Books of the year

My favourite books of 2020

Happy New Year everyone! I know we are all excited and hopeful that 2021 will be happy, healthier and more normal than 2020, but before we step into a brand new year I wanted to look back at what I read over the past 12 months.

I read 83 books in total, which is roughly what I read most years, the only difference being that most of the books were published in 2020. (GoodReads has helpfully listed them all here.)

I don’t normally read so many shiny new books, but in 2020 I went out of my way to support my local independent bookshop (big shout out to New Edition in Fremantle), which bravely kept its doors open all year, including during our first (and thankfully only) six-week shutdown in March/April. I made it a regular habit to visit once a week and to never leave empty-handed! (What a tough challenge — hehehe.)

Also, I think I’m still enjoying the thrill of being able to buy newly published Australian fiction after being unable to do so when I lived in London for two decades! As a consequence, I did buy a lot of  #OzLit, including everything on the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction shortlist and the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist.

My love for Irish fiction didn’t go away either. As per usual, I read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist — although I abandoned one and had previously read another in 2019, so this wasn’t a particularly difficult “challenge” to complete.

It wasn’t all new, new, new though. In the first half of the year, I embarked on a plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June in a project I dubbed #TBR2020. I actually managed to complete this — which reminds me I really ought to have done a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fourth time. And while I didn’t quite hit target, I did manage to read 17 books from my TBR — all listed here.

But that’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Snow’ by John Banville (2020)
Set in County Wexford at Christmas in 1957, Snow is a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House. Evocative, atmospheric and full of brilliant characters, this is historical crime fiction at its finest.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (2019)
This story about two 50-something Irish gangsters recalling the ups and downs they have weathered over the years as drug dealers in Cork and Spain is darkly comic but with a mournful undertone.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)
Booker-shortlisted novel told in the second person about a well-educated Black woman from Zimbabwe who has fallen on hard times. One of the most powerful pieces of fiction I have ever read.

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan (2020)
I am yet to review this one properly, but it’s an exquisitely written tale about preserving human life at any cost at a time when everything in the natural world is being killed off. A novel full of irony, ideas and issues but is not without humour — or hope.

‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan (2020)
Unexpectedly immersive, compelling and SURREAL novel set in Ireland during the BSE crisis of 1996. It made me, a fussy carnivore, look at beef consumption in a whole new light.

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest (2018)
Possibly my favourite book of the year, this richly layered story follows one woman’s journey from Sydney to Perth by train when she discovers she has Alzheimer’s. In Perth she hopes to make amends for a past sin. Along the way we learn about her life.

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
Wholly original dystopian tale about a flu pandemic that allows infected people to understand what animals are saying. Terrifying, deliriously strange and blackly comic.

‘The Last of Her Kind’ by Sigrid Nunez (2006)
A totally immersive story set in New York in the late 1960s which follows the ups and downs of an unlikely friendship between two women from different ends of the social spectrum who are roommates at college.

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu (2020)
This seriously impressive debut novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. Brash, sex-obsessed and memorable.

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ Anne Tyler (2020)
Perceptive and warm-hearted tale of a 40-something man whose dull, predictable life gets turned on its head. Tyler is a genius at writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and this one is no exception.

I trust you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year despite everything that has been going on around the world. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2020, I’d love to know?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2020 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2019

This year has been a rather eventful one for me — in all kinds of ways.

Repatriating after almost 21 years in the UK has posed many challenges, but I’ve not regretted it and I have loved being able to buy Australian books as soon as they’ve been released instead of waiting a year or more for an overseas publication date!

I undertook a few reading projects across the year, with mixed results.

All up, I read 87 books — choosing my favourite proved a tough call. Surprisingly, more than half of the titles I loved were non-fiction reads (I seemed to read a LOT of non-fiction books this year) and 50 percent of the titles came from Australia.

Without further ado, here are the books that made an impression on me this year. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

No Friend But the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (2018)
This award-winning memoir looks at Australia’s offshore immigration detention system from the point of view of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist caught up in it.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (2018)
A rip-roaring read about a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists — at any cost.

Eggshell Skull: A Memoir about Standing Up, Speaking Out and Fighting Back by Bri Lee (2018)
This riveting memoir marries the personal with the political by charting the author’s first year working in the Australian judicial system as she grapples with an eating disorder stemming from her own sexual abuse.

Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987 by Helen Garner (2019)
This collection of sublime and pithy journal entries spans 10 years of Garner’s life and showcases her ability to capture the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.

Constellations book cover

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson (2019)
A brilliant collection of deeply personal essays examining the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper (2019)
A true-crime story looking at the police investigation and subsequent court trial of a man charged with deliberately lighting a fire in Churchill, Central Gippsland that burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people.

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)
This year’s Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie’s memoir recounts how she had to deal with her Canadian-based elderly parents — one of whom was trying to kill the other — from afar.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
A beautifully rendered tale about the unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (2019)
This atmospheric Victorian Gothic drama focuses on Irishman Bram Stoker, actor and theatre director Henry Irving and leading stage actress Ellen Terry and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1878.

The South by Colm Toibin (1990)
A luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, which has lingered in my mind long after I finished reading it. In fact, I loved this book so much I added Toibin to my favourite authors page.

I trust you have had an exciting reading year and discovered some wonderful books and writers. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2019?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2019 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2018

books-of-the-yearSo, another year draws to a close, which means it’s time to sum up my reading over the past 12 months.

I read 68 books, quite a bit down on previous years, but I read a higher percentage of women (62 per cent) than ever before.

Over the course of the year I gave myself a few projects, with mixed results.

On first impressions, I’d say it was a relatively mediocre reading year for me, and going back through my reviews I can see that it was a definite year of two halves, with the first being particularly strong and the second being much weaker.

So here’s my list — a mix of old and new, heavily weighted towards Australian novels with a handful by authors from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and South Africa  The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

The sound of my voice

The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin (1987)
The day-to-day struggles of a biscuit factory executive who is also a high-functioning alcoholic.

The Sinners' Bell by Kevin Casey

The Sinners’ Bell by Kevin Casey (1968)
A heart-rending portrait of a doomed marriage set in small town Ireland.

The Quarry by Damon Galgut

The Quarry by Damon Galgut (1995)
Suspenseful South African novella in which a man on the run from the law switches identity with the priest he murders.

the well

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley (1986)
Slightly disturbing Australian classic about an eccentric woman who invites a teenage orphan to live with her on a remote farm — with unforeseen consequences.

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

Fairyland by Sumner Lock Elliott (1990)
Thinly veiled memoir about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in 1930s/40s Sydney.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Thought-provoking tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show the environmental impact over four centuries.

The Passage of Love

The Passage of Love by Alex Miller (2018)
Fictionalised account of the author’s own life trying to pursue a writing career at the expense of his marriage and financial security.

Soon

Soon by Lois Murphy (2018)
Deliciously creepy novel, part horror, part dystopian, set in a country town threatened by an unexplained mist.

Travelling in a strange land

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (2018)
Beautifully evoked portrayal of a father’s grief masquerading as a treacherous road journey across a snowy British landscape.

The shepherd's hut by Tim Winton

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (2018)
Fast-paced tale about a teenage boy on the run through some of the outback’s most inhospitable territory.

Hope you’ve had an exciting reading year. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2018?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2018 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2017

I always love this time of year. It’s not only a chance to put my feet up (and read a few extra books), it’s also when I look back over my reading year to choose the 10 books that made the biggest impression on me.

This year wasn’t a typical reading year. My day job really ate into my time, and when I did have the time, my brain was too tired to focus on reading.

Or at least that’s the impression I had until I looked back over this blog and my GoodReads account to see that I’d actually read 74 books (10 more than 2016). Interestingly, 90 per cent of those were from my TBR — in other words, books that I’d purchased myself rather than review copies supplied by publishers.

Over the course of the year I gave myself a few projects. I read the entire shortlists for the:

(And agreed with all the winning choices, which have made my top 10 below.)

I also took part in 20 books of summer (though I only read 15) and read 10 books by Australian women writers as part of the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

Unsurprisingly, my top 10 favourite reads of the year are a mix of fiction by mainly Australian, Canadian and Irish writers, and because I really delved into my TBR, there’s less reliance on new books, with several being published in the 1950s and 60s.

So here’s my list. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard (1961)
A cleverly plotted tale of suspense (and murder) set in Paris on Christmas Eve.

My Name is Leon

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal (2016)
Bittersweet coming of age story about a mixed race boy going into foster care in the 1980s. Winner of the 2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award.

Smile by Roddy Doyle

Smile by Roddy Doyle (2017)
A deceptive and compelling novel about a middle aged Irishman coming to terms with his past.

Careful He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Lock Elliott (1963)
Set in Great Depression era Sydney, this warm-hearted and rambunctious novel explores one family’s emotional tug-of-war over a six-year-old boy.

In a strange room by Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (2010)
Lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Down in the City by Elizabeth Harrower (1957)
Disturbing story of an unlikely marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.

Solar Bones

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (2016)
Award-winning stream-of-consciousness novel that charts one man’s struggle to be a good father, brother, son and husband.

Beastings

Beastings by Benjamin Myers (2014)
Gothic horror story about a priest and a poacher pursuing a woman, who’s stolen a baby, across the wild and windswept landscapes of northern England.

Bellevue Square

Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (2017)
This year’s Giller Prize winner (and Shadow Giller winner) begins as a psychological thriller before morphing into a mesmerising tale about medicine and mental illness.

Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (2017)
This year’s Stella Prize winner asks what is art and what is its purpose, framing the story around a real-life performance art exhibition staged in New York by Marina Abramović.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2017?

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2016

Books-of-the-yearWhat a reading year it has been!

As you’ll no doubt know, I challenged myself to read Australian literature all year — and what an enjoyable, entertaining, intriguing and wonderful exercise that turned out to be. The scope and range of the books I read — both fiction and non-fiction — never ceased to amaze and delight me, so much so I’ll write a separate post about it at a later date.

During the year I also read a handful of Canadian books, thanks to my participation in the Shadow Giller Prize (which I’ve been doing every year since 2011), and five amazing British titles thanks to my involvement in shadowing The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016.

All up I read around 65 books, which is substantially fewer than my usual yearly average of around 75 to 80. (I can only blame excessive use of Twitter sucking up all my time, a lot of extra-curricular freelance editing on top of the day job in the first six months of the year, and two changes of day job, one in May and one in October.)

Choosing my favourite ten reads was no mean feat. I read so many great books. But here are the ones that have left a lasting impression (note they weren’t all published this year).

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Floundering by Romy Ash
Floundering by Romy Ash (2012)
A woman “kidnaps” her two sons from the grandparents who are raising them and takes them on a road trip one hot Australian summer. It’s narrated by the youngest son, who soon realises their holiday by the sea isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Heartbreaking and poignant, I loved this book and still think about it almost a year after reading it.

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig  (2016)
This bold experimental novel is set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family. It’s written stream-of-consciousness style and is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I was gripped from the first line.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton
Aunts Up the Cross by Robin Dalton (1965)
This delightful memoir had me tittering away at every madcap episode and anecdote related in Dalton’s droll, self-deprecating prose. Her tale about growing up in an unconventional household in Sydney’s King’s Cross in the 1920s and 30s is by far the most cheerful thing I read all year. I loved it.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Talking to My Country by Stan Grant (2016)
Another memoir, this is the one every Australian should read to find out what it’s like growing up as an indigenous person in a culture so firmly rooted in white colonialism. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. It’s the book that has had the most marked impression on me this year.

The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016)
One of the best crime novels I’ve read in years, this one — set during the worst drought in a century — rips along at a fair pace and has enough red herrings to keep the most jaded reader guessing. And it’s wonderfully evocative — of both the Australian landscape and the people who inhabit small, rural communities.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr (2015)
This is — hands down (pun sort of intended) — my favourite novel of the year. In quiet, understated prose Orr presents three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback over the course of two years (2004 to 2006). It is, by turns, charming, funny and deeply moving, reminding me very much of the eloquent fiction of the late Kent Haruf.

True Country by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott (1999)
This extraordinary debut novel — Scott has since won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice —  tells the story of a young teacher who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school. The community is plagued with problems, but Billy sees beyond that and finds himself coming to terms with his own Aboriginal heritage and forging rewarding relationships with the people and the landscape around him.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (2016)
A page turner of the finest order, this clever story largely revolves around a painting by a (fictional) 17th century Dutch painter, the first woman to ever become a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Holland. Spanning three centuries and three cities, it begins as a crime story before it morphs into a mystery-cum-thwarted-romance-cum-cat-and-mouse-suspense tale. It’s a hugely entertaining read.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning: A Memoir by Magda Szubanski (2016)
This is the third memoir to make my top 10! It is a wonderfully entertaining account of Magda’s life lived in the shadows of her Polish father, an assassin during the Second World War. As an exploration of a father and daughter relationship, it is superb; as an examination of the personal legacy of war and the way that legacy filters down through the generations, it is extraordinary. But it’s also a moving account of Magda dealing with her own demons, including depression and coming to terms with her sexuality.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
A rare example of a book matching the hype, I loved Wood’s thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which woman are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours. Written in a cool, detached voice throughout, the story follows a group of prisoners and their jailers over the course of a year. Fuelled by a quiet rage, this book rails against modern misogyny and should be required reading for men and women everywhere.

I’d also like to award honourable mentions to two more books, both of them non-fiction: Walking Free by Munjed Al Muderis (2014) and Big Blue Sky by Peter Garrett (2015) (review forthcoming). These made me see the challenges facing refugees and politicians, respectively, in a whole new light.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2016?

I’m taking a little blogging break, but before I go I’d like to thank you for your valued support during this past year. Whether it was by sending me an email, visiting this blog or Reading Matters’ Facebook page, leaving a comment, clicking “like” icons or linking back to me from your own blog, it’s all very much appreciated and makes the whole experience of running this blog so much more enjoyable. 

Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! And I hope to see you back here for more literary chat and great book recommendations in mid-January.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2015

Books-of-the-yearIt’s New Year’s Eve, so  it’s time to carry out my annual tradition of selecting 10 of my reading highlights from the past 12 months.

Over the course of 2015 I read 80 books (nine of which are still to be reviewed — oops) which is about average for me. I could probably read twice that if I spent less time on Twitter and didn’t have to go to work!

My favourite books come from a variety of countries and languages. Some were published this year, most were published prior to 2014. A few could be regarded as modern classics, several may well turn out to be classics of the future. Some made me laugh, some made me cry, some made me feel sick to the stomach. All intrigued and delighted me.

Here they are. Note they have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (2015)
My favourite read of the year, Kevin Barry’s award-winning novel follows the exploits of a troubled man who simply wants to spend three days alone on the island he bought off the west coast of Ireland years ago but has never visited. The plot, which draws strongly on Samuel Beckett, is full of riotous comedy, quick-fire dialogue and surreal moments of despair and angst. I loved it.

spill-simmer-falter-wither-tramp-press

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (2015)
Sara Baume’s debut novel is an impressive achievement. Written in the second person, present tense, it’s a beautiful and sad tale about the year in the life of one man and his newly bought rescue dog. Yet the story is less about their relationship and more about how a social misfit, a resourceful man who can barely string two words together, seeks solace in a world he doesn’t really understand.

The_lover

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
This evocative novel (translated from the French by Barbara Bray) is about forbidden love set in exotic Indochina in 1929. It is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life, as she recalls the love affair she conducted, aged 15, with a Chinese man 12 years her senior. It is, by turns, heart-wrenching, sensual and disturbing, deeply melancholy and pulsates with an aching loneliness. It brings to mind the very best writing of Jean Rhys.

Young-god

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris (2014)
This is the kind of book that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. The urgency of the writing and the dire predicament of the young narrator — Nikki, a sassy, street-smart 13-year-old forced to live with her drug-addicted father and his underage lover — make it absolutely compelling reading. It’s not a book to be forgotten easily.

The-Good-Doctor

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut (2003)
This turned out to be my surprise read of the year, for The Good Doctor is written in such a lucid dreamlike style I felt I couldn’t function in the real world until I’d finished it. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it tells the story of a middle-aged staff doctor, working in a deserted rural hospital, who is forced to share his room with a blow-in: a newly qualified doctor brimming with idealism. Thrust together in this unnatural way, the older doctor who narrates the story must confront dark truths about himself — and his country.

Republic-of-Uzupis

The Republic of Užupis by Haïlji (2012)
Possibly the strangest book I’ve read all year, this post-modern novel (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is set in Lithuania even though it’s by a Korean writer.  Hal, the 40-something protagonist, arrives in Vilnius looking for the Republic of Užupis — his father’s homeland — but no-one seems to know where it is located or even whether it exists. Written in dreamlike, melancholic prose, it explores the idea of nationhood, and plays with the notions of time and memory, so it feels like something Paul Auster might have come up with. It’s weirdly compelling.

This-place-holds-no-fear

This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held (2015)
I went through a phase of reading books about the Holocaust earlier in the year, and this one left a memorable impression, perhaps because it looked at what happens to someone who manages to survive the Nazi death camps; can they ever hope to find happiness and lead a normal life again? The tale is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior. This beautifully told tale offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated from the German by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds. Deeply affecting — and based on a true story.

The-Dig

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)
The Dig pits two men against each other — a sheep farmer and a ratting man who keeps dogs for pest control — and then explores the outfall between them. This powerful and violent novella explores rural life, Nature,  crime and grief. It is an intense and immersive reading experience, dark and thrilling, but also heart-wrenching and occasionally stomach-churning. I liked it so much I went out and bought Jones’ entire back catalogue.

Bright-lights-big-city-new

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
What a joy this Bloomsbury classic proved to be. First published in 1985, I’d long written Bright Lights, Big City off as a “drugs novel” — but how wrong could I be? It is essentially a black comedy about a 20-something trying to find his way in the world, not always making the right decisions and paying the price along the way. I especially loved its depiction of life working on a magazine, and the New York setting was a plus too.

The-enchanted-april

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Proving that I don’t always read fiction that is dark and miserable, The Enchanted April turned out to be a rather delightful, joyous and, dare I say it, enchanting read (see what I did there?) First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners and follows the often humorous exploits that follow. A brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and funny book.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2015?

Note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2014 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Finally, many thanks for your support — emails, blog visits, comments, likes, clicks and links — both here and on Reading Matters’ Facebook page over the past 12 months; it is very much appreciated. Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! 

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2014

Books-of-the-yearSo, as 2014 draws to a close, it’s time for me to choose my favourite reads of the year.

I didn’t read as many books as I normally would in the space of 12 months, but that’s because I had other things taking up my time — I went back to study part-time (I graduated in October with a distinction), started walking five miles every day (thanks to my FitBit, which means I’m now 10kg lighter than I was this time last year — although I might have put a sneaky 2kg back on over the Christmas break), trained for London NightRider (your sponsorship helped me raise more than £400 for Arthritis UK) and then bought a road bike to take part in a 64-mile non-competitive sportive. And, of course, I transferred (and cleaned up) 10 years’ worth of content to Reading Matters’ new home, which took three months of hard graft! Oh, and I worked full-time (on a freelance basis) for the entire year. It’s a wonder I had any time for reading at all!

Still, taking all that in to account, I read some pretty amazing books. My 10 favourite books comprises a mix of old and new (with a self-confessed antipodean bias), covering all kinds of themes and subject matter. What these novels have in common — aside from the fact that I read them in 2014 — is that they entertained me, educated me, intrigued me and moved me.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Academy Street

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
My favourite read of the year, this extraordinary debut novel charts one woman’s life from her childhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later. It’s a deeply moving story about an Irish émigré who struggles to find her place in the world. I fell in love with this book from the first page. It’s written in that lovely lyrical style reminiscent of the best Irish fiction — think a cross between Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — but has a distinctive voice all of its own.

17905709
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2014)
I’ve read all of Flanagan’s previous novels (some are reviewed here) but this one moved me more than anything else he’s written. In fact, it moved me so much I struggled to write a review and in the end I didn’t bother. But this story, which is largely set in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway, explores what it is to be a good person and looks at the ways in which those who survived such horror and brutality coped with normal civilian life after the war. It’s also a beautiful love story — and was the deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Soon
Soon by Charlotte Grimshaw (2013)
This New Zealand best seller is one of those gripping accounts of a holiday gone wrong. But the holidaymakers are not your usual every day people; it’s the prime minister of New Zealand no less and his elite group of friends and their families. Part political novel, part psychological thriller, it’s an exhilarating and intelligent read, perfect if you like fast-paced novels with a dark, unsettling edge.

The-tie-that-binds
The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf (1984)
Kent Haruf’s debut novel, first published in 1984, has a bright ring of truth about it. Set in rural Colorado, it traces the life story of Edith Goodnough, an 80-year-old woman, accused of murder. But this is not a crime novel: it’s a grand sweeping drama tempered by gentle humour, little triumphs and quiet moments of joy. Like Haruf’s much-loved Holt trilogy — PlainsongEventide and Benediction — this is a deeply affecting tale, written in precise yet gentle prose, about living on the land. It’s bittersweet, heartbreaking and uplifting — all at the same time.

d444b-6a00d83451bcff69e201a3fcb67eee970b-pi-2
The Dinner by Herman Koch (2012)
A pretentious group of people eating a pretentious meal in a pretentious restaurant has all the makings of a pretentious novel, but The Dinner is a rip-roaring read. It’s a disturbing morality tale of the finest order, the kind of novel that makes you marvel at the writer’s ingenuous plot, filled as it is with unexpected turns and eye-opening revelations, all carefully structured and perfectly paced to keep the reader on tenterhooks throughout. It’s bold, daring and shocking, but it’s also bloody good fun.

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TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (2013)
This accomplished, intricately crafted novel explores the connections between North America and Ireland over the space of 150 years. It comprises three main narrative threads at key times in Ireland’s history — and while there are connections between the storylines and the characters, these are largely superfluous. In many ways, each thread could be read as a standalone story, but McCann chops them up and interleaves them so that the novel, as a whole, occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, while the locations — Dublin, New York, Belfast — also shift. This results in a hugely ambitious novel which shows how — as one character puts it — “the tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again”. I found it an entirely absorbing read and loved its compelling mix of truth and fiction.

Spider
Spider by Patrick McGrath (1990)
This novel, first published in 1990, sadly appears to be out of print. Goodness knows why, because it’s one of the best depictions of a man grappling with mental illness that I’ve ever read. It’s set in London, mainly before the Second World War, and tells the story of Spider, who returns to the East End after 20 years living in Canada. His account of coming to terms with his troubled past is so vividly drawn and so filled with pain, confusion and a distrust of all those around him, that it’s hard not to feel for his situation, particularly as his narrative becomes increasingly more paranoid and confused as the novel unfolds. It’s a brilliantly powerful book — and certainly the best one I read this year that was published prior to 2014.

Us-Conductors
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (2014)
This turned out to be my surprise read of the year. Who would think a book about a Russian scientist who invents a weird musical instrument could be such a terrifically enjoyable romp? Ambitious in scope and theme, it’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun. It was my pick for the Shadow Giller and I was delighted to see it win the (real) Giller Prize, too.

Eyrie_UKedition
Eyrie by Tim Winton (2013)
I loved this book so much I read it twice — and I thought it was even better the second time around. It tells the story of a middle-aged man who has lost his high-flying job and is now living like a recluse in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower. When he meets a woman from his past, things become slightly more interesting — and dangerous. It’s a wonderful novel about redemption, helping others less fortunate than ourselves and doing the right thing — whether for yourself, your family, the people in your community or the environment.

Animal People
Animal People by Charlotte Wood (2011)
C
harlotte Wood deserves to be far better known outside of her native Australia. This novel, published in 2013, is an extraordinarily rich family drama come black comedy written in pared back language. It’s another Australian book about a middle-aged man who’s lost his way. It deals with big themes, including consumerism, social prestige and climbing the career ladder, but it’s done with a lightness of touch and a good dose of humour. I loved it.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2014?

Finally, before I pop open the champagne, many thanks for your support — emails, blog visits, comments, clicks and links — over the past 12 months, and here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! See you back here in 2015 for more ‘readerly’ inspiration!

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2013

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again when I sit down, look back over everything I’ve read in the past 12 months and draw up a list of my Top 10 reads.

After much umming and aching, these are the books I’ve selected.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the book’s title to see my review in full.

 

 

The-Orenda
The Orenda
by Joseph Boyden (2013)
Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.

Apple-Tree-Yard

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty (2013)
Set in modern day London, this is a dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks. It is arguably the best of the genre I’ve read this year.

Under-the-skin
Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)
Under the Skin swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments along the way. It is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

Eventide
Eventide by Kent Haruf (2005)
Eventide is the second book in a loose trilogy of novels set in Holt, Colorado. There is nothing sentimental or saccharine in the understated, almost flat, narrative. But somehow, in its storytelling, in its evocation of place and spirit, in the characters’ raw and truthful actions, you get so caught up in everyone’s lives that you cannot help but feel deeply moved.

of-human-bondage
Of Human Bondage
by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)
I loved this book so much, that I struggled to write a review that would do it justice, so this is the only novel on the list that isn’t reviewed on the blogIt follows the life and times of Philip Carey, an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It is at times a horrifying and heartbreaking  read, because Philip is a true loner and constantly struggles to find his place in the world. He is not entirely a likable character — indeed his relationship with Mildred, a waitress, borders on masochistic obsession — but I found his story a completely compelling one.

A-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (2013)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is about a young woman’s relationship with her older brother, who suffers a brain tumour in childhood that later returns when he is a young man. Spanning roughly 20 years and set largely in an isolated farming community in the west of Ireland, it is highly original, bold, confronting — and Joycean.

Tivington-nott

The Tivington Nott by Alex Miller (1989)
The Tivington Nott is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders in 1952 and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.

Tampa

Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)
Tampa tells the story of a female teacher who preys on teenage boys. It one of the most outrageous books I’ve ever read. It’s confronting, disturbing and, well, icky, but the voice of the narrator, which is wondrous in its sheer bravado, wickedness, narcissism and wit, is utterly compelling.

Wonder

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)
Wonder tells the tale of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a serious facial deformity. He has been home-educated, but now his parents think it is time he attended a mainstream school. The book chronicles his efforts to fit in and become accepted by his peers at Beecher Prep. It is a book with universal appeal, one that genuinely warms the heart and brings tears to the eyes.

The-mussel-feast

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (2013)
The Mussel Feast is a tale about a woman and her two teenage children sitting around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the story is also a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2012

Books-of-the-yearAs the year draws to a close, it’s time to choose my favourite reads of 2012.

Until I sat down to do this task, I would have described the past 12 months as a fairly average reading year.  I read a lot of books I awarded four stars and several that I thought worthy of five stars, but there were few that really stood out in the memory. And yet, when I went back through my archives, I recalled so many fabulous books that I began to find it hard to narrow it down to just 10 titles.

Without further ado, here’s what made the cut. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks take you to my original review.

Pilgrimage

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick (1961)

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace.

Plainsong-original

Plainsong by Kent Haruf (2001)

Plainsong is a beautiful, sincere story about real people with complicated, messy lives — and I loved every single carefully chosen word of it.

Gillespie-and-I

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a novel. It transports you into a strange world of art, deception, troubled families, disturbed children, grumpy housemaids and caged greenfinches, and then takes you on a rollicking good ride that you don’t want to end.

Devil_I_Know

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know, came out in the summer and I greedily gulped it down in a matter of days. It is an extraordinarily funny satire about the recent collapse of the Irish economy — and certainly the best Irish book I read all year.


Colour-of-milk

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)

The Colour of Milk is a truly compelling book because Mary’s voice is so urgent and authentic. And the ending, which is shocking, unexpected and heart-breaking, is the kind that makes you gasp out loud — and then you want to have a big sob.


Fly-away-peter

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf (1999)

This is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.


The_Lighthouse

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (2012)

I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.


Everybody_has_everything

Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad (2012)

It is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.


Imposter-bridge

The Imposter Bride
by Nancy Richler (2012)

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.


Heaven-and-hell

Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (2011)

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2011

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again, when I assess what I’ve read and decide my best reads of the past 12 months.

At the time of writing I am on target to read just under 100 books, which comprised a mix of narrative non-fiction, translated fiction, crime fiction, latest literary releases and older books pulled off the TBR pile. The ratio of men to women writers was roughly 6:4. And, for the first time ever, I did not read one American novel.

For the purposes of this list, I’ve only included novels (and one novella), although I would highly recommend ‘Antarctica’ by Claire Keegan for those who enjoy short story collections and ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner for those who like narrative non-fiction.

The following list has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the titles to read my review in full.

Mercy‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2011)

It’s no secret that I love a bit of Scandinavian crime and this one, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, is one of the best I’ve ever read and certainly the best I’ve read in 2011. I was so enamoured of it that I cleared my whole weekend to eagerly eat it up and even before I’d reached the half-way point I tweeted that it “beats the pants off Steig Larsson”. Mercy is the first book in the “Department Q” series (three others have yet to be translated into English), a division within the Danish police force that looks at cases that have run cold and remain unsolved. In this story, homicide detective Carl Mørk investigates the mysterious disappearance of a young and beautiful politician, who vanished while on board a cruise ship five years earlier. Could she still be alive? What Mørk discovers is chilling to the core…

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates (1944)

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. It’s definitely my favourite read of the year and is one of those books that I know I will read again at some point, if only to wallow in its beauty once again. It tells the story of a young British pilot whose plane is downed over France and the lengths he and his crew must go to in order to survive. Because it is set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Afterparty‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus (2011)

The Afterparty arrived unannounced at Chez Reading Matters and I wasn’t sure that it would be my cup of tea — or my sort of whisky — going by the cover image alone. I figured I’d try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn’t I’d put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading… In the end I found it to be an inventive, darkly funny, postmodern novel set in a world where British celebrities rule the roost and lowly tabloid journalists will stoop to almost anything in the quest for a big story — and there’s not a hacked phone in sight!


Sunday-at-pool‘A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali’ by Gil Courtemanche (2009)

I have a penchant for harrowing novels and this one is probably the most harrowing I’ve ever read. It’s set during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which more than 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered. It was an event that I was aware of in only the vaguest terms — probably because, as Courtemanche writes in this novel, “the media don’t show dead bodies cut up by men and shredded by vultures and wild dogs”. The story is told in the third person, but we see it mainly through the world-weary eyes of Bernard Valcourt, a widower and highly experienced journalist from Canada, who is bored with his job as a Radio-Canada producer and goes to Rwanda to try something new. What he experiences on the ground is so shocking and horrifying I felt dirty reading about it. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but this is an important book that explores what happens when hate is left to reign unchecked.

Devotion-of-suspect-x‘The Devotion Of Suspect’ X by Keigo Higashino (2011)

I love a good crime thriller and this one by Japanese writer Keigo Higashino is as close to perfection as a crime thriller can be. It works because even though you know from the outset who committed the crime — the murder of an abusive husband — you’re not quite sure how the body was moved to the position in which it is found by the police the next day, with its face and fingerprints destroyed. In perfectly restrained style, Higashino offers a slow drip feed of information, as clues are revealed by  the police detective investigating the murder, along with two academics, one a physicist and the other a mathematician, who were rivals in a former life. But even when you think you have solved the riddle, Higashino offers a brilliantly unexpected ending that could only be plotted by a genius! No wonder the book has sold more than two million copies in Japan alone.

Five-Bells‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

I was convinced this novel by Australian writer Gail Jones was going to make the Booker longlist, if not the shortlist. It’s probably the most literary novel I’ve read in 2011, but it seems to have slipped under the radar. This is a great shame, because the novel — Jones’ fifth — deserves a wide audience. It’s not a particularly plot-driven story; instead it focuses on four individual characters and reveals their inner lives as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day. Jones’ great achievement is that she gives each character an authentic back story and fleshes it out without being too obvious about it. In doing this she shows how memory works, but she’s also able to demonstrate what it is to be human, and how, despite our varied backgrounds and upbringings, we are all much alike beneath the surface.

Ulysses-small‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce (1922)

I didn’t review this  — how do you review something that’s so infamous? Who would have thought the book I was too scared to read would turn out to be such an enjoyable romp, not only through Dublin on one fine June day, but through a wide variety of literary styles and genres. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I’d been in training for it my whole life — that’s because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. And while there were bits that went totally over my head, I was constantly amazed and surprised by how widely it has influenced so many writers that have followed. I can honestly say that Ulysses changes the way you look at literature after you’ve read it.

‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King Leaving-Ardglass(2008)

Sometimes you pick up a book and before you’ve even finished the first page you immediately know there’s something very special about it. That’s exactly how I felt when I began reading William King’s Leaving Ardglass, a saga that spans 40 years and follows the lives of two Irish brothers — MJ Galvin, a building constructor turned property magnate, and his younger sibling, Tom. Much of the story is set in London during the 1960s, where Tom, who narrates the story, earns his living on building sites and witnesses some horrendous scenes, including the death of a fellow worker. The story is shocking in places and there are endless examples of racism against the Irish. Mostly, there’s an all-pervasive sense of wasted lives, that these men will spend their lives “digging and drinking, and finish up at the doss-house”. It’s an eye-opening book, but beautifully written, with fine plotting and great characterisation.

Get-me-out-of-here‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

I do love a nasty character in a novel and Matt, the narrator of Get Me Out of Here, is the funniest — and sickest — character I’ve come across in modern fiction for a long time. He is filled with an over-inflated sense of self-importance and thinks the world revolves around him. He is shallow and manipulative. But as you get further and further into the novel, which is set in London circa 2008, you begin to realise that Matt is not all he seems to be. In fact, he may well be a danger to society. I loved this book and laughed out loud a lot. It’s enormous fun and yet, outside of Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kingali, it’s the most disturbing novel I’ve read all year.

Down-the-rabbit-hole ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2011)

Technically, at just 77 pages in length, this is really a novella, but for the purposes of this list it is one of the most powerful — and enjoyable — reads of the year. The charming seven-year-old narrator, Tochtli, lives in a secure compound with his drug baron father. He is obsessed with guns, violence, death — and acquiring a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. Most of his narration treads a fine line between comedy and heartbreak. And because he is far too young to comprehend all the illegal activities happening around him, as you read his tale you want to step in to protect him— you understand the danger he is in, even if he doesn’t. Down the Rabbit Hole is an ultra-quick read — you can easily consume it in a couple of hours — but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. This is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read.

Have you read any from this list? Care to share your own top 10?