I don’t know how I managed to read over a hundred books this year, especially since it’s been a publishing year. My own novel, THE GRIMOIRE OF KENSINGTON MARKET, was published by Buckrider Books/Wolsak & Wynn in October and has thankfully been well received by critics and readers alike.
But, what does a writer do when not writing? Well, apart from dog-walking, cooking, sleeping, watching movies and learning to knit… this writer reads. Here are fifteen of the books I loved this year (no point telling you which ones I didn’t). The passages in italics are from the books’ covers.
In no particular order…
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by Billy O’Callaghan. This is a Ploughshares Solo, and so a novella. A great piece of literature from a great writer. Read everything he writes.
Nellie was nine years old when her brother Jimmy fell and broke his back. She and the rest of her family could only watch as the injury slowly worsened. The night before Jimmy died, Nellie ran through their small Irish town to make sure everyone was gathered at their house. Through the dark and the mist, she spotted a tall man in a long coat—a man who looked eerily similar to the grandfather that had passed away years ago.
Decades later, Nellie tells her grandson of her midnight run down Passage Road. As she reflects on the accident that claimed Jimmy’s life, she must acknowledge her own mortality and the empty space that death leaves behind.
GLASS VOICES by Carol Bruneau. A beautiful book reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s work in terms of interiority and character development.
Surviving the Halifax Explosion is one thing, but how do Lucy Caines and her wayward husband, Harry, a couple who lose everything to the event’s horrors, make peace with their grief? Rebuilding on the rustic shores of Halifax’s Northwest Arm, steps from where the shaft of Mont Blanc’s anchor lands that fateful day in 1917. But coping with the disappearance on that day of their infant daughter, they descend into an isolating denial: Lucy through guilt and reticence, and Harry through drinking and gambling. Despite the birth of a treasured son, each faces a future clouded by fear and apprehension. Then, fifty-two years after the catastrophe, Harry suffers a stroke. Lucy confronts the miracle of their survival and their debilitating loss, re-examining the past and her role in its making, and struggling to become the author of her own happiness.
GRACE’S DAY by William Wall. An astonishing piece of work by a writer who never fails to make me want to do better. His prose is breathtaking.
Grace and her mother and sisters live on an island off the west coast of Ireland. Their father is a successful writer of travel books that advocate a simpler way of life, though he is so seldom there that his family become the subjects of his social experiments and his children’s freedom is indistinguishable from poverty. Grace and Jeannie take turns to look after their little sister Emily. Then one day – Grace’s day – Em falls from the island’s watchtower. But why and how Em found her way to that dangerous height remains a mystery, and Grace’s lifelong remorse and guilt force her to relive the moment of her sister’s death again and again.
This is a novel written with uncanny style and control, in a range of voices that mirror the growing wisdom of the characters about a world of adult self-indulgence and the consequences of careless decisions and dishonest compromises.
William Wall is an underrated Irish master whose work is reaching astonishing maturity.
HARVEST by Jim Crace. I’ve never read a Crace book I haven’t loved, and this one follows in that tradition. A writer whose ability to make you live the story rather than merely read it.
On the morning after harvest, the inhabitants of a remote English village awaken looking forward to a hard-earned day of rest and feasting at their landowner’s table. But the sky is marred by two conspicuous columns of smoke, replacing pleasurable anticipation with alarm and suspicion.
One smoke column is the result of an overnight fire that has damaged the master’s outbuildings. The second column rises from the wooded edge of the village, sent up by newcomers to announce their presence. In the minds of the wary villagers a mere coincidence of events appears to be unlikely, with violent confrontation looming as the unavoidable outcome. Meanwhile, another newcomer has recently been spotted taking careful notes and making drawings of the land. It is his presence more than any other that will threaten the village’s entire way of life.
In effortless and tender prose, Jim Crace details the unraveling of a pastoral idyll in the wake of economic progress. His tale is timeless and unsettling, framed by a beautifully evoked world that will linger in your memory long after you finish reading.
THE SECRET SCRIPTURE by Sebastian Barry. A novel of enormous compassion and insight.
As a young woman, Roseanne McNulty was one of the most beautiful and beguiling girls in County Sligo, Ireland. Now, as her hundredth year draws near, she is a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, and she decides to record the events of her life.
As Roseanne revisits her past, hiding the manuscript beneath the floorboards in her bedroom, she learns that Roscommon Hospital will be closed in a few months and that her caregiver, Dr. Grene, has been asked to evaluate the patients and decide if they can return to society. Roseanne is of particular interest to Dr. Grene, and as he researches her case he discovers a document written by a local priest that tells a very different story of Roseanne’s life than what she recalls. As doctor and patient attempt to understand each other, they begin to uncover long-buried secrets about themselves.
Set against an Ireland besieged by conflict, The Secret Scripture is an epic story of love, betrayal, and unavoidable tragedy, and a vivid reminder of the stranglehold that the Catholic Church had on individual lives for much of the twentieth century.
SON OF A TRICKSTER by Eden Robinson. Not only does Ms. Robinson have the best laugh in the business, she’s a fantastic and imaginative writer.
With striking originality and precision, Eden Robinson, the Giller-shortlisted author of the classic Monkey Beach and winner of the Writers Trust Engel/Findley Award, blends humour with heartbreak in this compelling coming-of-age novel. Everyday teen existence meets indigenous beliefs, crazy family dynamics, and cannibalistic river otter . . . The exciting first novel in her trickster trilogy.
Everyone knows a guy like Jared: the burnout kid in high school who sells weed cookies and has a scary mom who’s often wasted and wielding some kind of weapon. Jared does smoke and drink too much, and he does make the best cookies in town, and his mom is a mess, but he’s also a kid who has an immense capacity for compassion and an impulse to watch over people more than twice his age, and he can’t rely on anyone for consistent love and support, except for his flatulent pit bull, Baby Killer (he calls her Baby)–and now she’s dead.
Jared can’t count on his mom to stay sober and stick around to take care of him. He can’t rely on his dad to pay the bills and support his new wife and step-daughter. Jared is only sixteen but feels like he is the one who must stabilize his family’s life, even look out for his elderly neighbours. But he struggles to keep everything afloat…and sometimes he blacks out. And he puzzles over why his maternal grandmother has never liked him, why she says he’s the son of a trickster, that he isn’t human. Mind you, ravens speak to him–even when he’s not stoned.
You think you know Jared, but you don’t.
FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner. Jesus. What a book. Heartbreaking. Hits you like a round-house right.
Fat City is a vivid novel of allegiance and defeat, of the potent promise of the good life and the desperation and drink that waylay those whom it eludes. Stockton, California, is the setting: the Lido Gym, the Hotel Coma, Main Street lunchrooms and dingy bars, days like long twilights in houses obscured by untrimmed shrubs and black walnut trees. When two men meet in the ring—the retired boxer Billy Tully and the newcomer Ernie Munger—their brief bout sets into motion their hidden fates, initiating young Munger into the company of men and luring Tully back into training. In a dispassionate and composed voice, Leonard Gardner narrates their swings of fortune, and the stubborn optimism of their manager, Ruben Luna, as he watches the most promising boys one by one succumb to some undefined weakness; still, “There was always someone who wanted to fight.”
THE NINTH HOUR by Alice McDermott. I was delighted to be able to interview Ms. McDermott when she came to Princeton this year. Her book is a wonder and a prayer… an exploration of what it means to be selfless and to hold faith.
A portrait of the Irish-American experience in the 1940s and 1950s, by the National Book Award-winning author
On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to prove to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering, pregnant wife that the hours of his life belong to himself alone. In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Savior, an aging nun, a Little Sister of the Sick Poor, appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child.
In Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century, decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence, and yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations. Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, Alice McDermott s The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement of one of the finest American writers at work today.
THERE THERE by Tommy Orange. Hard to believe it’s a debut novel… it’s so well done. Important and timely.
Tommy Orange’s There There introduces a brilliant new author at the start of a major career.
“We all came to the powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling threads of our lives got pulled into a braid–tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. There will be death and playing dead, there will be screams and unbearable silences, forever-silences, and a kind of time-travel, at the moment the gunshots start, when we look around and see ourselves as we are, in our regalia, and something in our blood will recoil then boil hot enough to burn through time and place and memory. We’ll go back to where we came from, when we were people running from bullets at the end of that old world. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, that we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.”
Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame in Oakland. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and has come to work the powwow and to honor his uncle’s memory. Edwin Black has come to find his true father. Thomas Frank has come to drum the Grand Entry. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil Red Feather; Orvil has taught himself Indian dance through YouTube videos, and he has come to the Big Oakland Powwow to dance in public for the very first time. Tony Loneman is a young Native American boy whose future seems destined to be as bleak as his past, and he has come to the Powwow with darker intentions–intentions that will destroy the lives of everyone in his path.
Fierce, angry, funny, groundbreaking–Tommy Orange’s first novel is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few of us have ever seen. There There is a multi-generational, relentlessly paced story about violence and recovery, hope and loss, identity and power, dislocation and communion, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. A glorious, unforgettable debut.
THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry. What a wonderful book. Terrifically ambitious and well executed. The characters are fascinating and the story both poignant and utterly credible. The prose is simply delicious. There really isn’t a false note. This is the sort of book one doesn’t find too often — a throwback to the novels of people like Flora Thompson and Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell with a bit of Wilkie Collins thrown in for good measure.
Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.
THE CELERY FOREST by Catherine Graham. What a joy of a book. Every page is delicious although piercing. It’s subtle, personal and moving.
Like Wonderland or Oz, Neverland or Narnia, The Celery Forest is an extraordinary world filled with strange creatures and disorienting sights. But the doorway to the Celery Forest is not a rabbit hole or an old wardrobe. The doorway is a mammogram. For poet and novelist Catherine Graham, this is the topsy-turvy world she found herself in after learning she had breast cancer. No longer the world she recognized, the Celery Forest is a place where things are seen and experienced for the first time. More than a survivor’s tale, these poems are a map through unknowable terrain, infused with awareness and forgetting, written by a poet with the visionary ability to distill our sense of wonder into something we can hold.
THE POWER by Naomi Alderman. Terrific Premise, brilliantly executed.
In The Power the world is a recognisable place: there’s a rich Nigerian kid who lounges around the family pool; a foster girl whose religious parents hide their true nature; a local American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.
This extraordinary novel by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday TimesYoung Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British writer, is not only a gripping story of how the world would change if power was in the hands of women but also exposes, with breath-taking daring, our contemporary world.
OFFSHORE by Penelope Fitzgerald. Not a false not. Wish I’d discovered her years earlier.
On the Battersea Reach of the Thames, a mixed bag of the slightly disreputable, the temporarily lost, and the patently eccentric live on houseboats, rising and falling with the great river’s tides. Belonging to neither land nor sea, they cling to one another in a motley yet kindly society. There is Maurice, by occupation a male prostitute, by happenstance a receiver of stolen goods. And Richard, a buttoned-up ex-navy man whose boat dominates the Reach. Then there is Nenna, a faithful but abandoned wife, the diffident mother of two young girls running wild on the waterfront streets.
It is Nenna’s domestic predicament that, as it deepens, draws the relations among this scrubby community together into ever more complex and comic patterns. The result is one of Fitzgerald’s greatest triumphs, a novel the Booker judges deemed “flawless.”
FAMILY ALBUM by Penelope Lively (Just to group all the Penelopes together. Snort.) A truly haunting novel. Lively’s brilliant structure and deep insights are just amazing and inspiring.
Penelope Lively is renowned for her signature combination of silken storytelling and nuanced human insights. In Family Album, lively masterfully peels back one family’s perfect façade to reveal the unsettling truths.
All Alison ever wanted was to provide her six children with a blissful childhood. Its creation, however, became an obsession that involved Ingrid, the family au pair. As adults, Paul, Gina, Sandra, Katie, Roger, and Clare return to their family home and as mysteries begin to unravel, each must confront how the consequences of long-held secrets have shaped their lives.
WE, THE DROWNED by Carsten Jensen. WOW. Epic doesn’t begin to describe it. Between the vast geographical territory and the depth of the emotional territory, Jensen’s book is a must-read for anyone who loves great books. This one’s destined to stand the test of time, I believe.
It is an epic drama of adventure, courage, ruthlessness, and passion by one of Scandinavia’s most acclaimed storytellers.
In 1848 a motley crew of Danish sailors sets sail from the small island town of Marstal to fight the Germans. Not all of them return – and those who do will never be the same. Among them is the daredevil Laurids Madsen, who promptly escapes again into the anonymity of the high seas.
As soon as he is old enough, his son Albert sets off in search of his missing father on a voyage that will take him to the furthest reaches of the globe and into the clutches of the most nefarious company. Bearing a mysterious shrunken head, and plagued by premonitions of bloodshed, he returns to a town increasingly run by women – among them a widow intent on liberating all men from the tyranny of the sea.
From the barren rocks of Newfoundland to the lush plantations of Samoa, from the roughest bars in Tasmania, to the frozen coasts of northern Russia, We, The Drowned spans four generations, two world wars and a hundred years. Carsten Jensen conjures a wise, humorous, thrilling story of fathers and sons, of the women they love and leave behind, and of the sea’s murderous promise. This is a novel destined to take its place among the greatest seafaring literature.
So, what did you love this year? Would love to know. Maybe some of them will make it onto my reading list for next year (although that’s already at over 600 books…. I despair!).
Joyful everything to you this season during which, like every other season, reading makes it all better!!!