A review of the best reads of 2012 from selected readers. Read part 1 of this series here.

Michael Onsando: 1Q84 – by Haruki Murakami

The first thing that caught my eye when the short dark man at text book centre told me to buy the book was 1Q84, what an odd title. Was it going to be a book on economics? Or maybe some ancient phrasing in Japanese. An inside joke of the far, far east coast? I parted with the money though, and I never, for a single second, regretted that I did.

The book takes you through the life of Aomame, a lady whose name means green peas, and bothers everyone. From the mystery of a world with two moons to the present world, to little people the book is just, beautiful. There’s no other way to put it, the tale Murakami tells is beautiful.

I’m scared to talk too much about the book lest I give away the story, I can be somewhat of a spoiler. But of all the books I have read in 2012, this one was definitely the best. In fact, of all the books I’ve read, this one makes top ten. Okay, maybe top 20.

Aamera Jiwaji: The Snowman – by Jo Nesbo

I am generally not a fan of the whodunnit novel, and am more a chewy rider – the kind who savours the flavour of the words as they run off the page and sometimes I even read a particular sentence out loud so that I can churn the consonants in my mouth – but the writing style of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo offers something different to the usual crime story.

Yes, his plots are structured around a murder (or rather many murders, since his killer always performs more than once) and tracking down the criminal, but unlike the archetypal Sherlock Holmes style of mystery, Nesbo wraps his murder mysteries around the development of his chief character, the protagonist Inspector Harry Hole.
It is perhaps not surprising then that Harry Hole recurs in all of his novels: The Redbreast, The Snowman and The Devil’s Sign – and is accompanied by the same team of investigators in the city of Oslo.

And as Harry investigates new cases, his personal life develops in a parallel manner and so it is easy to detect a pattern in the books Nesbo has written purely from the stage of Harry’s personal life. However each book is an island in that it stands alone as a read and does not require any back knowledge.

Like other criminal writers, Nesbo begins with a thread of the story which seems removed or unrelated, and then gently unwinds it blending it with other threads into a discovery of the core narrative. But there is no climactic revelation of the guilty party; it is a gradual revelation that parallels the development of Harry’s character. So intimately are the two tied that in the reader’s mind, certain professional milestones will always be associated with significant moments in Harry’s personal life … and this is probably deliberate on Nesbo’s part. The intertwining of the two
In The Snowman – one which stands out as a particularly enjoyable read – Nesbo plays with time and perspective, and creates snapshots that the avid crime reader could forever dissect for signs of how the plot will unravel (and without spoiling the ending I can say that any time spent doing so would be worthwhile, as it will only add pleasure to that delicious moment when the revelation balances on a hinge).

As with all books that have been translated to English from the writer’s, I did feel shortchanged at having to experience Nesbo as a translation rather than hearing the story in the author’s own voice and engaging with his words, but I suppose better that than not ever reading Nesbo.

Having read three of his stories, I am convinced that I might become a more ardent reader of the crime novel simply because it communicates a humanity and elegance that movies from the crime/ mystery genre sacrifice in favour of plot, and which ultimately for me is the meat and gravy of a good book.

Sonya Kassam: We are a Muslim, please – by Zaiba Malik

Memoirs or autobiographies are not my first choice of books. However, I was sufficiently drawn towards the memoirs of Zaiba Malik in her book “We are a Muslim, please”. The title itself was intriguing – what’s with the “please”? Flicking through the pages, I felt that the setting was appealing enough, but it seemed to be a simple yet flowing account to read. And, indeed it was! The perfect book to read as a distraction for the hunger pangs felt during the month of Ramadhan.

“We are a Muslim, please” was a phrase frequently used by Zaiba’s mother (Umijee) mostly as an explanation and at times when she felt there was too much Western intrusion into their lives, which could mean anything from Songs of Praise to Top of the Pops to an ad for sizzling bacon.

Caught up in a clash between two irreconcilable cultures, she tells us of her desire to fit into a British culture where “I knew I was Muslim long before I knew I was British”

Zaiba’s memoirs take us from the late 1970’s through to 2002, touching upon the Bradford riots, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and 9/11, ending up with a letter to one of the terrorists of 7/7 who grew up in the same neighborhood that she did.

A book worth reading to have the insights into Pakistani/Muslim immigrant life in Britain as well as a refreshing view on Islam.

The Dorc: The Testament of Mary – by Colm Tóibín

In “The Testament of Mary”, Colm Tóibín sets out to re-imagine events surrounding the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The narrator is an older Mary, one who has severe problems differentiating dreams from reality. In this rendition of The Passion, Mary is not the stoic mother of the crucified redeemer, rather an older and disillusioned, grief-stricken woman who headed for the hills, leaving strangers to bury her son because she feared that she too would be put to death.

Tóibín’s Mary speaks as much from the clarity of hindsight as from the doldrums of reality and dreams merging into the inseparable mix that is her painful existence. She hides at her Ephesus home on most days and does not even light a lamp at night. She is dependent on her neighbor, whom she won’t even acknowledge in greeting, for most of her daily needs.

Two disciples frequently check in on her but she can barely stand them, in part because their bodily smells linger in her house for weeks or may be because they remind her of what she lost. Mary’s dislike of the disciples is nothing new. She did not like the “unshaven brutes and twitchers” back in the day when they were meeting at her house and her son was still alive. She saw them as misfits, rebels without a cause who could easily be straightened out by a strong male role model.

Surprisingly, she did not think the same of her son, which is in keeping with this Mary. She can hold as many divergent opinions as she needs to help navigate her world. She is equally disturbed by women laughing loudly in public as she is by the women waiting hand and foot on the disciples, and scurrying away lest the congregating men’s words of import be wasted upon fickle feminine ears.

As much as her lucidity is in doubt through out the book, there is also a calculating and cunning Mary. She suspects that her two constant visitors want her to confirm that Jesus was God. She stubbornly refuses and becomes in her own way a one-woman-rebellion who is protesting the pedestalization of a son whom she still remembers as a little boy. She does not want to lend gravitas to the mushrooming movement based on the deification of her boy, and she even accuses one of the disciples of falsifying his account of events surrounding the life of Jesus.

Mary’s recollection does not leave room for doubt. It leaves acres upon acres of fertile ground for doubt to take hold and flourish, as any decent work of fiction should. It dazzles and makes the reader want to meet this Mary who buys a graven image of the god because it makes her feel good.

Depending on the severity of your religiosity, you will judge Tóibín’s creation either as blasphemous heresy or a scrumptious indulgence to be kept out of sight of your Sunday school teacher as well as your confessor. Anybody worth their sacraments will not read this story without the fear of swift, imminent doom from a vengeful god who punishes third and fourth generations for the sins of a father. How dare we imagine that the sacred heart of Mary contemplated and even became enchanted if only for a moment, with ending the suffering of her son? Was Jesus really the Son of God? Whose account of events do we believe?

At the close of Tóibín’s minimalist 80 pages, the answers are not any closer. What remains uncontested is the author’s dexterity in re-imagining a tale that most of us have grown up hearing.