Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

Despite the Falling Snow by Shamim Sarif – blog tour!

I was kindly invited to take part in the blog tour for the new edition of this book, first published in 2004, and am very glad I accepted. The new edition was published on 7th April to tie in with the new film adaptation, which is released on 15th April.

Despite the Falling Snow takes place in 1990s Boston and 1950s Russia, moving deftly between the two timelines. In both we have Alexander, who worked for the government in Russia, but who moved to the US at the end of the 50s. He escaped communism but was forced to leave his beloved wife Katya behind, and she passed away. She was also a spy for the Americans, and Alexander blames himself for her death.

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In 1990s Boston he is a successful businessman, on the brink of selling his business. He meets the mother of his potential buyer, Estelle, and they quickly develop a friendship; he also becomes close to his niece Lauren, the daughter of Katya’s brother Yuri (who was able to escape to the US), and things start to change.

Estelle is fascinated by his life story and is desperate to know more, and Lauren desperately wants to know what really happened to her aunt. Alexander thinks he has buried his feelings and his past, but these two women force him to reexamine this and try to confront the truth.

Suffice to say I really enjoyed Despite the Falling Snow. It is a bit of a slow starter, but gets better and better the further you read on. The pacing is my only real criticism – I wished we could have spent more time with Katya and Alexander in Russia when things start to get really desperate, and the crux of the story takes place. But this in no way ruins the book, and the outcome of the story in both timelines is excellently done, nuanced and sensitive.

I also loved the ways in which the story demonstrates the effects of the past on the present – both for those who were there (like Alexander) and for those to whom it is important (like Lauren). The relationship between Alexander and Lauren is depicted with emotional intelligence and sensitivity. He is ageing and somewhat closed off, and she helps him to soften and open up, and they bond over this process.

I found Estelle very interesting – in some ways she is the archetypal put-upon housewife with a distant husband and daughter; but Sarif gives her real depth and personality, and the difficulties of her life are dealt with very sensitively. I raged silently with her when her husband is being, frankly, a terrible person, and wished that she would find what she was looking for. Her friendship with Alexander is very sweet and you can see how important it is to both of them, in different ways.

While there is great sadness and injustice in this book, they are not overblown, despite being keenly felt. It would have been very easy for Despite the Falling Snow to be almost melodramatic, but Shamim Sarif handles her story and characters with grace and sensitivity, and a deep respect for the past. A wonderful book.

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Originally published by Headline in 2004; I read the 2016 edition published by John Blake/Metro (pictured above), which was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Here are the other dates for the blog tour:

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Buy your copy here from Foyles.

The film adaptation of Despite the Falling Snow is released in the UK on 15th April.