Recommended ReadsRecommended Reads 2003

Here is a short and selective list of some of the books enjoyed by library staff in 2003. Books marked with a Literary Prize winner have won prizes.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali
A classic novel in the Dickensian mode, this is the story of Nazneen, who leaves her Bangladeshi village for an arranged marriage to an older man and life in the East End of London. By endowing her characters with all the complexities humans are capable of and then exploring how they live Ali can tackle the big questions of love, honesty and betrayal with simplicity and truth. An extraordinary novel.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Atwood has taken readers to the future before in The handmaid's tale, and the news hasn't got any better. Here experiments in bioengineering have got way out of hand and the apocalypse has left one man still alive. Chilling, disturbing and bleak, this is an important novel by one of the great authors of our time.
Any human heart by William Boyd
Written in the form of a personal journal this vividly imagined novel follows the adventures of Logan Mountsmart from boarding school, thorough success as a writer, a stint of spying in World War Two, imprisonment and then to art dealing in New York. Meetings with Hemingway and Picasso (and others) are handled so convincingly it's hard to believe they didn't really happen, and that Logan is not a real person. This is a remarkable piece of work; a book that is hard to put down once begun and very difficult to say goodbye to when finished.
Drop city by T.C. Boyle
The tale of a crew of California hippies who 'light out for the territory' (in this case Alaska) in the 1970s in search of total freedom. When they get there they engender mixed reactions from the locals, to say the least. Boyle has a sharp eye for absurdity but here he leavens it with good nature. In capturing a long-ago era whose ideals are so foreign to us they seem positively quaint he provides the reader with insight as well as entertainment.
American woman by Susan Choi
This fictionalised account of the Patty Hearst kidnapping that gripped America in the 1970s follows actual events closely but concentrates on a peripheral figure rather than the main protagonists. Jenny Shimada is the daughter of a Japanese-American interned during World War Two. After her boyfriend is imprisoned for bombing a draft office she goes to ground in rural New York state and finds herself helping the two surviving members of a radical group who have kidnapped a newspaper heiress, and the heiress herself. Jenny has to look at herself, her own ideals and her relationships as well as societies views on race, class and politics. A fascinating and timely look at radicalism and disillusionment.
A million little pieces (362.29) by James Frey
A former drug dealer and screenwriter wants to be "the greatest literary writer of his generation" and goes about it by chronicling his slide from the safety of a nice middle-class family to fully-fledged crack addiction by 23. As far as Frey is concerned great literature need not include conventional punctuation but this adds to the immediacy and urgency of his story. Not for the faint-hearted (he lovingly chronicles the physical aspects of addiction and recovery) or for those who believe recovery is only achieved with the help of a higher power.
The curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon
Winner of the 2004 Whitbread Prize for fiction, this is the story of Christopher, who is 15 years old and who suffers from autism. He cannot handle human contact and finds human emotions both mystifying and boring. When his neighbours dog dies in mysterious circumstances, Christopher decides to emulate his hero, Sherlock Holmes, and solve the mystery. As Christopher exasperates and infuriates those around him, the reader begins to understand far more than he does about his life, to heartbreaking effect.
I should be extremely happy in your company: a novel of Lewis and Clark by Brian Hall
The story of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back again may not seem like the stuff of riveting fiction but Hall has managed to pull off an historical novel that is honest without being boring. By resisting the temptation to filter events through current political views or to overly romanticise the triumphal aspects of the expedition, he brings the story alive. The story is told from the various perspectives of expedition members; all human, all flawed, all memorable and all utterly convincing.
Nina: adolescence by Amy Hassinger
Nina was with her younger brother when he drowned and the tragedy has broken her family. Her mother, a talented painter, has withdrawn into her grief and her father into the bottle. In desperation Nina offers to pose for her mother, not flinching even when her mother decides to paint a series of nudes charting the development and changes of Nina's adolescent body. This is a disturbing but stunningly assured first novel, menacing without being prurient.
Literary Prize winner The great fire by Shirley Hazzard
Set in postwar Japan, this novel tells the stories of people set adrift by the war and shows how we can be redeemed by love.
Random family (974.7275) by Adrian LeBlanc
For 10 years the author followed the fortunes of one extended family in the Bronx. Death and birth, good times and bad, prison and 'freedom' — she was there for it all but she manages to be almost completely invisible, opting to let her subjects tell their own stories in their own words. Some commentators have criticised her lack of interference in these chaotic lives, but there is no denying the power of her plain and unvarnished words.
Shutter Island by Denis Lehane
Wonderful characters, spot-on dialogue, marvellous prose and a compelling narrative all add up to a great read by one of the best mystery writers working at present. In 1954 two U.S. marshals investigate a murder on an island near Boston that is dominated by a hospital for the criminally insane. As a major hurricane threatens the inmates riot and the marshals fear for their lives. Lehane is an exceptional talent and he is working at the height of his powers here.
The fortress of solitude by Jonathon Lethem
Dylan Ebdus' parents move to Brooklyn in the 1970s and Dylan is one of three white children in his school; "not his class, his whole school" exults his mother to her friends. After his mother leaves he makes friends with another motherless boy, Mingus Rude, the son of a soul singer. Lethem takes us through thirty years of music, drugs and race relations in telling the story of a neighbourhood and the people who live in it. Lethem is a wonderful writer and this is an inventive, exhilarating read.
Positively fifth street: murderers, cheetah's and Binion's world series of poker by James McManus
Sent by Harper's magazine to cover the world's biggest poker tournament in 2000, poet and novelist McManus hit a lucky streak that saw him succeed beyond his wildest dreams. High stakes gambling is always full of tension, but McManus can write as well as play cards and this makes for a compelling story.
Property by Valerie Martin
Winner of the Orange Prize. Told from the point of view of a female slave owner unhappy that her favourite piece of 'property' has become her husband's mistress, this is a powerful story. Martin's anti-heroine is an unforgettable character; her petulance and her bitterness lead her to complete inhumanity but the reader can never forget that she too is a victim.
Liars and saints by Maile Meloy
Spanning five decades, this wonderful novel displays the clarity and spare style honed by the author's previous work as a short story writer. The Santerres are a Catholic family struggling with faith, doctrine, love and deceit. Meloy manages to balance light and dark, drama and stillness with emotional truth and psychological insights. A master work.
Love by Toni Morrison
There is not one superfluous word in this work from Nobel Prizewinner Morrison. Bill Cosey is the centre of the story; ladies' man and owner of the Cosey Hotel and Resort, a once grand holiday spot for affluent African-Americans. Those glory days are well over when the book begins, Bill is dead and only his widow and his granddaughter remain in the hotel. Their story, and those of the other people who worked and stayed at the hotel in years gone by, are gradually revealed in flashbacks as Morrison crafts a mesmerizing tale of love, hate and betrayal.
Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books (820.9) by Azar Nafisi
This meditation on the relationship between life and literature is an absorbing look at one woman's commitment to her native land and to the literature of other countries. Nafisi was educated in the West but returned to Iran for 18 years before she was forced to leave in 1997. After she was expelled from teaching at the University of Teheran for refusing to wear the veil she continued to hold secret, private classes for seven young women who met with her to discuss books by Nabokov, James and Austen, among others. This superb book is a salutary reminder of the small freedoms we all take for granted.
The time traveler's wife by Audrey Niffeneger
Imagine if you were at the mercy of time; dropped from the present to the past at the most inconvenient moments, naked and alone. This is the premise of this charming story that crosses three genres: science fiction, love story and realistic character study. Henry Detamble works at a library in Chicago and randomly finds himself at different places in the past and the future. Told from the alternating points of view of Henry and his wife Clare, this is an unusual and fascinating book.
Eragon by Christopher Paolini
When Paolini began writing this novel about dragons he was 15 years old; when it was finished his parents had it published by an on-demand printer. Not an auspicious beginning but readers fell in love with it, it gained a cult following, a major publishing house picked it up and it debuted at number three on the New York Times best seller list.
Literary Prize winner Vernon God Little by D. B. C. Pierre
This dark and satiric first novel about the fallout from a Columbine-like shooting in a Texas high school won the Man Booker Prize in 2003. Vernon Gregory Little, the 15-year-old 'hero', is nasty, sarcastic and profoundly unlikeable. Accused of being an accessory to the murder of 16 people, he skips bail as his life turns into a media circus. Vernon is more of a mouthpiece for Pierre's contempt for all that is wrong with America than a credible character but he can be entertaining — it just depends on what the reader expects (or wants) from a novel.
Jarhead: a Marine's chronicle of the Gulf War and other battles by Anthony Swofford
Events in Iraq in 2003 made this account of the first Gulf War topical but it is more than that. Spofford is a talented story-teller with a gift for straight language, a dry humour and a nice line in vivid set-pieces. His questions about the readiness of the troops to fight and the preparedness of the American public for the consequences of war are as timely now as they were 13 years ago.
The bug by Ellen Ullman
This is a worthy addition to the surprisingly small number of books about the way people interact with technology. A computer programmer and a software developer struggle to track down and destroy a computer bug that only appears during important demonstrations of the software they are trying to sell. Enjoyable for its wry, dark humour.
Old school by Tobias Wolff
A scholarship student at an exclusive private school has the chance to meet his literary hero in this coming-of-age story. Elegantly written in an economical style that is a pleasure to read, Wolff manages to be both funny and touching, that most difficult of all combinations.