Thursday, November 29, 2007

My favourite reads of 2007

My aim with this blog is to talk about great stories: telling them, reading them, watching them ... and hopefully start some interesting discussions about the nature of language and the power of narrative.

First up, given the time of year, I thought I would re-cap some of my favourite reads for the year.

Favourite reads of 2007

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
This is one of the most original novels I have read in a long time, and has one of the strongest narrative voices - especially in a debut novel. A teenage girl is sent to England to live with her cousins during a future war that leaves England occupied and its inhabitants at the mercy of (unidentified) foreign soldiers. The story is not so much about the war, but about the relationships the girl forms with her cousins, and how those bonds change her life forever. I couldn't get this story out of my head for weeks.

Reading this novel, lead me to read Rosoff's follow up books Just In Case and this year's new release What I Was, both of which are engaging, with fascinating narrators. Both again deal with issues of teen angst in ways that are definitely left of centre. These books are categorised as young adult, and are evidence of why that market is attacting so much critical attention these days.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Here's another classic example of a novel classed as being for young adults, but which has far more impact for older readers. (I have a good friend who is a school librarian - she gives me the best tips on quality young adult fiction to read!) This is the story of a young boy who is the son of an important German officer during the Second World War. Young Bruno is unhappy when the family is sent to "Out-With", where they live next to a strange village where people wander about aimlessly in striped pajamas. Bored and lonely, Bruno eventually befriends a boy who lives on the other side of the fence, starting a friendship that will have tragic repercussions.

The uniqueness of this book is that the horror of Auschwitz is told through the naive eyes of nine-year-old Bruno, who has no idea what he is really seeing or experiencing. Of course, adult readers know exactly what's going on, even though Bruno doesn't, which adds incredible tension to the story. This one left me a sobbing wreck.

The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle
Set on a horse ranch in Desert Valley, Colorado, this is a beautifully written coming-of-age story about love, longing and loneliness. It is meticulously crafted and atmospheric. The characters are complex and richly written, and the messages it contains about relationships and responsibility are powerful. Kyle writes with honesty and without melodrama or sentimentality, making the emotional journey of protagonist Alice all the more rewarding for readers. Definitely not a young adult novel!

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Piccoult (and Tenth Circle)
There's a reason Jodi Piccoult sells so many books: she's a cracking good read. For popular fiction, her works have an impressive emphasis on the workings of the human psyche. This was my first experience with Picoult, and I was mesmerised by the story and the tragedies played out on the page. Nineteen Minutes looks at the aftermath of a fictional high school massacre in a close-knit American community, where the shooter survives. It is dissected from all sides - the victims, the shooter, and their families.

I enjoyed Piccoult's style so much I then read The Tenth Circle which I also really enjoyed, followed by her very first novel Songs of the Humpback Whale (not my favourite). There are definitely common themes in her books involving the dynamic of family relationships. I'm interested to read more of her work, but perhaps not one after the other, as I did here.

Templar Legacy by Steve Berry
Here we have the thinking person's Da Vinci Code - better written, better dialogue and more action. The theology is a tad dodgy, but it's a page-turner with great action sequences and a hero who has believable flaws.

Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen
A whimsical tale about an elderly man abandoned by his family in a nursing home. When a Big Top is set up near the home, he begins to reminisce about his younger days travelling with a circus. Although there are a couple of startling moments, this is essentially a gentle tale, with a lovely ending.

Does my head look big in this?; Ten things I hate about me by Randa Abdel-Fattah
I only discovered Randa this year and instantly loved her style. First I read the new release, Ten things I hate about me, and then read her earlier novel. Both books (again, young adult) look at Australia through the eyes of a teenager from a Muslim background, and her struggles to "fit in". Her narrative characters are engaging, funny and thoroughly enjoyable. Interestingly, the hang-ups, fears and stresses of these girls are not that much different from any other Aussie teenage girl, and the message these books offer about self acceptance cross all cultural boundaries.

And of course ... Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by JK Rowling
So much has been written about this book it seems pointless to say too much ... except that I loved it (apart from too much running and hiding in the middle of the book) and that JK Rowling proved herself a master storyteller, tying up a myriad of story arcs.

Non fiction
I found some particularly excellent books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (those of you who know me, know this is a pet topic of mine and which I've written a play about).

- Three Wishes: Israeli and Palestinian Children Speak Out by Deborah Ellis
This is a heartbreaking series of alternating interviews of Israeli and Palestinian children, who talk about how the conflict has affected their lives, in their own words. This should be required reading for everyone involved in the peace process, on all sides.

- Palestinte: Peace not Aparteid by Jimmy Carter
A fascinating look at the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian situation from someone who has been actively involved in the process, first as US President, and then as the head of an organisation helping to run democratic elections in the Middle East. A refreshing perspective from a well-known American, who is frank, open, and even-handed in his treatment. It is written in simple language and is a great primer for people wanting to understand the background of the situation, and where it's at now.

For the record: favourite book at the moment
I can't write about books without mentioning Markus Zusak, because The Book Thief continues to be my favourite novel, even though I read it more than a year ago. An incredibly moving and beautifully written story, I recommend this to anyone who wants to understand just how powerful literature can, and what differentiates literature from popular fiction and films.

It's the story of an orphaned German girl sent to live with relatives during the Second World War. Her life is further changed when the family decides to hide a young Jewish boxer in their basement, and the pair strike up a rare friendship.

What sets this apart from other novels tackling this topic - or any other for that matter - is that the story is narrated by Death.

OK, this is probably way too long for a blog, so I'll finish up now!