My favourite books of 2016

As the year draws to a close it’s time for a round-up of my best books of 2016.  In the interests of making sure my favourites get into the list (!) I’m taking the liberty of including books that were new in paperback this year rather than just hardback – I’m sure you’ll forgive me!  Choosing my favourites was one thing; putting them into an order of preference was quite another, but after immense internal struggle I’ve arrived at this, the final countdown.

  1. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

I’m not sure I could describe this as an enjoyable read given the traumatic nature of the subject matter in places, but it’s certainly the book that’s stuck most resolutely in my mind over the past few months.  There are a few passages so grim that once read they can never be erased, but ultimately this is a tale of finding hope after horror.  Not everyone I know was a fan, but the author’s skill is undeniable.

  1. This must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never yet read a Maggie O’Farrell novel that I didn’t like so this was pretty much a shoe-in for my top 5.  Her characters are so authentic that they almost aren’t even characters; they could be any one of us.  Love, loss, grief, jealousy….she nails every single feeling on the emotional spectrum with this novel, as she does every time.

  1. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This is hands down the cleverest book I’ve read this year.  It plays around with the concept of the unreliable narrator and takes it to another level, until we start to question not only who is “reliable” and who is not, but whether there is any such thing as absolute truth at all, or only our own perception and experience.  It’s unexpectedly moving too.

  1. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

What I loved most about this book was the way it took me back to my childhood almost as if the author had been there!  The setting of a community where neighbours know each other intimately and children wander around the streets from house to house without anyone batting an eyelid evoked a real feeling of nostalgia for me.  Yet there’s a darker side to this utopia, where people band together to victimise outsiders without bothering – or wanting – to learn their story.  Utterly brilliant.

  1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

If you know me this number one will come as absolutely no surprise to you!  This is quite simply the book I’ve been banging on about to anyone who’ll listen (and even to people who aren’t particularly listening!) since the moment I read it.  It’s got everything – period setting, touches of gothic horror, love and romance, mystery and real emotional heft.  I loved every sentence and it’s not just in my top five for this year, but quite possible of all time.  That’s saying something.  If you haven’t read it yet there’s still time to rush out and buy yourself a copy so you’ve got something amazing to curl up with this Christmas.

I’d love to know if any of these would be in your top five too, and if not, what have I missed?!

This will be my last post on Girl, Reading until after Christmas now, so enjoy whatever festivities you have in store and I hope to see you back here very soon.

Merry Christmas!

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“His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet – review

On a summer’s day in 1869, Lachlan Mackenzie is found brutally murdered at his home in the tiny Highland community of Culduie.  The perpetrator, 17 year old Roderick Macrae, confesses to the crime within minutes, but although there is never any question or who, there is still the all-important question of why.  This clever novel takes the form of a compilation of documents – medical reports, journalists’ articles and so on – that are brought together with the aim of finding an answer.  And the answer matters, because if he is found to be insane, Roderick will be spared the death penalty; if it can be proved that he was in full possession of his mental faculties he will hang.

Right from the start, the author gives us a very clear indication that this will not be a straightforward case with a selection of witness statements that variously describe Roddy as a wicked boy, an amenable and polite young man and a strange loner.  Then comes what we would imagine to be the most valuable testimony: that of the murderer himself.  Roddy’s story, as he tells it, is quite a sorrowful one.  Following the death of his mother his already morose father becomes even more emotionally inaccessible, alternating between brooding gloom and flashes of violent rage, ruling over his children in their tiny crofter’s cottage with an iron fist.  Life in the hamlet of Culduie is pretty insular and the prospect of pursuing a life elsewhere is practically non-existent, with the crofters’ lifestyle being passed down through the generations.  The local schoolmaster spots a sharp intellect in Roddy that is missing from his provincial classmates, but the boy is unable to imagine any future other than taking on his father’s trade.   Life goes on and the monotonous days blend into one another without major incident, until something happens that turns life in Culduie upside down for everyone: Lachlan Mackenzie becomes constable of the community.  The constable is responsible for enforcing order and maintaining standards on behalf of the laird on whose land the crofters live and work, and it’s a system that has always been regarded by the inhabitants as reasonable and fair.  Lachlan, however, is power-hungry; a combination of intimidating physical strength and a calculating mind, and the Macrae family – for various reasons that have accumulated during a lifetime of living side by side in Culduie – become the target of a vicious campaign of oppression.  When Roddy develops an attraction to Lachlan’s daughter it proves to be the final step on a steady climb towards the inevitable: the confrontation between the two men that results in the constable’s death.

There are brief but significant flashes of disquieting behaviour during Roddy’s narrative that set momentary alarm bells ringing in our minds – his eerie detachment during the mercy killing of an injured sheep, the unsettling coolness with which he listens to his sister’s suicidal thoughts – but by and large, the overwhelming feeling I was left with as this section of the book drew to a close was one of pity.  Lachlan’s bullying campaign was, I felt, an incredibly astute piece of writing in that it succeeded in stirring up genuine physical feelings of anger on my part towards the character such as I haven’t felt for a very long time.  The author pinned down with uncanny accuracy the way in which so many bullies go about their business; when Roddy and his father try to describe to a superior official the things that have been said and done to them, out of context they sound feeble and no cause for complaint at all.  Lachlan is smart enough to operate in a way that ensures his victims know precisely what is being done to them while those looking on would never see the malicious intent behind his actions.  To be brutally honest, I couldn’t wait for Roddy to kill his tormentor – until the murder itself, which I won’t spoil but which didn’t unfold in quite the way I’d imagined.  At the moment of the killing, an unanticipated shockwave of doubt explodes out of the book, and in the space of a couple of pages you’re suddenly left wondering whether your judgement has been skewed all along.

Fittingly, Roddy’s account ends as he is still standing over the body of his nemesis, and the (deliberately) jarring insertion of a glossary of Scottish dialect creates a much-needed pause as we come down from the fraught heights of intense emotion back to the detached practicality of deciphering the linguistic quirks of his testimony.  This marks the start of the second part of the novel, and a brisk change in tone as we move from a first person narrative to series of professional documents pertaining to the case.  We will hear from the doctors who examined the bodies of the murder victims, the surgeon who was called in to psychoanalyse Roddy following his arrest and finally the witnesses who took part in the trial, their words recorded in various newspapers at the time.  Not everyone I’ve spoken to has appreciated the changes in style throughout the book, with some finding the format off-putting, but I actually felt a sense of relief as I embarked on the latter half, which is more impersonal and less emotive, after the more visceral nature of Roddy’s story.

If I thought that these new points of view were going to lead to certainty and closure, however, I was wrong.  If there’s a message to be taken away from this book it’s that it is almost impossible to claim there is any such thing as absolute truth where the actions of human beings are concerned.  There are revelations in the second section that come as a shock, and cause you to start re-evaluating everything you thought you knew from Roddy’s confessional account – but is that the same as saying he was lying?  Could those making statements about him be lying too, or at least fabricating a version of events that fits in with their preconceived ideas about the people involved?  It’s quite a philosophical novel in many ways; once the author starts playing with our sense of right and wrong, truth and untruth, the questions spiral.  The conclusion I came to is that humans are not for the most part calculating liars: we genuinely believe that our interpretation of events is accurate.  We create our own life story in our head, and that’s the one to which we hold fast.  And that being the case, is it ever possible for anyone else to tell us unequivocally that we are wrong?  If a madman believes that his motives, even for the most vicious crimes, were pure, is that not true in the sense that it’s his truth?  Given all this, the idea of one man presiding as judge over another becomes ever more uncomfortable.

I think it’s fair to say I was disturbed, gripped and given an intellectual workout by this novel in equal measure.  Every now and then a book comes along that messes with your head a bit, and “His Bloody Project” is definitely one of those.  And just when you think you may have made up your mind about what has occurred, the last few lines will plant a seed of doubt in your head once more.  Hats off to the author – this novel is very special indeed, and a striking achievement.

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Autumn reads

One thing I know for sure is that I’ve got an awful lot of reading to get through over the next couple of months.  I’ve never been much of a one for celebrating Hallowe’en, but so many people are getting excited about their spooky reads this year I really feel I should join in the fun.  Then before you know it you’re onto the question of when is too soon to start on the Christmas fiction…I waited until December last year and found I’d left it far too late to get through all the snowy, sparkle-encrusted books I’d bought the month before.   I also have an immense dislike of anything Christmassy once Christmas is over, with the result that I’m still waiting to find out whodunit in British Library Classic “The Santa Klaus Murder” as I failed to finish it last festive season and my slight obsessive streak wouldn’t allow me to carry on with it in January…

Before any of that, though, there are a few enticing books on my radar right now.  I’ve just finished “Painter of Silence”, an understated but quietly striking novel – the review will be up on Girl, Reading soon.  In progress at the moment is “Passion” by the criminally under-read Jude Morgan, a big beast of a novel featuring some of the greatest literary love affairs of all time, and next up is the much talked-about “His Bloody Project”.  I have to say that the Man Booker shortlist has almost no appeal for me this year; this is the only one I’m tempted to try, but I keep hearing good things about it so am hopeful of an enjoyable read.  For non-fiction I have “Weatherland”, which is shaping up to be an absolutely fascinating look at how writers and artists since ancient times have responded to the British weather in their work.   With any luck I will have finished it in time to start Antonia Fraser’s history of the Gunpowder Plot by the time November 5th comes round, but that may too much of an ask!

All being well there will be some more reviews for you all soon, but in the meantime, happy reading!