Category Archives: Recommendations

Reading recommendations from 2017

Once again December has crept up, and it’s time to look back on the past twelve months’ reading. For 2017 I set myself a goal of 50 books and at the time of writing I’m up to 46. In the meantime, here are a few recommendations of books I’ve loved this year.

The Natural Way of Things –  Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin, 2016

Ten young women wake to find they have been drugged and transported to a remote station in the Australian outback. Watched over by guards, they discover that what they have in common – and the apparent reason for their incarceration – is a past involvement in sex scandals with powerful men. A fiercely feminist novel which veers in unexpected directions, with a searing depiction of one woman’s descent into feral life.

The Swan Book –  Alexis Wright
Constable, 2015

An Aboriginal teenage girl, Oblivion Ethylene, is found in the roots of a eucalypt tree by an old woman who is fleeing climate change wars in the northern hemisphere. Alexis Wright’s prose leaps from surreal to luminous to mythical to deeply satirical, in an extraordinary exploration of the legacy of colonialism and impacts of climate change unlike anything else I’ve read. I can’t possibly do this book justice in few lines, so for a detailed review, take a look at the Sydney Review of Books.

Speak Gigantular – Irenosen Okojie
Jacaranda, 2016

Okojie’s debut collection weaves the familiar and the unknown in new and unexpected ways. The writing is bold, surreal, erotic, often disturbing and always original, and I loved seeing London anew through the lens of many of these stories, including an encounter between two Londoners haunting the Underground.

The Queue – Basma Abdel Azim
Melville House, 2016

A clever, subtle, Kafka-esque exploration of authoritarianism set in an unspecified Middle Eastern city in the wake of the Arab Spring. A cast of characters meet, share and conceal their stories while waiting in the eponymous queue for their requests to be granted by a sinister government.

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid
Hamish Hamilton, 2017

A bittersweet love story of two people fleeing war in an unnamed country. Hamid’s latest novel takes a speculative departure, with the guise of mysterious doors which allow people to move instantaneously between countries. Timely depiction of the refugee crisis with wonderful characterisation.

Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang
Picador, 2015

There’s so much to admire about Ted Chiang’s short fiction, but what has stayed with me about this collection is the way form is so perfectly aligned to subject matter in each of these immaculately constructed, evocative tales.

 

Open City – Teju Cole
Faber & Faber, 2012

An American psychiatrist of Nigerian and German descent is undertaking his training in New York. Rootless, trying to make his way in the city, he walks compulsively. From the first lines you know you’re in for a treat: this is a gorgeous, meditative read which has stayed with me all year.

You Will Know Me – Megan Abbott
Picador, 2016

Superb psychological portrait of teenage gymnast and Olympic hopeful Devon, and the toll her ambitious regime takes on Devon herself and the family pushing her to glory. Told from the perspective of her conflicted mother Katie, this is a cleverly plotted, compulsive read.

Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer
Fourth Estate, 2015

One of my favourite reads this year, encompassing all the things I love in literature: great characterisation, luminous writing, an unreliable narrator and the mysterious, surreal setting of Area X. I enjoyed the rest of the trilogy very much but this remains the standout.

The Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak
Penguin, 2015

Shafak deploys the frame of an American woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, who is reviewing the novel ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ by a mysterious writer about the scholar and poet Rumi and his muse Shams of Tabriz. Their story is told by a large cast of characters including Rumi and Shams themselves, Rumi’s family, and the various people they encounter from fellow travellers to the local drunk. Glorious storytelling and I can’t wait to read more from Shafak’s (happily lengthy) backlist.

The Sixth Extinction – Elizabeth Kolbert
Bloomsbury, 2014

A lot of my reading this year has been research for the next writing project. If you read one non-fiction book this (or rather next) year, make it The Sixth Extinction – Kolbert’s reporting on the mass extinctions already underway is timely, informative, heartbreaking and imperative reading.

Sapiens / Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari
Vintage, 2015 and 2017

There’s been plenty of hype around Harari’s bestselling Sapiens and the follow up Homo Deus, and happily they live up to it. Immensely enjoyable, thought-provoking history which interrogates humanity’s place on the planet past, present and future. A new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is due next year – I can’t wait. 

Finally, shout-outs to two superb novels, both of which I read in advance copies last year but were published in 2017: Anne Charnock’s multi-stranded Dreams Before the Start of Time and Nina Allan’s haunting The Rift are science fiction at its best.

Here’s to 2018 reading!

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Reading recommendations from 2016

Looking back on the year’s reading, below are a few recommendations from books I’ve loved in 2016. The majority weren’t originally published this year and one which I’ve been lucky enough to read in advance is published in 2017. They’re all brilliant books and as usual it feels impossible to rank, so I’ve listed in the order I read them:

do-no-harm
Do No Harm
by Henry Marsh (W&N, 2014)

Life, death and brain surgery: a searingly honest account of Henry Marsh’s life and work as one of the UK’s most foremost neurosurgeons. This came with oodles of hype and lived up to every ounce of it. Heartbreaking and inspirational.

speak-by-louisa-hallSpeak by Louisa Hall (Orbit, 2015)

One of those novels that deserved far more attention than it seemed to receive. The multiple narratives span several centuries, from a young Alan Turing to a creator of artificial intelligence now serving a prison sentence, tied together by the voice of a discarded AI who has learned about humanity through the stories she has absorbed. 

wolf-borderThe Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Faber and Faber, 2015)

An eccentric landowner decides to reintroduce wolves to his estate in the north of England. This is a beautiful meditation on nature and landscape, and the most evocative writing I’ve come across about pregnancy. Hall’s language is always divine, and the final images of this novel have lingered with me all year.

house-of-journalistsThe House of Journalists by Tim Finch (Jonathan Cape, 2013)

Dark humour abounds in this tale of a house for refugee journalists seeking sanctuary in London, having fled from oppressive regimes around the world. I loved the clever use of narrative that pulls together the different characters’ stories, and the novel’s themes feel ever more pertinent since it was first published in 2013.

the-boat-nam-leThe Boat by Nam Le (Canongate, 2009)

The opening of this collection, which takes a character with the author’s name attending a writing workshop in Iowa, subverts and satirizes the expectations of what a Vietnamese-born Australian writer should write about, and stakes the writer’s claim on the short fiction form. Seven marvellous stories located around the world in an explosion of startling imagery.

central-stationCentral Station by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon, 2016)

Fractured novel exploring the lives and loves of a cast of characters living in the shadow of a future space station in Tel Aviv. Tidhar creates a wonderful tapestry of moods and emotions with some extraordinarily powerful scenes such as a robotnik soldier’s memories of war. Hope to see this on some awards lists next year.

dear-thiefDear Thief by Samantha Harvey (Vintage, 2014)

In the middle of the night, a woman begins writing a letter to her best friend who disappeared over a decade ago. A gloriously written exploration of betrayal and forgiveness and one of the best depictions I’ve read of the complexities of female friendship.

 

the-thing-itselfThe Thing Itself by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2015)

Roberts combines philosophy and thriller in this clever, entertaining and enviably stylish exploration of Kant and the Fermi Paradox. The central narrative is interspersed with often heartbreaking accounts of characters caught up in the ramifications of the thing itself, and wonderfully written throughout. An absolute joy.

dreams-before-the-start-of-timeDreams Before The Start of Time by Anne Charnock (47 North, 2017)

Charnock’s third novel is a beautifully nuanced exploration of future developments in fertility science. The science underpinning the narrative is subtle and unobtrusive, allowing the novel to shine on the neuroses of its large, three-generational cast of characters as they struggle to come to terms with the decisions of their parents. As with her previous novels, Charnock is marvellous at communicating a huge amount in a short space. Look out for this in April next year.

2015 Reading: The Year in Review

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.

mechanique coverAlso set against a post-apocalyptic landscape, I adored Genevieve Valentine’s steampunk Mechanique. Hands down the best circus-themed novel I’ve read.

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.

EscapeFromBaghdad-CoverPromo21Another 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?

prettymonsters_kellylinkTwo 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.

karenjoyfowler_weareallYou 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.

hamid_howtogetfilthyrichMohsin 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.

newman_icecreamstarSandra 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.

atwood_stonemattressI’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.

egan_thekeepLastly, 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!

In conversation with Speculative Fiction Author Anne Charnock

ACharnockPortrait

Anne Charnock

I met Anne Charnock (@annecharnock) last summer when we shared a panel at LonCon 3, with David Hebblethwaite and Adam Roberts, discussing writers who cross the boundary between mainstream fiction and science fiction.

Since then, I’ve completed my trilogy, The Osiris Project, and Anne has finished her second novel, Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind. Anne’s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award 2013 and The Kitschies Golden Tentacle 2013.

We felt it was time for a catch-up chat—about past writing and future plans.


Anne—
So, E.J., we’ve both written fiction in which climate change is part of our world-building. Tell me how you became interested in this subject and the part it plays in your trilogy The Osiris Project.

E.J.—Climate change was something I’d had a growing interest and awareness of for a few years, and then I read Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, and that was really a game-changer for me. The geo-political scenarios it hypothesizes were at once utterly horrifying but also, from a fiction writer’s point of view, fascinating. I’ve always been drawn to isolated landscapes – the bleak but beautiful. When it came to writing The Osiris Project, I had the world map in mind very early on – a world radically altered by climate change, with borders redrawn and civilization shifted towards the poles. And that underpinned so much of the trilogy, in terms of character, society, political agendas, particularly in the second novel, Cataveiro.

Anne, how important was climate change as you were developing the world of A Calculated Life? Because as a reader, it feels like a noticeable but very subtle element, which I loved – for example, the vineyards, olive and citrus groves surrounding Greater Manchester.

ACalculatedLifeAnne—In any dystopia there are winners and losers—in terms of wealth and freedom—and it’s the same with climate change. I felt it would be interesting to locate my dystopian world in a region benefiting overall from climate change. In my imagined future world, Manchester and the north west of England become the new Tuscany of Europe. I’ve been tuned into climate issues for many years because I studied environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, home of the Climatic Research Unit. I remember ice-cores being delivered to the department for historical climate analysis. And in 2006, I helped launch the Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral Project in the community where I live. It’s now an exemplar for grassroots action thanks to the community’s enthusiasm. So far we’ve cut our carbon emissions by 25% through behaviour change and we’ve set up a Community Energy Company to generate power from solar energy. Our primary school now has free electricity!

Now that I’ve written two standalone novels, E.J., I’d love to know how you approached writing a trilogy. When did you realize your subject was too big for a standalone novel? And was it instantly clear to you how to break the narrative into three books?  

E.J.—I actually wrote Osiris as a standalone novel in the first instance, but when it came to submitting to agents I had a feeling I’d be asked about plans for sequels, and I left the story deliberately open-ended. The only thing I knew about the second book was that the location would move to outside Osiris, with an almost entirely new cast – I didn’t want to end up writing three variations of the same book, but rather to expand the canvas and the narrative points-of-view with each installment. But then I had so much fun with Cataveiro, the challenge in the third book was pulling everything back together, when my mind wanted to be off exploring an entirely different story! I think if I ever did another trilogy (and it’s definitely not on the cards anytime soon) I’d approach it quite differently. I love those trilogies where you might have hundreds, even thousands of years between books. And hopefully I’d be more organized too…

By contrast, I think you’re doing almost the opposite with your current novel, in terms of structure? Can you tell me a bit about the approach you’ve chosen, and why?

Anne—I spent several years mulling over this novel—Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind—before I settled on the structure. One of my main themes is the nature of success including, more specifically, how women’s achievements have tended to be overlooked. I decided to write three inter-weaving storylines set several hundreds of years apart. A trilogy of sorts!

I hoped this fractured structure would create a sense of immediacy. It’s proved both a challenge and immense fun to write. The settings are Renaissance Florence, present-day China and a future London in which The Academy of Restitutions is attempting to lift women out of undeserved obscurity.

My first novel, A Calculated Life, is dystopian science fiction so, as you can see, I’m now moving into new writing territories—that of contemporary and historical fiction. How do you feel about entering new territory—switching to standalone novels following the success of your trilogy? Do you feel it’s a risk?

E.J.—I’m really looking forward to the era of standalones, I like the containment of the single novel. Of course you can’t guarantee readers who liked one book will automatically be interested in the next, but that goes for series too. I think perhaps the greater risk is moving around genres – the book I’m currently writing has a contemporary setting, and it’s quite different in tone to The Osiris Project books, though it also contains speculative elements. One writer I really admire for this versatility is Genevieve Valentine, whose novels aren’t constrained to any one genre – she’s gone from steampunk circus to 1920s prohibition to future eco-thriller, and seems to be able to turn her hand to any subject material.

I should say I’m a big fan of multilayered and intersecting narratives (writers like David Mitchell, to cite an obvious example) and I absolutely love the sound of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Both of your novels have explored future projections – would you say you’re naturally drawn to the speculative in writing (and in art!), or is this just coincidence?

Anne—I think I’m naturally drawn to speculative writing because it offers a huge canvas. Having said that, I prefer to create plausible scenarios. In my new novel the main characters are connected to the art world—I’m making use of my background as an artist—and two of the main characters are based on real people in Renaissance Italy. I feel the future storyline in my novel is perfectly plausible.

Your current work-in-progress, E.J., brings to mind Ben H Winters’ novel The Last Policeman in terms of setting because Ben’s premise is science fictional but it’s really a contemporary novel! There’s an asteroid hurtling towards Earth and the story imagines how people react when they know the world will end in a year’s time. I find that combination of contemporary fiction and speculative fiction extremely engaging so I can’t wait to see how you bring them together.

Sometimes I test my ideas in a short story—for example, to try out a different style of writing or to find the voice of a character. Your short story “The Spiders of Stockholm” was long-listed for 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. Many congratulations. What an achievement! Can you describe the attraction of short form for you?

E.J.—Thanks, Anne! That was the loveliest surprise – I’d completely forgotten my editor had even submitted the story. “The Spiders of Stockholm” was part of the Irregularity anthology from Jurassic London, who are a joy to write for because they always put together such thought-provoking briefs (in this case, the tension between order and chaos in the Age of Enlightenment).

I don’t feel that I’m a natural short story writer, so I like having some ideas to springboard from. But one thing I love about the form is the opportunity to hone your language at the editing stage, whereas with a novel it feels like there’s always something that escapes you. Having said that, some of my favourite novels are short story collections in disguise, like Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, or Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, and I’d love to write something in that vein one day.

Have you published your short stories, and if so, where can we find them?

Anne—My short story, “The Adoption”, will be published this autumn in Phantasma an anthology of horror, SF, urban fantasy and paranormal fiction, including stories by J.D. Horn, Roberta Trahan, Kate Maruyama and Jodi McIsaac Martens.

Other than that I’m currently hoarding several drafts of short stories—more like vignettes. They’re on a single theme—how human relationships will be affected by advances in human reproduction technologies. I’m a huge fan of fragmented narratives and I’m now inclined to incorporate these vignettes in larger piece of writing, possibly a full-length novel.

One of my favourite examples of fragmented-narrative writing is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad and I’ll definitely read Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial. Thanks for the recommendation. I do feel that short form and split narratives suit me as a fiction writer. It’s possibly a throw-back to my days of rattling off short pieces of journalistic writing. Having said that, short fiction requires a great deal more honing that journalism deadlines ever allowed.

Let’s have another conversation, E.J., when some of our plans have played out. And good luck with your current writing.

Anne’s new novel, Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind, is published by 47North in November 2015. You can pre-order it here and find out more about her work at her website.

Book recommendations – early 2015

A few quick recommendations from recent reading:

guest_cat_cover-v2
The Guest Cat
by Takashi Hiraide

This was my first read of the year, and with cats plus Japan it pretty much had my name on it. Quiet, thoughtful, a mystery that still has me wondering, and some truly delightful descriptions of cats and cat behaviour.

 

StationelevenUKHCStation Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

I’d been looking forward to Station Eleven for months and I was so happy to find it didn’t disappoint. It’s exquisitely plotted, and most importantly wonderfully characterized. I’d been hooked by the description of the post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespeare company, but in the end what has stayed with me most is the before-and-during the breakdown scenes, the moments of realization for those characters, Miranda standing in front of the mirror saying ‘I regret nothing’. A gorgeous tapestry of a novel.

mechanique coverMechanique – Genevieve Valentine

Mechanique is another book that had been on my to-read list for a while, and another one that didn’t let me down. Steampunk circus, an inventive narrative style that slowly unveils the hearts of the performers and the dark truths that lie at the centre of their troupe, this fabulous novel explores mortality, desire, ambition, and the beauty of flight.

calculated life coverA Calculated Life – Anne Charnock

I was first alerted to A Calculated Life via last year’s Kitschies shortlist. This is a story beautifully and simply narrated, the language economical but evocative, and it remains compelling without ever resorting to sensationalism. A coming-of-age tale exploring what it means to be human, it kept me gripped to the end.

EscapeFromBaghdad-CoverPromo21Escape from Baghdad! – Saad Z Hossain

I zipped through Escape From Baghdad in under 24 hours, which says a lot as I’m generally quite a slow reader. For a start, it’s great fun – Hossain’s writing grabs you from the opening line:

“We should kill him,” Kinza said. “But nothing too orthodox.”

From this point on the action doesn’t let up, as three unlikely companions navigate alchemists, immortals and deadly intrigue against the backdrop of post-war Iraq. There are some extremely dark moments, and the humour is correspondingly so (see the torturer who complains he hasn’t been given sufficient time to do his work) but when Hossain wants to make a point he allows the prose to breathe and the emotion to come through. One not to miss.

 

Best of 2014 and a few things to look forward to

The Christmas tree hasn’t yet gone out, which means there’s just about enough time for the obligatory end of year round-up and looking ahead to what 2015 has to offer.

A few things I loved this year which I’d thoroughly recommend (note – not necessarily published in 2014, but from this year’s reading) –  some I’ve written about previously but their merits are well worth reiterating.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
With its innovative approach to the time travel narrative and clever use of format echoing theme, this was a fantastic read, intricately plotted, with a proper punch of an ending.

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
A brilliantly-realized near future setting in India/Ethiopia, combined with a sharp, vibrant voice and nods to mythology made this one of my favourite reads of the year.

The Race by Nina Allan
With its beautifully crafted, intertwining narratives, an evocative sense of place and dreamlike playfulness with reality, I would love to see both this and the Byrne on some awards list later this year.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
The story of how Macdonald trained a goshawk in the months following her father’s death, and the story of the troubled writer T.H. White. A gorgeous, deeply empathetic memoir.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
I adored Oryx and Crake, but was less enamoured with The Year of the Flood. I was delighted to enjoy the conclusion to the trilogy as much as I did the first volume – Atwood never fails to surprise and delight with her inventiveness and style.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Engaging and ever-so-slightly unnerving story of a novice writer who finds herself embroiled in the dubious clique of the eponymous literature society, this is a marvellous read.

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
I enjoyed The Violent Century but this is much closer to the territory of Tidhar’s Osama – intelligent, troubling, funny, at times harrowing, an emotional rollercoaster from start to finish.

And a few things I’m looking forward to in 2015, in no particular order:

Company Town by Madeleine Ashby, Persona by Genevieve Valentin, The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, The First Bad Man by Miranda July.

Next on the reading list is Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, which I’ve been looking forward to for ages, and I’m just waiting for the paperback editions of Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

Plenty to look forward to in 2015.

Reading recommendations – summer 2014

Some recommendations from the last few month’s reading – wonderful books all:

A Woman in Berlin – Anonymous

I stumbled across A Woman in Berlin in the history section of the beautiful Scarthin Books in Derbyshire – one of those oh this looks interesting moments that reminds you to browse bookstores more. The diaries of a German woman – a journalist in her pre-war career – during the final phases of WWII, it chronicles the Russian invasion and sacking of the city of Berlin. It’s a rare first-hand record of the civilian experience of defeat, and the history of its publication is equally fascinating – the first German-language edition in 1960 received such negative reactions that the text was withdrawn, and it was only in 2003, following the anonymous author’s death in 2001, that it saw print again. With its subject matter of rape and sexual collaboration for survival, this is not the easiest read, but what stays with me is the voice of the narrator; the resilience, the dry humour and lack of self-pity, the will to survive. I was especially struck by the author’s reflections on the returning soldiers. The myth of man, she says, has crumbled – ‘That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex’ – an observation which sadly was not to be proven in the post-war era, but makes this even more of a relevant read today.

tale for the time beingA Tale For The Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

A Japanese schoolgirl writes a diary which in the aftermath of a tsunami washes up on a remote coastline in Canada in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. I loved the premise of this. Nao’s diaries are instantly engaging (so much so that I missed her initially during Ruth’s chapters); inspiring and heartbreaking all at once. As Ruth becomes immersed in Nao’s diary, the novel expands to reveal the fascinating histories of Nao’s family, including her ‘anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun’ great-grandmother Jiko, her kamikaze pilot grandfather Haruki #1, and her post-Dot Com Bubble computer programmer father Haruki #2. Exploring the dynamics of power and bullying, Ozeki examines what it really means to be a hero.

hired manThe Hired Man – Aminatta Forna

I was blown away by Forna’s memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and her novel The Memory of Love. The Hired Man is outwardly a quieter novel, but one that creeps up on you with increasing power. Protagonist Duro creates a slow-burn narration, flitting between a seemingly peaceful present, and the darker memories of the past, as the secrets of a Croatian town in the aftermath of civil war are gradually uncovered.

harry augustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has an outwardly simple premise: narrator Harry lives, and dies, and lives his life over and over again, each time retaining the memories of his previous lives. The way it is told is gorgeously intricate. I loved the circular narrative, the employment of form to echo theme, as the book moves back and forth through Harry’s lives, with some playful and at times truly dark historical visitations. The relationship between Harry and his one-time student Vincent is fascinating; as are the philosophical debates eschewing from that relationship. This is a great read from start to finish.

girl in the roadThe Girl in the Road – Monica Byrne

Two journeys are at the heart of The Girl in the Road – Meena, fleeing from India across the Trail, an energy-harvesting floating bridge which crosses the Arabian Sea. And Mariama, a young girl crossing from West Africa to Ethiopia, bewitched by fellow traveller Yemaya, who she worships as a goddess. There were so many things I loved about this – the wonderfully-rendered near future setting; the way the two characters’ journeys intertwine through stories and mythology; the fierce, at times savage voice combined with a gorgeous use of language. I also liked the way it touched on issues such as race, class, sexuality and mental health, whilst not foregrounding any of these; the narrative always comes first.

bad characterA Bad Character – Deepti Kapoor

Kapoor’s A Bad Character explores a very different Indian setting. Sometimes after reading something particularly epic it’s a joy to really focus down, and Kapoor’s novel is exactly that: a distillation of a relationship. Poetic, evocative, burning with suppressed desire and sexuality, it’s told in a series of staccato vignettes by a young woman in Delhi whose name we never learn.

Helen-Macdonald-H-is-for-HawkH is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

If you read one thing this year, read this. Macdonald’s deeply empathetic memoir encompasses two narratives: it’s the story of how she trained a goshawk in the aftermath of her father’s death, and the story of the troubled writer T.H. White. It’s a book about nature and a book about struggling with grief. By turns exquisitely poetic and unflinchingly raw, Macdonald explores what it means to be wild and what it means to be human, and the at times perilously precarious bridge between the two.