So far, so good

The best books I've read so far this year

Issue #1, Saturday, 24 July 2021

On a recent episode of our podcast, my co-host Perry and I set out what we each thought were the best five books we’d read so far this year. Interestingly enough, though I’m a big fan of both the science fiction and crime genres, none of the five books I nominated were in those genres.

So here’s my list of the books I enjoyed most in the first half of 2021, and why I chose them:

Book covers of the five books discussed following.

Clarissa Harlowe by Samuel Richardson

I admit that an almost million-word novel written in the mid 1700s and composed entirely of letters might not appeal to every reader. Let me tell you why you might like it.

Literature helps us to understand that there are universal constants in human nature and relationships. That’s certainly true here. Naive young Clarissa Harlowe, in attempting to ameliorate a bitter dispute between her family and a rich young man, Robert Lovelace, carries on a secret correspondence with him. Lovelace, an arrogant rake who treats women as his playthings, hates the Harlowe family and is both drawn to Clarissa for her innocence and beauty and because he wishes to enact a revenge on the Harlowes for what he conceives as slights to his honour.

Clarissa’s family misconceive her interest in Lovelace (as he does himself) and try to marry her off to someone else, driving her to despair. Clarissa finds herself forced to turn to Lovelace, who tricks her into running away with him. His sense of entitlement, his continual gaslighting of her and many other deceits and tricks are sadly still all too familiar today.

Though Clarissa is such a long book, it’s an easy and indeed a gripping read, and is considered one of the greatest works of English literature.

You can get a free, beautifully formatted, ebook edition (which I produced) here at Standard Ebooks.

The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John

On the surface, if you heard about a novel based around a group of women working in the Ladies' Frocks Department of a big store in Sydney during the 1950s and were told that nothing much very dramatic happens to any of them, you'd probably think "that's not my kind of thing" and give it a miss.

That would be a great pity, because this is a wonderful read, full of a whimsical understanding of human nature. The writer has a real ability to create interest in the characters and lives of ordinary people, with a gentle humour behind it all. Just a delightful book by an Australian author who I hadn't encountered before.

The Women in Black was first published in 1993, but has recently been turned into a film by Bruce Beresford. I haven't yet seen the film, but I'd certainly like to, and I’d also like to track down some of her other novels.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

On a superficial look, this book would seem to be a classic horror tale set in a haunted house. But it’s not that at all.

Quick summary. Dr John Montague is a paranormal researcher. Hearing about strange happenings at a place called Hill House, he decides to rent it and live there for a few months in order to study these events. Eleanor, an unmarried woman in her thirties, is one of a small group of volunteers who join him. She is the first to arrive at the house, and she is certainly the key to the book.

So, yes, there is a creepy old house, which has had tragedies happen within it. Yes, there are spooky areas in the house like the freezing cold area at the entrance to the nursery. Yes, the old couple who act as custodian and cook seem very odd and very creepy. Yes, long ago a young woman hanged herself in the library tower. And yes, while the group are staying at the house, some mildly scary things happen.

None of these things make it a horror story. I think it’s pretty clearly a tragic love story, and Eleanor is one of the lovers. The other lover is the house itself.

I liked this so much that I went out and bought the Library of America edition of Jackson’s collected works.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is a semi-autobiographical novel by the Japanese writer Murakami, based very loosely on his years at college in Tokyo in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It’s written in the first person from the point of view of Toru Watanabe. Decades after the main events in the story, he’s on board a plane taxiing to the terminal when background music plays. It’s the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood” and Watanabe bursts into tears. The song has plunged him back into painful memories of his student years, and in particular his relationship with a girl, Naoko.

Naoko was the girlfriend of Watanabe’s best friend, Kizuki. But Kizuki killed himself, badly affecting Naoko’s mental stability. She and Watanabe are drawn closely together after Kizui’s death, becoming very close friends and going on long walks together. But she begins to suffer from mental illness and to struggle with life. Watanabe’s relationship with her is thus in a state of suspense throughout his college years.

This is a very good book, with really interesting characters and relationships, with a fair bit to say about mental illness, attitudes to sex and Japanese society. I liked it a lot.

You can buy a copy here (or check out if your local library has it).

Lavengro / The Romany Rye by George Borrow

Although these are two books, one published six years after the first, it seems sensible to consider them as one thing. Together, they make up a heavily fictionalised account of the early years of George Borrow.

The full title of the first book is Lavengro; the Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest, which was published in 1851. The subsequent book, The Romany Rye, was published in 1857.

Borrow, born in 1803, tells of his upbringing as the son of an army recruiting officer, moving with the regiment to different locations in Britain. In Ireland, when he's about 12 years old, he hears a strange new language spoken by the natives, which he is keen to learn. This leads to an enduring passion to acquire new tongues.

A couple of years later, he comes across a camp of gypsies and meets Jasper Petulengro, who becomes a life-long friend. Borrow is delighted to discover that the Romany have their own language, which of course he immediately sets out to learn.

Borrow's subsequent life, up to his mid-twenties, is that of a wanderer, traveling from place to place in Britain, encountering many interesting individuals and having a variety of highly entertaining adventures. Well worth a read.

You can get a free ebook edition, combining the two works into one volume, at Standard Ebooks.

Currently Reading:

Bookish News:

I was excited to see that Claire North’s new novel, Notes from the Burning Age, is about to be released, and has garnered excellent reviews so far. I’m a big fan of her writing, which includes such brilliant work as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, The Sudden Appearance of Hope, and Touch. There are still a number of her books I’ve yet to read.

I’ve already ordered a copy of Notes from the Burning Age from Readings Bookshop. Along with a copy of this book, also recently released: The Letters of Shirley Jackson. Given my recently acquired enthusiasm for Jackson’s writing, this was a must-buy.

That’s all for this first issue of Through the Biblioscope. I hope you enjoyed it. If you liked it, please subscribe, or if you’ve already subscribed, please tell your friends.

— David

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