I set myself a goal of 40 books for 2015 and I’m at 43 at the time of writing. I’ve read some fantastic books, old and new, this year – here’s a few recommendations:
Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven lived up to the hype. I was drawn in by the concept: a post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespeare company, but what has stayed with me is the exquisite characterization and before-and-during transitions as the catastrophe unfolds. I don’t think I’ve seen a bad word about this book.
Anne Charnock’s debut novel and Kitschies finalist A Calculated Life is a quietly mesmerizing coming-of-age tale which lingers after the reading. The (unrelated) follow-up, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, has just landed on my doormat and I can’t wait to get to it over Christmas.
Another brilliant debut was Saad Hossein’s Escape from Baghdad!, a rollercoaster of a novel whose post-invasion Iraq setting is combined seamlessly with a hunt for the secrets of immortality. The dark humour emphasises rather than detracts from the seriousness of the underlying text. Surely one for next year’s Kitschies lists?
Two revelatory authors for me this year were Sarah Hall and Kelly Link, neither of whom I’d read before. I was blown away by the writing of Hall’s The Carhullan Army. At once fierce and lyrical, this is a dystopia which packs a huge punch in a short space. Her latest novel, The Wolf Border, is first on my list for next year’s reading.
Kelly Link’s collection Pretty Monsters left me green with envy; a note-perfect example of the use of the fantastical in contemporary settings. I’m really looking forward to her latest collection, Get In Trouble, currently out in hardback.
You can’t really write about Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without giving the game away, but suffice to say I adored this: the self-aware narration, the careful consideration of moral conundrums, the humour and the tears. Gorgeous.
Ali Smith’s How To Be Both is published two different ways: I read the 15th Century painter Francesco del Cosso’s story first, followed by George’s present day narrative. This beautiful meditation is my favourite of Smith’s work to date.
Mohsin Hamid is an author I’d been meaning to get to for a while; I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist and immediately afterwards bought How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the latter of which had me in tears at the end. Hamid is a superb stylist, able to convey volumes in the tautest of sentences.
In science fiction, I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson: a structural and philosophical delight.
Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium was an incredibly clever use of narrative structure, and beautifully written to boot.
Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star left me somewhat divided: this 900+ pages epic is worth the read for the voice alone – the use of language is searingly good – but its relentless bleakness and somewhat meandering plot left me struggling a little towards the end.
I’d been challenged to read Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, which I went into a little apprehensively, having no idea what to expect, and ended up enjoying immensely.
I’m still waiting for the paperback edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, but her new collection The Stone Mattress served as a perfect reminder of what a superlative writer Atwood is. Addressing the ageing process with wit and grace, this is dark humour at its best.
Hilary Mantel is another writer I need to read more of: her memoir Giving Up The Ghost is sharp, satiric, a linguistic joy and utterly heartwrenching.
I took Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum on holiday and was blown away to discover it was her debut novel. Like another of my favourite writers, Jennifer Egan, Atkinson has a wonderful gift for combining humour with serious subject matter; this was a joy.
Lastly, I used up my Jennifer Egan credit finishing the last of her backlist, The Keep. Towards the end I had one of those moments of sitting bolt upright and declaring out loud, ‘Damn, but Egan is such a ridiculously clever writer’. And she is. I’m now desperately waiting for whatever comes next from this phenomenally good novelist.
All in all, 2015 was a pretty brilliant year for reading. Here’s to 2016!