1. Girl at War by Sara Novic: This is a book written by a Croatian writer about a young girl who loses her family in the Serbo-Croatian War. It exposed me to a part of the world I knew nothing about and with the glaring honesty of a ten-year-old narrator. Ana Juric, the main character, is rescued out of the war zone and adopted by an American family when she is ten. She grows up American, in denial and finally, mid-way into the book, unravels her past even as she comes to terms with it herself. A scene that still haunts me: this tiny little girl, convulsing in pain and vomiting as she has her first dinner with her new American family – she’s never known what it is to have a full stomach. She can’t bear it.
2. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh yes, it took me 27 years to pick this up and I’m not unashamed to admit it. Where do I even begin with this? I don’t know what I was waiting for. Reading The Lord of the Rings sometime in May and and binge-reading up on Tolkien for the rest of the year has sufficed to transform my entire outlook on fantasy fiction — one of my favourite genres at that. I don’t think there is a greater quest in fiction nor a greater character than Sam. But that deserves more than a mention on a list, doesn’t it?
3. What the F*: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen: It’s not often that a non-fiction makes it to my list of favourite anythings (aside: it’s fascinating how favourite is underlined in red for its UK spelling, but ‘anythings’ isn’t.) I’ve annoyed everyone I know and would care to listen to exasperation singing praises of this book, so all I’m going to do is copy the book description from Goodreads. “Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows us, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time.” There’s no scope for being prudish while reading this one.
4. Columbine by Dave Cullen: Another non-fiction… what is happening to me. Now for the record, gun violence is as distant a reality to me as possible and that gives me the luxury of taking this book in a different vein than many other readers would. Takeaways for me, from this critical reporting of the Columbine massacre: compassion fatigue, misrepresentation of facts in the media, the celebration of a school spirit, urban myths and people juicing the tragedy for personal propaganda. The biggest trigger for me, as a school teacher, was just how much “in charge” a teacher is of her students’ safety. Foremost, I think we, as a thinking and feeling society, must read this book to see how a small twist of facts can colour an entire story; and how important it is to look for facts in the face of compelling emotion.
5. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: I rarely pick up series, and even when I do, I hardly ever like the first book. Seraphina is a glaring exception to this rule. The beautiful medieval/steampunk story redeems its genre of young adult fantasy. Seraphina is the story of a girl who is part dragon, and her attempts to fit into the class ascribed to her by a society which doesn’t understand or accept her full potential.
6. The Elephant Whisperer by Laurence Anthony: This was my first book of the year, and a memorable read. This is the true story of an Australian-African conservationist and his efforts to to rehabilitate a herd of wild elephant in the Thula Thula nature preserve in South Africa. Laurence Anthony loves elephants, that much is clear from the first chapter; but what becomes increasingly, and amazingly, evident over the course of the book is that these elephants love Laurence Anthony too. What we get is a strange tale of patience, hard work and the careful and precarious bonding between one man and one alpha female elephant, who work together to protect the lives of her precious pachyderm family. It’s unforgettable. You learn about the intricate nature of elephant societies, their unmistakable intelligence, South African jungle laws and most importantly, the power of family.
7. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: It’s becoming increasingly hard to pick favourites in a year that was so rewarding in terms of reading. Yet, I cannot forget this particular book that had the most compelling set of characters of all the books I read this year. It’s the story of a Cameroonian immigrant couple and their struggle to settle down in New York city. It is also about the American family they work for, and how the financial crisis of 2008 shakes their perfectly built world to the core.
8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Let’s be perfectly honest, I did not expect to love this book. It proudly proclaims to be a “YA” book and I have my biases about that. It also takes a line with so much power and cultural connotation as its title, I was certain it would be difficult to live up to the name. I was wrong. The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter, a sixteen year old girl who at the very opening of the book, witnesses a police officer shoot down her best friend Khalil. As the whole nation is taken up in a speculation game, the only person who knows the truth is afraid of getting involved. This is a complicated story of race, identity, violence, friendship, and risking the facade of normalcy to protect and celebrate your roots.
8. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie: Oh, but this book is an epic, a story spanning nations and generations. The surprised outrage of America at the time of 9/11. A young Muslim couple in love facing the Partition of two nations in an old, old Delhi. The bombing of Nagasaki and the far-reaching injuries of this war on the minds and bodies of the people. It’s set in Pakistan, and Japan, and Afghanistan too, and sheds light on war from any and every perspective, every generation and language. The storyteller is intelligent, unbiased, and compassionate and demands the same of her reader.
9. Scarecrow by Matthew Reilly: So, this may seem misplaced in an increasingly more serious list, but I abso-freaking-lutely loved this book. This is the premise: it is the greatest bounty hunt in history. The targets are the finest warriors in the world-commandos, spies, terrorists. And they must all be dead by 12 noon, today. On this list is the name of the US Marine Shane Schofield, who is not only a target but also quite possibly the only man who can stop this bounty hunt, if he doesn’t get killed first. Reading Matthew Reilly’s book is like watching a well made action movie. What Reilly lacks in terms of language or depth of character, he makes up for in speed and a kind of detail that is almost screenwriter-ish but in a good way. I won’t be able to read these books one after the other, but it’s perfect if you’re in the mood for some entertainment.
10. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna: The hardest pick of all that brings the list to a close. The Hired Man is yet another book set in Croatia, and a psychological dissection of war, when it comes unannounced and alters reality as you know it. This book takes you in the mind of a man who has suffered mysterious evils at the hands of an unnamed war, and the lifelong repercussions it has on his psyche. It’s the story of a small town and its culture being silently rewritten by its scant inhabitants to account for the damages that were caused to them, about how the world has somehow moved on to the future while they’re still grappling with a new present. An American woman and her two kids move into a house in small town Croatia. The woman hires a local man to help out with the refurbishing of what she wants to turn into a holiday home, and this man, our narrator, tells us the history of the house. A haunting read. The author hammers into your mind and turns the screw just when you least expect it.
That’s it for now, which were your favourite reads of the year?