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Books 127 & 128: Engleby and Graceling

Book 127: Engleby: a Novel
Author: Sebastian Faulks, 2007.
Genre: General Fiction with Psychological Themes. Black Comedy. Mystery.
Other Details: Large Print Edition, 481 pages.

“My name is Mike Engleby, and I’m in my second year at an ancient university.”

This was one of the most stunning novels I have read this year. I don't want to say too much about the plot because it is one of those novels where it is important to let its narrator peel away the levels of his psyche at his own pace. It opens in 1973 with Engleby at university and concludes in 2006. Engleby is a poor working class boy who managed to win a scholarship to a posh boarding school and later to this prestigious university, which he declines to identify though it is obviously Cambridge. Engleby does dip back in time to recount his experiences at the boarding school where he had attracted the attention of bullies. It makes painful reading in places. Engleby is a loner, fairly troubled and odd though how odd only becomes obvious as his story unfolds.

Engleby's narration is rambling and colloquial, full of contemporary references. He is a cynical, detached observer of culture, pedantic at times to a fault. It's an amazing novel and very different to Faulks' other works of period fiction. Aside from its psychological aspects it delivers a biting social satire on British culture of the 1970s and 80s. There also is a mystery at its heart involving one of Engleby's fellow students. While I often find unreliable narrators frustrating, there are those such as Patrick Ripley, Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) and Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin) where I find myself drawn into their reality despite an awareness that all is not as it seems. I now add Mike Engleby to that short list.

Book 128: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore, 2008.
Genre: Fantasy. Young Adult.
Other Details: Trade paperback. 352 pages.

On rare occasions a child is born in the seven kingdoms with special, extreme skills. These people are termed as 'Graced' and are often feared. The protagonist of this fantasy novel is Katsa and her 'Grace' is that she has been able to kill people with her bare hands since she was a child. This skill is exploited by her uncle, King Randa, who expects her to do his dirty work in terms acting as his enforcer, dealing out torture and punishments. She is unable to stand up to him directly though she does work with a clandestine organisation to promote justice. On one such mission for this group she meets Po, another Graced fighter, who is the first person ever to challenge her in a fight. Over time they form a bond and undertake a quest essential to the future of the seven kingdoms.

I found this a very satisfying fantasy with characters and storyline that engaged my attention from its opening pages. It reminded me a little of Marie V. Synder's Study series as both have have strong female leads, just enough romance without it being cloying and are set in worlds that come alive very quickly. I thought it was a very promising début novel and I look forward to reading more of Ms. Cashore's work.
Tags: british, fantasy, modern lit, mystery, young adult
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