On the first day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my very favourite book was in 2017…

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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Well, here we are. Christmas Eve. The presents are wrapped*, the fire is roaring, Die Hard is on the TV. Wouldn’t you like one final book recommendation before Christmas Day?

(*Not all of the presents are wrapped.)

Well, let me tell you about my favourite book of the year. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel, Harmless Like You, moves between the late 1960s/early 1970s – where Japanese teenager Yuki is finding her way through life in America – and the present day, where Jay, the son she abandoned as a baby, is seeking out Yuki following the death of his father, who raised him single-handedly.

When 17 year old Yuki’s parents move back to Japan, she chooses to stay in New York to follow her dream of becoming an artist, living with her best friend Odile, an aspiring model, and Odile’s mother Lillian, a writer of romantic novels. Yuki assures her parents she will finish school but, after they leave, she drops out and begins working as a receptionist.

Still a teenager, she finds herself in a relationship with Lillian’s boyfriend, Lou, a sports journalist and would-be poet who introduces her to modern art she’s never experienced before but which moves her profoundly and inspires her own art. But Lou is also a violent bully, something that doesn’t surprise Yuki, since she witnessed him beating Lillian, but which she finds hard to leave behind. When she finally does, it’s with the most breathtaking line: “Why was it that when a fist slammed into your face, it was a jump-start, but heartbreak was a leak in the gas tank?”

Forty years later, Jay is an art dealer, aware of his mother’s success as an artist now based in Berlin, but still estranged from her. He is a new father himself, but finds that he is unable to feel any kind of paternal instinct towards his new daughter. His relationship with his wife is also strained, although he regrets a recent one-night stand with an artist he represents. Jay is not a particularly sympathetic character but one whose motivation and behaviours are completely plausible. Yuki, too, is such a fully-realised and engaging character, I wanted to keep reading about her beyond the novel’s end.

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draws out the consequences of abandonment, of not quite feeling like you belong, across generations. Both Yuki and Jay inherit and are informed by the pain of the generation that went before them. The novel is, in parts, desperately sad – Yuki’s unhappiness as a young mother is particularly palpable – but Buchanan’s writing is absolutely glorious.

There is a particularly wonderful feature of this novel that I loved: each of Yuki’s chapters begins with the definition and description of a paint colour or pigment. This might sound like an exercise in creative writing but the descriptions are extraordinarily rich and often unusual, and extend through the chapter, so that whole sections are imbued with colour. That’s what’s remained with me long after the end of this novel: its sadness but also its colour.

 

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On the second day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my second favourite book was in 2017…

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

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My second favourite book this year is another slim one but you finish it feeling a little grateful that it is a short book: it’s a deeply unpleasant glance at a woman’s toxic relationships with those around her. But it’s exceptionally well written and there are moments of genuine humour, dark as it is.

Gwendoline Riley’s First Love opens with a scene in which the protagonist, Neve, is unpacking boxes, having moved into her new husband Edwin’s house. It’s all very sweet and domestic, until Edwin turns on her, directs at her a tirade of foul language and insults. Edwin is older than Neve and he is a bitter, self-pitying and misogynistic man, who verbally abuses Neve. The scenes in which they fight are vicious and uncomfortable to read, but she is continually drawn back to her relationship with him and the rest of the book, whilst not delivering a great deal of action, explores a little of why that might be by looking back over events in Neve’s life.

Because her relationship with Edwin isn’t even Neve’s most complicated relationship: her father, now dead, was a bully who, in one discomforting chapter, bombards his daughter with unwanted concert tickets, forcing her to repeatedly stand him up. Neve’s mother, newly single after the end of a disastrous second marriage, is self-absorbed, needy and childlike; I found her a highly unlikeable but fascinating character.

The dialogue in this novel is incredible; Riley captures the rhythm and inanity of conversation perfectly. The way in which Neve and her mother talk to one another struck me in particular as remarkably convincing, whilst also providing some of the novel’s only light relief.

In a festive series of blog posts, this is hardly the most festive choice of book but it’s well worth reading for Riley’s clear and skilful prose and engaging characters.

 

On the third day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my third favourite book was in 2017…

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

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At the beginning of Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone, fifteen year old Miriam’s heart stops and she collapses on the school playing field. She survives but doctors cannot fully explain why it happened and can’t promise it won’t happen again. She returns home to the care of her father Adam, a stay at home dad and academic; her mum Emma, a GP; and her younger sister Rose but all four of them are changed by the event. Adam creeps into Miriam’s bedroom at night to check she is breathing. Just how else do you live alongside the fact of a loved one’s mortality?

Everything that happens in this novel happens in the first few pages; the book is not really about Miriam’s cardiac arrest but about the aftermath, and a very domestic aftermath at that. I accidentally saw Moss talk about this book twice this year – once at a work conference and once at the Cheltenham Literature Festival; she was brilliant both times – and at one of those events, she spoke of the importance of the ‘domestic novel’. After all, it’s a universal experience. And there is something quite miraculous about the way in which Moss writes about the everyday; she elevates it somehow, makes it a subject you want to read about.

In the midst of this domestic aftermath, Moss weaves two subplots: firstly, the story of Adam’s parents, their unorthodox lifestyle and Adam’s mother’s death, which may hold a clue to Miriam’s condition. Secondly, Adam is writing an academic book on the post-war reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral and the snippets of this story are woven through the main story, picking up the theme of rebuilding in the aftermath of disaster, new life emerging amidst the ruins of the old.

I became a big Sarah Moss fan with this novel: she writes, so fluently and intelligently, extremely readable, relevant and moving books. The Tidal Zone is in my top three for good reason.

P.S. The image on that cover is *not a photograph*…

 

On the fourth day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my fourth favourite book was in 2017…

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

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Megan Hunter’s debut novel, The End We Start From, is a slim and spare book, which I finished in less time than it took my husband to watch an action film on Netflix and read again straight away, but which has lingered in my mind much longer.

The novel’s unnamed narrator gives birth to her first child, Z, as an apocalyptic flood hits London. The new family is evacuated to the north, first to the narrator’s husband R’s parents’ house and then on to a series of refugee camps, before seeking sanctuary on a remote Scottish island.

The story is told through fragments, sometimes hurried as though the narrator has had only snatched moments to capture her experiences. It’s a device that helps pace the novel well. The other device used by Hunter is to name her characters only by their first initials; a decision that jarred a bit when I first started reading. But through the whole novel, it works and reminded me that the experiences the novel is describing are human experiences. In the context of the current narrative in some corners of the media that emphasises ‘otherness’ when reporting on refugees, I found this particularly powerful.

Really though, this is not a book about environmental disaster, migration or refuge but about motherhood; the context is just the backdrop in which the narrator is cast adrift, with her new child, into the most intense relationship she’ll ever have. It’s a strong metaphor and I think this is a book I’ll come back to and read again quite soon.

 

On the fifth day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my fifth favourite book was in 2017…

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

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I think this is the book that most surprised me this year; I’ve always imagined Rose Tremain to be a stuffy, old-fashioned writer of clichéd romantic fiction. What that was based on, I don’t know. But I was given a copy of The Gustav Sonata for Christmas last year and gave it a go and it was quite wonderful.

Spanning eighty years, from the 1930s to the present day, the novel tells the story of Gustav, a young boy living in Switzerland in the aftermath of Second World War. His late father, we learn through chapters looking back to the war, lost his respected role as a senior police officer by helping Jewish refugees enter the country and Gustav’s mother has never forgiven him for ruining the family’s status, even after his death.

When Gustav invites home Anton, a wealthy Jewish boy new to his school, his mother’s resentment threatens their burgeoning friendship. But it endures throughout school, through their adolescence and a holiday with Anton’s parents to Davos, where their relationship shifts slightly and unexpectedly. It is only when Anton becomes a celebrated concert pianist – pressed into the career by his parents, despite his crippling stage fright – that Gustav feels himself pushed out of his best friend’s life and they grow apart.

The Gustav Sonata is a graceful and dignified book, one that shows its full heart without being sentimental or overblown. I found it profoundly moving, not simply because it is sad, although some parts are, and not least its ending, which I won’t spoil but which felt just right. Not only was this novel the one that most surprised me but it is probably the one I’ve recommended most this year.

 

On the sixth day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my sixth favourite book was in 2017…

Rivers of London AND (bonus!) Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

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Last year, my dearest friend, Ally, gave me the most incredible birthday present a book lover could dream of: she asked a group of friends to tell her one book that they’ve really loved or that has been influential in their life and then she bought a copy of each and wrapped them up with a little introduction about that friend. I had a stack of ten books, all handpicked by our friends. Great, huh?

Nearly two years on, I have only read one of these books because I am too scared to have read them all and to have finished my lovely gift. I know this is irrational. However, the one book I have read – the first book in Ben Aaronovitch’s fantasy crime series, Rivers of London – was a cracker. I enjoyed it so much, I’ve already read the second in the series, Moon Over Soho, and plan to read all the others, even though I do not do series of books. That’s about the strongest recommendation you’ll get from me.

There’s just something really engaging about these books though. I think it’s probably the protagonist, Peter Grant, a relatively green police constable in the Met, that I like and want to read more about.

In the first novel, Peter is on foot patrol one night when he encounters a ghost in Covent Garden. The encounter sets him off on a quite unexpected course: he is recruited into a secret branch of the Met…which deals with crimes of magic. As he begins his unusual apprenticeship, Peter finds himself trying to solve two grisly cases, whilst becoming accustomed to all things supernatural.

The novels are also completely saturated in the culture and geography of London; I have read few English novels that feel as strongly located in their place as these. In the first book, Aaronovitch draws on the mythology of the Thames and London’s other rivers to create a world of warring river gods and goddesses and, in the second book, Moon Over Soho, the history of the city’s jazz scene takes centre stage.

The books are also very, very funny, surprising and inventive. They are fast paced, hard to put down and will make you think again about going back to your run of the mill police procedural.

On the seventh day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my seventh favourite book was in 2017…

Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa

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Evening Primrose is a slim but powerful novel, told in three parts of short journal entries written by Masechaba, a recently qualified doctor finding her place in the South African health system.

At the hospital, she befriends Nyasha, a Zimbabwean colleague who is active in the anti-xenophobia movement, and much to Masechaba’s religiously devout mother’s horror, moves in with her. But Masechaba’s new friendship and political awakening leads to an horrific, violent event at the end of the first part. The aftermath of this brutality is told through ever more intimate and intense but ever more spare journal entries that lead us to the story’s conclusion, one which may at least contain some hope.

It was this intimacy and intensity that I found most engaging: even before the traumatic events of the first part, we read of Masechaba’s excruciating menstrual problems (the South African edition of this novel is called Period Pains) and of her brother’s death by suicide. The epistolary form brings us in close to these experiences but, as Masechaba’s mental state begins to crumble, the journal entries become increasingly spare, at once keeping the horror at arms length and forcing us to fill in the gaps.

Evening Primrose is a novel that can be read in one sitting but which will have an impact long beyond.