I've reached the end of my reviewing for this year, so now it's on to the far harder task of picking my favourites.....
A rough count shows I read just over 150 books this year so trying to choose a Top Ten out of them was going to be hard. First I made a longlist - which started out quite tidily but grew scrappier as I added more and more titles to it. Then I tried making a pile of books, to see if this would concentrate my thoughts - which worked fine till I remembered all those 'hidden' books on the kindle.... so back to the 'list' with a highlighter pen..... to pick out those I'd be most likely to thrust at folk and say "you MUST read this" ....
So at last I narrowed my list down to ten .....and a few more...
Weathering by Lucy Wood - a story of mothers and daughters, belonging and home, and wild, wet weather, it's written in almost stream-of-consciousness style, with beautiful prose that slips into poetry. Closely observed, minutely described, it captures mood and emotion, conjures the feel and touch of river and snow with writing that puts the reader so firmly THERE in the landscape that I expected to see snow banked outside my windows or river rushing over the lawn.
Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither by Sara Baume - an amazing debut novel about two outsiders - a man, Ray, and One-Eye, the battered, violent dog he 'adopts'. From the moment Ray takes One-Eye home, he starts to talk to him; as One-Eye is introduced to the house where Ray has lived all his life, as they walk round the village or along the seafront, play football on a deserted beach, and as they drive away from the seaside through Ireland's countryside, Ray keeps up a rambling monologue, ostensibly aimed at One-Eye, describing all he sees, capturing the sights and sounds along the way, sharing secrets and gradually revealing the dark secret he hides. I started to feel that this was more about a dog giving a man a chance at redemption, than the other, more obvious, way round.
A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman - At eighty nine, Marvellous Ways lives quietly, alone but not necessarily lonely, swims in the creek each day, and is still waiting for something, although she doesn't know what. Woven through with magic, with tales of mermaids and long-lost love, this is an absolutely, well, marvellous story. The setting is enchanting, and enchanted, the creek a place of peace and healing, the story-telling lyrical, the whole permeated by myth and magic.
A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan - a collection of short stories from the author of the Spinning Heart and The Thing About December that will knock you sideways and leave you emotionally drained. The writing style is quiet and undramatic, the characters all people you'd pass on the street and never remark upon, but just listen to the stories they have to tell! If you want something fun and light, that will make you laugh out loud - go elsewhere. If you want a read that will move you, maybe shock you, make you stop and look twice at your neighbours and wonder what makes them 'tick', let you experience emotions that I hope would never befall you in real life, this is the one to choose.
Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel - how does a white, well-educated, British woman become an Islamic suicide bomber? The author draws a portrait of a woman struggling to fill an empty, gaping hole in her life - there never seems to be enough, or maybe the right sort of, love, to satisfy her need, and in desperation she twists her religion to fill that void. Ziervogel again tackles a subject that others might shy away from; only 144 pages long but it doesn't need more.
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale - Harry Cane was living a quiet, gentlemanly, suburban life in Edwardian England till an indiscretion brought it to an abrupt end. Forced to leave his wife and child, and strike out on his own, he heads west to the frontier lands of Canada ... not quite in search of his fortune but certainly looking for a place to build a new life, to come to terms with himself and his newly awakened sexuality. A quiet, mostly undramatic but immensely moving book which I've now read THREE times and I still love it. It's definitely a keeper!
A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson - another quiet, unassuming hero, this time Teddy Todd, a World War 2 bomber pilot. Scarred and numbed by his experiences, and feeling a need to atone for his actions, Teddy decides his life will now be one of kindness, his own slight reparation for the horror of war, but those dreadful years are not shrugged off so easily and his relationships with wife, daughter and grandchildren are all affected. Despite the excellent writing, I couldn't at first see what was SO special about this book - but there's a twist in the tale, and an ending which changes everything.
At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison - We all have an idea, or ideal, of how the English countryside should be - sleepy villages where nothing has changed in hundreds of years, meadows with placidly grazing cows, ancient woodlands, life centred on the turning of the seasons. The reality of heavy farm machinery, migrant workers, the whole modern agricultural business or even cow-pat strewn roads doesn't quite fit that image we have. Into this gap between expectations and reality falls this story of people trying to 'find themselves'; a couple newly moved out of London in search of an idyllic country life; a youngster, born and bred in the village, but into a time when there's no future for him there; and a wanderer, a quiet, harmless man but seen by others as a vagrant, a threat to the established order.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett - somewhere between the movie Sliding Doors and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, falls this tale of Eva and Jim and the different paths their lives could have taken after a chance meeting in Cambridge in 1958. From that initial meeting, three different futures pan out, each fully realised, like reading three different stories. The balance between them is perfect, none is allowed to dominate, but which of them leads to a happier life? At first it seems to be one version, then, as the years pass, another will seem the more appealing. It led me to wonder if I were Eva or Jim and could choose my life, knowing all the permutations, which would it be?
Well, that's my Top Ten, but a lot of them have already appeared on literary longlists for this prize or that, and I'm guessing a lot of readers will have heard of them, perhaps even read them already, so I'm going to include the best of my longlist - a wider-ranging list from literary to sci-fi to crime, and including some older books that I only discovered for the first time this year.
The Sea Between Us by Emylia Hall - This, Emylia Hall's third novel, is the nearest yet to a straight forward love story. The relationship between Robyn and Jago grows and changes over a seven year span, as instant attraction turns to something deeper, but fate seems determined to push them apart. Theirs is a story of missed chances, of so often being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of letters and messages going astray, of other relationships getting in the way - a little bit like Friends' Ross and Rachel, a little like Emma and Dexter from David Nicholls' One Day - but while it's a love story, there's so much more to it than that.
The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon - There's a certain sort of mid-teenage point in life when summer seems like it could last forever - a few years earlier you don't appreciate the spread of six weeks freedom ahead; a few years older, and autumn seems already visible at the end of July - and this is what Sarah Jasmon has captured so well - long, lazy, hot days of a summer that feels like it could never end, but with a friendship as intense as only a teenage friendship can be and a thread of hidden secrets.
The Truth According To Us by Annie Barrows - more hidden secrets, this time belonging to the Romeyn family of Macedonia, West Virginia. I'd say this was a gem of a book but at 500 plus pages, it's a large show-stopping gem! It's certainly one of those special books in which you can immerse yourself completely; the characters and setting feel as real as those around you, and when (if) you take a break you'll be shocked to find yourself back in real life.
The Rocks by Peter Nichols - a story of love and betrayal played out over three generations against a backdrop of sun, sea and, yes, sex in the Mallorcan village of Cala Marsopa. Told in an unusual way, it starts in the present and moves backwards to 1948. It's a story of misunderstandings, mishaps and failures in relationships, which doesn't sound like a good read - but it is!
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela - an amazing thought-provoking read, moving between the present day and the Crimean War, about the dilemma of being torn between conflicting cultures but never quite belonging totally to either, and how sometimes accepting defeat is braver than fighting on.
The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger - a moving story exploring the relationship between Tom and Curtis, a father and his son, one intimately connected with nature, one completely rejecting it, and the choices that have to be made between freedom and responsibility. It's a book that will inspire you to get out there, head for your nearest mountain or hill top and soak in the beauty, even if it isn't as magnificent as the Rockies
Touch by Claire North - Imagine that by taking hold of someone's hand, you could become them, could jump from body to body as you wished, and stay there for as long as you liked, from seconds to years. This is what 'Kepler' and others like him can do. Now someone has decided that it's time to stop him - but its easier to evade an assassin if you've some idea of who sent them and why. So begins a game of cat and mouse as Kepler tries to track down the person behind it, while trying to avoid those pursuing him. The thriller aspect is fast-paced, action-packed, full of twists, turns and deviousness. It starts with the 'bang' of a murder and Kepler running for his life, and carries on at this breathless pace; as a game of hunter and hunted it's up there with the best of spy thrillers.
I haven't read a lot of Fantasy this year, but loved Naomi Novik's Uprooted Set somewhere vaguely in Eastern Europe, in places that sound very like Poland and Russia, it's a coming of age tale, a fight of good against evil, a love story, and one that encourages us to accept people no matter how different they are to ourselves. A fairytale with grit!
Three crime novels -
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback takes the whodunnit murder mystery and transports it to a time and place far removed from the modern urban landscape. In the early eighteenth century the far north of Sweden is remote and empty; a place where life itself is a struggle against the vagaries of the weather and the loss of a harvest can mean starvation. In the long, hard, dark winter, wolves howl at the doors, fear and loneliness build and the barriers between 'modern' logical beliefs and old pagan traditions break down.
A Killing Moon is another brilliantly tense thriller from Derby's very own crime writer Steven Dunne. This is the fifth in the DI Brook series and I think I'm getting used to having my home city's streets filled with murderers - at least, fictional ones! A Killing Moon isn't a simple 'guess the murderer' style crime novel. It's one of those books in which things start out quietly, and seemingly simply, but soon escalate, with extra threads weaving their way in, as Brook and Noble find themselves on the trail of a sinister conspiracy targeting young women away from home.
The Living and Dead in Winsford by Hakan Nesser - a stand-alone psychological thriller from the author of the long-running Van Veeteren series. This time the setting is Exmoor, but a British winter of fogs and rain proves as 'noir' as any Scandinavian setting; the main character a Swedish woman, Maria, hiding under a false name, running from something dreadful and fearing pursuit.
I've read a lot of brilliant teen/ya books this year but these two stood out.
Anything That Isn't This by Chris Priestley - a little bit dystopian, a little bit love story, with a bit of thriller thrown in for good measure, this is a story that captures the confusion of teenage feelings the world over, is about challenging the norm and searching for hope in a dull grey world.
The Door That Led To Where by Sally Gardner - a slippery, twisty sort of plot with time travel, a murder mystery, the clearing up of a forgery case, and the tiniest bit of romance - added together they make a brilliant, compelling read.
and, at long last, the oldies which you've probably already read!
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor - On a late summer's day the residents of a street in the north of England are going about their daily routines. Nothing special is happening - a man is painting his windows, two boys are playing cricket, a toddler rides his tricycle up and down the street, an elderly couple celebrate their anniversary - the sort of things that make up any average day...then something happens, a terrible thing which leaves its mark on all who witnessed it.
The Long Dry - This is Cynan Jones' first novel and is set in the landscape that's become familiar to me through his later work - Everything I Found On The Beach and The Dig. There's the same grit and grimness underlying the beauty of the landscape, the same feeling of inevitable anguish. It's not all doom and gloom - there's light relief from the teenage son, with his delight in driving the transit van, and the mass 'attack' of the ducks on the nearby seaside town - but moments of joy seem short-lived and over-shadowed by sorrow to come. Much more than a story about a farmer looking for a lost cow!
Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murray - set against a backdrop of rock-stars and recording studios hidden in the depths of the Welsh countryside, this is a story of 'crazy love' that breaks the rules, an exploration of the ties of family and home, a coming of age novel, a family epic ranging over three generations, there's a bit of all these in Diamond Star Halo, and I loved each of them.
An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel - in style and length reminiscent of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, this is a bitter-sweet, first person narrative of the lives of young women on the cusp between child and adult, at a time of life so full of possibilities, but which could easily tip into tragedy.