I'm a little late with this, but here are my best reads from last year - fiction, children's books and non-fiction - not necessarily published in 2018, though several were.
Quite unintentionally I've hit a run of historical fiction - I did read a great many novels with more recent settings, but here are the six that made my top list, of which only the Patrick Gale has anything to do with the present day.
No apology for including friends here; I hope you'll believe me when I say that I wouldn't include books by friends unless I genuinely thought they were worth recommending, and these most certainly are! In Lydia Syson's brilliant Mr Peacock's Possessions, a family takes up residence on an uninhabited island - a new Eden, possibly, but human nature dictates that they bring their own serpents. (Read my full review here.) In The Poet's Wife Judith Allnatt gives an engrossing portrayal of rural life and the difficulties of coping with a delusional but highly gifted husband - the viewpoint of Patty, loyal but struggling wife of the poet John Clare. Cynthia Jefferies' moving and ambitious first novel for adults, The Outrageous Fortunes of Abel Morgan, is set in the seventeenth century and concerns a father and son separated for decades, taking us from Dorset to Istanbul and the West Indies. There's more on WRITERS REVIEW.
In The Purchase, by Linda Spalding, set in late eighteenth century Virginia, abolitionist Daniel Dickinson impulsively bids for a slave boy to help his small Quaker family to settle on uncultivated land in Virginia. The fate of this boy sets in motion a dramatic and terrifying chain of events. Patrick Gale's Take Nothing With You gives a wonderful picture of education in music, sexuality and life from the viewpoint of adolescent Eustace, interspersed with his cancer treatment in the present day which coincides with the start of a new and exhilarating relationship. (More here.)Thin Air is the second of Michelle Paver's ghost stories I've read - both excellent. Here she takes us on a Himalayan expedition in the 1930s, dogged by ill omens from the start.
The Skylarks' War is in everyone's roundups just now as well as on the Costa children's shortlist, and no wonder - it's a First World War story with all Hilary McKay's hallmark economy, wit and warmth, with even the minor characters fully individualised. Adam and Lisa Murray's Corpse Talk is a brilliant idea for a series - various significant characters, in this case all female, are 'dug up' to take part in chat show interviews about their lives. Alongside Elizabeth 1, Joan of Arc and Emily Pankhurst we meet less well-known characters including the Princess Caraboo, resistance fighter Granny Nanny and female Pharaoh Hapshetsut - a great way to introduce children to notable lives.
Finally, another friend. Celia Rees' stories are always clever, inventive and packed with incident, and Glass Town Wars is particularly striking. In the anniversary year of the publication of Wuthering Heights, Celia draws on Emily Bronte's juvenilia, pairing it with gaming technology: Lying in a coma in hospital, Tom is used by unscrupulous 'friend' Milo in an experiment which sends him as avatar into a dangerous game based on Bronte's fantastical Glass Town. Dazzling!
Henry David Thoreau's Walden was published in 1854, but contains so much of relevance to today: from mindfulness and the importance of natural surroundings for mental health to the benefits of not eating meat. My WRITERS REVIEW piece looks at this in more detail.
2018 saw the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, and after hearing Fiona Sampson speak at the Oxford Literary Festival I was keen to read this biography. I knew something of the circumstances of the conception of Mary Shelley's influential masterpiece but had not realised how extraordinary her life was, marked by grief, domestic turbulence and constant travel and relocation. It's a wonder she found time to write at all ... and Percy Bysshe doesn't come out of it well.
Head Gardeners, by Ambra Edwards, is a lovely book to dip into. The gardeners featured include well-known figures such as Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter and Troy Scott Smith at Sissinghurst, inheritors of the work of Christopher Lloyd and Vita Sackville-West respectively, each nurturing their garden's spirit without maintaining it as a museum. What makes this book so appealing is the range it covers, from National Trust properties to semi-wild estates where minimal intervention is the rule, and a South Bank community garden cared for by former drug addict Paul Pulford. Leisurely interviews convey the passion (and that's no exaggeration) of each gardener, and gorgeous photography by Charlie Hopkinson makes this a book to treasure.
When Helen Dunmore died in July last year, WRITERS REVIEW posted a joint tribute by Adele Geras, Celia Rees and myself. This week I was delighted - as were countless other admirers - to hear that this much-loved writer had won the Costa Book Award for her poetry collection INSIDE THE WAVE, following Ted Hughes as the second posthumous winner of this prestigious prize. So I'm re- posting my piece here. You can read the full post, with several comments from others, here.
I never met Helen Dunmore or heard her speak, but somehow feel that I have, through the impact her books have made on me as both reader and writer.
She died just two days before the announcement of the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, of which she was the first winner (in its original incarnation as the Orange Prize) for A Spell of Winter. In her last few days she wrote a poignant poem about the approach of death, Hold Out Your Arms. She was a poet as well as a novelist, and it showed in everything she wrote: in the precision and sensuousness of her language and the seductiveness of her rhythms.
Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was widely praised for its freshness and immediacy and the luminosity of its prose. I read that on publication and have read most of her books since. Her subjects were wide-ranging: the First World War and its aftermath, the Siege of Leningrad, the French Revolution seen from England, domestic life with its tensions and rivalries. The Greatcoat was a novella for Random House's Hammer series in which a haunted figure brings back the terrible losses of aircrew in the war (a subject which resonates with me, as my father was a navigator in Bomber Command). She could be deeply unsettling, as in the relationship between brother and sister in A Spell of Winter and between sisters in Talking to the Dead. Everything she wrote had her distinctive stamp of honesty, insightfulness and lyricism.
She wrote wonderfully about landscapes and weather, especially in the coastal settings she loved. Here is Daniel, in The Lie, looking down from a cottage roof. "There was the brown, bare, sinewy land running down to the cliffs. There were the Garracks, and Giant's Cap, and the Island. There was the swell, like a muscle under the sea, moving in long, slow pulses to Porthgwyn. I looked west and saw rainclouds, damson-coloured and making a bloom of shadow on the sea." She was always good on food, as here, when Nina in Talking to the Dead makes a tart: "the apples must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap around in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once." It's enough to make you salivate. Food is abundant in this novel, while in The Siege she wrote powerfully and unforgettably about hunger and cold, desperation and survival.
Completing her final novel, Birdcage Walk, she knew of her terminal cancer. In its Afterword, she wrote: “The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm.”
I’m glad now that there are Helen Dunmore novels and poems I haven’t read yet. I will ration them out to myself, in order not to use up the new reading experience too quickly. She was an exhilarating, generous talent whose words sing from the page and will ensure that she is remembered.
Four really special books here!
Katherine Rundell has quickly made a name for herself with ROOFTOPPERS and THE WOLF WILDER, but this one, THE EXPLORER, is the first of hers I've read. Here she takes us to the Amazon rainforest in the company of four children, survivors of the crash of a light aircraft. With no way of summoning help they must rapidly adapt, finding shelter and food. What starts off as a traditional adventure story takes on a wider environmental significance when the children meet the Explorer of the title, living alone in a ruined stone city. At first indifferent and even hostile, he teaches them the ways of the forest and later, when one of them needs urgent medical treatment, helps them to find their way out - but is adamant that they must never tell anyone about their encounter with him and the ruins, for the sake of the forest and its inhabitants. There's humour alongside the seriousness in this absorbing story.
I've posted separately about Pam Smy's brilliant THORNHILL, which she's both written and illustrated. High production values make the book an object of beauty, words and artwork coming together to mesmeric effect as two stories, centred around an old deserted house, alternate. Mary, unhappy resident back in the eighties when Thornhill was a children's home, communicates with the reader through her journal, while remaining silent; Ella's story, in the present, is told entirely in black-and-white illustrations. So we are following two silent stories. As they merge, the creepy, almost cinematic effect will have you holding your breath as you turn the pages.
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have created a treasure of a book in THE LOST WORDS. Taking one creature or plant at a time, they've created 'spells' (Macfarlane) and gorgeous images (Morris) in a book for all ages to hold and wonder at. The 'spells' demand to be read aloud, and are full of vitality, sharp observation and verbal delight: "Should green-as-moss be mixed with / blue-of-steel be mixed with gleam-of-gold / you'd still far short by far of the Tar-bright oil-slick sheen and gloss of starling wing ... " This book has received wide coverage and rightly so, for its celebration of the natural world and its urgings to all of us to look at and appreciate the other lives around ours, whether we live in countryside or city.
Start reading Philip Pullman's LA BELLE SAUVAGE and you'll know at once that you're in the hands of a master storyteller. It's hard to see quite how he does it, but it's the kind of writing that welcomes you into its world with complete assurance. We're in the likeable company of Malcolm Polstead, whose parents own the Trout Inn on the edge of Oxford, and who becomes intrigued by the infant Lyra, who's being looked after by the nuns of Godstow Priory. Someone's trying to steal Lyra - why, Malcolm doesn't know, but soon he, reluctant companion Alice and baby Lyra - and their daemons, of course - are in danger as floodwaters rise and their pursuers close in. A perfect read for long winter evenings.
I’ve loved and admired Pam Smy’s work since I first saw it several years ago when she was engaged to illustrate my children’s book Lob. Her reputation has grown since then and her style has matured; she went on to provide beautiful illustrations for my next book The Brockenspectre, Siobhan Dowd’s The Ransom of Dond, and a Folio Society edition of Penelope Lively’s The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. Following publication of this new book, someone ought to commission her to illustrate The Secret Garden – an inspiration behind Thornhill which is referred to in the book.
Pam Smy’s style combines a classic, timeless feel with a way of drawing the viewer into her worlds. She excels at portraying natural surroundings, especially wild and possibly threatening places, but also domestic interiors rich in detail. Her human figures – of all ages - are expressive, endearing and recognisably ordinary.
But this book is a breakthrough, for Pam and possibly for children’s fiction too. It’s the first she has both written and illustrated, and combines two stories: that of Mary, an unhappy resident of Thornhill Institute for Children in the 1980s, and the wordless illustrated viewpoint of Ella who moves into a nearby house in the present day. Exploring with Ella, we’re drawn into an unsettling story of bullying and negligence, gradually realising that Ella too is a neglected child – living with her preoccupied father and spending long hours alone. Her situation echoes that of Mary, waiting to be fostered, selectively mute, and bullied by another girl in the home who charms everyone into believing that she is guileless. Unable to confide in anyone as her situation worsens, Mary takes comfort in making puppets to provide her with company, and these are used in the illustrations to eerie effect.
What is quite wonderful and brilliant here is the suspense Pam Smy achieves in Ella’s wordless sections, divided from the text by plain black pages. The feeling is cinematic, the tension crackling from the page as we move closer to Thornhill’s garden and then inside the abandoned house. And there are surprises which will make you catch your breath.
I’ve always thought that Pam Smy deserves to win the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. With this moving and strikingly innovative book, she ought to be in contention for the Carnegie Medal as well.
See more, including sketches and insights, on Pam Smy's blog.
Subtitled Pride and Prejudice - the servants' story, Jo Baker's captivating novel takes us behind the scenes of Jane Austen's world to the routines of toil and effort which allow the Bennet family to live in leisure and comfort. To Mrs Hall, the housekeeper, the arrival of Mr Bingley at Netherfield Park, which gives Pride and Prejudice its famous opening sentence, "meant a flurry of giggly activity above stairs; it meant outings, entertainments, and a barrowload of extra work for everyone below." Elizabeth's boldness in crossing the fields to Netherfield to visit her stricken sister is seen in Jane Austen's novel as demonstrating her lively independence: here, to Sarah, the housemaid, suffering from painful chilblains that flare and crack at every exposure to cold and wet, "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats ... she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." The smooth running of the household means that housemaids must be up before first light, emptying slops, fetching water and lighting fires; an evening out requires the footman, James, to wait out in icy weather with horses harnessed ready to convey the ladies home.
If you read this hoping for romantic encounters between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, you'll be disappointed; Jane Austen's key players are in minor roles here. Mr Darcy barely appears in person, and he is certainly not Colin Firth. We see the Bennets' acquaintances only as they affect the servants: Mr and Mrs Hall, Sarah, and the younger, pre-pubescent girl, Polly. When Mr Collins arrives in search of a likely wife, we see the insecurity of the servants' livelihoods, for it will be in his power to dismiss them all, should he wish, when he takes ownership. Mrs Hall is relieved when he settles for the homely Charlotte Lucas. A servant like Sarah - an orphan taken in by the stern but kindly Mrs Hall - has nothing to call her own beyond the wooden box in which she keeps her few possessions; not even space, as she shares a room, and a bed, with Polly. Moments of privacy can only be snatched between chores. When she and Mr Bingley's footman are mutually attracted, she's surprised at "the dawning revelation that pleasure was possible for her."
The plot hinges on the arrival and later disappearance of a young manservant who joins the household, James Smith. The secrets of his past are revealed partly through the machinations of George Wickham, the predatory charmer. Jo Baker picks up on the small detail in Pride and Prejudice that a soldier of the visiting militia has been flogged; here Sarah witnesses the brutal act while on an errand to Meryton, later connecting it with James's story. A middle section takes us back to his army service during the Napoleonic wars, and into territory which ranges far from Longbourn and middle-class Hertfordshire. Mrs Hill, too, has a back-story which throws an intriguing - and plausible - new light on the Bennets' marriage.
While this is a compelling novel in its own right, it closely parallels the events of Pride and Prejudice, with the fairly safe assumption that readers will be familiar either with the novel or with one of the many adaptations. But there is no attempt to imitate Jane Austen's style. In fact readers may find more similarities to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, in Sarah's passionate love for James, her fierce loyalty, and in particular in the descriptions of landscape and weather. Here is James, alone on a beach (you'll never find anything like this in a Jane Austen novel, where landscape is seen only as evidence of status, taste and good management). "He slipped away to the shore, and walked across the low headland; it fell away into a spit of sand, the grasses thin and fine as old men's hair, the sand drifting and scattering and settling; and white shells and then bleached bones, and then a sheep's skull, picked white, which made him catch his step a moment, not at what it was but at what he thought it might have been. Then skipping sand-fleas, and trails of dried seaweed, and he was out to the edge of the world."
Jo Baker writes with complete assurance, bringing her characters and settings vividly off the page. Her story isn't unique in being a spin-off from Pride and Prejudice - Emma Tennant, in Pemberley, and P D James, in Death Comes to Pemberley, have also drawn on this much-loved classic. But in my view Longbourn, with its shift of focus, outshines both.
- A tribute to Helen Dunmore, poet and novelist, 1952-2017
I hold a small grudge against Patrick Ness. As a child, when I dreamed of being an author I used to imagine a book with my name on it on shelves in bookshops and libraries, rubbing shoulders with the great E. Nesbit. Occasionally that does happen; more often Patrick Ness is in between, taking up a lot of space. But my new next-door neighbour is as illustrious as his predecessor.
His latest book acknowledges its debts to both Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever: the former, because the novel follows the events of a single day; the latter because of its frankness about teenage sex.
Adam Thorn, a gay teenager from a deeply religious family in Washington State, is instantly engaging: an immensely likeable blend of boldness and vulnerability, loyalty and cynicism, certainty and self-doubt. This decisive Saturday is to end (echoing Mrs Dalloway) with a lakeside party to see off Adam’s former lover, Enzo. But before the evening is reached, Adam is jolted by revelations from best friend Angela, brother Marty and his predatory employer, while his new boyfriend Linus seems likely to end up being hurt. Adam’s father, a small-town evangelical preacher, hasn’t yet managed to move into the twenty-first century where LGBT matters are concerned; it’s with good reason that Adam has so far kept Linus as a secret. When he does risk confiding in his father about the uncomfortable situation at work there are shocks and let-downs for both. The witty but searching banter between Adam and Angela shows that she is the one person he always trusts, but she too is about to leave.
When it comes to sex, Patrick Ness is emphatically not a writer to duck out with a coy row of dots and an evasive “Afterwards … “ He is quite clear about what and how. Enzo, with whom “there were moments of what Adam could only describe as desperation. They had to do it …” is compared to the endearing Linus, who was “enlisting Adam in the funniest, funniest thing two people could do together.” A bedroom scene with Linus is tender and touching as well as explicit, but Adam, while aware of the contrast to the more assertive Enzo, hasn’t yet recovered from the hurtful end of the earlier relationship.
Patrick Ness excels in portraying teenage friendships, passions, fears and doubts in a way that doesn’t in the least write down to his readers but carries the intensity of real experience. In this he reminds me of Aidan Chambers, a pioneer of fiercely intelligent young adult fiction. I was far less engrossed, though (in fact not at all) by the alternating supernatural sections, in which a girl recently murdered by her boyfriend at the lake haunts the place in a kind of limbo, accompanied by a giant naked faun. The two stories do eventually come together in a moment of release for both characters, but I felt that this strand was simultaneously too much and not enough, and am unsure what it adds to the novel. Perhaps I’ve missed something.
Release is published by Walker. This review is a slightly adapted version of a piece written for Armadillo online magazine.