Although it’s always good to take time to reflect on any reading year, when asked to select ten books as my favourites I always find myself becoming increasingly indecisive about which ones I’m going to choose! However, as 2019 was a year which provided me with so many 5* reads, making my selection this time has created even more indecision than usual, but here are the ones (listed in order of publication date rather than any preference) which survived the drastic cull … although I’m sure that some of those which didn’t will haunt me with their cries of “why didn’t you choose me”! So, here are my choices:

Improvement by Joan Silber

The central premise of this novel is based on chaos theory, the idea that a small, apparently insignificant event or action can trigger ripple-effects which have unforeseen effects, in both the short and the long term. I loved the way in which the author used her characters to explore the ways in which their actions had consequences, that they needed to recognise and take responsibility for their decisions and, by doing so, to live as good and ethical a life as possible. Her perceptive insights convey a deep understanding of both the frailties and the strengths of human beings as they face the various challenges of life. The gentle humour which runs through her writing left me with the impression that she is not only deeply respectful of people, but also believes in the power of redemption and of love. Throughout the story I felt that she cared about each one of her characters, wanting to show the reader what led them to make the decisions they did and to feel compassion for them as they struggled to do the right thing. Moving between past and present, and using a rich cast of characters this is beautiful, intricately woven story which, although I read it almost a year ago, remains vivid in my memory.

The Silver Road by Stina Jackson

Since Lelle’s seventeen-year-old daughter went missing in a remote part of Northern Sweden he has spent the three intervening summers driving the Silver Road, in the light of the midnight sun, frantically searching for her. Meanwhile, seventeen-year-old Meja has arrived in town hoping for a fresh start; on the brink of adulthood she seeks independence, but there are dangers to be found in this isolated place. As autumn’s darkness slowly creeps in, Lelle’s and Meja’s lives are intertwined in haunting and tragic ways.

The author’s descriptions of this remote part of Northern Sweden, with the winding Silver Road weaving its way between endless forests and remote houses and buildings, sometimes occupied, sometimes abandoned, made me feel that I was travelling every mile with Lelle and Meja, that I was feeling the loneliness and isolation of the landscape, not only the often eerie and claustrophobic atmosphere, but also its ethereal and magical nature. With its haunting, lyrical prose, this story of love, loss, hope, obsession and redemption, although at times desperately sad and melancholic, captured my imagination from the start – a remarkably assured debut novel.

Claiming T-Mo by Eugen Bacon

Whenever I’m asked to review a book from Meerkat Press, the small indie publishing house founded by Tricia Reeks, I’m always confident that I’ll be in for a treat and this book more than lived up to my already high expectations!

Although there are elements of fantasy, science fiction, magic, hybrid characters, interplanetary travel and shape-shifting characters in this enthralling story, for me it was its thought-provoking complexity and its essential humanity which made it so much more than the sum of these labels. I found it easy to immerse myself in, and enjoy, the other-worldly, fantasy elements of the storytelling, but what made it truly outstanding was how the author combined this fantastical world with so many immediately recognisable contemporary themes – including domestic abuse, violence, racism, bigotry, bullying, feminism, political manipulation, rape as a weapon of war, refugees, immigration, living in exile, justice and retribution. I enjoyed her explorations of how people discover who they are, manage to cope with difference, discover their inner strengths and learn to understand and to relate to others, themes which are central to the development of the story. Through her characters she highlights that, whoever you are, and wherever you come from, the need to find your place in your world, and to find loving relationships, is a universal quest.

The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland

I found this an enjoyable, fascinating and thought-provoking story about the power of female friendship and the history of the growth of feminism in the past fifty years. Each of the characters portrayed felt multi-faceted, convincingly drawn and used to good effect to explore the changing face of feminism over this period.

The story made me reflect on how things have changed from the start of the Women’s Lib movement in the 1960s to the contemporary #MeToo movement and to challenge my own beliefs on how far we have come.

Whilst it is undeniable that progress has been made over the last half century, the story highlights that the battle for equality is far from over, that women still need to work hard to make their voices heard, to own their own power, to accept compliments for their achievements rather than playing them down – how many men are similarly self-effacing about these issues?

It also made me think in much more detail about the sexism which continues to exist and which, because of its all too often insidious rather than overt nature, is perhaps even harder to challenge without being accused of being either strident, hypersensitive – or even too politically correct!

Expectation by Anna Hope

Best friends Hannah, Cate and Lissa are young, vibrant and inseparable. Living in East London, their shared world is ablaze with art and activism, romance and revelry – and the promise of everything to come. Ten years on, they are not where they hoped to be. Amidst flailing careers and faltering marriages, each hungers for what the others have. And each wrestles with the same question: what does it take to lead a meaningful life?

As I’d really enjoyed this author’s earlier novels, Wake and The Ballroom, my expectations were already high as I started Expectation, so I was delighted to discover that they were more than met in this remarkable and unforgettable story. It explores the changing nature of female friendships, feminism in the twenty-first century and the expectation that modern women not only can, but should, be able to combine loving relationships, having children and pursuing a career – in other words, “to have it all”. However, as each of the main characters discovers, trying to fulfil these expectations is challenging, frequently requires sacrifice and, if they don’t manage to have it all, leaves them feeling they have failed. The author’s in-depth explorations of how they deal with the obstacles they encounter, the disappointments they experience, the elusiveness of their dreams and of how they negotiate the changing nature of their friendship, demonstrate her remarkable ability to capture these dilemmas in ways which are totally convincing. It is an elegantly written, reflective and thought-provoking story and I find myself hoping that Anna Hope won’t make her readers wait too long for her next “gem”!

Live a Little by Howard Jacobson

That it’s never too late to find love is central to this brilliantly told, funny and poignant story, which follows the lives of two nonagenarians. Feisty, scathing, “take no prisoners” Beryl, who has two sons, has had many husbands and even more lovers, and delights in telling her two carers all about her life, even though her increasingly failing memory means that she often forgets names and muddles her facts. Shimi is a rather gentle, self-effacing bachelor who used to sell phrenology busts but now reads the fortunes of the customers in the Chinese restaurant below his flat. Not only is he mourning the death of his estranged brother and attempting to avoid the amorous approaches of the Widow Wolfsheim, but he also feels cursed by his capacity to remember absolutely everything, especially each and every incident which has ever demeaned him.

Howard Jacobson is one of my favourite authors because not only do I hugely admire his wonderful use of language, but I always enjoy his wry, acute observations on people and life, as well as the fun and humour which run like a thread through all his novels. All of these are to be found in abundance in this novel and I got the feeling that he had probably had at least as much fun writing it as I did reading it! With huge tenderness and compassion he enabled his vividly portrayed characters to reflect not on the vicissitudes of ageing, but also on an ongoing human need to seek both redemption and loving relationships. There are many, many memorable lines and observations in this story (as I was reading I frequently had to stop, not only to reflect on them but also to make a note of them!) so I want to share a few which will, I hope, give you a flavour of the story … and encourage you to read it!

The rich widows of north London whisper about him as the last eligible old boy in London because he can still do up his flies … an activity he finds himself performing with increasing frequency.

As a declaration of love from Beryl – He’s the only adult male I’ve ever met who doesn’t doubt he’s half the time ridiculous.

Finally, two observations on the relationship which develops between them:-

What better cohabitation for one who never remembers, and one who never forgets.

and

Though all the world ignore us,

You alone are my thesaurus.

The Hidden by Mary Chamberlain

Switching between Jersey in the 1940s, during the German Occupation, and London and Jersey in 1985, and using the narrative voices of Dora, Joe and Geoffrey, this dark, tragic and powerfully moving story explores the inter-connectedness of these three characters as they endured the years of war-time occupation and how, post-war, it was only by burying many of their feelings about their experiences that they’d managed to forge new lives for themselves. However, their hard-won peace is shattered forty years later when a young German woman, starts asking questions as she attempts to discover the identity of a mysterious woman whose photograph she finds amongst her late mother’s possessions.

This is a complex, multi-layered story which explores the hardships, abuse and fear people faced when living on the Channel Islands during the period of occupation. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and are expecting something similar from this story I should warn you that Mary Chamberlain’s novel is considerably darker in its exploration of the effects this period had on so many of the islands’ residents, and even on the very landscape of the islands. However, although it is often viscerally disturbing, it has a totally convincing psychological credibility which is why I found this story a much more satisfying read. It is one which I know will remain vivid in my memory so I recommend it without any hesitation to anyone who enjoys multi-faceted characters, nuanced, highly evocative prose and an exceptionally well-crafted story.

The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan

The Museum of Broken Promises in Paris is a place of wonder and sadness, hope and loss. Every object in the museum has been donated – a cake tin, a wedding veil, a baby’s shoe – with each representing a moment of grief or terrible betrayal; it is a place where people come to speak to the ghosts of the past and, sometimes, to lay them to rest. Laure, the owner and curator, has also hidden artefacts from her own painful youth amongst the objects on display. As a young woman in the 1980s, she had spent time as an au pair in Prague and had fallen in love with a dissident musician, a relationship which had terrible consequences.

Moving between past and present, between Paris, Prague and Berlin, this is a story of love, treachery, faith, survival, forgiveness and redemption. It is a poignant and thought-provoking story which left me feeling full of admiration for the ways in which the author, with her elegant, measured prose, created entirely credible, three-dimensional characters, capturing their hopes and fears, their capacity for brutality, compassion and forgiveness, as well as their potential for embracing the challenges of change. Equally impressive was her evocation of the horrors and hardships of life in countries behind the Iron Curtain, with the complex web of terror, suspense and paranoia which was the daily reality for most people.

These two quotes, from a speech given by Laure, encapsulate something of why I found this such a thought-provoking read:

“Why a museum devoted to broken promises? Which one of us has not experienced a broken promise in our lives? Either we made it and broke it. Or, someone made one to us and failed to keep it. The consequences can be funny, tragic, fleeting or life-long. However small, however large, those broken promises matter.”

“Every culture must have its museums and a country without them is a country that either deliberately, or unwittingly, destroys its past. You could argue, therefore, that museums are as much political entities as cultural ones …”

Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

Richard and Juliette’s five-year-old son has recently died and Starve Acre, their isolated house on the moors, which was to be full of life, is now a haunted place as each attempts to come to terms with their loss.

I very quickly felt caught up in the escalating tension created as the author explored the different ways in which his two main characters dealt with their profound grief. His skilful interweaving of psychologically recognisable reactions to loss, with deeply disturbing elements of supernatural influences, was impressive. I think that he captured the complexities of the grieving process with an impressive depth of understanding, recognising how it alters our emotional landscape in ways which are constantly changing and often incomprehensible. As the author reflects, “What you go searching for and what you find aren’t always the same thing”.

His at times metaphorical explorations of the parallels between emotional and physical landscapes added impressive layers of depth to the story. This is a theme which featured in his two earlier novels, The Loney and Devil’s Day but, although this story is shorter than either of those, I think he used it to even greater effect. The dark, Gothic horror which permeates his writing (he describes his books as “folk-horror”) is something I relished in those earlier books, but I found his use of it in this story far more unsettling, to such an extent that, almost three months after finishing the book, I still feel haunted by the thought-provoking sadness and strangeness of it. I think it’s his best yet.

The German House by Annette Hess

Set against the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963, Annette Hess’s debut novel is a harrowing yet ultimately uplifting coming-of-age story, featuring twenty-four-year old Eva Bruhn, a young female translator at the first trial, who finds herself caught between societal and familial expectations as she becomes convinced of the need to expose the dark truths of her nation’s past.

This is one of the most profoundly moving stories I’ve ever read and is one which I’m sure will remain vivid in my memory. Even though I learnt nothing new about what happened in Auschwitz, being reminded of the nature and the scale of the atrocities which were perpetrated, and the ongoing suffering of the survivors, was distressing. I frequently found myself in tears as I read the harrowing accounts of what the survivors and their relatives had endured, the doubts which were so frequently expressed about the veracity of their memories and, therefore, the veracity of their testaments. Equally moving was following Eva’s distress as she gradually came to realise what had happened in her country and her own family’s part in this, followed by her passionate determination that the guilty should be brought to justice and that the world should listen, believe and atone.

This is an assured, beautifully written debut novel in which the author combined her experience as an award-winning screenwriter, her considerable research into the history of the period and a rich cast of credible characters to produce a moving and powerfully visual story. I think it bears comparison with Bernard Schlink’s The Reader … I would even venture to say that it’s even more memorable!

Before I end my reflections on my best reads of 2019 I can’t resist adding two more which, although I read them before the end of the year, aren’t due to be published until early March 2020 but which I’m already telling all my book-loving friends to look out for! They are The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford, a dual timeline story which combines a deeply moving love story with a paean to a lost way of life and (yet another gem from Meerkat Press!) Deprivation by Roy Freirich, a multi-layered psychological thriller set on a small New England coastal island, with a population which has been stricken by a mysterious epidemic of insomnia.

Linda Hepworth
January 2020