Always a tricky one. It’s hard to limit myself to a mere ten books. But I did it last year and I’ll do it again this year, although I will reiterate that I remain ambivalent about the ultimate value of compiling such a list. Last year Elizabeth Lowry’s Dark Water was easily my favourite book but I found it harder to determine that this year. So if these books appear to be in any kind of order it is not necessarily an indication of a favourite or lesser favourite. I’m not sure I have an actual one favourite book this year, although Do Not Feed the Bear is quite the contender, as is Unfollow. But even as I contemplate my ultimate shortlist of contenders, I realise what a close thing it’s been
1. Unfollow by Megan Phelps Roper
A book of hope and optimism. When someone has been indoctrinated from conception almost to preach hatred and hellfire to everyone but their own cult and to believe absolutely everything they have been brought up to believe in BUT ends up completely changing their beliefs, with the acknowledged help of social media, is enough of a story. But to do it with such grace, such wisdom and humility, makes for a profoundly moving book. Megan is articulate, sanguine and writes with such honesty. An uplifting book.
2. Do Not Feed the Bear by Rachel Elliott
This was one of those unexpected, unsolicited books that just blew me away. At the time of reading and reviewing, I averred that it had made its way to my top read of the year. It remains there. It could have been written just for me. It’s quirky and compassionate and shows a keen observation of human behaviours and emotions with understanding and compassion. It’s a book about how some singular yet flawed people find each other and are offered the opportunity to understand each other. And I guess it also offers hope.
3. Shamus Dust by Janet Roger
I went with my gut instinct and accepted the author’s unsolicited offer for a proof of this. Boy, am I glad that I did. It’s that rare thing, a literary crime thriller with a substance of language and expression that enhances the complex plot and storyline. It captures a mood and transports the reader back to film noir and B movies, gumshoes and organised crime. It was a sheer delight to read.
4. Arguing with the Dead by Alex Nye
I always think it’s a brave move for a writer to produce a work of fiction about an actual person. Dead or alive it can go so horribly wrong if your research isn’t up to scratch. But this book goes wonderfully right. And the portrayal of Mary Shelley was as I’d always imagined her to be. It was as if the writer had got right into her head. A wonderfully compelling fiction about the life of Frankenstein‘s creator.
5. Mud by Chris McCabe
This was a pure, sheer, innovative delight. A fiction that was more like an art installation than a mere novel. It defies any real categorisation other than loosely retelling the Orpheus and Eurydice legend. But it’s an explosion of words and images. It is profound and witty and a little sad but it’s such a wonderful experience. The most unusual book I read this year.
6. The Night Tiger by Yangtze Choo
I had the most delightful experience in participating in an online buddy read for this book. It was a sheer pleasure to exchange and bounce ideas off other readers. Did that enhance my response to the book? Not sure. But the book is a delight. Mysticism and superstition, Chinese traditions and social history, with some memorable characters including the wonderfully endearing Ren, who comes across with such purity he tugs at your heartstrings. It’s a rich book with something for everyone. There’s nothing to not like about it.
7. The Dollmaker by Nina Allan
This is a rich, stylistically diverse story, part epistolary, part stories within a story and straightforward narrative. But it is also genre defying, which it makes it hard to sum up. Simply put, it is the story of two people who find each other, two fairly unique people. But then again it is so much more. There’s much to consider concerning the nature of life and how we deal with it.
8. The Freedom Artist by Ben Okri
My first Ben Okri novel and, oh, what a treat! UPWAKE! I thought Kafka had returned and written a new novel! It’s one of those books that leaves you almost lost for words. The poetic identification of how we, as a race, have lost our spirituality and what we might do about it. I feel this is an important book and very relevant for our times.
9. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
One of those rare books where every reader will take something different from it. Yes, it tells us a story. Washington Black is a beautiful soul and we will him to succeed and overcome adversity. But entwined within the pages of an adventure story are some truths and insights relevant to our world today.
10. A Drop of Patience by William Melvin Kelley
A Different Drummer made it to my list last year so I guess it’s no surprise that this second novel figures highly. The jazz writing is some of the best I’ve read. I used to think Jack Kerouac couldn’t be surpassed, but this comes close. And how better to explore racism than through the eyes of a blind man? And what better way to expose the blindness in us all as we read the account of Ludlow Washington’s life. Against a backdrop of the US jazz scene, the syncopation and improvisation of the music serves as metaphor for the life of a blind, black man abandoned to a children’s home by his parents in a manner that will squeeze your heart.
There you have it. It’s been tough. I would also like to commend these books which weren’t far off making it: Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare, Jem Tugwell’s Proximity, Paul Tudor Owen’s The Weighing of the Heart, Barney Norris’ The Vanishing Hours, Barbara Bourland’s Fake Like Me – yikes, I could go on…