Books I Read (Or At Least Finished) in January

Popular Music from Vittula, by Mikael Niemi (2000 – literary fiction)
I’ve taken an interest in Scandinavian literature recently, along with a few million other readers, and when I saw this book mentioned in a post on Reddit, it sounded perfect. And it nearly was. An episodic coming-of-age tale set in a tiny town in northern Sweden, it’s interspersed with anecdotes of fundamentalist religious groups, swarms of biting insects, a brilliant depiction of a wedding feast, extended surrealist metaphors, and the arrival of rock and roll in the land of snow and ice. It’s been translated into 30 languages and was made into a movie in 2004 by Reza Bagher.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (2009 – literary/historical fiction)
Hilary Mantel is the best stylist I’ve read in years, and possibly ever. I am simply in awe of this woman’s skill. The narrative of Wolf Hall flowed over me like a river. Her ability to draw vivid scenes or evoke complicated emotional nuances with two or three sentences leaves me shaking my head in astonishment. The best historical fiction makes you remember that people of bygone times were just as human as we were, with the same quirks, foibles, and tendencies. Mantel goes far beyond that here. Her characters leap from the page as if they were spring-loaded. I found I didn’t even care much what was happening on the page, so engrossed in her craft was I. I realize that’s a curious comment coming from someone who believes in story first. Take it as a testament to this two-time Booker winner’s genius.

The Burnt Orange Heresy, by Charles Willeford (1971 – crime)
The convincingly-drawn protagonist of this book is an art critic and a fairly unlikeable fellow, but we can sympathize with his ambition… to a point. The author was a tank commander in WWII, and also a poet, a boxer, a horse trainer, a radio announcer, and an actor, among other things. This deep life experience lends itself to the kind of layered storytelling I enjoy. There are other layers of satire and irony here, too. The Burnt Orange Heresy is short, which I consider to be a virtue. There wasn’t a wasted word. “Nobody writes a better crime novel,” Elmore Leonard said of Willeford. Well, that’s not quite true. Leonard does. Leonard’s novels give me a queasy feeling in the stomach from the moment I pick them up, and Willeford’s book failed to pull me to the edge of my seat. Plot-wise, however, you couldn’t ask for a tighter story.

Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, by Bill Bryson (1991 – humour/travel)
Bill Bryson is so funny and engaging that if he were to write a book of essays about brushing his teeth, it would be a page-turner. I’ve long admired how easy he makes writing look. One of the blurbs on the back cover promised belly laughs aplenty, and it’s a promise Bryson keeps.

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