Books I Read This Month - August 2012

The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss 

Lucifer Box, painter and gentleman spy in Edwardian England, charms his way through this hilarious novel with both wit and vanity. First in a trilogy by actor and co-writer of Sherlock and a few episodes of Doctor Who (two of my favorite television series) Mark Gatiss, The Vesuvius Club follows Lucifer Box's government mission to solve the murders of a handful of scientists while he simultaneously romps around with numerous lovers and comes to terms with his fading painting career. With fiendishly genius puns interlaced into each sentence, I literally laughed out loud at least once every page. This is definitely one of the funniest books I have ever read. Highly recommended to those with a highly British sense of humor.

Eleven by Mark Watson

Recently emigrated from Australia to England, twenty-something Xavier Ireland hosts a midnight radio show, participates in Scrabble competitions, avoids awkward encounters with his stressed neighbors, and contemplates the way he left things with his three childhood best friends back in his home country. When he fails to stop a teenage boy from being beaten up as he walks home from a speed-dating session (enforced by his stuttering co-host), Xavier triggers a chain of events that will drastically change his life, as well as the lives of eleven other individuals. At once a hilarious page-turner and a moving account of a decent-hearted man's good intentions gone tragically wrong, Eleven is an intriguing read with unique characters. It's a roller-coaster ride of a story, truly enjoyable and highly original.

The Absolutist by John Boyne

An extraordinarily sad portrayal of a World War I soldier's friendship with a fellow soldier, this well-crafted novel is tender and moving, but also gripping and dark. After returning to England, Tristan Sadler visits the sister of the deceased soldier, Will, with whom he shared an intense bond during the war. The narrative unfolds, both in Tristan and Will's sister's conversation and in flashbacks, told in close first person by Tristan, revealing the problems of personal conviction, betrayal, and not just the cruel consequences of war but also of the consequences of unrequited love. I could not put this book down. Elegantly crafted and certainly transcending the lines of war story and love story, The Absolutist is beautiful even in it tragedy. Perhaps one of the most powerful new novels of the year.

Never Let Me Go by Kazou Ishiguro

While the dystopian premise of clones created for the extraction of organs is not an altogether original storyline, Kazuo Ishiguro certainly created a unique novel here. Rather than treated cruelly as if they are inhuman, the clones of Never Let Me Go are raised in a comfortable environment, encouraged to do artwork, and allowed to befriend their peers. The story takes place over the course of narrator Kathy's life, from childhood through her career as a "carer," a nurse for clones taking part in the donation processes, in the final years of their lives. Though the cloned children were raised in a boarding school environment, I could relate extremely deeply to the problems Kathy faced in her relationships with the students and teachers. I was surprised to find myself nodding along to many of Kathy's childhood experiences, recognizing the emotions she felt in dealing with self-righteous Ruth and sweet, troublesome Tommy. Many of the situations she faced were eerily similar to events in my own life. Never Let Me Go, I am sure, is meant to be an exploration of human worth, a question of what makes a human, what defines love, but it had a different affect on me; the tone of Kathy's narrative voice, especially when relaying the events of her childhood, gripped me with its tenderness and connected me to experiences of my own childhood and the close friends with whom I shared that important part of my life. This moving novel taught me a lot more about love and hit a lot closer to home than I thought it would.

Solar by Ian McEwan 

After reading several of Ian McEwan's previous works recently, I picked up Solar solely because it was next on my list. I was expecting it to be like the other McEwan novels: moving, illuminating of human nature, and deeply literary. What I got was a pleasant surprise. In Solar, a middle-aged environmental scientist is struggling through a fifth divorce. A series of unusual events leads this annoyingly self-absorbed and, frankly, insipid man to come across a great scientific discovery, but at the expense of a young man's life, his fifth ex-wife's happiness, and several years of an innocent man's life. Many times as I was reading this book I felt like blurting out, "Ugh, Ian McEwan, how disturbing that scene was! I thought I knew you!" Nevertheless, I could not put it down, no matter how much I tried (though there was one scene in the first third of the book that made me so squeamish I had to take a break from it). A fascinating page-turner with a narrator readers will surely love to hate, Solar may shock McEwan fans with its differences from his previous, highly literary works, but they will certainly still enjoy it and get plenty of good laughs from a man whose books usually induce profundity or tears. 

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman 

When a young veteran is offered a job as a lighthouse keeper for Janus Island off the coast of Australia, he feels contented, almost excited, to spend six months in isolation, working in tough conditions every day. However, in the town nearest the port, he meets 19 year old Isabel, who he soon marries and brings with him to the island. Young and naive, and after three miscarriages, Isabel, when a boat containing a dead man and a living baby washes ashore on the island, convinces Tom to let them keep the child and raise her as their own. Little do they know, however, the infant's mother lives in mourning on the mainland. Exploring the consequences of war, isolation, and instinctual decisions, this book would best be enjoyed by mothers, especially those with young children.