Do you get time to read fiction these days? In the last few years, I found myself so absorbed in non-fiction, reading mainly about psychology, neuroscience and business, that I couldn’t spare any time for fiction. And that’s knowing that a good book with a cup of good coffee is my all-time recipe for cheering up and boosting energy in any situation. When I realised that listening to audiobooks can be as much pleasure as reading the good old paper book, I opened up a bunch of possibilities for myself. Now I could listen to a book while driving, pushing a buggy or while Adrian played on the playground on his own. And when I could get a book that was narrated by an author as some of the books by Neil Gaiman, it opened up another aspect of the story allowing to see it more from the author’s perspective.
In this blog post, I do a summary of reviews of fiction books that I read in 2017. I didn’t get to read a lot of them, but after the fiction fast that I had, it looks like a good step forward to me, at least a very enjoyable one.
Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane
I expected a light and exciting fantasy book similar to Stardust, but I was surprised to find something completely different. The fantasy plot was just a background immersing me in the world as seen by a seven-year-old boy. I was amazed how Neil Gaiman was able to choose words so carefully and precisely to make me feel like I am a little child trembling from fear in the bed behind the closed door, or feeling the inconsolable grief after the death of the kitten and hating senseless and hard-hearted grown-ups not understanding my feelings. If there are any grown-ups at all. Are there?
“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
And I tend to agree with Neil Gaiman here, as that little child trembling from fear sits in each of us waiting to be comforted and loved.
I would recommend this book as a must-read for every parent. I feel that it teaches more about the way how children interact with the world better than any psychology book. It puts the reader right in the child’s shoes and shows exactly how the adults make children feel unworthy and don’t recognise their needs. If you love audio-books, Neil Gaiman’s narration of the book is as amazing as the book itself.
Elena Ferrante – The Neapolitan Novels
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, not a real name. And that mystery brings up a lot of emotional discussions about the real person behind it and the nature of the books. Some think it’s an autobiography, some even argue that the writer is male, which I find hard to believe having read her books. But everybody agrees that once you start reading her Neapolitan Novels, it’s impossible to break away.
The beginning of the first book disappointed me as it is written in kind of a crude childish manner. The story is set in a poor and run-down neighbourhood of Naples, full of violence. Two friends, the schoolgirls Elena Greko and Lila Cerullo, dream, read books and plan their way out of this little and limited community, they were born into.
The protagonist, Elena Greko, annoyed me all the way to the middle of the first book. She didn’t have any self-esteem, didn’t defend her personal borders, her best friend Lila manipulated her every way possible. But the style of storytelling changed as the heroines grew up and their view of the world developed. The deep voice and the great narration of Hilary Huber, reading the text of English translation of the novel, also dragged me in.
Only much later, when I read about the earthquake in Naples I realised why so many things in this book attracted me and pushed me away the same time. I saw the scenes of the earthquake for real – the crowds of people, the destruction, the overall life put to halt for a long time – I saw it all in Armenia when I was a little child. This whole environment in the book reminded me the small town in Armenia where I spent the first years of my childhood. I was lucky in a way. Having been born to an academic family, I didn’t have to fight for the right to get an education as Elena did. But a lot of the attributes of the environment seemed familiar either from my own memories or from stories told by my parents and relatives.
So the days passed, and I couldn’t get myself away from the audiobooks, listening every moment in the car, every second when my little one was asleep or played on his own on the playground. 4 books, almost 70 hours of audio, I fully immersed in the world of Elena and I realised, why it attracted so many readers. It shows naked feelings, feelings that hurt deeply and keep alive. The heroine has an amazing understanding of those feelings, her own and other people’s. She doubts herself all the time, but at the same time, she is brave enough to write about corruption and crime without having a second thought about the criminals who can recognise themselves in her writing. I am sure, this book could be an excellent subject for a dissertation on shame and vulnerability if Brene Brown got to it. But I am also sure that it’s a book that you couldn’t stay indifferent to. You either love it or hate it.
If you got interested, the book and the audiobook in English are both available on Amazon.
Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project
Normally, I don’t keep reading the book if it doesn’t grab my attention from the first pages. But I got the copy of “The Rosie project” after listening to its authour, Graeme Simsion, talk on the business analysis conference I took part in recently. And I really loved his sense of humour and self-irony in the way he spoke at the conference about the uniqueness of our experiences and the transferable skills we take with us when changing from one career to another.
Graeme had a successful career and his own consultancy business in IT industry before he decided to sell it and study creative writing to do screenplays. The Rosie Project is his first book that immediately became a bestseller. In his talk, he joked that having worked in IT for 25 years and having published 2 books on data science, it was the romantic comedy that brought him to meet Bill Gates.
I started reading the book on my way home after the conference and couldn’t stop smiling. The protagonist, Don Tillman, is a genetics professor with an unusually high IQ and really low EQ. His life is ruled by numbers, lists, order and logic. He is socially awkward, having difficulty reading emotions of other people who get offended by his logical responses and advice not taking the feelings into account.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that his personal life and relationships with women suffer from the lack of emotional response as well. So Don comes up with a brilliant plan – he designs a questionnaire that should reveal the ideal partner of his life, in reality, his own clon but in the body of a woman. As if we didn’t know that it is not a kind of a partnership that works, Don’s life changes when a girl, a complete opposite of the ideal image in his head, storms into his life.
The book is narrated from the first-person view of Don, and probably, that’s why it was so difficult to get emotionally involved with it. But for this same reason, it worked great taking us right into Don’s head, giving us a closer look to his inner world, showing his anguish when reason conflicted with emotions, and step by step revealing moments of his life when he shut himself out from the world. Another story showing in a convincing way the role of the parents in the emotional development of the child and his view of the world as a safe and trustful place.
Did I like the book? I really did, but not in a way to run to get the second book about Don (yes, it exists, it’s The Rosie Effect: Don Tillman 2). If you want to chill out and read a smart love story full of humour, this is a great book to choose. It is available for both reading and listening on Amazon – The Rosie Project: Don Tillman 1.
Syrie James – The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen
After the business analysis conference I was ill for a long time and struggled to get better, so I felt quite depressed. After the Rosie Project, I wanted to read something more emotional, so I thought of this book by Syrie James that I came across in summer. It was when I found the library of English and American classics LibriVox Recordings and decided to listen to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, a book that I loved but have previously read a while ago and in Russian translation. Obviously, listening to it in English had a completely different feel so I enjoyed it immensely. So I found this Syrie James novel when looking for something similar but with an unfamiliar storyline.
The description of the book looked like a fanfiction, so I didn’t expect much, but in the end, it appeared to be a good romantic novel in Jane Austen style. There are 2 storylines in the novel – a contemporary one and a historical one. The novel starts when the protagonist, Samantha, an Americal librarian who dropped of her English Literature PhD in Oxford to take care of her terminally ill mother, returns to England for pleasure and buys an old copy of English poetry collection in a bookshop. In the book, she finds a half-finished letter addressed to Cassandra, and being a Jane Austen scholar recognises her sister’s name and her style. The letter mentions a manuscript that got lost when the sisters were visiting a family friend at Greenbriar in Dorset. Samantha decides to find the mansion mentioned in the letter. The second storyline is the lost novel by Jane Austen, that is written quite close to the writer’s style.
The plot is a bit predictable, and of course, it’s not Jane Austen. But we know that already, don’t we? So why expect the opposite. I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it to all Jane Austen fans who would love to read something in a similar style. So here is the link, if you decide to give it a try as a feel-good Christmas read – The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James.
Ann Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell-Hall
This is another book that I decided to try from the Librivox Library. I always loved the books by Bronte sisters, and the Wuthering Heights was my favourite book for a long time. But it appeared that I never read anything by the third sister – Ann Bronte. To be honest, the book left a bit of a depressive impression despite the so-called happy ending. I felt sorry for the heroine for the circumstances she got herself into, but I wasn’t able to relate to the decisions she made. It just didn’t feel right, especially knowing that in my teenage years I could read this kind of books one after another, regarding the heroines throwing themselves into wittingly flawed relationships as romantic, which definitely didn’t teach me much about what the normal equal partnership looks like. Female self-sacrifice in the name of the husband and the toxic marriage quite often is regarded as the highest virtue in the classic literature. And though Helene is a strong character finding strength in her faith and her behaviour can be considered daring for her times, I just couldn’t help getting annoyed.
Neil Gaiman – Smoke and Mirrors
Here is Neil Gaiman again, now with a collection of short stories from different periods of his life. They are in different genres, but all of them have that mix of absurdity and flight of fantasy, that allows pointing these stories to Gaiman’s hand with no mistake. Some of the stories had too much bloodshed for my taste, some I liked a lot, and some were truly memorable. In the preface to the audiobook, narrated by the author, Gaiman tells about getting the ideas for some of the stories, and one of the best stories from the collection is actually hidden in the preface. It’s a story about wedding gift reminding the Portrait of Dorian Gray. I really enjoyed reading about the old lady who found the Holy Grail in a charity shop and met Lancelot, the Angel of God’s Vengeance who told the story about times when the God and his angels designed the Universe, a new darker version of Snow White’s story and the story of a young man caught in the appeal of bargaining.
And here is the shortest and one of the most impressive stories from the collection. Gaiman actually wrote it to put on the Christmas cards to his friends. Merry Christmas and enjoy the story!
older than sin, and his beard could grow no whiter. He wanted to die.
The dwarfish natives of the Arctic caverns did not speak his language, but conversed in their own, twittering tongue, conducted incomprehensible rituals, when they were not actually working in the factories.
Once every year they forced him, sobbing and protesting, into Endless Night. During the journey he would stand near every child in the world, leave one of the dwarves’ invisible gifts by its bedside. The children slept, frozen into time.
He envied Prometheus and Loki, Sisyphus and Judas. His punishment was harsher.
Would love to hear about your 2017 fiction favourites. What would you recommend? Did you read any of the books on my list? What are your thoughts on them,
P.S. All links to Amazon on this post are affiliate links which means that I will be getting a small percentage from each referral sale at no extra cost to you.