Top 10: Fiction

  1. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
  2. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  3. The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman, John Tesarsch
  4. The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante
  5. The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma
  6. Purity, Jonathan Franzen
  7. Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido
  8. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
  9. The Martian, Andy Weir
  10. Where My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks
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Top 10: Fiction

  1. The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma
  2. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
  3. Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
  4. The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler
  5. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  6. Purity, Jonathan Franzen
  7. Rush Oh! Shirley Barrett
  8. A Year of Marvellous Ways, Sarah Winman
  9. Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido
  10. The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante

Maz’s Shelf-Talker: The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, John Boyne

the boy at the top of the mountain

It is 1936, Pierrot lives with his French mother and German father in Paris speaking both languages as well as sign language with his mute best friend Anshel. His father increasingly struggles with depression and mental issues from his participation in WWI, eventually walking out. Soon after they hear he has fallen under a train in Germany. Pierrot’s mother contracts consumption and also dies. Pierrot sadly has to leave his dog D’Artagnan with Anshel and is placed in an orphanage. Things look up when his father’s sister, Aunt Beatrix, who Pierrot has never met, tracks him down with the news that her wealthy employer has agreed to let Pierrot live with them. So, aged 7, Pierrot takes the very long train journey alone across Europe. His sandwiches are taken from him by some Hitler Youth and he arrives very hungry and scared. He is met by his Aunt Beatrix and a chauffeur and driven to the house on top of the mountain… Adolph Hitler’s retreat The Berghof.

Surprisingly, as it is well-known that the Fuhrer does not like children, Hitler takes a shine to the boy and Pierrot is treated well.  Unfortunately Pierrot quite quickly realises the power of his new situation and learns how to manipulate those around him. This is a shocking and absolutely rivetting story of secrets and betrayal, power and corruption.

As with Boyne’s earlier children’s book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas this is not a book for the faint-hearted and will also be appreciated by adult readers. It is a very powerful novel, an excellent book to be read aloud at home or in class and must be discussed.

Myles’ Shelf-Talker: Sylvia, Leonard Michaels

sylvia leonard michaels

When one of my co-workers asked me what I thought of Sylvia, the autobiographical novella by Leonard Michaels that explores his tumultuous first marriage, I jokingly described it as a gender reversed Fifty Shades as written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Unlike that novel, though, Sylvia does not attempt to disguise what it is: a tragedy of domestic abuse, made no more romantic by the much more accomplished prose style of its author.

That’s not to say it isn’t a love story. Since his first, almost wordless encounter with her, Sylvia is the singular focus of the protagonist’s life. They quickly marry, and it becomes apparent that he has failed to comprehend just how unwell Sylvia actually is, that even as her violence becomes more extreme he lacks the emotional toolkit to really address it.

Despite the polished and beautiful writing, Sylvia’s power lies in its rawness. Michaels revised the manuscript from an autobiographical essay, fictionalising it into a novel, and one gets the sense that, had he been given the opportunity, he would have revised it again. The less literary moments are the most telling: Michaels’ diary entries are interspersed throughout, vignettes of martial discord that are unsettlingly minimalistic and capture the bleakness of these ordeals. Similarly, the narrator’s interior monologue reads less like a deliberate choice by Michaels’ than the circular, illogical thought processes of an abuse victim. That he never identifies himself as such makes recognising this all the more horrific.

Set against the backdrop of a revolutionary 1960s New York, Michaels’ describes scenes of sexual decadence that are steadily becoming the norm. These anecdotes from friends and acquaintances contrast his more traditional, very young marriage. But it is the interior life of this seemingly conservative union in which the dark side of sexuality is explored, and compared to their private hell, the exhibitionism and deviances of others in their circle have an almost childish playfulness.

That the protagonist never really views Sylvia as a monster is the novella’s most heartbreaking aspect. She is not a cliché, but a web of contradictions, one he is never fully able to understand. In the final pages one gets the sense that Michaels realises that he has failed to do this and, however implicitly the point is made, that in doing so he has failed her. In writing the story he has attempted to write himself back to her, knowing that this is an impossible task.

It’s not an optimistic outlook, but a sophisticated one. It’s certainly much more interesting than if it had been badly written and dressed up in nipple clamps.

Alex’s Shelf-Talker: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon

mysteries of pittsburgh

Art Bechenstein – son of a renowned gangster – has very little direction when he steps out of the library and into the summer of his graduating year. It is then, after spending his four college years in virtual solitude, that he meets Arthur Lecomte. As the final summer of his youth plays out, Art’s family and social circles, which he has actively worked to keep separate, begin to intersect. In this captivating and classic coming-of-age story (now an awful movie), Chabon tackles sexual identity, betrayal and father-son dynamics in an expertly crafted first novel. It is also on our boot camp list so why wouldn’t you read it?

-Alex

Myles’ Shelf-Talker: Hall of Small Mammals, Thomas Pierce

hall of small mammals

With over a hundred sign-ups to the Riverbend Readers Boot Camp, our staff will be reviewing their favourite books from the list to help you get started on your mission to #getfiterary.

Hall of Small Mammals is the debut collection from Thomas Pierce, whose stories have previously appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. It is outrageously, stupidly, good: against the backdrop of absurd scenarios, Pierce explores human connection in original and insightful ways. Alternately whimsical and dark, Pierce uses comedy as a means of exploring the complexity of relationships.

In the superb opener, Shirley Temple Three, this comedy appears in the form of a Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth which, having been brought back from extinction by the reality show on which one character works as a presenter, he promptly abandons to the care of his aging mother. In the month that follows, Mawmaw and the mammoth develop a tender, unusual bond, one that reveals poignant information about Mawmaw’s relationship with her son. That Pierce is able to develop these two characters – one of whom is a fictional, non-speaking mammoth ‑ so thoroughly in such in such a limited space is truly impressive, and indicative of the many strange and fascinating relationships that are to preoccupy the rest of the book.

Pierce’s penchant for weirdness peaks in Videos of People Falling Down, a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes that mine slapstick comedy for dark humour. From what’s possibly the collection’s funniest one-liner – “Two beekeepers fall in love but it’s impossible for them to be together.” – sprawls a series of bizarre incidents that subvert our cultural obsession with schadenfreude, and Pierce dexterously intertwines these narratives to deliver both comedy and pathos.

Hall of Small Mammals demonstrates why more people should read short stories: uniquely hilarious and humane, they’re not only exceptional, but time efficient. If you’re looking for inspiration for your Boot Camp Reading list, Hall of Small Mammals is the perfect place to get started.

-Myles