Wondering what to read? I have a few recommendations! I’ve neglected this blog over the past two years, since I’ve been preoccupied with finishing my own book, which has just been published. There’s always time for reading, though! Indeed, I think it’s an essential part of the writing process, not to mention a fantastic way of relaxing. In 2017 and 2018 I read exactly 100 books – that may sound a lot, but it averages just one a week, and some of them were short (thanks, BWB Texts). Just under half of those books were novels. I’m not going to mention them all here – these were my favourites. A word of warning – some of the links I’ve included are to Wikipedia pages which may include plot spoilers.
As ever, my fiction reading has covered a range of the old and the new from various genres. I enjoyed several classic novels. I read Emma (published 1815) for the umpteenth time, in honour of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. I also discovered, for the first time, ‘the Scottish Jane Austen’, Susan Ferrier. Scottish writer Val McDermid ran a campaign to revive the memory of this once popular author. Her 1818 novel Marriage, which I called up from library storage, is a family saga, long but interesting, with some great comic characters.
The death of Ursula Le Guin prompted me to read the entire Earthsea series. I read A wizard of Earthsea (1968) as a child, but I can’t recall reading the others previously – I wasn’t a big fan of science fiction or fantasy then, as I am now! I especially liked The tombs of Atuan (1971) and Tehanu (1990). Immersing myself in Le Guin’s imagined world over all five of the books was a great experience. The writing, characters and stories are all excellent, while, like all imagined worlds, Earthsea and its people prompt reflection on the state of our ‘real’ world. A striking feature of the series is the diversity of the central characters with respect to gender, ethnicity and abilities – undoubtedly that adds to its broad appeal.
Like many other people, I was prompted by the current state of our world to read some classic dystopian fiction – Nineteen eighty-four (1949) and Animal farm (1945) by George Orwell, and The handmaid’s tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. I first read The handmaid’s tale soon after it was published, so describing it as a classic makes me feel old, but I think it fits that category. It was chilling when I read it in the 1980s and has remained with me since; it was just as chilling when I read it in 2017. I haven’t seen the recent TV adaptation, but the power of the book’s imagery is clear in the way that the costume of the handmaids has since become an internet meme!
More recent fiction
In a previous post of book recommendations I noted that Life after life by Kate Atkinson was my favourite read of 2016. Last year I read the ‘companion’ to that, A god in ruins (2015). It is equally brilliant – I don’t want to include any spoilers, so I’ll just say that it’s a creative and compelling story about the long afterlife of war. Another creative and compelling novel about war, and other things besides, is The wish child (2016) by Catherine Chidgey. I’ve read Chidgey’s three previous novels and all are excellent. Their settings vary widely – this one is a tale of children living in wartime Germany.
Although there is no indication of it in the setting of The wish child, Chidgey is a New Zealander, and it’s been great to discover some other excellent writers from New Zealand over the past couple of years – from Dunedin, even! New to me was Laurence Fearnley. I read The hut builder (2010) and The quiet spectacular (2016) and loved her settings, characters and subtle humour – these are quiet books with lots of descriptions of the natural world. There’s something special about reading a book set in your own environment, and that’s one of the reasons I liked Billy bird (2016) by Emma Neale. It’s an imaginatively written novel about a family recovering from a trauma. A final recommendation in the ‘locals’ category is by transplanted Scot Liam McIlvanney. I don’t read much crime fiction these days, but make an exception when I know the author in person! The quaker (2018) is a beautifully written novel set in 1960s Glasgow, inspired by the unsolved Bible John case. I was privileged to attend the launch, where Liam read from the beginning of the book. I read another chapter on the bus home and was completely hooked, finishing it in a couple of days. The plot is interesting, with its fair share of twists, but it’s the little details and evocation of a time and place that makes it really special.
Tales of the imagination
A recent reading highlight was Station eleven (2014) by Emily St John Mandel. My friend André commented on Twitter that it was “Absolutely one of my very favourite books of all time. The funny part is how almost any description of it makes it sound kinda shit really.” I agree! If your taste runs to the post-apocalyptic, you should definitely read this one, set in a world where most people have died in a pandemic. It has all sorts of interesting threads running through it – travel, theatre, and religion being prominent. A different sort of imagined world is that evoked in The power (2016) by Naomi Alderman. It is a world where gender hierarchies are reversed after women gain new physical powers, and the consequent tensions are explosive. I found it disturbing, but it sparked lots of interesting ideas.
I’ve also read further books by two of my favourite creators of imagined worlds. Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller, and I found American gods (2001) fascinating – it’s based on the premise that old gods follow migrants from their old world to the new, and struggle to survive in their new environment, which is also influenced by new gods (such as the media). A related book I thoroughly recommend is Gaiman’s masterly retelling of old legends, Norse mythology (2017). Juliet Marillier writes a different sort of fantasy, set in an imagined past with elements of magic. She, too, is a master storyteller. Her characters often struggle with disabilities or past traumas; they are very empathetic tales. She also has a big heart for animals, which feature in most of her books. I know because I’ve read all of them! Over the past couple of years I enjoyed completing her Blackthorn and Grim series, which includes Dreamer’s pool (2014), Tower of thorns (2015) and Den of wolves (2016).
There is a little magic or fantasy or imagination – call it what you will – in two other powerful books I read last year – Lincoln in the bardo (2017) by George Saunders and The underground railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead. Lincoln in the bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize, is a wildly imaginative book set in a space between death and an afterlife, with many different narrators. It takes place in 1862 and has its basis in the true story of US President Abraham Lincoln’s great grief on the death of his son. The underground railroad is also set in 19th century America, where the underground railroad was a metaphor for the secret routes taken by slaves escaping from the southern states to the north. In Whitehead’s novel, the escape route becomes an actual railway in underground tunnels. This imaginative device mixes with the all too realistic history of slavery in a highly effective and moving novel.
Sometimes, when life is tough, you don’t want to read a gloomy book. Of course, there is plenty of escapist fiction with a happy ending out there, and I’ve read a few romcoms of varying quality! But a friend introduced me to the concept of ‘uplit’, more literary stories designed to lift your mood ‘up’. The two she recommended were excellent. The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), by Rachel Joyce, is a moving, thoughtful and well written novel about a man who takes an unexpected walk. The trouble with goats and sheep (2016), by Joanna Cannon, is a study of a community in 1960s/70s England, partly from the perspective of a child. “Suspense, nostalgia, the making of outsiders” is how I summarised it after reading.
I’ve found Twitter a good place for book recommendations, often alerting me to things I wouldn’t have read otherwise. I’ve discovered some interesting books through the #storypast hashtag, used by historians/historical fiction writers interested in creative ways of writing about the past. I haven’t joined in their Twitter reading group, largely because the dates or times didn’t suit me, but I have read some of the books they discussed. A highlight for me was Ulverton (1992) by Adam Thorpe. It’s a novel which explores a fictional English village in different periods, making good use of varied writing formats. There’s an interesting interview with Thorpe in the Guardian, published when Ulverton became a Vintage Classic in 2012. I must read some more of his ‘uncategorisable’ opus!
Happy 2019 everyone – I hope the year brings you lots of interesting reading. If I get the chance, I will write another post with my recommendations for some good non-fiction reads – the photograph provides clues to some of my favourites!