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Archive for the ‘Amor Towles’ Category

As we enter the last hours of 2019, I’m not quite ready to let this year go.  I loved 2019; it was full of achievements, wonderful times with family and friends, lots of travel (I went to Europe twice!  And on my first trip I absolutely fell in love with Brittany) and, most excitingly, a new nephew.

With all that going on, I completely collapsed as a blogger, reviewing almost nothing, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t reading!  Here are my favourites (ranked, obviously) from this year:

10. Clouds of Witness (1927) – Dorothy L. Sayers
I reread Strong Poison for the 1930 Club and enjoyed it but it was this earlier volume that reminded me of all the things I love about Sayers.  Here she has set up a perfect country house murder scene, made even more perfect by the fact that this time it is Lord Peter’s own family members who are suspected of the murder.  Sayers introduction of the other houseguests as they eat breakfast is perhaps the best scene she ever wrote and the entire novel just shines.  It also allows plenty of time for Charles Parker (let everyone else be in love with Lord Peter, for me it’s always been the solid, hardworking Charles), which I can only view as a good thing.

9. Home Fire (2017) – Kamila Shamsie
Good lord, what a book.  Set across three continents and told by a variety of narrators, Shamsie crafts a heartbreaking contemporary retelling of Antigone.  Unforgettable.

8. A Green and Pleasant Land (2013) – Ursula Buchan
Such fun!  Buchan tells the story of how Britain worked to improve food production during the Second World War.  It’s full of the sort of little details I love – did you know tomatoes were grown in ornamental pots outside of gentlemen’s clubs in St James? Or that, pre-war, only 9 of every 100 onions eaten were grown in the UK? –  and does a wonderful job of highlighting the professionals whose hard work and innovation truly made a difference.

7. Mountain Lines (2017) – Jonathan Arlan
I have no idea how this passed me by when it was first published but I’m so glad I stumbled across it this year.  Arlan writes humorously and honestly about his journey along the GR5 trail from Lake Geneva to Nice. For me, this was the perfect style of travel memoir and inspired me so much that I literally put the book down mid-chapter to reach out to my friend and convince her to go hiking in Austria.

6. Piglettes (2015) – Clémentine Beauvais
An utterly joyful YA novel about three teenage girls who, having been cruelly and publicly named by their peers are the ugliest girls in their town, band together to pursue the things they want most.  By cycling to Paris.  While selling sausages.  It is full of energy and humour and insecurity and confidence and I defy anyone not to love it.

5. Last Witnesses (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
A bleak but incredibly moving oral history of children’s lives in the USSR during the Second World War.

4. A Brightness Long Ago (2019) – Guy Gavriel Kay
A new novel from Kay is always cause for celebration and this one absolutely did not disappoint.  It ranks among his best works and artfully weaves Italian Renaissance history into Kay’s fantasy world, laying the foundations for the events of Children of Earth and Sky.  It is intelligent, entertaining, and through Kay’s uncharacteristic use of the first-person perspective for much of the book, even more poignant than usual.  I loved it and look forward to rereading it again soon.

3. The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) – Rosemary Sutcliff
Inspired by Slightly Foxed’s reissuing of this, I picked it up for a reread and was immediately caught up in Marcus’ story and quest for the eagle of the famed lost legion.  This is historical fiction and children’s writing at its absolute best.  It’s a book my father loved as a child, that I loved, and that I hope the next generation of our family will love just as much.

2. Invisible Women (2019) – Caroline Criado Perez
Until last week, I was certain this was going to be my #1 book of the year.  But then a charming Russian count appeared and that was that.  But this was still the single most impactful thing I read this year.  Caroline Criado Perez, the Oxford- and LSE-educated journalist and human rights campaigner (and reason Jane Austen is now on the £10 note), looks at how data bias harms women around the world.  Why do more women die in car accidents than men?  Because cars are designed to be safe for men (there are no crash test dummies based on female body composition).  Why are women 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed when they have a heart attack?  Because their symptoms are different from men’s (and men are the ones who are studied).  The examples go on and on and become more and more maddening.  Invisible Women is an extraordinary and extraordinarily important book and one that should make you mad, regardless of your gender.

1. A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) – Amor Towles
This is a perfect example of why you must always wait until the absolute last moment to select your best books of year: I only finished reading this on Saturday.  And I’ve been bereft every day since that I don’t have more of it to read.  I never wanted this charming story of a Russian count confined to a grand Moscow hotel to end but when it did it was so satisfying and right that I physically hugged the book to myself.  This is clearly going to be a favourite for years to come.

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Sometimes the stars align and an author produces a work so perfect, so utterly satisfying and joyous on every page, that you never want the reading experience to end.  That was what I found when I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

Now, this is hardly an unheralded gem.  It was well-reviewed and widely read when it came out in 2016, appearing on several prize lists, and Bill Gates, a reader par excellence, has shared his own love of it.  So I am, as usual, a little behind the times.  But the beauty of books is that they wait for the reader to find them when the time is right and, for me, this was the perfect time.

The story opens in 1922 in Moscow as Count Alexander Rostov is being sentenced by a people’s committee.  Their usual inclination to dispose of a member of the leisured class is checked by one thing: a poem written by Rostov more than a decade before that was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.  And so their verdict is unusually lenient: house arrest for life.  But Rostov has no home of his own – the family estates having been seized – and lives in the Metropol Hotel at the heart of Moscow.  So it is there that he, age 32, is sentenced to live out the rest of his days.

And so it is within the walls of this last pillar of old-world elegance that our tale unfolds, a place where ballerinas from the Bolshoi dash in for a drink, where the French chef ensures that every dish is a masterpiece, and where every detail is thought of, cared for, and perfected.  It is a world that suits Rostov well and, even after he is moved into a dingy attic room from his stately suite, he finds ways of adapting to his new circumstances.

It is this graceful adaptability that provides the true charm of the novel.  Rostov is a product of his upbringing and it is the gentlemanly traits he has been trained in that allow him to weather his trials.  Before his incarceration, his days were, as he explained during his trial, devoted to “Dining, discussing.  Reading, reflecting.  The usual rigmarole.”  He was a friend to poets and princesses, a world traveller, and darling of hostesses for his easy conversation, excellent manners, and ability to smooth difficult situations.  He knew the world and loved its many pleasures.  Now captive in the hotel, he must set about building a life on a smaller scale, mastering his new world and seeing to the little preferences and pleasures that make life – whether it be in a palace or a prison – tolerable.

This he does with such ingenuity and nonchalance that it is impossible not be charmed by him.  If you grew up reading about orphans living in attics or poor young women making sad garret rooms into welcoming havens, you will be delighted by Rostov’s immediate actions.  And then even more delighted as through the years he makes a true home at the Metropol, finding new friends and a purpose.

The story follows Rostov over the course of thirty-odd years, years where he is largely insulated from the wider changes happening in Russia.  But he is not oblivious to them, staying as well-informed as ever (as any good gentleman would), and as Russia becomes increasingly dangerous, he begins to worry about the future of those he loves.  For, in thirty years, he has found people to love: friends, a lover, and a daughter-of-sorts whom he has raised from childhood.

A Gentleman in Moscow reminded me of nothing so much as an Eva Ibbotson novel, which is just about the highest praise I can think of.  It has the same charmed nostalgia of her books, capturing a world of lost European elegance, and Rostov shares the same optimism and practicality as Ibbotson’s protagonists, who, when faced with disaster, can smile, persevere, and use all their charm and talent to bring about a solution.  It is also peopled with delightful secondary characters: a willowy actress, who throws tantrums but has enough humility to clean up after them; a serious child who introduces Rostov to all the secrets of the hotel; a shy seamstress with a lazy eye and a warm heart; and so on.  Towles, like Ibbotson, takes care to make each character memorable and loveable and, in doing so, creates a world that is just a little kinder, a little more fantastic, than the one we know.  Just the kind of world we like best to escape to in a novel.

 

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