It’s that time of year again—here’s a list of 14 books I’ve read recently and can highly recommend for your holiday reading.
by Madeline Miller
This is my favourite book of the year so far, from the author of the beautiful Song of Achilles. Circe is the daughter of a titan and a nymph – she is immortal but lacks the power of her father and the beauty of her mother. But there are other ways to have power. When Circe discovers a talent for witchcraft she transforms a rival into a terrible monster – as a result she is banished to the island of Aiaia. Despite her isolation she encounters some legendary characters of Greek mythology: Daedalus and Icharus, the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and of course, Odysseus. Madeline Miller weaves a wonderfully engrossing, epic tale that has many familiar elements but is also strikingly new – a story of a goddess finding her voice. Brilliant!
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death
by Maggie O’Farrell
An exquisitely written account of seventeen true ‘brushes with death’. I don’t want to give anything away about the trajectory of the book, except to say that the intention of the stories is not to shock or to horrify, but to affirm life and the joy of living in the face of our (eventual) inevitable death. Powerful and poignant.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
by Stuart Turton
I’m trying to imagine the incredibly complicated planning document the author must have created to work out the plot of this book. It has a solid foundation of an Agatha Christie-style closed-house murder mystery that is a clever puzzle in itself – the death of Evelyn Hardcastle, daughter of the house, on the anniversary of her brother’s murder twenty years earlier. But there is so much more layered on top of this – I don’t want to give anything away but imagine a David Lynch story – but with an actual solution. Fiendishly clever and brilliantly imagined.
Annihilation (Southern Reach #1)
by Jeff VanderMeer
You might recognise this one from the recent Netflix film of the same name starring Natalie Portman. An unnamed biologist joins a surveyor, an anthropologist and a psychologist on the twelfth expedition into a mysterious wasteland called Area X. The previous eleven expeditions have all ended in disaster, including the most recent one that the biologist’s husband was a part of. It took me a while to get into this, the narration is quite frustrating to start with as it weirdly stilted and seems to conceal more than it reveals but as the biologist explores the mysteries of Area X, more of the mysteries of who she is, are revealed. An intensely unsettling and bewildering reading experience but brilliantly imagined, and I enjoyed the other two books in the series as well. The film veers from the plot of the book quite significantly but maintains the same eeriness and vibrant sense of menace, so it is worth watching, after you’ve read the book of course.
by Andrew Sean Greer
Less is the kind of book that grows on you, as did the main character, American author – Arthur Less. At first, he seems rather pathetic. He’s not been successful professionally: the critics called him a ‘magniloquent spoony’, his books have never become bestsellers and his publishers have just declined his latest novel. His long-time boyfriend is about to marry someone else so, to avoid having to go to the wedding, he accepts a series of random invitations and embarks on a round-the-world trip. It’s a slapstick setup, but as Less travels and we learn more about the history of his relationships, it transforms into a poignant tale, and Less himself becomes something of a romantic hero. A funny, moving and uplifting love story.
by Yaa Gyasi
The story of two sisters living on the Gold Coast of Africa whose lives follow very different routes. Esi is sold into slavery and shipped to America in horrific conditions, her descendants must slowly claw their way out of captivity and poverty to freedom. ‘Effia the Beauty’ marries a slave trader and her descendants are inescapably complicit in the slave trade. It’s an incredibly epic and ambitious story and you only get one chapter from each character as the book tracks the generations that follow the two sisters. But somehow, even in one chapter, the author creates characters that feel real and authentic, and each story is engaging and deeply moving. A powerful and compelling book.
I Still Dream
by James Smythe
1997: 17-year-old Laura Bow develops a basic artificial intelligence that she uses to talk to about her life. She calls it Organon. From then the story checks in with Laura every decade as the world changes and Organon develops. Laura protects Organon and her own privacy fiercely but when society is threatened by other artificial intelligences, not as responsibly and sensitively nurtured, Laura must decide whether to release Organon to the world. Without spoiling it, I loved the cyclical nature of the ending and found it incredibly moving. A brilliant and thought-provoking book.
Rules of Civility
by Amor Towles
I loved this even more than A Gentleman in Moscow. New York, New Year’s Eve 1937: Katey Kontent and her friend Evelyn are in a jazz bar when they meet Tinker Grey, a chance encounter that will have dramatic repercussions for all of them. The story follows Katey, in particular, for the next few years as she negotiates her career, friendships and relationships. Katey is an endlessly fascinating narrator she’s intelligent, independent, self-aware, ambitious but also pragmatic. Despite the limitations of her own working-class background and other circumstances working against her, she claims her own agency and her right to self-determination over and over again. It’s a book about feminism, class and privilege – wrapped a beautifully stylish tribute to jazz-age New York City. Utterly captivating.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
by John Boyne
Ireland, 1945: sixteen-year-old Catherine Goggin is denounced as a whore, thrown out by her family and cast out of her village by the local priest when they discover she’s pregnant. She escapes to Dublin and, when she gives birth, a ‘little hunchbacked Redemptorist nun’ arranges for her son to be adopted by a couple who can’t have children of their own. Cyril’s adoptive parents, Maude and Charles, treat him more like a tenant than a son and make it clear to him that he is not a ‘real’ Avery. When Cyril is seven years old he meets Julian Woodbead, his best friend and first love. Thus begins the misadventures of Cyril Avery. Against a backdrop of tumultuous Irish history, including IRA kidnappings and bombings in the 50s and 60s, right up until the marriage equality referendum of 2015, Cyril comes to terms with who he is and manages to find love and family, despite unlikely circumstances and some tragic twists of fate. An epic, angry, hilarious and heart-breaking book – I couldn’t put it down.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Following in the footsteps of ‘The Miniaturist’ and ‘The Essex Serpent’, ‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ sits firmly in the category of lush historical fiction. (I did buy the hardback as the cover design is stunning.) The story is set in Georgian London but explores the lives of characters that are not usually in the spotlight – courtesans, immigrants, people of mixed-race, merchants, and of course, mermaids. Jonah Hancock is a comfortably-established merchant and widower who lives under the thumb of his elder sister until the unexpected arrival of a mermaid disrupts his existence, thrusts him in a world he knew little about and sets up a fateful encounter with Angelica Neal, a high-class courtesan, in search of a new benefactor. An evocative, beautifully-written piece of historical fiction with just a hint of magical realism.
A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2)
by Becky Chambers
A Closed and Common Orbit follows directly after the events of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but focuses on two different characters – Pepper, who we met briefly in the first book, and the rebooted version of the Wayfarer’s AI, Lovelace, now called ‘Sidra’, in her new illegal body, or ‘kit’ as she refers to it. The chapters alternate between Sidra’s experience adapting to life in a body, and flashbacks to Pepper’s traumatic childhood as a genetically engineered human slave and the story of her escape from her home planet. Becky Chambers, once again, creates a fascinating, richly-detailed universe populated with authentic, believable, diverse characters that you can’t help but fall in love with. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. (And Book 3 is out shortly!)
The Surface Breaks
by Louise O’Neill
Finally, the feminist retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid’ we’ve all been waiting for. I grew up reading the Hans Christian Andersen version of the story which is much darker than the saccharine Disney tale, and The Surface Breaks is based the original but filtered through a contemporary feminist lens – there’s even a sneaky Donald Trump reference in there. It’s a harrowing story, filled with pain and desperation, but the final paragraphs are fiercely triumphant. Brilliantly done. I was torn about whether to let my 11-year-old read it, there are so many important themes but the content is very dark. Of course, after I told her it might be too traumatic for her, she read it immediately and loved it.
A Skinful of Shadows
by Frances Hardinge
I am extremely jealous of Frances Hardinge’s imagination. Makepeace lives with her mother and her mother’s Puritan relatives in the time leading up to the English Civil War. Makepeace is aware that she is different to other people in that she can see and hear ghosts but her mother trains her to drive them away and protect herself from ever being possessed by them. But when tragedy strikes Makepeace is sent to stay with her father’s sinister relatives and in a moment of weakness she allows herself to be possessed by a wild and brutish spirit. But when Makepeace discovers the awful secret her father’s family are hiding then the ghost is the one who protects her and gives her the strength to escape them. A thrilling, wildly imaginative tale and another fascinating protagonist from Frances Hardinge. (And the 11-year-old couldn’t put it down either.) Brilliant!
by Kamila Shamsie
This was already on my list of 17 Best Books of 2017 but I thought I’d give it another mention in light of the fact that it has recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and that Kamila Shamsie has proved prescient in her unlikely prediction of a Tory Muslim Home Secretary. Home Fire is a timely, topical and beautifully-written retelling of the Greek myth of Antigone. Fortunately, I didn’t remember the details of the story, so it didn’t ruin the ending for me, though I should have realised, knowing Greek mythology, that (spoiler alert!) it wasn’t going to end well.