It's that time of year when everyone seems to be doing their 'round-ups' and 'best of...' lists, and I'm not going to be left out. I've already done a rather different summing up of the year in Reading Bingo, but here are my favourite books, the ones I feel sure I'll read again and again, the ones I'll be thrusting at people saying "you must read this" ... anyway, here's my Top Ten of the Year ...
First up, a book that I think everyone should read - You Shall Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris This is the account of the first few weeks following the author's wife's death in the terrorist attack on Paris' Bataclan nightclub last November. While the press and social media were filled with hatred, fear and calls for vengeance, Leiris declared that to give way to such feelings would be to let the terrorists win, to also cripple his own life and that of his small son. So instead, he resolved that, despite over-whelming grief, he would continue to live as full a life as possible. It's a book filled with loss, love, horror, and, ultimately, hope.
Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes is a specially comminsioned book from Peirene Press, bringing to life the individual stories behind the statistics and news reports about the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle', taking the reader behind the stereotypic image, and reminding us that above all they are people like us - who just happen to be running from persecution or a war zone, trying to earn money to send home, or just hoping to be reunited with their families. Another 'mut read'.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon also looks at the way we treat outsiders - but a little closer to home. During the long heatwave of 1976, Mrs Creasy goes missing from her home - and the strange man at Number 11 is immediately suspected of somehow being behind it. It's a story about 'us' (the sheep) and 'them' (the goats), and as events unfold it makes you think about the way a community may treat outsiders, how anyone who doen't quite fit or is a little 'odd' can be ostracised and victimised by the rest of us who consider ourselves 'normal'.
Cove by Cynan Jones A man out at sea in a kayak is struck by lightning - left drifting, out of sight of land, his sense of direction lost, even his sense of self. All he has to cling on to is his animal instinct which pushes him towards land and home. Jones proves again that a huge word count isn't necessary to make an impact; Cove is less than a hundred pages, doesn't contain a single surplus word, but captures the helplessness, confusion and fear of this man adrift at the mercy of tides and currents. Is it, though, the personal story of one man, or a metaphor for anyone adrift in life, like Stevie Smith's swimmer "much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning" ?
A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker is a book about choices. The German invasion of France poses a dilemma for a young Irish writer - he can return to his family in Ireland, stay there safely for the duration, or, as a citizen of a neutral country, remain in Paris with his lover. Choosing to stay poses another question - should he sit by while the Germans take over, or join the resistance? I love Jo Baker's writing style - the capturing of intense, intimate moments, then building with them to bring a fictional world to life - but what particularly appealed to me about this 'true' story was its 'hero', Samuel Beckett. Having read his books at school, I'd rather had the impression of a dull, geeky guy, obsessed with words and meanings. Jo Baker's story sheds light ona very different side of him - still that odd, literary chap but one with an unsuspected quiet courage.
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan Melody Shee is thirty three, abandoned by her husband, pregnant by a Traveller boy barely half her age, frightened, angry, full of guilt - and amazingly brought to life in the first person by a male author! Melody's story revolves around several threads - the difficulties that can at times surround something we take for granted, the birth of a child; the gradual wearing away of a loving marriage by constant recriminations; the way a community makes its own unwritten rules and judges anyone who doesn't conform; and how inflicting pain and suffering on others can bounce back on the giver. Ryan's writing just seems to go from strength to strength, with each novel.
Melissa by Jonathan Taylor The death of Melissa Comb is marked by a strange phenonomen - a burst of music, spreading happiness and pride among her neighbours. The only people who don't hear it are those closest to her - her immediate family, hiding behind closed curtains, is slowly starting the disintegrate. There's a certain level of quirkiness to this story of a family struggling to cope with grief and the intrusion of the media - it's told in a variety of styles (with snippets from newpapers and scientific journals), it doesn't move in a straight line but starts with Melissa's death and moves back to her illness before moving forwards, and seems to only gradually work in towards the heart of the story - but I found it irresistable!
Death and The Seaside by Alison Moore is a strange, disturbing tale of manipulation, of living up (or down) to people's expectations, and of the interwoven-ness of life and art. Nearing the age of thirty, Bonnie has had a life of missed opportunities, but now her new landlady, Sylvia, has taken an interest in her - encouraging her writing, making plans for a holiday together. Sylvia has an interest, though, in self-fulfilling prophecies, suggestibility and how expectation influences behaviour; the future doesn't really look that rosy for Bonnie. A psychological drama of subtle oozing menace.
The Museum of You by Carys Bray Like Bray's first novel, A Song For Issy Bradley, this is a story about a family trying to cope with death. Clover and her dad Darren form a small, tightly-knit, loving family, but at its centre is a gaping hole left by the death of Clover's mother, not long after Clover was born. To Clover, she's an enigma, someone she's never known but would love to know more about; Darren finds talking about her too distressing and 12 years later still has the spare room full of her belongings. Sad, funny, and heartwarming this story charts their attempts to bridge that gap, as the two try to communicate across the gap, and Clover searches through the hoarded things in an attempt to piece together an image of her mother. Tender and compassionate, it's a joy to read, and Bray has again turned a story with tragedy at its heart into something positive and life-affirming.
Fell by Jenn Ashworth Ashworth is an author I've been intending to read for some years, and, at last having got round to it, I realise what a delight I've been missing. Despite the older work sitting on my TBR pile, I started with her latest, Fell, an atmospheric, beguiling story of home and family, regrets and reconciliation - and loved it. Middle-aged Annette has returned to her childhood home to clear it out and sell it off, but the ghosts of her parents have other ideas. It isn't what you would really describe as aghost story though - it's rooted firmly in reality, just laced with something otherworldly much like Sarah Winman's A Year of Marvellous Ways or Lucy Wood's Weathering, both of which were among my picks of last year.
That's Ten, my favourites from this year's publications - but I've also loved some older books which, in all fairness, I ought to have read before now.
Firstly, it may be odd, and I'm definitely late to the party, but this is the year I've finally realised what is so great about Neil Gaiman. I'd read some of his work before but having read and loved both The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere this year, I consider myself changed from a casual reader to a fan!
Another party to which I'm a late arrival is the Fitz and the Fool series by Robin Hobb. I've had a free download of the first book Assassin's Apprentice sitting on my kindle for seemingly ages, but hearing that after 15 books the series will come to an end next year I've eventually been spurred on to read it - and again discovered something magical and engrossing that I've missed out on. Reading the series will definitely be part of my reading plans for next year!