Ever since I was a kid, reading has been a central, if not the central, way for me to relax, to escape, to find adventure, excitement and quirky emotional resonance far from the banalities of everyday life.
There is something deeply wondrous and magically exciting about the promise of a new story, and the thrill of meeting new characters, new worlds and encountering new beguiling perspectives never ever grows old (unless the biook is awful or not to my taste in which case I got tired of it all REAL fast).
Surprisingly there were a few years not that long ago where I deserted reading, too overwhelmed, in the best possible way, by all the movies and TV shows I wanted to watch; but I couldn’t deny my love of diving into a good book and now I’m back to reading 50-60 books a year.
Granted that number doesn’t reach the heady heights of most book bloggers, and certainly doesn’t match the 100 plus books I read each year in school (I even got a certificate at a school assembly from the librarian; yeah I was picked upon and bullied at school and hid in the library – why do you ask?) but it’s way better than I was managing and a perfect way to balance out all my other pop culture obsessions.
I continued my love of quirky settings and characters with humanity and sci-fi/fantasy this year with some truly beautiful books leaping from bookstore shelves and my towering TBR pile making their way into my reading this year, a select number of which made it to my favourites list this year.
You only need to have been alive for five minutes to know that grief is a catastrophically enervating thing. It guts your life so completely and abolsutely that you can wonder how you will ever emerge back to whatever version of normality is left in the wake of this major life event. In Tor Udall’s emotionally-resonant and poetically insightful brilliant debut novel we catch a beautiful glimpse of what life before, during and after grief (is there really an after? Not really, it’s just not as intense) feels like in all its flawed human glory and how maybe, just maybe, life can begin again in ways we son’t expect.
Growing up is never easy and in Ben Hobson’s gorgeously evocative and rawly emotional debut emotional we come to understand just how difficult it can be when grief is added into the mix. Examining issues of masculinity, belonging and the strength, or otherwise, of family bonds, Hobson expertly paints a picture of life on the Queensland whaling stations of the early 1960s and particularly what that is like for a father and son who have a long way to go until they’re close to being anything like a family.
I love a quirky lead character; even better when they are rendered in fulsome, three-dimensional terms that helps us seem them as a real person with needs, wants and desires, and not simply the punchline for an offbeat narrative. Eleanor Olpihant is decidedly quirky and shutdown, the result of a lifetime spent being subjected to horrific emotional abuse. As her life unexpectedly opens up, she’s forced to make a decision- does she stay in the stultifying world she has created for herself, which is safe but lacking in life and vigour, or does she step into the unknown and see where it takes her? It’s an extraordinarily affecting, sweet and heartfelt journey that Gail Honeyman takes us on and you’ll be so glad you walked every step of the way with dear lovely Eleanor Oliphant who isn’t completely fine … but will be.
As someone who spent much of my time growing up on the fringes of social acceptability at school, I could completely identify with Steffi Herrera, an outlier who simply doesn’t fit in with her peer group. Everything changes for her though when the talented young Swedish musician meets an ageing jazz great Alvar “Big Boy” Svensson and together they discover that life still has much to offer, contingent on staying true to herself, no matter how much pressure is applied. Combining the present day with Alvar’s memories of his heyday in 1940s and 1950s, Sara Lövestam’s book is an engaging, warmhearted but grounded delight.
There has been a lot written about the zombie apocalypse in recent years with many novels featuring the catastrophic rise of the undead filling bookshelves (and perhaps a few readers’ subsequent nightmares). Two of the best have been by M. R. Carey, the latest of which The Boy on the Bridge puts a refreshing new take on very well-trodden ground. What makes this book and its predecessor work so well is the humanity as its core; yes of course there are zombies and the world has ended but people endure and we bear beautifully articulated witness to their struggle to survive and retain what remains of their tattered humanity.
Taking flight, in some cases literally, into a fantasy world is one of life’s great pleasures. So removed are they, especially the good ones, from the everyday that you can very easily lose yourself in them and forget the real world exists at all. As least for a few hundred pages or so. Uprooted very much offers that kind of escape but imbues with a rich, resonant humanity that gives it so much emotional resonance that you feel deeply invested in the fate of all the characters. Novik gets the balance just right, balancing the fantastical and down-to-earth humanity in such a beautifully told way that you’re riveted from the first page to the last.
Think you’ve read or seen everything about time travel possible? Think again. Elan Mastai makes merry with this well-worn but captivating idea, taking it all kinds of imaginative, amazing places including the very depths of grief and the human soul. While time travel is the hook on which this heartfelt story pivots, Mastai never forgets the humanness at the heart of his tale, with every twist and turn anchored in the reality of life, its triumphs and sadly, its sorrows.
I’ll be honest – werewolves creep me out and if you’d asked me prior to January 2016 when Maria Lewis’s debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released if I’d read a book about them, you’d have received a resounding “NO!” And yet so well-written and deeply, beautifully human is the central protagonist in this book, a woman who’s intelligent, gutsy, funny and vulnerable all at once, that you willingly plunge into a supernatural world where werewolves are just one of the intriguing denizens. Who’s Afraid Too? doesn’t suffer from sophomore curse for even a second, a riveting tale that will have you drastically rethinking what lies behind all those unnerving bumps in the night (and day).
Before I launched into and fell in love with The End of the Day, I never thought I could like Death. Well, Death’s assistant anyway. Somehow though, North opens up a beguiling look at a figure usually cloaked in dark robes and carrying a scythe that is so enlightening that you can’t help but willing spend time with one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The book is tender, heartfelt, extravagantly poetic and richly emotional, a sublime journey into the way the closeness of death can often emphasise and light up life itself.
Way back in 1983 when my darling cat Fred died, I was painfully reminded of one of life’s more difficult lessons – that the animals who make our lives so delightfully, gorgeously smile-inducingly rich will one day die and leave us inconsolably bereft. But as Gizelle’s Bucket List movingly, and with humour-laced honesty reminds us, before they go they make a massive contribution to who we are as people and to the lives we lead. What was so appealing about this book is the way Fern Watt is very, heart-on-sleeve emotional while examining beautifully and eloquently why and how it is, through Gizelle’s all-too-short life, how our furry companions make such an indelible imprint on our lives.
As someone who suffers from Anxiety (the capital “A” is to distinguish from feeling a little concerned which this condition most certainly is not in full flight), I can well understand how the protagonist in this book, who desperately wants to move beyond her irrational fears, finds herself instead trapped again and again in them. A tug-of-war between connection and isolation that welcomingly doesn’t follow a conventional narrative route, and is all the better for it, Turtles All the Way Down (my favourite title of the year) by John Green, a man who lives with Anxiety and thus knows of which he speaks, is a warm, rich and very human story that never patronises, staying, funny, warm and real all the way through.
I have loved science fiction ever since it dawned on me that it could set you free from the realities of life in a way that few other things could. Breathtakingly imaginative and endlessly malleable, books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet open a window to an amazingly diverse and unexpected future, one where humanity has taken a few fairly big knocks but still emerged alive and functioning and in some cases, thriving. The protagonist of this book is part of a spaceship that are more like family than anything else, echoing Firefly in the way it shows the importance of familial and friendship bonds in tackling the crazy things that come your way in life, especially out in the wilds of dystopian space.
To be honest while I buy an awful lot of celebrity memoirs, very few of them end up being startlingly good. Interesting and illuminating yes, but entertaining or compulsively readable? Not so much. Which is why Mara Wilson’s delightfully self-deprecatory, honest and often very funny book is such a joy. Known for starring in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda, Wilson is the first to admit that lucky though she was, she also ended up with quite a few less-than-glamorous issues to deal with and Where Am I Now? is as much therapy as it is memoir, while also being pleasingly instructive about the nature of celebrity and ultimately finding out what matters most in life to you, not anyone else, and living that out as best you can.
Up until my housemate convinced me, through an endless dripfeed of coercion and suggestion, to watch The Walking Dead, I was not really a fan of zombies (pretty much for the same reason of werewolves – I don’t generally do horror). To be fair I remain less than enamoured with them but god damn if they don’t provide some narrative rocket fuel and real storytelling oomph, qualities that Mira Grant, the pen name of Seanan McGuire uses blisteringly effectively to tell the story of a post-zombie apocalyptic USA where the world didn’t end but the recurrent presence of the undead, and the measures needed to ensure the living don’t join them have created a society in fear of itself, freedom, and openness. Save for a brave few members of the press, which now includes bloggers, this is a world that needs some shaking up, a task Grant and her fearless protagonists handle with compulsively entertaining aplomb.
Saying goodbye forever to someone you love is never, ever easy. It is made all the more worse though when it happens by degree and over a considerable period of time, an extended period of grieving that can years to run its harrowing course. Rachel Khong beautifully, humourously and with great sensitivity examines what this period of seemingly neverending goodbye is like for one family and how everyone, not simply the parent at the eye of the debilitating storm, is changed, and how families adapt and grow to meet new challenges.
In this beautiful book, which insightfully and compassionately the intersection of grief and identity in one Merseyside family, you gain a beautiful, sustained appreciation for the importance of knowing exactly who you are, and how gaps in that sense of self can often be filled, but never terribly well, by supposition and guessing. The truth can be scary but it is essential to face it if you’re going to truly live and not mired in the pain and sadness and unknown parts of the past. There is a great truth and emotional resonance to The Museum of You, which speaks to almost every aspect of the human condition from loss to gains, from deep sadness to incipient sadness, a richly-wrought meditation on how grief can destroy and wreck but how, given time and aptitude, it can be turned into something beautiful again.
Oh lord, this is a beautiful, heartrending and immeasurably romantic book that has one of the most extraordinary premises of any book I’ve read in quite a while. Combining elements of Gravity – the two protagonists, marooned in near-Earth orbit, only have 90 minutes of air left and diminishing options, epic romance and political insightfulness, Hold Back the Stars is deeply, beautifully human, less concerned with the survival aspect of the story, though that can’t be escaped naturally, that with the way this affects two people and how they react to a situation that no one would ever want to find themselves in.
Another sci-fi entry and this one is enormously original and very clever. On an Earth where the aliens arrived and didn’t Independence Day us into the ground, people have access to all kinds of advanced technology and myriad future possibilities that would never have been possible with our extraterrestrial visitors. The one big fly in this galactic ointment? The aliens don’t communicate, remain maddeningly mysterious and obtuse and demand payment in human lives for each piece of technology they share. Not quite a green and visionary utopia after all, one that might have an even darker underbelly than anyone imagined. Netherspace is a rip-roaring tale that’s dark yes but also very smart and unwilling to play to well-worn tropes.