Feature: My Favourite Reads of the Past Twelve Months

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As it is now December and thus typically time for reflection on the year just past, I thought I would take this opportunity to consider some of the books I have particularly enjoyed reading this year. They are, I should mention, in no particular order.

Another Country by James Baldwin (Penguin Classics, UK £9.99, 426pp)

I read ‘Another Country’ as a part of my English Literature course at university, and is a book I hadn’t heard of beforehand but from reading the blurb alone it appealed to me very much. The novel starts with the dramatic life of Rufus Scott, a black jazz musician of 50’s New York. As a character, Rufus grabs the reader’s attention from the instant he is introduced in the first page. Many questions are put inside the readers head about his history before we are even told of his name. The story travels, it almost takes the reader on an adventure through different perspectives and different places. It is a novel that is hard to summarise without giving away too much of the story’s detail, but it is certainly fair to say that as a novel it takes you places that you are not expecting to go. Each character feels strong and interesting in their own way and it is often difficult to work out what exactly you think of them. It is a novel that concentrates on relationships between people, on love and on behaviour between the characters.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is a book that crosses my mind on a regular basis. It is fundamentally about the assumptions that people make about those they don’t know. Renee is a concierge of a very upmarket set of Parisian flats. To the inhabitants of these flats she is nothing more than your stereotype concierge, and it is something she is eager for them to continue to assume. For really she is a very intelligent woman who fills her days with fine music, fine food, fine philosophy and fine company. Two inhabitants of the flats find Renee very interesting and suspect that there is more to her than her initial appearance. One of the two is a young girl called Paloma, who is highly intelligent and comes from your stereotype upper-class family. Paloma sees more to life than her family do, past material possessions and appearances. ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is a story that filled me with warmth, happiness and comfort the entire way through. The main characters were each so wonderful and inspiring that they make the novel seem almost of a fantasy genre.

Generation A by Douglas Coupland (William Heinemann London, UK hardback £16.99, 297 pp)

I’ve never read a Coupland novel that I have not enjoyed, and of course ‘Generation A’ was no exception to that. The story is set not very far in the future, in a setting not all that notably different to the one we currently live in. Bees however, are extinct. That is until five different people, each from different part of the world, are stung by bees. It is in style not all that different from ‘Generation X’ as the characters all tell one another stories. I feel that there is little I can say without either giving a little too much information away or, worse, not doing the novel justice. It is a very interesting book that will not fail to encourage thought.

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li (Fourth Estate, UK £7.99, 337pp)

This is a novel that deals with issues of Human Rights above all, but it is a story woven together very neatly to include themes of friendship and love, it also seems to deal heavily with the idea of ‘outsiders’ as each main character, in their own manner, would fit into such a category. It revolves around the execution of a young woman who expresses her discontent with China’s 1970’s communist government. This is the first example in the novel of a character breaking away from the norm and gaining status as an ‘outsider’. It is in a way due to her death that others in the novel then gain such status, such as Kai. Kai has a voice that the town as a whole recognises and trusts as she is their news reader, she is married to a man in a position of power and is very much an insider. Or this is how it seems to a point, but as she protests over the death of Gu Shan, the executed girl, she is to the reader revealed as being an outsider. Our other main characters Nini, Bashi and Tong are also outsiders for they too protest over Gu Shan’s death, however it is not just this that makes these characters outsiders. Nini is disfigured in appearance, Bashi lacks respect from the people of his town and Tong is originally from another town altogether. Nini and Bashi act as a cure for one another’s loneliness as outsiders, despite what is quite a large difference in age, whilst Tong has his pet dog for companionship. ‘The Vagrants’ is a compelling story with very well formed characters and a very clever way of linking together. It draws attention to serious issues that were not just a feature of 1970’s China but sadly remain a feature of the country to this day.

The Beginners Guide to Acting English by Shappi Khorsandi (Ebury Press, UK £11.99, 307pp)

Shappi Khorsandi is a stand-up comedian who has appeared on some BBC programmes in the past, and ‘The Beginners Guide to Acting English’ is the story of her childhood. Born in Iran, where her dad was a very popular and well-known writer, they had to flee for her father had written content which went against the countries government. I must admit that I didn’t get into the story immediately, I found that it wasn’t what I had really expected. Saying this, it definitely picked up and I can safely say that overall it was very informative and interesting in a light-hearted, enjoyable manner which is probably somewhat of an achievement as it deals with severe issues such as racism.

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