Now that 2015 is coming to a close, I thought I’d put together a list of the top five most powerful books I’ve read throughout the year. (F.Y.I., this is a list of books I had the good fortune of coming across in 2015, but some were actually published in 2014.)
Though my eyes have scanned the pages of all sorts of genres to broaden my horizons and to support fellow authors, I simply cannot help but return to what intrigues me the most: love, religion and the Middle East. Anything else falls short. I don’t want fluff, dense yet empty, flowery language, or some pretty tale with the sole purpose of escapism. Sure, it has its place, but for me, while I am transported to another world, it’s important to be challenged both mentally and emotionally while also entertained. The following books encompass everything I could hope for in a work of fiction:
- The Settler, by Orit Arfa
Not only is this the best book I’ve read this year, but I would go so far as to say it is the best work of fiction I’ve ever read. Author Orit Arfa has woven a fateful piece of Israeli history, along with opposing contemporary political views, into a sort of “coming of age” story peppered with bits of religion and even love.
The historical backdrop is the abandonment of Gush Katif, the once flourishing Israeli community in Gaza, in the so-called “land for peace” deal. Israel “disengaged” from Gaza, Hamas took over, and the deal became land for rockets, rather than peace. But this story is one that brings it to life in a very personal way, as a former resident of Gush Katif comes to grips with what has happened, what her government did and tries to figure out her life, her beliefs- and then there’s this guy…
- Paper Cut Hearts, by A.M. Khalifa
A short story collection, what drew me to this book was an ebook version of one of the stories called, “The Jewish Neighbor.” The writing moved me so much that I was willing to purchase the paperback book, based entirely on that one story. If I had hated the rest, it still would have been worth the money just to have this one story in print.
Luckily, I didn’t hate the rest! There are three stories that really fall into my favorite genre, but none like “The Jewish Neighbor,” about a Syrian refugee and the horrors she goes through to become the wife of a dreadful man living in Britain, who treats her as if she is less than human. It highlights some of the issues we face today with Islamic extremism, but also demonstrates the results of the brainwashing that occurs in many Muslim countries. Though the woman is being abused by her husband, when her Jewish neighbor shows her kindness, her initial reaction is to distrust. Why? Because he’s a Jew…
- The Gardener of Baghdad, by Ahmad Ardalan
I happened upon this book by chance, and as it turns out, it shares some commonalities with my own book (though quite different at the same time.)
A historical romance, the author juxtaposes modern war-torn Iraq with the Iraq of the 1950s, around the time of the Suez Crisis. The reader gets a taste of a beautiful country during a time of peace shortly before political unrest leads to the killing of the king and the turmoil that has plagued the nation ever since. But don’t think this is some boring war novel. Anything but. This book is about a warm and caring man who makes everything gorgeous with flowers and other plants; his loving inner circle of friends and family; and the blonde-haired girl who captures his heart. The problem is, he’s a dark-skinned Arab, and she’s the daughter of a British general in the 1950s…
- Desert Flower, by Zohra Saeed
This is not a novel but a short story, available only as an ebook, I believe. Another historical romance, this tale takes place in 1930s Bahrain.
A young girl must remain veiled in front of strangers, but when the entire household is taking an afternoon nap, she forgets herself, runs to answer a knock at the door, and finds a foreigner there- a very handsome Canadian, that is. He sees her face and is just as struck by her beauty as she is by his, but these two worlds are not supposed to mix- not in love, at least…
- The Burden of Truth, by Peter Best
Ok, this is not about the Middle East. It actually takes place partly in Britain and partly in India, but it is another book delving a bit into religion throughout the incredible series of events which drive the story. In this case, the religion is Buddhism, but the role it plays is never preachy nor bothersome. It simply fits perfectly, almost like another character in the background, though by the end it can really make you think.
Each character is well-developed, and every event carefully planned, as it all intricately plays out. There is action, violence, people running for their lives, brushes with death, family secrets, and love.
I hate to mention it, but at the time I read it, there were quite a few punctuation mistakes. For all I know, the author could have fixed those by now, but whether he has or hasn’t, I would encourage readers to look beyond such petty details. Peter Best is a masterful storyteller, and I hope this book gets the visibility it deserves.
All five of these books have stayed with me, and I would recommend them to anyone who has read and enjoyed my book, or vice versa: if you’ve read any of these, you must read mine. Love, relationships, religion, culture, politics… It’s what life is all about!
D.M. Miller is the author of The Religion of the Heart, the story of Catherine and Abdul and their agonizing battle to be together despite conflicting religions, cultures and families.