Over the Christmas break, my reading bag was of a rather mixed variety. Curled up on the couch, inevitably digesting another giant meal like an anaconda who has swallowed an entire pig, the farthest I wanted to go for my supply of reading material was our conveniently placed bookshelf. The pile of unread books that accumulates over the course of a couple of months was my target, resulting in a hodgepodge of mystery and historical fiction; memoir and fantasy. Here are five of my eclectic holiday reads.
The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
A Christmas gift, this book was a magical escape. It revolves around a circus like no other; a kind of eerie, beautiful but dangerous dream-space where real magic is wrapped up in trappings to keep the crowds at ease. Arriving in the dark of night, the circus is unannounced, and when night falls, its monochromatic circles of tents come to life.
We come in to the story following the trajectories of two children, each talented in their own way, who have been pushed into a test of wits by their masters, in a contest that will last their lifetime. The circus is the scene of this challenge, but it quickly becomes more than that to the performers, organisers and particularly the dedicated guests. The characters are simply drawn for the most part, but by far the star of the book is the circus itself: it is a wonderful world of possibility where no individual experience is the same. An easy, enchanting read, the world of The Night Circus is like no other.
The Word Exchange – Alena Graedon
One of the joys of working in a bookshop is the chance to read books before they have been officially published. This is Graedon’s first novel, set to be released in April, and although you can tell it is her first attempt, the scope of the book is impressive. It is set in the near future, in a world where people are becoming increasingly dependent on their Memes (read: iPads) to the point that they have relinquished control over many day-to-day tasks to their electronic devices. Some people are even going one step further and implanting microchips in their brains to better facilitate the transfer of predictive data between mind and machine.
In this dystopic future, language is becoming a commodity as more people are relying on an online ‘Word Exchange’ to give them meanings for unknown words. Alarmingly, the words that are being defined are increasingly commonplace. When a ‘word flu’ strikes, characterised by aphasia among other symptoms, the world is plunged into chaos. Our intrepid protagonist, Anana, works with her father at one of the last bastions of language, the North American Dictionary of the English Language. Doug, with his predilection for pineapples and inability to function in the increasingly modern world, is an odd-bod at the best of times, but when he starts raving about danger and then mysteriously disappears, even Anana starts to get worried. Who can she trust in this impersonal, corporate world to help her get her father back? A worryingly accurate meditation on our dependence on technology, Graedon weaves a modern-day fairy tale around her quirky characters.
The Sittaford Mystery – Agatha Christie
I found this languishing on a shelf in an op-shop and couldn’t resist an Agatha I hadn’t read. I loved her books as a child and was hoping that this would be a Poirot mystery, but was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to have a strong female protagonist called Emily. Her fiancé is accused of the murder of a rich landowner (who happens to be his uncle) and she resolves to get him off, seeing as he is absolutely hopeless himself. She enlists the help of the journalist who was first on the scene and they go about interviewing the residents of the tiny village of Sittaford.
It seems to be an open and shut case: Emily’s fiancé was in need of the money, he came to visit his uncle, Captain Trevelyan, and knocked him on the head when he refused the request. Complicating matters is the fact that the Captain’s best friend, who discovered him in a blinding snowstorm, was tipped off by an afternoon séance that began in good humour but ends with a chilling premonition. Could this be real proof of the supernatural? What’s more, it begins to appear that everyone had reason to want Trevelyan dead… This is Agatha at her best, with a startlingly simple twist at the end and charming characters throughout.
A Million Little Pieces – James Frey
Another second-hand buy, James Frey’s intensely personal account of his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction shook me to the core. At the age of 23, he had already been addicted to alcohol and much harder drugs for over a decade. When he arrives, bruised, bloodied and almost insensible in an airport in Chicago, he allows his parents to drive him to the rehab centre that they have been threatening for years and, remarkably (to himself as much as anyone else), he stays. This is his recollection of his time in the centre as he deals with his addiction, self-hatred and shame; as he struggles with authority and comes to terms with himself.
Told in uncompromising prose, Frey exposes the rawest parts of himself; you sense that this book is another step towards absolution. Although he doesn’t pull a punch, there are some surprisingly funny moments, as well as tender ones, as he forges friendships with his fellow patients. These people are just as damaged as himself, some even more so, but he looks past their rough exteriors to the kernel of humanity that lies within. A true eye-opener to the ravages of addiction and the constant struggle that it requires to overcome one’s inner demons.
Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
I must admit, this is not my type of book. My mother lent it to me along with another few books, but at a daunting 1071 pages, ostensibly about the building of a 12th century cathedral, it was definitely low on the list. One languorous afternoon, after the premature conclusion of the Ashes, I decided to give it a shot. And boy, was I surprised! The next two days were filled with feverish reading, well into the wee hours, and various household jobs got neglected in favour of ‘just a few more pages’. Perhaps it is because I rarely read books like this that it so enthralled me with its slightly predictable “good thing happens/bad thing happens/main characters recover’ structure. But I do think that this book has more to offer than that.
The back cover didn’t lie – it is a book about the construction of a cathedral in the Middle Ages, in the small priory of Kingsbridge. However, although the cathedral looms (figuratively and literally) in the background of the story, it is the microcosm of small-town English life that takes centre stage. Set in a time of political turmoil in Britain, The Anarchy, we follow the prior of Kingsbridge, Phillip, as he becomes consumed by the idea of building a cathedral for his parish with the help Tom Builder and his unusual family. Thwarting their efforts are the powerful Bishop of Kingsbridge and the local Lord, both power-hungry and despicable men. As royal regimes come and go, we see the effects on the powerless people of the country, who are at the whim of their feudal lord’s leadership – be it tyrannical or judicious. Populated with down-to-earth, believable characters, this rollicking tale spans half a century and takes you from the south of England to the south of Spain, in a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.