I’m not going to be able to follow this pattern forever, but I’m going to run with it for a few more years at least. I read 173 books this year, it’s always tough to make a decision but these were my favourites:
A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3)
by V.E. Schwab
The third and final instalment in V.E. Schwab’s fantasy adventure is set in not just one London—but four different parallel dimensions of London. Expect fantastic world-building, action, suspense and vivid characters: Kell, a realm-travelling magician from Red London and Lila, a resilient and resourceful pickpocket from Grey London whose sole ambition in life is to be a pirate. Victoria Schwab is one of my favourite fantasy authors and A Conjuring of Light is a perfect ending to a brilliant series.
Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1)
by Laini Taylor
Definitely worth the wait, Laini’s Taylor new epic fantasy adventure is everything I’d hoped it would be. Lazlo Strange is an abandoned orphan refugee, rescued by monks, who becomes a librarian obsessed with the mystery of the lost city of Weep on the other side of an impassable desert. Until one day an emissary party arrives from the lost city and ‘Strange the Dreamer’ decides that he will do anything he can to join them on their return journey and see the Unseen City for himself. Lazlo is a wonderful character, the story is definitely a tribute to the ‘fools who dream’ and it’s lovely to have a protagonist/saviour who’s not an amazing warrior, but instead is a researcher and storyteller. And of course, there is romance, magic and mystery and everything else you would expect from Laini Taylor. A wonderful escapist adventure.
The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
Starr is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives two, deliberately separate lives. At her exclusive school in a wealthy area she is one of the only three black kids in the school and has assigned herself strict rules of behaviour in an attempt to fit in, if not blend in. After school, she goes home to her other life in Garden Heights—a life of poverty, crime, drugs and gangs, but also warmth, family and community support. When her unarmed friend is shot by a white police officer while she is in the car, her worlds collide and she has to decide how to reconcile the two different parts of herself. Read this book. It is not only timely, topical and important but also gripping and engaging and should be required reading in secondary schools.
The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
The story of Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation, and her escape via the Underground Railroad, in this case imagined as a literal Underground Railroad, is interspersed with real notices about runaway slaves. Somehow this blending of fact and fiction, the historical reality of slavery with a slightly surreal version of the railroad only makes the horrors more vivid and shocking. A heart-breaking read.
People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks
I loved this, historical fiction with a real literary mystery at its heart, the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah—an illustrated 15th century Jewish prayer book. In Geraldine Brooks’s version the book is rescued from destruction by a Muslim librarian during the Bosnian War and then restored by Hannah Heath, an Australian book conservator, who makes several discoveries in the binding that gives clues to the provenance of the manuscript. While Hannah investigates these traces in the present, we follow the path the Haggadah has taken, geographically and historically. A fascinating insight into the world of book conservation as well as the role books and illustrations have played through history. Brilliantly researched and imagined.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman
Everything in Eleanor Oliphant’s life is scheduled and predictable, she’s entirely self-sufficient and she’s completely fine, until an accident forces her to allow some other people into her tightly-controlled life and everything begins to unravel. Eleanor is a strangely detached and pedantic narrator, so much so that I had to go back and check how old she is because she sounds 50 years older than she actually is. But when you get beyond this facade, this is wonderfully poignant and devastating story.
The One Memory of Flora Banks
by Emily Barr
Flora Banks has anterograde amnesia and has been unable to make new memories since she had a brain tumour removed when she was ten. Her life is limited to the few familiar people and places she knew before her operation and the notes she writes to remind of herself of what has happened each day. Until one day, when she is seventeen, she kisses a boy on a Cornish beach and the memory sticks. Convinced that this boy is the key to her recovery Flora tracks him down to Svalbard and embarks on an adventure that will uncover more than Flora’s lost memories. The narrative throws us right into Flora’s disorientating reality in a way that is thoroughly immersive and utterly compelling. Brilliantly written.
The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1)
by Katherine Arden
Winter is coming… Vasya lives in a small village in the woods in northern Russia. She has grown up hearing stories of the ‘Winter King’, a Russian equivalent of Jack Frost: ‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’ In addition to her wild wandering in the woods, Vasya has special gifts—she alone can see the household spirits that protect their home and she can talk to horses. When a young, fervent Christian priest arrives in their village and turns people against the old gods and superstitions, he upsets the balance of nature and unwittingly prepares the way for one much more dangerous than the Winter King. Vasya must remain free of societal constraints in order to protect her family and her village from this threat. This story reads like a beautifully woven Russian folk tale—thrillingly atmospheric, lyrical and otherworldly. (I have just started reading the second book in the series, The Girl in the Tower.)
by Jo Baker
‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’ A Downton-style P&P spinoff, Longbourn supplements the original story with a masterfully-woven web of under-stairs action. The story of Mrs Hill the housekeeper, Mr Hill the butler, Sarah and Polly the maids and a mysterious footman (only referred to once in the original) is beautifully imagined with several love stories as unlikely as Elizabeth and Darcy’s and the addition of some horrifically visceral scenes from the British army’s battles in Portugal and Spain. Brilliantly done!
The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. #5)
by Jonathan Stroud
I discovered the Lockwood & Co. ghost-hunting series through a Twitter recommendation and flew though all five books. The Empty Grave is the final book and is brilliant ending to a pitch-perfect series, it is just as funny, terrifying and exciting as the other books with a heart-stopping climax that winds the series up beautifully. These books are equally entertaining for children and adults—I loved them, a hugely talented author.
Days Without End
by Sebastian Barry
I was put off reading this book by the title—’Days Without End’ implies interminable boredom, but fortunately this was not the case and I was so glad I finally read it. The story is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who signs up for the US army with his friend John Cole in the 1850s. They fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War and somehow in the midst of hardship and trauma, find a way to create a family with each other and find peace. It’s an incredibly moving story.
Turtles All the Way Down
by John Green
This is a more serious book than John Green’s other novels and darker than I expected. It’s written from the perspective of Aza, a teenager who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder. When a corrupt billionaire goes missing Asa’s best friend convinces her, for the sake of the hundred-thousand-dollar reward money, to reconnect with the millionaire’s son, Davis, whom Asa used to know. But the mystery disappearance, a potential romantic relationship with Davis, and her friendship with Daisy are all subordinate to the ever-tightening spiral of Aza’s thoughts and fears. It’s a claustrophobic perspective but very convincingly and authentically done. There seem to be a lot of contemporary YA books these days that use mental illness as a quirky plot device, Turtles All the Way Down delves into the reality of living with mental illness without romanticising it or offering glib solutions. Of course, all this is incorporated into an entertaining story with John Green’s usual warmth and humour.
The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
The quintessential haunted house story: four people, with an interest in the supernatural, undertake to stay in a supposedly haunted house, to observe and document the phenomena. Dr. Montague is in charge of the investigation, Theodora is an artist with supposed psychic powers, Luke Sanderson is heir to the haunted house, but the character who becomes the centre of the story is Eleanor Vance, a repressed young woman who has spent all her life caring for an invalid mother. The four characters all begin to experience strange noises and visions, but the phenomena become increasingly focused on Eleanor herself as she becomes in thrall to the house. Shirley Jackson is brilliant at atmosphere—it is an addictively terrifying read and the house itself is the most sinister and ambiguous character of all of them.
This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
by Adam Kay
This book made me laugh until I cried—a hilarious and terrifying account of a Junior Doctor that I have recommended to everyone I know, and has cemented my conviction that I could never EVER have been a doctor.
by Margaret Atwood
For the box set binge-watcher, if you were captivated by The Handmaid’s Tale, another of Margaret Atwood’s novels, Alias Grace, has been adapted for TV and is now available on Netflix. But of course, you should read the book first. A masterclass in the unreliable narrator, Margaret Atwood recreates the story of ‘Murderess’ Grace Marks through the testimony of others, both real and imagined, and through the story she tells Dr Jordan—a young psychiatrist with a professional interest in her case. Is she a calculating killer, or an innocent victim trapped by unfortunate circumstances, or a madwoman who had no control over her own actions? A wonderfully subtle and sly dissection of a sensational true crime story.
by Nick Harkaway
A hugely ambitious, mind-bending and bewildering novel, Gnomon is set in the near-future under a surveillance society controlled by ‘The System’. Under some circumstances, the surveillance goes even beyond the barrier of skin to extract thoughts and memories from inside the minds of its citizens. Mielikki Neith is investigating the death of a woman called Diana Hunter under one such thought-extraction interrogation. When she replays the extracted information though, she finds the memories of several people within Diana Hunter’s mind—a banker, an alchemist, an artist, and a mysterious character called Gnomon. Neith must unravel the meaning behind all these stories to find the truth of Diana Hunter’s life. At the beginning the story felt a little like Cloud Atlas with its nested narratives, but then it turned into a much wilder, more complex ride—every time I thought I’d figured out what was going on I hit another u-turn. It’s not an easy read (my book club may never forgive me) but it’s worthwhile persevering for the brilliantly devastating conclusion. The issues the author raises about privacy, surveillance and democracy lingered a long time in my mind after the book was finished.
by Kamila Shamsie
A timely and topical retelling of the Greek myth of Antigone, updated to include ISIS recruitment, airport interrogations, and social media in place of the Greek Chorus. 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 it wasn’t going to end well. If you want to read up on the original myth I would also recommend Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone published as part of the Pushkin Children’s Books Save the Story Series—beautifully illustrated by Laura Paoletti.