Technically I read this book in October, but it was so bad I think my brain must have repressed it and I genuinely forgot to put it in my October round up. I’m not going to waste my time reviewing this at length, so suffice to say that the plot was an incoherent mess, all of the characters were ridiculous and none of their actions made any sense whatsoever. The world building was shallow and the central romance was utterly baffling. Trust no one who tells you this book is worth reading.
And the award for ‘Best Title of an Essay Collection’ goes to Hilary Mantel. It’s no secret that Mantel is a gifted writer of fiction but I thoroughly enjoyed this wide-ranging series of non-fiction essays that cover topics ranging from the French Revolution, the Virgin Mary and (of course) the Tudors. This is one of those books that makes you feel cleverer as you read it and I highly recommend this for any Mantel fans who are looking to enjoy her prose in a slightly more compact format than her Wolf Hall trilogy.
Neil Gaiman is an absolute master at weaving the kind of stories that feel so fantastical and yet so true to life at the same time. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I devoured in a day, is narrated by a man recalling a strange and magical episode from his childhood. As a young boy he had to face down a great evil that had reared its ugly head in his rural community, protected and guided by the formidable Hempstock women who lived in a ramshackle cottage at the end of the lane. The malevolent force brings darkness into the young boy’s life, some of it supernatural and some of it all too recognisable and mundane. This is a story of simple courage in the face of the incomprehensibly frightening and the ways that time and adulthood can so often smooth over the wrinkles of childhood trauma. Neil Gaiman remains one of my favourite authors of all time, this novel blew me away and I’m honestly still feeling quite emotional just thinking about it!
I don’t think I fully understood the term ‘saga’ until I picked up Shogun. This 1100 page behemoth of a novel held me in its grip for three weeks, taking me on a totally immersive whirlwind journey through feudal Japan, as seen through the eyes of John Blackthorne (or Anjin, as he later becomes known). John is an English navigator whose ship has been wrecked on the coast of Japan, becoming the first of his people to set foot in, what appears to him to be, an incredibly insular, rigid and bizarre society that places little value on human life. Starting off as a weak, mistreated prisoner who understands nothing of what is happening around him, Blackthorne gradually learns the language and the customs of the Japanese and eventually attains the status of hatamoto to the great daimyo Lord Toranaga. With his unique talent for naval warfare and knowledge of the world beyond Japan, Blackthorne is destined to have a significant part to play in the war between daimyos for the ultimate prize; becoming shogun, the supreme military dictator. This book was written in the 1970s so some of the story felt a bit dated (particularly the fixation that many female characters seemed to have with the size of Blackthorne’s penis…) but ultimately Shogun is an epic reading experience. If you are content to surrender yourself to its bulk for as long as is necessary, you’re in for a treat.