2018: Our Pick of the Bunch

Well, what a year it’s been! 2018 has been long, and twisty, and decidedly weird. Fortunately, it’s also been peppered with wonderful writing, which we’ve been lucky enough to read and review. In no particular order, we’ve picked out the best of the bunch, and are featuring it here. Most of the books listed came out in the last two or three years, and others have been around for a little bit longer. What they all have in common is that they are wonderful, transporting pieces of writing.

 

birdcage walk

Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017, and Birdcage Walk, released that summer, is her final novel. It’s a deeply poignant look at one family’s life, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. A beautiful book, and a fitting testament to a much-missed author.

Click here for our review, from February.

And here to find Birdcage Walk on Amazon.

 

snow gardenA Snow Garden – Rachel Joyce

A Snow Garden, published in 2015, is a set of seven interlinking stories, all set at Christmas time. Joyce’s writing is witty, but warm, and the stories have a bittersweet quality to them. Too late to give as a Christmas gift this year, alas, but always a wonderful read.

Click here for our review, from March.

And here to find A Snow Garden on Amazon.

 

eleanor oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

One of the breakout hits of 2017, Gail Honeyman’s first novel is a beautiful piece of work. Charming, funny, and often unsettling, it deserves the hype.

Click here for our review, from May.

And here to find Eleanor Oliphant on Amazon.

 

the good people

The Good People – Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent’s 2016 novel The Good People is a dark and twisty sort of story. Set in a small community in Ireland in 1825, there’s not much in the way of escapism here. A really intense and interesting look at religion, and superstition, and the effect they have on people. Everybody wants to be good, but it’s not that easy.

Click here for Lavinia Collins’ review, from June.

And here to find The Good People on Amazon.

 

one moonlit night

One Moonlit Night – Caradog Prichard (translated by Philip Mitchell)

A bit of a curveball, we’ll admit. One Moonlit Night first came out in 1961, and is translated from the original Welsh. Something of a forgotten classic, Prichard’s book is a Gothic, hallucinogenic kind of read. Very funny, and very strange, it might be the perfect novel for 2018.

Click here for our review, from October.

And here to find One Moonlit Night on Amazon.

 

And that’s it from us for this year! If you’ve enjoyed these reviews, please check out some of the others on the blog. These were just our absolute favourites, and there are tonnes of others that we’ve read and loved in 2018. Have a great New Year, everyone, and best wishes for 2019! We’ll see you there.

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Three Wishes – Liane Moriarty

Rating: 5 stars

Most people by now will have heard of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, famously adapted into a television series starring Nicole Kidman. Alas, I’ve not managed to see the adaptation, but I loved the book on which it was based. And now I’ve loved Moriarty’s Three Wishes, originally published by Pan in 2004 and republished by Penguin in 2016. Three Wishes was written as part of Moriarty’s master’s degree at Macquarie University in Sydney and was her first novel.

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Ms Moriarty’s light touch is again an absolute winner, so we can empathise and sympathise with each of the three leading characters in turn. The opening pages are told through the voices of various onlookers, mostly fellow diners and staff at the restaurant where blonde-haired Lyn and Cat, and redhead Gemma are out celebrating their 34th birthdays. What starts out as a joyful and noisy celebration turns suddenly into a hideous fight, disturbing the peace of everyone in the busy Sydney seafood restaurant and ending with one of the blondes throwing a fondue fork at the redhead (who is pregnant), then fainting flat out on the hard floor. In most novels this would sound like sure-fire screen adaptation material; but there’s a catch.

One of them said it was fantastic being a triplet. She just loved it! The other one said it was terrible. It just made her feel like a mutant or something. And the third one said it was nothing, no big deal, no different from being any other family.

And here we see just what the problems will be in making a screen adaptation of this tale of a year in the life of identical blondes Lyn and Cat, and their non-identical triplet Gemma – apparently this is scheduled to start production in 2019, and we’d love to know who’s going to be cast in the three lead roles.

So many of the scenes made me laugh out loud, I had to stop reading this on crowded tube trains. The sisters have followed different paths in life: efficient and organised Lyn owns and runs the highly successful Gourmet Brekkie Bus, has taught aerobics, and is married to Michael, with a teenage step-daughter and a toddler; Cat is a marketing executive in a chocolates business, and, although they’ve been trying for a baby, she has recently learned that her husband Dan has had an affair; and Gemma is a bit of a drifter, constantly changing boyfriends and jobs, and regularly acting as a paid house-sitter rather than having her own home. While Cat and Dan’s marriage is struggling, Gemma is getting on very well with a new boyfriend, locksmith Charlie, and quite hoping that this time she and he will get past the six-month mark. The sisters’ lives entwine and get confused, and gradually their long-hidden secrets are revealed. Their long-divorced parents are bemused onlookers trying to help and offer advice and support, while at the same time rebuilding their own relationship.

Moriarty creates many great characters in this book, beyond the triplets and their parents and partners. There’s Lyn’s 15-year-old difficult step-daughter Kara, and Kara’s annoying mother Georgina, constantly changing arrangements at the last minute; the girls’ grandmother Nana, a feisty, “annoyingly spry” widow; and marriage counsellor Annie.

Three Wishes isn’t a book with fairytale, all-wishes-granted endings for all the leading players: Cat breaks up with Dan but finds a new direction and purpose in her life; Lyn struggles to go against all her natural controlling instincts and also find a way to get on with Kara; and Gemma isn’t welcomed by Charlie’s family, with whom she’s clearly going to feel an outsider for a very long time, but does reveal a hidden talent for making money on the stock market, and tells the truth to her sisters about her former fiance Marcus, how he treated her, and what she actually felt when he died. Life isn’t going to be plain sailing for any of the three young women; relationships will always be difficult and volatile amongst them and with their friends and family. Perhaps a sequel set some years on would be welcome!

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Putney – Sofka Zinovieff

Rating: 4 stars

Putney charts the tale of Daphne and Ralph; set mostly in and around her family home by the river in Putney, the scene shifts between the 1970s and the early days of the 21st century. The mutual fascination and attraction between the two grows over the course of long hot summers spent in the house with its garden that goes down to the Thames, the smells of London air richly mixing with those of the spectacular Greek-based home cooking done by Ellie, Daphne’s mother (her full Greek name – Eleftheria – means liberty), before shifting to the intense heat of a lengthy bus and ferry journey Daphne and Ralph make to Greece, where they have full sex together for the first time. Their tryst is cut short, however, when Daphne’s grandfather dies unexpectedly and she has to go straight to Athens for the funeral, forcing Ralph to go to his pregnant wife Nina, an old friend of Ellie’s. Ralph tells Daphne:

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“We’re not bound by old-fashioned morality or small rules made by churches or by leaders who want to keep you under control. We’re free. You’re a free spirit.”

She paused, then nodded, believing him. Maybe she was free, even if it was unclear what that meant.

This is no regular heady romance, however; when they meet, Daphne is a child of nine, described by her father, novelist Edmund, to Ralph as:

“a free spirit. … Nine, you know, I think that might be the perfect age. A child at the height of her powers. Unafraid to be herself.”

Ralph, on the other hand, is then twenty-seven, a composer friend of her parents, and he becomes obsessed with the little girl, showering her with tiny gifts which he says must be kept secret. By the time she is twelve, he kisses her, tells her he loves her, but says:

“You’re the boss. I like it when you tell me what to do.” She knew him, trusted him. A friend. “A special friend,” was his expression.

Their relationship continues throughout the rest of Daphne’s school days, and Daphne’s understanding of it only changes when her own daughter, Liberty, reaches the age she was when she first fell under Ralph’s spell. She contacts her old school friend Jane who propels her into going to the police with her story – by this time, Ralph is a famous composer, lauded worldwide, and the ensuing scandal when he’s arrested will surely engulf and end his career and turn his fame to notoriety. The tale twists and turns, as we see Daphne’s struggles to come to grips with what happened to her as a child and how it changed her life afterwards. Jane’s tale, charting her relationships with Daphne and Ralph and her subsequent adult life, is also told, although this side of the book is, I feel, rather less successful; Jane remained to me a plot device, largely there to move the adult Daphne towards recounting her story to the police, whereas Daphne’s relationship with Liberty and her understanding of the nature of being a young pre-adolescent girl as she observes Liberty and her friend felt a far more genuine thing.

In the midst of the police investigations, Ralph goes to Edmund’s birthday party, where he faces up to Daphne, still unable to believe that he has done anything wrong. The narration shifts between Ralph, Daphne and Jane, all with strong individual voices. I had problems with the further revelations about Ralph towards the end of the novel, which changed the whole nature of the relationship between Daphne and Ralph, a relationship we’d seen largely through his eyes, describing his memories of it as he is in hospital undergoing chemotherapy; because of these revelations, I was left very uncertain as to how Ralph actually felt about Daphne. Up till that point he’s portrayed it as if it were a unique lightning strike in his life, rather than being one of a series of rumbling thunder storms throughout his adult life, part of a pattern of behaviour. Putney is a novel about abuse; but also about narrative, and who controls it. You, the reader, choose whose version you think is correct. Daphne’s, still seeing Ralph through rose-tinted lenses? Ralph’s, self-centred to the last? Or Jane’s, Daphne’s gawky teenage friend, who felt excluded and put aside? Read Putney and decide for yourself. I’m sure you’ll find it compelling reading.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

Peggy is the narrator of Claire Fuller’s remarkable first novel, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliot Prize for debut novels. Her story opens in November 1985 when she finds hidden in a drawer a photograph taken in 1976 of her parents, Ute and James, with his friends, Ute having removed all other photos of James.

“I stared at the photograph, still in my hand. The face of my father stared back, even then so innocent he must have been guilty.”

The novel leaps back to 1976, to the time when James and his friend Oliver are part of a group known as the North London Retreaters, who are preparing for an impending catastrophe by creating fallout shelters and stocking them with durable provisions (although the Retreaters disagree fiercely about what form the catastrophe will take). Ute is a concert pianist and while she is in her homeland Germany on a tour, James withdraws Peggy from school; they move into a tent in the garden of their comfortable house, and live by foraging and trapping squirrels until Oliver arrives unexpectedly and moves with them back into the house. One night Ute phones from Germany, the two men fight, and Oliver leaves. The next morning Peggy and James set off to find “die Hutte” – “a magical, secret place in the forest”, James tells the little girl, where he promises her they can live an idyllic life free from authority, rules, and the impending un-named catastrophe.

What unfolds certainly takes place in a secret place, but the life which little Peggy, renamed by her father as Punzel (as in Rapunzel) leads there is far from magical. It is raw and basic; the only food they eat is what they catch or forage in their remote forest. On the first night there is a huge storm and James tells Peggy that “the rest of the world has gone”. They live a dangerous and solitary existence alone for years with no comforts or reminders of their former London life, save for Phyllis, a beloved doll (who works well to externalise the girl’s mental disturbance). As the bitter winters wear on, the child veers between innocence and complicity, ignorance and ingenuity. She adapts bit by bit to her situation; while James is a chillingly convincing villain; and Ute feels like a living, breathing presence in die Hutte, brilliantly represented by the silent wooden piano which James carves, together with the fragment of some of Ute’s sheet music they have taken with them.

Over time Peggy becomes aware of a man named Reuben also living in the forest. As she and Reuben secretly spend time together, James becomes increasingly confused, desperate and morose, often calling her Ute and rambling about death lists. A final spiral of events brings an end to the years in die Hutte, and a shock realisation for Peggy that the world has not suffered a major catastrophe or cataclysm.

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Being forced to rejoin the world is hard for Peggy and it is equally hard for her mother to be reunited with her long-lost daughter after so many years. The portrayal of her return to London is as gruelling and tough as that of her days in the forest, with endless problems to overcome and questions to be answered, as her and our understanding of the truth of what has happened to her changes over the last pages of the book.

Disturbing yet delightful, beautiful yet brutal, Our Endless Numbered Days is a darkly fantastic first novel, which I thoroughly recommend.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

I was hooked from the start by the tremendous opening of Fuller’s novel:

“Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.”

swimming lessons.jpgWithin the four pages of the book’s prologue we learn that “Ingrid had been gone for eleven years and ten months exactly”. In his pursuit of Ingrid from the bookshop, Gil falls from the promenade onto the beach below. “It seemed to Gil that he fell in slow motion into the void, so there was plenty of time to think about the fuss his eldest daughter, Nan, would make, and how worried Flora would be…” And here we have all the leading players in the present-day story.

Organised, neat and tidy, Nan, a 27-year-old midwife, and her 22-year-old artist sister, Flora, whose life is perpetually chaotic and shambolic, go to take care of their father, followed by Flora’s new boyfriend, Richard, a bookseller. Gil is clearly elderly and ill (quite apart from his fall), a writer who’s devoted to second-hand books, with a preference for any which have been written or drawn in, or which contain old cards or letters. His house, called The Swimming Pavilion, is overflowing with such books, heaped everywhere, and it’s apparent that has he’s recently been searching for something, with every surface now heaped with books. And within days of meeting Richard, Gil asks him to burn all his books on his, Gil’s, death, which we increasingly realise is imminent. We also realise that Gil knows that over the weeks before her disappearance from their lives, Ingrid left him dozens of letters about their relationship and life together, all hidden within appropriate books.

Bit by bit we learn their history through reading these previously unread and hidden letters, which Swimming Lessons juxtaposes with developments in the lives of Gil, Nan and Flora. They are related in parallel tracks; the 1992 series of letters recount Ingrid and Gil’s life from the time of their meeting in 1976, when he is her university teacher and already a famous novelist, and the 2004 lives of those she has left behind – not just her family but also close friends Jonathan and Louise.

Fuller deals beautifully with the stresses felt by young Ingrid, becoming a wife and mother while still at university, and giving up all her hopes and young dreams to live with her new family in rural Dorset in The Swimming Pavilion. She has a constant struggle to make ends meet,  living off the occasional sale of one of Gil’s short stories or small royalty cheques from his published novel. She also struggles to feel she is doing anything right in how she looks after or loves her children, and when a prematurely born son dies she cannot come to terms with the loss. Gil is a wayward flirt whose eye is constantly roving, as indeed at times is he himself, with lengthy absences from the family’s home. Ingrid’s pain is real, and by the time we read the last of her letters we are sure that she suffered more than she could bear. We also understand that the elderly Gil is suffering terribly now, having spent nearly 12 years wondering what has become of her, and now having found some of the letters she wrote to him.

Fuller is an observant writer, capturing her characters’ mannerisms and gestures with apparent effortlessness but with beautiful attention to tiny details, such as how Flora eats her food or puts on her clothes; we see too Nan’s impatience, Gil’s selfishness, Richard’s bewilderment, Jonathan’s blundering attempts to help. In exploring the psychology of relationships gone sour or in their early stages of developing, Fuller ensures that the mystery continues up until the very last page. Swimming Lessons is a subtle and compelling tale of family tragedy, memories only half-understood, and stories better kept silent.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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One Moonlit Night – Caradog Prichard (translated by Philip Mitchell)

Rating: 5 stars

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This was not a book I would have come across on my own. Originally written in Welsh, and chosen by my local book club, One Moonlit Night was a strange, fantastic revelation. Gothic and – in places – hallucinogenic, it moves in fits and starts through time, describing life in a small Welsh mining village, all under the shadow of a series of deaths, midnight wanderings, madness, and people who disappear to an asylum never to come back. The rituals of the Church and institutional religion intersperse with small-town rural superstition – the devil in a black lake, a lady who sleeps along the slope of Snowdown.

The novel is remarkable for its early-twentieth-century compassion for mental illness – and not just in the narrative. It shows a community that feels sympathy and compassion for those with poor mental health. The blurb of my copy compared it to Under Milk Wood, but the comparison seems lazy and based on the fact they both describe Welsh small-town life – One Moonlit Night doesn’t have the whimsy or wild absurdity of Under Milk Wood. It’s dark and troubling, ambiguous and unsettling. It’s dreamlike, sure, but in an entirely different way.

I was informed I was wrong to do so by a native welsh-speaker at my book club, but I liked the style of the translation. The style was childlike in places, and grew with the narrator, but the naivety of the voice wasn’t twee or cute – it added to the unsettling ambience throughout, especially in places where it was used to lose the reader somewhere between reality and fantasy. I would strongly recommend this unusual, unsettling little book to any reader!

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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The Sealwoman’s Gift – Sally Magnusson

Rating: 4 stars

The Sealwoman’s Gift is a historical novel about the 1627 kidnapping of 400 Icelanders from the Westmann Isles by pirates who took them to Algiers and sold them as slaves. The book mostly follows Asta, the pastor’s wife. The pastor himself is sent on to the King of Denmark to negotiate a ransom payment, and Asta is left in Algiers with her daughter and newborn son, as the slave of an extravagantly wealthy moor by the name of Cilleby.

The great pleasure of this book is in the description of 17th century Algiers. Iceland is a cold, dark place where people eat a lot of puffins and listen to a lot of enthusiastic sermons. Algiers is a diverse and beautiful place where cultures mix and Asta’s life – though one of work – is comfortable. The characters themselves – especially Asta and Cilleby – feel lively and complex, and they make it engaging and attractive to read. My interest in the story waned a little whenever Cilleby was not around. He was more than a gruff, aloof master – there is a sense of wry detachment, for sure, but we’re dealing with more than a Mr Rochester here.

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I did have some reservations about a few of the events in the latter half of the novel, and there was a lot of leaning on the analogy of Sheherezade and the Thousand and One Arabian nights, though I could forgive this as I enjoyed the snippets of Icelandic saga. I think this is the challenge of fitting what is essentially an imagined story into the confines of historical fact, and the novel was rich with research and detail.

Ultimately, I would strongly recommend this as an immersive and engaging historical novel that gives a witty, detailed, engaging view of an event – and a time – that I knew little about before.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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