is about to exhibit works of female Dutch artists from the 1600s and two identical De Vos paintings arrive for the exhibition. One from a private collection and the other from a museum. Shipley as the resident expert is asked to identify the forgery, her forgery. Will she expose herself in the process?
A masterfully written work, that unfolds on many layers as the author takes us to the 1600s, the 1950s and contemporary times. A real page turner.
Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman by John Tesarsch (2015)
This is the second novel by this author.
The character who appears in the title dies in the first chapter but the mystery and intrigue he leaves behind is what captures our attention. The book follows the lives of his children. His daughter Eleanor discovers a will in which her father, Henry leaves his estate to a mystery woman. Without telling her siblings, Eleanor sets out to find this woman and her search unlocks many hidden stories in her father’s life.
Tesarsch is a gifted musician who was separated from his art at a young age when he developed a serious allergy to the resin used in making violins. However, this work more so than his debut novel demonstrates his close relationship with the world of music. No other writer I have read can describe this world with such lucidity. Take this passage for instance:
“The concerto had a special resonance for her because it was the first she’d ever performed. It had such intimacy and grace, such reverie and quiet perfection, that the great Franz Liszt declared it was the incarnation of Orpheus taming the beasts with his lyre. It was astounding that Beethoven wrote it in those tumultuous years when he was going deaf and penned the Heilgnstadt Testament, and such mighty and heroic works of the Fifth Symphony and his opera, Fidelio. What about those expquisite opening chords? G major, then suddenly B major, as if Beethoven had decided once and for all to shatter all classical convention.”
Hilary Mantel’s Henry VIII series (2009 – )
I happened upon this by chance. As I sometimes do, I began with the second book first. Then I was thrilled to learn that there was an earlier book that had in fact, been highly acclaimed and decorated, even receiving the 2009 Man Booker prize.
Of course, I am referring to Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). The third book in the trilogy The Mirror and the Light is yet to be published.
Mantel’s writing is exquisite and the reader is spoiled with a rich taste of 16th Century England caught in the throes of turmoil as its King tilts at the Church and tradition to get his way. Mantel has stayed true to the history and even though she has taken some liberties in the narrative she has not contradicted the historical account.
At the beginning of Wolf Hall, Catherine and Henry have been married 20 years but have not conceived a son and heir. Henry’s attention is distracted by Anne Boleyn but the Church will not sanction his divorce.
The book traces the rise of Thomas Cromwell and the fall of Thomas More.
In Bring up the Bodies, Anne has ascended to the throne. The book ends with her execution.
For those who enjoy West Wing or House of Cards or Netflix’s The Crown or any work that reveals the machinations behind the political scene, you will find this series absorbing. A very enjoyable read. Can’t wait for the third book.
From Poland to Everywhere in the World by Lucyna Artymiuk (2016)
I refer you my blog earlier this month on this work. Artymiuk’s debut work is memorable and captures a significant period in modern history through the eyes of her father.
Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben (2016)
Unlike my wife, I don’t read many murder mysteries/thrillers. But I found myself on a long haul flight from Hawaii to Australia and I couldn’t get to sleep and this book was staring at me.
A husband and wife are walking through a park when the husband is shot dead. The investigation is wide ranging. The wife has some skeletons in her cupboard but these are overshadowed by those hidden by her husband and his family.
This is an enthralling read. Coben presents a tight plot and keeps you guessing until the last chapter. It also has a female heroine which he develops throughout the story.
A real page turner.
Bereft by Chris Womersley (2011)
Womersley is a hidden Australian gem. This is a beautifully written novel set in outback NSW just after the conclusion of WWI.
A young man returns from the battlefields to his long abandoned home. A home he fled when he was accused of an unspeakable crime. What really happened all those years ago?
This is a book I almost read in one sitting, such was its grip on my imagination. Great read over the holidays and may Womersley write many more like it.
Cooked by Michael Pollan (2013)
I never thought I would get excited over a book about food and cooking. However, Pollan has a way of entrancing the reader with tales old and new.
The book is about the transformation (cooking) of raw materials into edible food using the four natural processes of fire, earth, air and water. At the same time Pollan takes us back to the origin of cooking and. its profound effect on our evolution and development. He also laments the decline of cooking with the new industrialised age of processed, precooked meals and fast food.
You will not view the humble meal the same way after reading this book. It is no wonder that in 2014 Pollan, Time Magazine nominated Pollan as one of the 100 most influential people of our time.
House of Grief by Helen Garner (2015)
Helen Garner is a pre-eminent journalist and writer. In this work she chronicles a crime that occupied our news services for many weeks in 2005 and 2007. The story of a father Farquharson, dumped by his wife and down on his luck, who on Fathers Day 2005 drives his car into a local dam killing his three sons. He said he had a coughing fit and lost control of the vehicle.
Garner follows this drama from the very beginning and walks us through the first trial, the appeal the second trial and subsequent appeals. It is a tale that explores the bond between father and sons, the cuckolding of a husband, betrayal of friends, etc. In some chapters it resembles a Shakespearean tragedy.
Underscoring the story are Garner’s insights and incisive commentary.
Well written and worth reading.
Keating by Kerrie O’Brien (2015)
One negative review. I was looking forward to this biography but was disappointed with the final product. It is not truly a biography as the book is structured as a transcript of interviews between O’Brien and Keating.
Without doubt Keating was a dynamic leader and complex figure in Australian politics and the book needed some cutting commentary but this was lacking, replaced with Keating’s self serving comments.
O’Brien does present alternative views but as often happened in Keating’s public life, Keating’s views tend to dominate. Not enough of O’Brien in this work.
Start with Why by Simon Sinek (2011)
Finally a book for the business person or budding entrepreneur. I found this book full of good ideas and thought provoking commentary.
The premise of Sinek’s book is that people will not necessarily “buy” how or what you do but they will come onboard once you explain or demonstrate “why” you do what you do.
It had me questioning my views on business and the way I have organised my work and marketing and client relation.
Please see my blogs based on the book “Secrets of Success”, “Businessman turns Peacemaker” and “Who is your Competition?”
Happy reading in 2017!