My heart always sinks when someone asks me about my favourite anything, be it author, book, composer, piece of music, meal, because it not only feels almost impossible to choose, but any choice I do make is quite likely to change if I’m asked the same question the following day! So, when Erin asked me if I’d like to contribute to this new feature on the NB website my initial feelings were a combination of being “put on the spot” and indecision – but I also welcomed the opportunity to look back through a year which had introduced me to some outstanding reading experiences. Three of these were from “favourite” authors but the majority were from writers who were new to me. However, the richness of my “longlist” posed its own dilemmas: how on earth could I decide which ones to choose, and which to leave off my list – if you have taken part in this feature maybe your favourites changed on an almost daily basis – or perhaps you are much more decisive than I am! However, here I am now, finally committing myself to paper … but I imagine that tomorrow I’ll probably be regretting the books I left off my list and wondering whether I made the right choices!

However, I have enjoyed this period of reflection, of being reminded of so much wonderful storytelling and the joys of the unexpected “gems” which I have discovered, mainly through being a reviewer for NB, during 2018. They are listed in order of publication date and not in order of preference!

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Having read and loved Joanna Cannon’s debut novel, The Trouble With Sheep and Goats, I had felt a bit anxious about reading her second book, fearful that she wouldn’t be able to create as compelling and engaging a story. I then heard her talk about it at the Borderlines Book Festival last October and was sure I wouldn’t be disappointed – and I wasn’t! Although she is writing about characters reaching the end of their lives and trying to make sense of it, rather than ten-year-old girls trying to make sense of theirs, there are many parallels in this story – a tight-knit community (this time within a sheltered accommodation complex), long-buried secrets, a present-day mystery, two close friends who attempt to uncover the truth and giving people who are different a clear voice. This author creates vivid, complex and compelling characters and, using her experiences of working as a psychiatrist, enables her readers to understand why they behave as they do. This is a story about the power of friendship, love, loss, regret and fears of ageing and is infused with compassionate insights.

Smoke City by Keith Rosson

I was introduced to Keith Rosson’s writing, and his wonderfully quirky take on life, when I received an ARC of his debut novel, The Mercy of the Tide, from Meerkat Press in 2017 and I was just as enchanted by his second, equally quirky, novel. His own 5* review on Goodreads provides a taste of what to expect of the story and his writing style:

Hands down the best novel about Joan of Arc’s remorseful and reincarnated executioner taking a road trip to LA with a downtrodden and self-destructive ex-art star that I’VE ever written, I can tell you that much.

Keith Rosson created three flawed, but memorable, main characters in this compelling novel – even his more minor characters felt fully formed and convincing. The story switches from the present day to past events; from first to third person; it combines history with magical realism and the paranormal; it’s full of humour often deliciously dark; reflections on the meaning of life; of the search for forgiveness and redemption; of political satire – and much, much more.

There are so many genre-defying elements to the story that when I first started reading I wondered how it could possibly be translated into a convincing whole but, in a quite brilliantly inventive way, the author managed to do just that. There is so much in the story that is thought-provoking, ironically observant and challenging of corruption and complacency and yet, ultimately, it felt like a story about hope, about love and about the essential decency of people.

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti

This prize-winning, internationally successful novel is the story of two young Italian boys and the men they eventually become. From very different backgrounds, they got to know each other as children: Pietro, a lonely city boy, spends his childhood summers in a secluded valley in the Alps. Bruno, the cowherd son of a local stonemason knows the mountains intimately. Together they spend many summers exploring the mountains’ meadows and peaks, discovering the similarities and differences in their lives. As they grow up, with Bruno never leaving the valley and Pietro’s job taking him to cities across the world, as well as to other mountain ranges, they see each other infrequently but retain a closeness which is important to each of them.

This powerful and moving coming-of-age story, which spans three decades, captivated me from the very first page with its explorations of male friendship, ambivalent father/son relationships and themes of love, loss, regret, reparation, hope, resignation and disappointment. Equally captivating was the way in which the author used poetic, lyrical language to evocatively capture not only the stunningly beautiful landscape of the mountains and valleys and the variety of flora and fauna to be found there, but also the domestic landscape of home, both urban and rural. His deep-seated love of the mountains was clear in every sentence and, as I too fell in love with mountains when I was a young teenager, a love which has grown ever deeper over the decades, this was something with which I could readily identify.

I found this an outstanding, unforgettable story. When I had read the final sentence, I wanted to go back to the beginning to immerse myself again in its beautiful, sensual language and thought-provoking themes – I also wanted to be allowed to give it more than a 5* rating!

Milkman by Anna Burns

This winner of the 2018 Man Booker proved to be a controversial choice (although the members of the panel were united in their decision!) and continues to divide opinion – a real “Marmite” book! Had I not been asked to review it as part of a NB feature about the longlist, I’m not sure whether it would have attracted me. Initially, with characters not being given names but identified only by descriptions such as  “nearly-boyfriend”, “wee sisters”, with the narrative voice of “middle-sister” (the story’s 18-year-old protagonist) taking the form of a stream of consciousness, with paragraphs which were frequently several pages long, I found it hard to feel engaged with the story. However, as soon as I “tuned in” to middle-sister’s voice I found it difficult to put the book down. It is, in many ways, a dark and disturbing story, evocatively capturing the horrors of living with an ever-present sense of danger, violence and dread, when nothing in life feels stable and reliable. Although the story is set in Northern Ireland (probably during the later years of “The Troubles”) it could just as easily be set in any community facing an oppressive regime, be that political, social or religious or, on a more intimate level, in any tight-knit community. For me, it was this universal authenticity which, along with the wide-ranging themes explored in the story, which made this such a powerful and memorable read for me – and who could fail to fall in love with a protagonist who tries to negotiate her way through the relentless horrors of her life by walking along reading nineteenth century novels (she doesn’t like twentieth century ones!) in order to inhabit what feels like a gentler, more benign world. As far as I’m concerned, Anna Burn’s book was a worthy winner – but then I have always loved Marmite!

The Day of the Orphan by Dr Nat Tanoh

Living in a town in a fictionalised African country, in many ways Saga is a typical eighteen-year-old: he enjoys music his mother (much to her children’s amusement!) calls “hop-hip”, is keen to learn about girls from his suave best friend Ibrahim, and likes to make sure that he always has access to a plentiful supply of food to maintain his already considerable physique – he had learnt early in life that there was much pleasure to be gained from eating, as is evident from the beginnings of a potbelly!

This is a wonderfully vibrant, highly entertaining and enjoyable story. Chubby Saga, an unlikely revolutionary, is a totally endearing and delightful character but the book is full of vibrant characters, and I missed their company when I turned the last page. The author managed to combine his powerful evocation of the horrors faced by people living under a brutal and oppressive political regime with vivid images of young people being prepared to stand up to injustice, even when this means putting themselves in danger.

I loved every moment of the time I spent in Saga’s company and felt full of admiration for the author’s skill in infusing such a serious, at times heart-breaking, subject with such obvious affection and light-hearted humour, yet without in any way diminishing the impact of the horrors faced by people living in brutal dictatorships. Several  months after reading it the thought-provoking impact of this story remains with me. If you do decide to read it, I’m sure you’ll grow to love Saga as much as I did – you’ll be taken on an emotional roller-coaster of a journey, but one worth travelling for the powerful combination of laughter, tears and outrage!

A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

Rez, the main character, is fourteen when this story starts and nineteen when it finishes. The son of wealthy and successful first-generation immigrants (his father is a Kurd from Iran, his mother from Syria) he has so far lived a privileged life, never knowing what it is to go without or to live in fear. Although occasionally feeling torn between two cultures, essentially he appears to be living the American dream, a dream and freedom his parents fled the Islamic Revolution to find. They have worked hard to achieve this and want Rez to appreciate his good fortune but, although Rez wants to do well and to eventually go to university, for now he just loves hanging-out with a group of white school-friends who have, apparently, accepted him into their tight-knit clique. Surfing, getting stoned and, hopefully, losing his virginity, now become more important priorities than constantly striving to excel at school, activities which lead to increasing conflicts with his parents, particularly his father. However, a sudden falling-out with his white friends, the Boston Marathon bombing and then a terrorist attack on a shopping-mall closer to home, combine to expose how superficial his acceptance into the white community has been. He discovers that the colour of his skin, his religion, even though he is not a practising Muslim, and the fact that his parents are immigrants all lead to him being seen as a potential terrorist.

Through the eyes of Rez, Laleh Khadivi powerfully captures the struggles of a young adolescent whose sudden realisation that his acceptance in the community of his birth is so fragile, leaving him feeling  isolated and aimless and leading to his search for alternative sources of acceptance, support and comfort. In a sensitive and insightful way, she drew me into Rez’s world. I could feel how his hurt, his anger, his confusion, all contributed to what felt like an inevitable journey towards radicalisation. Her thought-provoking observations about this process really brought home how a vulnerable, but idealistic, young person can be persuaded by promises of a truer, a better, a more worthwhile life. Rez had grown up with his father extolling America, and the opportunities it had offered him and his family, as “a good country”. However, when this was no longer Rez’s experience, he felt forced to seek an alternative “good country”.

The Hurtle of Hell: “An Atheist Comedy Featuring God and a Confused Young Man from Hackney” by Simon Edge

Stephen Carter had known as a teenager that he was gay but had thought that his very traditional, unadventurous parents would never accept this. Aged sixteen, and soon after finishing his exams, he took all his savings and escaped to a new life in London, reinventing himself as Stefano Cartwright and, giving little thought to the effect it might have on them, cutting off contact with his family. As the story opens he is living in Hackney, working in a gay bar and is in a committed relationship with Adam, with whom he is enjoying a holiday on a small volcanic island. In general, his life feels pretty good and he is reasonably content. However, a freak accident leads to an “out-of-body” experience as he is being resuscitated: he finds himself travelling up a tunnel of light and encountering a giant blue eye peering at him. When he regains consciousness, he is convinced that it was God’s eye he had seen and believes that, if he is not to end up in hell, he needs to make some changes to his life. Previously an atheist, this belief will have profound effects, not just on him but on everyone he is close to.

As this was happening to Stefano, God was looking down his “seeing tube”, surveying his vast universe. Drawn by the commotion on the beach he focuses his tube on it, only to be taken aback when he sees two large green eyes looking back at him. When they suddenly disappear, and his tube becomes dark, he is left feeling confused about what has just happened but the experience of being spotted is a new, and not altogether welcome one. Intrigued, and possibly bored, he decides to find out more about the fate of Stefano and his life on earth.

The story, told through the alternating voices of Stefano, Adam and God (and a later fourth voice), explores how each of the characters attempts to come to terms with Stefano’s struggles to reconcile his gay lifestyle with his new-found belief in the existence of what he assumes is a disapproving, judgemental God. There are moments of truly laugh-out-loud humour throughout as the author describes the personal journey each of his characters makes. It turns out that it isn’t only the humans who are confused, God is often equally perplexed about his place in the universe and what may exist beyond its boundaries.

Although there is a humorous lightness to Simon Edge’s writing, there is an underlying seriousness to many of his thought-provoking explorations on life and human behaviour, on the complexities of relationships, and on the propensity for human beings to exaggerate their significance in the universe!

I found this this thought-provoking exploration of homosexuality, atheism and God with a celestial telescope, an absolute delight, a story which not only made me laugh, but made me think.

Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

I have read, and enjoyed, all of Patrick Gale’s novels but I think this one is outstanding. The evocative beauty of his story-telling, his deep understanding and compassion for people – with their combination of strengths and foibles – his capacity for exploring dark themes whilst also infusing gentle humour into his narrative, his elegant use of language, all meant that I could hardly bear to turn the last page because that meant having to leave behind all the wonderful characters he had created. However, unlike Eustace, who was not allowed to take anything with him from his lead-lined treatment room, I was able to take, and keep,  so much from this tender, poignant and moving story, and was left feeling that my life had been enriched by it.

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

Set in rural Suffolk in the 1930s, this story is told through the voice of fourteen-year-old Edie and, from the opening sentence, I felt captivated by the recollections of this memorable character, a sensitive, vulnerable young girl on the cusp of adulthood, struggling to discover what possibilities the future could hold for her. I felt caught up in every conflict and struggle she faced and found myself wanting to protect her from harm. Through her eyes the reader is exposed to all the realities of a rural way of life in the 1930s, a time of huge social, political and economic upheaval, when the introduction of mechanisation was changing the face of farming, making it more efficient but with the consequent loss of jobs, the attendant disruption of close-knit rural communities and the gradual erosion of old traditions. I admired the ways in which the author incorporated these themes into the story, without ever allowing them to dominate the exploration of the human stories behind all these changes.

As a nature-writer of longstanding, Melissa Harrison has an extensive knowledge of the natural world and, one of my abiding memories of this novel is the rich tapestry she wove to incorporate the wonders of this world into her story-telling. Her descriptions transported me back to a time when, for instance, there was no shortage of corncrakes in the fields, when their calls were a common sound at harvest time, a sound which, sadly, is now all but absent in the countryside. A clear demonstration that whilst change is necessary, it frequently has unforeseen consequences, altering the delicate balance of the natural world and a reminder that we should take care of what we have before it is lost forever.

The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

Exploring individual frailties and destructive family dynamics, this story is told through the eyes of two main characters, Andrew and Ben. When these two characters meet they feel an immediate attraction to each other and when they then keep on meeting by chance, they are convinced that fate is playing a part in bringing them together. For many years Ben’s only dream had been to go to Africa to see and work with lions, but when his wish comes true and he finally travels to Zimbabwe to volunteer on a lion reserve, it isn’t for the reasons he had imagined. The story starts when Ben is working in Zimbabwe and Andrew is in the UK writing a children’s book, called “The Lion Tamer Who Lost”. Told in eight parts, from the alternating perspectives of Ben and Andrew, and going backwards and forwards in time, each chapter of begins with a quote from Andrew’s book, a quote which carries the thread of the story forward.

This is a poignant, passionate, haunting and occasionally humorous love story, told with such exquisite restraint, empathy and gradual build-up of tension that I was left feeling in awe of Louise Beech’s skills as a writer. This was my first experience of her writing and I found myself wondering how she had escaped my reading-radar – but I now have her two earlier novels on my “to be read” pile.

*****

Each of the above ten books was published in 2018 but I read several more outstanding books throughout the year which were published earlier. Although I could very easily devise a second list of ten, the following  are two which I would feel unhappy about excluding from my favourite reads of last year.

Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes

This hauntingly beautiful coming of age story captures the struggles faced by Zachary and Eve, whose developing friendship is based on their shared experiences of death, with its aftermath of grief, anger and confusion. Their interactions are convincingly and beautifully described and I quickly felt drawn into their individual journeys of discovery. The author captured the pain of their grief, as well as their struggles to attempt to make sense of their often confused and ambivalent feelings … he equally convincingly evoked the absolute certainties of adolescents! However, it was not only the central characters who were so well-drawn, each of the eccentric neighbours was brought vividly to life, with each having a significant part to play in the developing story. An added part of my appreciation of this story was its setting in an area of the Northern Ontario wilderness and the author’s highly evocative descriptions – including the absolute misery of swarms of biting black fly and mosquitoes!

This is one of the books on the shortlist for NB Book Club Book of the Year and is the one I voted for saying:

“How I hate having to choose, especially when the shortlist includes such a wonderful selection. However, if I had to take just one of these books to a desert island it would have to be Hummingbird because the author’s restrained, lyrical prose produced a haunting, unforgettable story, authentically and credibly capturing such a wide range of emotions, as well as characters who feel as vivid as I write this (January 2019) as they did when I first read the story last September. The setting of Northern Ontario (an area I know well) was evocatively described becoming almost another “character””.

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

Lionel Shriver is an author I have huge admiration for and so when, in an interview, she was asked to recommend a favourite book, I knew that I would have to seek it out. Tortilla Curtain, written in 1995, takes place in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon. It’s a story of contrasts, between an upper-middle class white family living in a gated community, and two recently-arrived illegal immigrants from Mexico who are living in fear and poverty and is told from their very different perspectives. It explores prejudice, racial profiling, discrimination, attitudes towards immigrants, both legal and illegal and how people react when they feel their comfortable life-style is being threatened. Additional themes incorporated into the story focus on the unpredictability of the natural world, and the effects on the environment of human activity.

Although Boyle is, at times, fairly damning in his portrayal of the privileged white community, on the whole I felt that he captured the complexities of the problems which are experienced when a settled community feels threatened by what appears to be an influx of immigrants, when there is a huge cultural, economic and language divide and when mutual misunderstandings can all too easily have tragic outcomes. His compassionate exploration of the desperate lives of the two Mexican immigrants offered insights into why they had felt compelled to leave their homeland in search of a better life.

One of the most powerful impacts reading this book had on me was how clear it is that Donald Trump has played on fears which have very deep roots, not only in those communities living close to the Mexican border, but also the rest of America. The problems which were evident in 1995 have become ever more pressing during the intervening years and, even though it offers no answers to this complex problem, this story offers some important insights.

As I finish this project I find myself reflecting on whether there are any themes which link my choices. I think that what they all have in common is an eloquent use of language, memorable characters and a credible psychological integrity, and several evoke a very powerful sense of time and place. If I think back to other books which remain favourite reads, even decades later, they all share these qualities.

Linda Hepworth
January 2019