What have our guest reviewers most enjoyed this year? Here's the first of two round-up features. Unlike those you see in the broadsheets, ours include books published at any time, not just this year - so selections, over the two posts, range from Marcus Aurelius to Pussy Riot. Big thanks to our impressive line-up of guests (and we have plenty more to come) - WRITERS REVIEW couldn't happen without them. Come back next week for more recommendations!
Troublemakers by Catherine Barter was my favourite YA book of the year. Like NW it's an account of contemporary London life that feels authentic and real, there's a cast of diverse likeable characters and questions of ethics and family to engage head and heart. I read it once, and then went back to the beginning and read it all over again.
Hayley Long’s The Nearest Faraway Place (Hot Key) Despite all the ‘celebrity’ novelist nonsense currently afflicting children’s publishing, it’s heartening to see a YA novel as heartfelt and beautifully written as this still being launched into the world.
Kit de Waal's My Name Is Leon is moving, unflinchingly authentic and brilliant. It gives voice to the unheard British underclass, in a poignant story that lays bare the social inequalities of the 1980s. A superb debut novel.
Pierre Gripari's anarchic and strange fairy tales included The Witch in the Broom Cupboard published by Pushkin Press. The children who lived in his street in Paris' Latin Quarter and hung around the same coffee bar helped him compile this book in the 1960s and it's only recently been translated.
Also, the autobiographical essays by Bob Smith, Treehab, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, are harrowing and beautiful and hilarious. He talks about life with illness, having children, loving the natural world, and having hot dates in cold Alaska.
My novel of the year must be Rachel Joyce's life-affirming The Music Shop. It's got a lovely ensemble cast and goes in just the directions it bloody-mindedly wants to. Every book of hers I love - each one even more than the last.
Hidden in their rough hearts?
A lot of people wouldn’t lament a lack of comedies about middle-aged male writers, but I’d be very sad to be without Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Little Brown US). Approaching fifty, Arthur Less travels the world to avoid, mostly, himself. There are some wonderful comments on being mid-list in publishing and possibly in life, in this very human, humane novel. I hope it’s published in the UK very soon.
My top reads this year have been Human Acts by Han Kang (brutal student uprising of 1980 in South Korea), A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (humans wrecked by a combination of WW2 and being human - full review coming early next year), Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (more brutality - sorry - this time in the massacres of native Americans after the US Civil War) and Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (who pulled off the incredible feat of making me feel brief sympathy for a deeply repellent white supremacist). Great plots, big emotions - just what I need.
Natasha Pulley's The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, about the extraordinary, intertwined relationships in the Victorian era between a quiet telegrapher in the Home Office, a brilliant and mysterious Japanese clockwork maker and a young female physicist, with its mixture of history and fantasy and its deeper themes about human destination, is different and on the whole delightful. It could do with cutting and its charm almost tips over into whimsy at times, but I love its exuberant and inventive writing.
The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke, is an exciting, thought-provoking thriller; the black heroine/investigator works at a historic plantation house in Louisiana. The plot revolves as much round Caren's feelings about working at this place where her ancestors were slaves as about the issue of who's the murderer, though you do find that out, and the ending is perfect.
Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens. What is disturbing about this book is how relevant it is to nowadays; financial instability, the gulf between rich and poor, and a corrupt government, embodied in the Circumlocution Office, which exists to shore up the status quo of privilege. Dickens may have been terrible at writing about women, but he's an amazing, surreal storyteller.
What have you most enjoyed this year? What would you like to recommend? Please leave your comments below.