Picking an annual “best of” books list is always challenging since I know that books I love might bore someone else silly, and vice versa. Still, I read SO many good books this year (and 127 in all), and I want to share a few of my favorites. Besides, all the other cool kids are doing it! Snort. So here’s the first 10 – the ones I’ve read most recently. That doesn’t mean these are the best of the best. I’ll add more to another list later this month. Enjoy’!
Here we go… in no particular order at all.
WE SPREAD by Iain Reid: “A new work of philosophical suspense. Penny, an artist, has lived in the same apartment for decades, surrounded by the artifacts and keepsakes of her long life. She is resigned to the mundane rituals of old age, until things start to slip. Before her longtime partner passed away years earlier, provisions were made, unbeknownst to her, for a room in a unique long-term care residence, where Penny finds herself after one too many incidents.’
Initially, surrounded by peers, conversing, eating, sleeping, looking out at the beautiful woods that surround the house, all is well. She even begins to paint again. But as the days start to blur together, Penny—with a growing sense of unrest and distrust—starts to lose her grip on the passage of time and on her place in the world. Is she succumbing to the subtly destructive effects of aging, or is she an unknowing participant in something more unsettling?
At once compassionate and uncanny, told in spare, hypnotic prose, Iain Reid’s genre-defying third novel explores questions of conformity, art, productivity, relationships, and what, ultimately, it means to grow old.
My review: “Good lord, Iain!! First, I feel I can call you Iain as you, my husband, and I met and shared much chat and a meal years ago at the Kingston Writer’s Fest. I just adored you at first meeting – so smart and kind and thoughtful. I love all your work. But here, dear one, you have succeeded in scaring the crap out of me. I mean, you really terrified me. Full-blown willies.
The problem is, you’ve done such a brilliant, yes brilliant job of putting me directly into the mind of a woman not that much older than me and in circumstances that have long given me (and I’m sure I’m not alone in this) the screaming horrors. Dependance. Paranoia. Uncertainty. Anger. Fragility… left in the uncaring (?) hands of others.
The atmosphere is so sinister it had me clicking the locks, turning on lights, and checking the shadows. And all that atmosphere in an undeniably charming-old-farmhouse setting. Impressive, sir. Impressive.
In short, I applaud your talent, while at the same time cursing you for having written a book that will, I am sure, haunt me. p.s. That ending is about as perfect as an ending can be, and I am grateful for it. p.p.s. If we ever meet again, lunch is on you.”
ELMET by Fiona Mozley: I should warn you, although the writing here is stunning (seriously!) there is some brutality which may be upsetting. I’m quite all right with novels that unsettle me, if whatever it is that discomforts me is at the service of the narrative, which it certainly is here.
“The family thought the little house they had made themselves in Elmet, a corner of Yorkshire, was theirs, that their peaceful, self-sufficient life was safe. Cathy and Daniel roamed the woods freely, occasionally visiting a local woman for some schooling, living outside all conventions. Their father built things and hunted, working with his hands; sometimes he would disappear, forced to do secret, brutal work for money, but to them he was a gentle protector.
Narrated by Daniel after a catastrophic event has occurred, Elmet mesmerizes even as it becomes clear the family’s solitary idyll will not last. When a local landowner shows up on their doorstep, their precarious existence is threatened, their innocence lost. Daddy and Cathy, both of them fierce, strong, and unyielding, set out to protect themselves and their neighbors, putting into motion a chain of events that can only end in violence.
As rich, wild, dark, and beautiful as its Yorkshire setting, Elmet is a gripping debut about life on the margins and the power—and limits—of family loyalty.”
I WILL NEVER SEE THIS WORLD AGAIN by Ahmet Atlan. See my full review here. But what Simon Callow said about it in The Guardian in 2019:
“To review certain books seems like an impertinence. This is one of them. It speaks for itself with such clarity, certainty and wisdom that only one thing needs to be said: read it. And then read it again.”
In 2016, like so many other writers, Ahmet Altan was imprisoned by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s oppressive regime. Altan was at first charged with being a “religious putschist” and then with being a “Marxist terrorist.” Evidence for both charges was either scant or non-existent, however, the bored, sleepy, uncaring judges sentenced him to life without parole on the basis of three columns he’d written and a television appearance.
None of this came as a surprise to Altan. As NPR says, “His great-grandfather was ‘sentenced to death for helping rebels to defect to Anatolia during the War of Liberation and only escaped hanging at the last minute. His father had been arrested many times and was ‘put on trial hundreds of times for his writing.’ Altan’s brother was also arrested and sentenced to life in prison. The family’s history had prepared the novelist for the arrest, but it hadn’t prepared him for life behind bars.”
Truth-telling and justice are, we might assume, the family business. And as much as Altan has shown a commitment throughout his life to this endeavor, he is first and foremost a writer. What then does a writer do when he finds himself in prison for life? He scratches words on tiny bits of paper and smuggles them out to his lawyer.
DAUGHTER OF FAMILY G by Ami McKay: “Weaving together family history, genetic discovery, and scenes from her life, Ami McKay tells the compelling, true-science story of her own family’s unsettling legacy of hereditary cancer while exploring the challenges that come from carrying the mutation that not only killed many people you loved, but might also kill you.
The story of Ami McKay’s connection to a genetic disorder called Lynch syndrome begins over seventy years before she was born and long before scientists discovered DNA. In 1895 her great-great aunt, Pauline Gross, a seamstress in Ann Arbor, Michigan, confided to a pathology professor at the local university that she expected to die young, like so many others in her family. Rather than dismiss her fears, the pathologist chose to enlist Pauline in the careful tracking of those in her family tree who had died of cancer. Pauline’s premonition proved true–she died at 46–but because of her efforts, her family (who the pathologist dubbed ‘Family G’) would become the longest and most detailed cancer genealogy ever studied in the world. A century after Pauline’s confession, researchers would identify the genetic mutation responsible for the family’s woes. Now known as Lynch syndrome, the genetic condition predisposes its carriers to several types of cancer, including colorectal, endometrial, ovarian and pancreatic.
In 2001, as a young mother with two sons and a keen interest in survival, Ami McKay was among the first to be tested for Lynch syndrome. She had a feeling she’d test positive: her mother’s side of the family was riddled with early deaths and her own mother was being treated for the disease. When the test proved her fears true, she began living in “an unsettling state between wellness and cancer,” and she’s been there ever since. Intimate, candid, and probing, her genetic memoir tells a fascinating story, teasing out the many ways to live with the hand you are dealt.”
FOSTER by Claire Keegan: “A small girl is sent to live with foster parents on a farm in rural Ireland, without knowing when she will return home. In the strangers’ house, she finds a warmth and affection she has not known before and slowly begins to blossom in their care. And then a secret is revealed and suddenly, she realizes how fragile her idyll is.
Winner of the Davy Byrnes Memorial Prize, Foster is now published in a revised and expanded version. Beautiful, sad and eerie, it is a story of astonishing emotional depth, showcasing Claire Keegan’s great accomplishment and talent.”
Honestly, how Keegan manages to cram in so much in so few pages mystifies me. Her prose is simply sublime. #WritingAspirations
MOON TIGER by Penelope Lively: “Winner of the Man Booker Prize — Penelope Lively won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for this deeply moving, elegantly structured novel. Elderly, uncompromising Claudia Hampton lies in a London hospital bed with memories of life fluttering through her fading consciousness. An author of popular history, Claudia proclaims she’s carrying out her last project: a history of the world. This history turns out to be a mosaic of her life, her own story tangled with those of her brother, her lover and father of her daughter, and the center of her life, Tom, her one great love found and lost in war-torn Egypt. Always the independent woman, often with contentious relationships, Claudia’s personal history is complex and fascinating. As people visit Claudia, they shake and twist the mosaic, changing speed, movement, and voice, to reveal themselves and Claudia’s impact on their world.” So beautifully written. I adore Lively.
HAPPENING by Ann Ernaux: Yes, well, Nobel Prize in Literature and all that. My first book by Ernaux. “In 1963, Annie Ernaux, 23 and unattached, realizes she is pregnant. Shame arises in her like a plague: Understanding that her pregnancy will mark her and her family as social failures, she knows she cannot keep that child.
This is the story, written forty years later, of a trauma Ernaux never overcame. In a France where abortion was illegal, she attempted, in vain, to self-administer the abortion with a knitting needle. Fearful and desperate, she finally located an abortionist, and ends up in a hospital emergency ward where she nearly dies.
In Happening, Ernaux sifts through her memories and her journal entries dating from those days. Clearly, cleanly, she gleans the meanings of her experience.” Very French (I say this as someone who lived there for a decade), intellectual, removed, analytical, clear-eyed, fascinating, weighty regardless of how slim the volume is.
THE NINTH CHILD BY SALLY MAGNUSSON: “A spellbinding novel of a young doctor’s wife, Isabel Aird, struggling to make her childless life meaningful, unaware that the sinister Robert Kirke is watching her every move, by the Sunday Times bestselling author Sally Magnusson.
Loch Katrine waterworks, 1856. A Highland wilderness fast becoming an industrial wasteland. No place for a lady. But Isabel Aird, denied the motherhood role society expects of her by a succession of miscarriages, is comforted by a place where she can feel the presence of her lost children and begin to work out what her life is for.
No matter that the hills echo with the gunpowder blasts of men tunnelling day and night to bring fresh water to diseased Glasgow thirty miles away – digging so deep that there are those who worry they are disturbing the land of faery itself.
New life is quickening within her again. While her husband is engaged with the medical emergencies of the construction site, Isabel can only wait. But someone else is waiting too. The man in the dark coat, watching for the right moment with a huntsman’s eye . . .By turns spellbinding and heart-pounding, The Ninth Child is set at a pivotal time in the Victorian era, when engineering innovation and new ideas flourished but women did not. Through the dual lens of history and folklore it captures a woman’s struggle to make her life matter, and a compromised man’s struggle with himself.” Great read for a wintery afternoon!
A LITTLE HOPE by Ethan Joella: “In the small city of Wharton, Connecticut, lives are beginning to unravel. A husband betrays his wife. A son struggles with addiction. A widow misses her late spouse. At the heart of these interlinking stories is one couple: Freddie and Greg Tyler.
Greg has just been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a brutal form of cancer. He intends to handle this the way he has faced everything else: through grit and determination. But can Greg successfully overcome his illness? How will Freddie and their daughter cope if he doesn’t? How do the other residents of Wharton learn to live with loss, and find happiness again?
An emotionally powerful debut that immerses the reader into a community of friends, family, and neighbors, A Little Hope celebrates the importance of small moments of connection and the ways that love and forgiveness can help us survive even the most difficult of life’s challenges.” This one packed a real emotional punch.
THIN PLACES by Kerri ni Dochartaigh: “A breathtaking mix of memoir, nature writing and social history: this is Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s story of a wild Ireland, an invisible border, an old conflict and the healing power of the natural world
Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, at the very height of the Troubles. She was brought up on a grey and impoverished council estate on the wrong side of town. But for her family, and many others, there was no right side. One parent was Catholic, the other was Protestant. In the space of one year they were forced out of two homes and when she was eleven a homemade petrol bomb was thrown through her bedroom window. Terror was in the very fabric of the city, and for families like Kerri’s, the ones who fell between the cracks of identity, it seemed there was no escape.
In Thin Places, a mixture of memoir, history and nature writing, Kerri explores how nature kept her sane and helped her heal, how violence and poverty are never more than a stone’s throw from beauty and hope, and how we are, once again, allowing our borders to become hard, and terror to creep back in. Kerri asks us to reclaim our landscape through language and study, and remember that the land we fight over is much more than lines on a map, more than housing estates and parliament buildings – it will always be ours but, at the same time, it never really was.