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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The Book Oscars 2016

Seeing as the Oscars are almost upon us it seems like the perfect time to conduct my own little awards ceremony.  Sadly I’ll have to make do without the extravagant dresses and tearful acceptance speeches, but what it lacks in drama it will more than make up for with amazing books!  By happy accident, it’s almost exactly a year since I launched Girl, Reading, so in true awards tradition I had a year’s worth of contenders to look back on.  It was difficult but I’ve finally whittled them down to a selection of worthy winners – see if you agree with my choices!

Best Leading Male – Dr. Finlay Logan (Devotion by Ros Barber)

You’ll be hard pushed to find a more finely wrought study of grief than this: Finlay Logan is so completely real that he could be any one of us if our lives happened to take a wrong turn.  The level of emotional depth captured here is so utterly authentic you’ll have a hard time convincing yourself that he’s actually fictional.

Best Leading Female – Grace (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon)

One of this novel’s strokes of genius is the use of a child narrator; like all children, Grace can be devious and occasionally unkind, but she possesses a perspicacity that eludes most of her adult counterparts.  By the end of the book I absolutely adored her, and I feel she’s going to stick long in my mind.

Best Supporting Character – Ganesha the elephant (The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan)

This is quite probably the first (and last) time a literary award has been bestowed on an animal, but I couldn’t resist!  I have a massive soft spot for elephants anyway, but little Ganesha goes above and beyond elephantine expectations, proving to be not just an adorable companion for the titular Inspector but a formidable sidekick in the fight against crime.

Best Cover Design – Devotion

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There was no competition in this category for me – this cover is arresting and memorable, sinister yet beautiful, and captures perfectly the novel’s themes of grief, torment and the fragility of the human mind.  I love it.

Best Debut Novel – Belonging by Umi Sinha

If you read the review of this book I posted a few weeks ago you’ll know how this unassuming, un-hyped novel caught me off guard.  The quality of the writing is sublime, the themes universally relevant and the emotional insights piercing – I really, really wish this book had received more of a fanfare because it deserves every plaudit it gets.  Read it now and discover a new author that (I hope) everyone will be talking about in the not too distant future.

Best Novel – A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

This was the hardest winner to choose by far as I’ve read so many phenomenal books in the last year, but in the end I kept coming back to this.  What gives the book its impact is the extraordinarily delicate balance of genuine pathos ad deliciously black humour.  It takes real skill to make a reader laugh and cry – literally – at the same time, but this novel managed it.  It’s been almost a year now since I read it and I’m still moved when I think about it; there are many vignettes that are as clear in my mind as if I read them yesterday, proof surely that the author has worked her magic well.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think – who would your winners be?

 

 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – review

The twittersphere has been set a-flutter over the last few weeks with excited chatter about this intriguingly titled debut, and the praise was effusive enough to make me want to try it for myself.  Reading it proved to be an immense pleasure; writing a review, on the other hand, is proving a bit trickier.  The clever construction that makes it so fulfilling to read is also what makes it a challenge to write about – how do you begin to describe and dissect a book when the author has given you so many ways in?  “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” is a magic eye picture in word form: look at it from slightly different angles and you come away with different impressions.

So what was my first impression?  In a word, nostalgia.  The action takes place for the most part on a single street in the mid-1970s, with flashbacks to the decade before.  It’s a time when life revolved around the local community: neighbours were forever in and out of one another’s houses, attended the same church, the same pub and the same local shops, and were involved in each other’s personal lives every single day.  The setting reminded me so much of my own early childhood on a tight-knit street that had a community spirit much like this fictional one.  I’ve never come across a place quite like it anywhere I’ve lived in my adult life – it’s easy to surmise that this kind of lifestyle simply doesn’t exist anymore – so reading this novel was like a journey back in time.  The vivid sense of time and place is something the author conveys particularly well, better than in any book I’ve read for a while.

Although an incredibly authentic representation of what it was like to grow up and live in that era, the novel takes the ideal of a close and loyal community and flips it over to reveal the potentially sinister implications of living in a social group of this nature.  It’s impossible not to see in the story a certain sense of affection for this much more open and companionable way of living, yet at the same time it serves almost as a warning: a group of people who are too insular and inward looking will readily turn on anyone perceived as an outsider.  The outside on The Avenue is Walter Bishop, suspected by his neighbours of committing an unspeakable and highly emotive crime back in the 60s.  He certainly comes across as an oddball with his lanky hair, dilapidated house and unusual manner – but is he the child-snatcher the rest of the street believes him to be?  The reader doesn’t know, but what we do know is that the ongoing campaign of persecution in an attempt to drive him away is frightening in itself.  What emerges as the story unfolds is that the residents of this apparently innocuous street are not simply trying to protect one another, but are also desperate to protect their own deepest secrets.  The question of how far you would go in hurting someone or allowing someone to be hurt in the name of self-preservation is an uncomfortable one, but one the author tackles head on.  And what happens when a lie you told years ago has got so out of hand that there’s no going back to the truth, however grim the current repercussions might be?  When the book began I wasn’t expecting to ask myself any of these questions, but that’s what makes the novel so deliciously clever; reading it is like unpacking a Russian doll, gradually uncovering more and more pieces that make the whole thing more complex than it ever appeared from the outside.

In addition, the whole book is sprinkled with ever-increasing religious allusions, putting yet another spin on this morality tale.  I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the story, but as the novel drew to a close a number of allegorical elements came to the surface that made me want to go back and read it again, but this time looking at it with this newly-planted idea in mind.  In fact, it’s one of those books that would inevitably be a very different experience the second time around, and I will probably read it again, because I’m curious to see how I react to various characters knowing what I know now.  The author does provide little teasers as to the reality of events all the way through, but is careful not to show her hand completely until the very last pages.

There are so many other things I could have talked about in this review: how the author uses the point of view of a child narrator to show how a naïve view of the world can also be the most effective way to see the truth, or how fantastic she is at capturing emotional experiences with some unique, elegant and surprising turns of phrase – but I would quickly run to thousands of words and lose my audience!  The fact that there’s just so much to say about this novel though is a compliment in itself.  I can’t wait for whatever Joanna Cannon writes next, and I sincerely hope there are many more books to come.