As you may have read, I love reading. It’s my favourite thing to do. I have a lot of sympathy with this woman
Every now and then I come across a book which I absolutely love. I lose myself completely in it and, when I’ve finished, buttonhole the next person I meet to bend their ear about this great new book I’ve read. I get quite evangelical about it.
So here is my first post. I meant to pick five random books from my top fifty, but ended up wanging on so long about my favourite I ran out of time. So here are two books that I think are brilliant and have met the following criterion in order to qualify as being able to ‘shake it all about’ reading wise.
Rules for Getting Onto my Best Book List
- I’ve got to have a strong connection with the central character/s. I don’t have to like them, sometimes I hate them, but they must have a compelling presence and be so well drawn I think of them as real people.
- They should either be funny, so I laugh out loud; or if they are thrillers I want my heart to be in my mouth as I read faster and faster, turning the pages so quickly I almost rip them. Description so beautiful I find myself going back and reading it again and again will also help the book qualify for my list.
- I forget I’m reading when I read. The story/character/plot/description is so powerful I don’t see the words any more.
- I slow down when I realise I’m getting close to the end as I don’t want to run out of book too soon. It’s not getting on the list if this didn’t happen.
- When I finish I immediately look up everything else the author has written and buy another of their books.
All the books I recommend have ticked the boxes above. I swear I have enjoyed and read them – probably more than once – before putting them on my list. For each book I recommend I have added an Amazon link so you can buy it. FULL DISCLOSURE I get a tiny commission if you buy your book through that link. You know, bitch gotta pay rent etc. But of course you are not obliged to go that way – I really just want you to discover and hopefully enjoy some wonderful, mind blowing books.
1. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
Oh My God I don’t even know where to start with this book. If anyone asks me what my favourite book is (a really difficult choice for any English Teacher) this is usually my answer.
Just look at the first line: ‘Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.’
How about this dedication?
‘To my mother and father, who in different places and in different ways fought against the fascists and the Nazis, lost many of their closest friends, and were never thanked.’
First of all, the language is absolutely beautiful. It is full of Gods and Goddesses, and descriptions of the effulgent light and jewel like colours of Greece.
‘It is a light that seems unmediated either by the air of by the stratosphere. It is completely virgin, it produces overwhelming clarity of focus, it has heroic strength and brilliance. It exposes colours in their original pre-lapsarian state, as though straight from the imagination of God in His youngest days, when He still believed that all was good.’
Shortly after writing this section, Dr Iannis – who prides himself on being a wordsmith – goes outside and pees on the herbs, much to the annoyance of his daughter.
de Bernières is an absolute master at creating a world full of sights, sounds, and the very texture of life: from shocking statistics of war, to girls dreaming of love – in a lavatory. The novel has lines of such poetry you’ll read them again and again, At other times the prosaic details will push you into shocked laughter: Captain Corelli’s haemorrhoids; The corpulent priest who pisses into wine bottles; An outraged lover, now elderly, smashing her man with a frying pan.
The action is centred on Cephellonia, an island in Greece. It opens just before the outbreak of the second World War and ends in the early 1990’s. It’s made up of a number of different narrators ranging from a bonkers Mussolini, to a Greek Doctor who loves long words, to a young girl who falls in love, twice. And that’s just a few of them. These voices entwine into the most beautiful tapestry. Each of them adding their thread to the story of the Italian and Greek occupation of Cephellonia.
You hear the stories of Greek, Italian and German soldiers as well as the men who led them: Mussolini, Metaxas, and Churchill. Dr Iannis writes ‘History ought to consist of the anecdotes of little people’ and that’s what de Bernières does here. It’s a multiplicity of voices offering different perspectives of events. (The English teacher in me would call it Post-Modern, not only in terms of the plurality of voices but in it’s use of humour – Modernism is very earnest and serious, Corelli contains joyful absurdity which for me places it firmly in the ‘Post-Modern’ category.) de Bernières draws upon the thoughts of everyone involved, old women who’ve seen it all before, priests, a strong man, a mad woman who see magic and miracles, and characters like Alekos, an ancient goat herder who watches from the mountains and cannot distinguish between celebratory fireworks and the Nazi bombs.
And oh, the music! Throughout, the writer describes the music that’s played with such passion and colour you immediately want to download the tracks. In fact I still listen to the soundtrack which you can buy here. Please click this link even if just to see what I mean – otherwise you might end up buying the movie (shudder) soundtrack instead – this album just contains all the mandolin and guitar pieces mentioned by de Bernières.
Actually, it’s a brilliant album on its own – the first track is lovely (Mandolin Concerto in C Major by Vivaldi) and I always put it on when I’ve got a pile of marking to do. I’ve just put it on now to have a listen as writing this has reminded me of how brilliant it is. Rob is moaning because he absolutely loathes it – but he hates all classical music.
The book is funny. I mean, properly funny – not just oh ha ha that is funny but proper giggles funny: The author’s improbable turn of phrase; the insane monologing of Mussolini as he rants about being filmed from below so his chin looks good, or shooting cats who have pooped in his hat; descriptions of the hero trying to hide his affliction of piles from his lady love. The book is stuffed to bursting with ridiculous events, hilarious dialogue and visual feasts of absurdity. For example, to hide the embarrassment of having to crap all together in the open lavatories, Corelli organises his battalion into an opera company, (they call themselves La Scala) and we see them singing The Anvil Chorus at the top of their voices in order to hide any unsavoury pooping noises, perched on the lavatories in the sunshine together.
And – yes I know, I know this is such a cliché – it will make you cry. If anyone has read this book they will know what moment I am talking about which made me sob like a child. Embarrassing, as I was on the fast train to London at the time. I have used the book as an A level coursework text a number of times and the response from the pupils is always very moving. They ALL cry, EVERY time at THAT bit. Even the boys, in fact, especially the boys but they do it more discreetly.
DON’T watch the movie – it’s an abomination of the book. de Bernières described seeing the film of his novel for the first times as being like ‘being given your first born with his ears pinned on backwards.’
Ultimately, the story is that of Pelagia, the Doctor’s daughter, who falls in love, first with a Greek fisherman who goes away to war and returns a monster; then with an Italian soldier who comes to occupy her island and woos her with his Mandolin. The romance is lovely, but isn’t the main focus of the story, which is really History. Pelagia’s strength, courage, and compassion are shown as she struggles to train and be accepted as a Doctor. It’s a compelling narrative, and you will remember her for years.
There are goats, pine martens, snails, more goats, frying pans and a motorbike. The descriptions of war and the brutality of the Nazis are horrendous and sickening and everyone should read this book to remember why we should NEVER allow war like this again.
But it is also so human. War brings out the best and worst in people and de Bernières shows us brutality and cruelty and grotesque idiocy; but he also show us courage, and tenacity, and hope, beauty and love. The ending is ultimately positive and I will never forget the final image of three beautiful young Greek girls on a motorbike, dressed in white: One is looking forward to the future, one is reading, and one is looking back. A divine trilogy.
If you haven’t read it I hope this nudges you to have a look. The biggest complaints I hear is it’s difficult to get into.
Yes, the first three chapters or so are a bit challenging with different narratives from different people. The Mussolini monologue is particularly bananas. But stick with it! Trust me. It’s so worth it.
And here’s a link to buy it! (NB I get a tiny commission if you do – see top of post)
I hope you love it as much as I did. Have you read it already? Let me know in the comments what you thought of it. Do you agree it ticks my requirements to get into my list?
If you do read it, or have read it, have a look at this lovely interview with de Bernières about the novel.
I was hoping to recommend five novels in this first post but I’ve got completely carried away remembering how amazing Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was. Sorry about that.
Next time it will be five, I promise.
Dog is doing that really annoying thing where she stands outside the house barking to be let in but when I open the door she just looks at me with her head on one side and barks again. BUT REFUSES TO COME IN!
It’s driving me nuts and it doesn’t help that the fusillade of barks (which is bad enough) is periodically interrupted by Rob yelling, ‘Shut up, you stupid Dog!’
I’ve just tried letting her in again but no go. I suspect she wants one of us to come out and play. We took the cone off her head today, and it’s driven her a bit crazy.
So I wanted to recommend a book which was completely different to Captain Corelli, but still ticks all my boxes. Here is is!
2. The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
This was the first book I read by the incredible Liane Moriarty. I was scrolling through my recommendations on Amazon (I buy A LOT of books through Amazon) and saw this was recommended by Sophie Hannah, a writer who is the absolute Queen of Thrillers the publication of whose books I anticipate like a child watching doughnuts being made. I will be recommending a number (all) of her books at some point.
So, Liane Moriarty, here is the proof she ticks my point 5 of my checklist: ‘When I finish I immediately look up everything else the author has written and buy another of their books.’
This is what you will see if you type ‘Moriarty’ into my kindle library on my phone:
This is pretty much everything she’s written, and none of them has disappointed. (I just double checked, and these are all the books she has written – write some more, Liane!)
As The Husband’s Secret was the first one I discovered I feel I should review that. The premise is a good one, an ‘ordinary’ wife, Cecelia Fitzpatrick, with kids and family, discovers a box (Pandora, much?) containing a letter, written by her husband which is to be opened ‘only in the event of my death’. After a a good while struggling with her conscience (Ha! I would have opened it immediately) Cecelia reads it and discovers her husband has done something terrible, really terrible, thirty years ago.
Two other women, Tess and Rachel are also suffering from secrets their partners have kept, and the incident of thirty years ago link all these women with devastating consequences. Honestly, there were times when I was so gripped by this damn book I had to put it down just to take a breath. It’s so hard, you can tell you are close to the end and you don’t want it to finish, but then again you want to know WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED, so you keep reading. It also contains one of my favourite ever lines about parenting.
‘She was a far better mother when she had an audience’
Moriarty is very, very clever. She has this technique of hinting at bad things that have happened using a flash back/flash forward technique – never does she do this more brilliantly than in Three Wishes. In this, something horrible happens at a party and I remember feeling sick, ripping through the pages (metaphorically, it was on a Kindle) to find out what the hell happened and whether the character was OK – she does something similar here in The Husband’s Secret.
So what’s so great about Moriarty? Well, she’s funny. Her characters are recognisable as real people and you connect with them immediately. Especially if you are not some teenager all starry eyed about love, marriage and children. Ha! That’s me then! Her women are warriors, they’ve seen life. They are ‘ordinary’ women placed in extra ordinary circumstances. Seeing how they (and you identify with them so strongly it becomes ‘I wonder how I would cope with this?) cope with what’s been chucked at them is absorbing.
Moriarty is particularly good at dialogue. It’s very fresh and immediate and often very funny. I find myself snorting out loud when I read her books. I like the warmth and affection she shows between long term marrieds and friendships of women.
She also had the ability to write absolutely cracking plots, full of twist and turns. Look at the premise of What Alice Forgot: Alice knocks herself out at the gym and wakes up thinking she is 29, crazy in love with her husband and pregnant with her first child. Imagine how she feels when she discovers she is, in fact, 39 with three kids and on the brink of divorce.
That was a GREAT book.
Anyway, back to The Husband’s Secret. Like in her other books, Moriarty creates all these different threads which connect up and tangle together and then at the end ties them all up beautifully. I find them really satisfying to read. The ending of The Husband’s Secret is particularly satisfying. I’ve never read an ending like it and I would love to talk to someone about it as I’ve never found anyone who’s read it! So frustrating! You’ll know what I mean when you read it. It makes you cry but is also satisfying. I don’t know how she does it.
I can’t wait for her to write some more. Here’s the link if you want a read.
Let me know what you think! Have you read these? Did you like them? Did you like this post? (needy!)
Happy reading, Warriors!