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I decided to join in the Top Ten Tuesday blog feature because 1) I need more blogging in my life again, 2) I love lists, and 3) my friend Hannah has been doing it for a while and it looked like a lot of fun! There's a new Top Ten topic at The Broke and the Bookish every week – except this week, the topic was free! As I was so dreadfully lazy reviewing all the great books I read last year, my topic this week will be...
Top Ten Books I Read in 2015
1. The Unknown Soldier (Finnish title Tuntematon sotilas) by Väinö Linna
Look look look, there's a Finnish novel in my blog post! See, I do read literature from my home country about once in a decade! Alright, the point is – I very rarely enjoy Finnish literary classics and non-classics even less, but reading a book such as The Unknown Soldier and writing about it on my blog makes me a very happy Finn. This is one of the few re-reads I included on this list. The Unknown Soldier is considered such a prime example of how the presentation of soldiers and war evolved in the Finnish literary landscape as well as a truthful description of the conditions in the Continuation War, that it is a compulsory read for every single Finnish secondary school student. Back in my school days, it completely surprised me by being the only "Finnish classic must-read" that I enjoyed. Now I'm glad I read it again, because the novel certainly is weighty and thought-provoking enough to endure a re-visit. The plot, essentially, is the Continuation War (1941-1944) between Finland and the Soviet Union from an ordinary soldier's point of view. Instead of one central character, the narrative follows a machine gun company that quite brilliantly works as a microcosm of the entire country, in terms of regional variety as well as political views. These men scorn their self-important superior officers, have absolutely no idea of the wider perspective or even the overall purpose of the war they are made to fight, grow bitter and fed up with the meagre food rations and generally present the Finnish soldier as the opposite of a shiny, national-minded hero. Critics disliked this approach when the book was published (1954), but nowadays the general opinion is that Väinö Linna achieved the most realistic, honest, unpretentious depiction of the Finnish war front that there ever has been, and probably ever will be. I agree with this sentiment with all my heart – if anyone asks me what is the one Finnish novel that they should try, I say go find The Unknown Soldier. I heard that there was a new English translation out last year and that it's much better than the old one, though the title has been pluralized to The Unknown Soldiers.
2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This book is an absolute marvel, a masterpiece built out of genius, a unique tour de force of what tremendous delivery can be achieved in no other art form than the novel. The structure is just one of Mitchell's many triumphs in this book: there are six different narrators in different time periods ranging from the Gold Rush years to a post-apocalyptic future, each of them is interrupted at a crucial moment and then completed in the reverse order in which they were begun. The different narrative voices and styles come through so brilliantly that you have to wonder how they all came from one writer, not six. Thematically, Cloud Atlas delves deep into issues of colonialism, ownership, morality, and how a single individual finds their place in the world – all this in six different levels!
3. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
I read this one for last year's Banned Books Week. The story begins in Kabul, Afghanistan where the Talebans soon take over. The main character, Amir, manages to escape to the United States with his father, and they manage to build a new life in the newly formed community of other Afghan emigrants. However, something terrible happened to Amir's childhood friend just before the Taleban movement, and having witnessed it, Amir is haunted by the memory and the lie he has lived since then, and has to return to Afghanistan – now a strange and terrifying place for him – to make amends and set right what he feels he did wrong. The Kite Runner is often challenged for its violent content, and it's true that it describes man's cruelty in atrociously hideous ways – but it would be a great pity if this novel were discouraged based on that, because all of this works towards the theme of redemption which Amir seeks. With Amir, we readers have to sink deep down in despair in order to really feel the elation of rising up again. The Kite Runner will most definitely rip out your heart strings... But it's also one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and will hold a place in my list of all-time favorites when I get round to writing it down.
4. Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
The year is 1800, the British Navy is fighting Napoleon, and Captain Aubrey meets Doctor Maturin. Here begins a series of naval adventures set in the Napoleonic Wars, presented with meticulous detail concerning the navy and the politics of the age and seasoned with an epic Aubrey-Maturin friendship where one is a jolly, straightforward navy commander who is victorious at sea but a walking catastrophe on land; the other, an Irish-Catalonian doctor, naturalist and all-round intellectual who has many regrets about his secretive past and ends up working as Aubrey's ship surgeon with absolutely no knowledge of life (or jargon) on a fighting ship. The period setting alone would be a real treat as the Napoleonic Wars provide great opportunities for exciting navy action and political debates, but the very best thing about this series is the friendship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
5. Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian
Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are off to fight the French again... until the Treaty of Amiens comes into effect a couple of paragraphs in. So now Captain Aubrey and his crew have to figure out what British Navy employees do when they're out of work. Fortunately, there is country life and bright young women's company to be enjoyed. With period-accurate dialogue and focus on social interaction, the first part of Post Captain is very much like a Jane Austen novel from the mens' point of view. It's quite a fun experiment really. All in all, I liked this one even better than Master and Commander. The first book, of course, laid the groundwork for Aubrey and Maturin's friendship; now, life on land sets up a series of conflicts between the two and it looks like we'll see Doctor Maturin's epic dueling skills in action. Even as the war recommences and the fellows have a ship again, the poor reader has to endure a roller-coster ride of tensions rising and falling between the two. Ladies, debts, a dodgy ship – times are hard. Still, there is humour aplenty as well, just like in the first book. Actually, I laughed my head off so badly on more than one occasion that people around me had to check if I was really reading about the Napoleonic Wars.
6. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
I asked this book for Christmas on a complete whim simply because someone mentioned it on Facebook and a gang of rich private school boys getting wrapped up in the supernatural while trying to find a Welsh king's grave sounded like an intriguing premise. It turned out, intriguing was a gross understatement – I finished the book in more or less 24 hours because I had to know what would happen to Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah. See, that's what happens to a reader when a writer decides, "Alright, my main characters are all going to be 17-year-olds, but instead of giving them the usual flat-and-angsty teenage treatment, I'm going to write them into such believably human, complex characters with actual flaws and problems that the readers are going to go insane trying to figure them out. Then I'll end the book while all the plot threads are still hanging in the air and say, Nope, this was just the first book in a four-part series, you have no life until you read the rest of it!" I love how the two settings of a privileged boys' school and a household full of psychic (in some cases psychedelic) women are presented side by side as Blue Sargent, a psychic's non-gifted daughter, becomes involved in the Raven Boys' quest. Blue Sargent is really the only slight complaint I have about this book. The boys she hangs out with are fleshed out to such an extent I want to cry my eyes out for all their individual hardships, while the main thing we get out of Blue is that she puts a lot of thought into appearing as non-mainstream as possible. Look, effortlessly individual and original people are great – people who work really hard to seem that way are just annoying. But I'm not condemning Blue just yet, I expect the rest of the series might add more dimensions to her. Besides, I need to get my life back soon.
7. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
I have kind of a divided opinion about my most recent Dickens read. It took me forever to finish because some parts of it were so slow and secondary to the actual plot that I left the book lying around for weeks at a time. Then, when I got to the good bits, I would always wonder How the heck was I ever able to stop reading this?! This is one of Dickens' "social problem" novels; in this case he delivers an astonishingly powerful commentary on the effects of institutionalization. It affects William Dorrit, a long-time resident at the Marshalsea debtors' prison; more tragically, it affects his daughter Amy, the eponymous "Little Dorrit", who can't escape her father's social stigma and his absolute dependence on her. Enter Arthur Clennam, quite an unusual literary hero for Dickens or in fact any writer: he's approaching middle-age, despairing over the unfulfilling life he has led so far, and constantly brooding on whether he will ever be any good to anyone. Dickens is criticized for writing characters who are either caricaturishly wicked or angelically innocent and this criticism is not at all unfounded (Little Dorrit herself is quite a frustrating little saint most of the time, though I'll have more to say about her once I get a proper review out) but stuff with Clennam is Deep. So even though I wanted to skip most of the indulgently satirical bits about Victorian British bureaucracy and the superficial life of the Merdles, overall Little Dorrit won me over with its earnest depiction of human despair and beautiful bits of dialogue. Charles Dickens continues to rock in my books.
8. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.
This was another re-read. There's one thing I've noticed about detective fiction: It can be brilliant, but only in small doses. As a genre, I think it is one of the most reliant in certain conventions and patterns, and it takes a very skilled writer to avoid falling into repetition. Well, Agatha Christie is obviously one of the best in her class and she manages to break quite a few rules with And Then There Were None. The biggest one: there's no detective. There's no-one to keep a cool head when the bodies start piling up, no-one to reassure everybody that they will find the murderer. Tension climbs sky-high as people get claustrophobic and paranoid, everyone's darkest secrets are spilling out... It's utterly amazing. Even if I do get round to reading more Christie novels in the future, I doubt that any of them will be able to top this.
9. Looking for Alaska by John Green
Everyone knows John Green since he wrote The Fault In Our Stars. I started reading him from his first published work, Looking for Alaska, not knowing what to expect. My first thought? I'm clearly too old to read about teenagers being stupid. The main character is Miles Halter, a teen outsider who decides to move into a boarding school in order to experience something new. Apparently, in order to have a life he has to do stupid teenager stuff and get hopelessly infatuated with a most annoying girl named Alaska. This is the first half of the book. Then, there's A Huge Event, after which... comes all the stuff that had me thinking all sorts of deep things about life, loss and young peoples' mental capacities for weeks on end. I can't really say any more about that without spoiling everything. Just... apparently, there are writers out there who think that books aimed at teen readers can and should provoke discussion about the most difficult things in life. Bravo to them all.
10. Contes du jour et de la nuit by Guy de Maupassant
I couldn't find an English title for this one online and I read it in French myself. It's one of the short story collections by Guy de Maupassant, a notable French practitioner in that genre. It goes a little bit against the title of this post to include this one here because I haven't quite finished it yet, but my love for Maupassant's writing already runs so deep that I'm certain Contes will keep its place in the list even after I'm finished with it. Tales of day and night sounds like a collection of fairy tale treasures – but Maupassant's "fairy tales" are about real people in a very real, mostly provincial France and, like most fairy tales in their original form, it's not all bliss and sunshine. The beauty of Maupassant's stories is how earnestly they depict the most basic emotions and impulses that direct human lives.