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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A Snow Garden – Rachel Joyce

Rating: 5 stars

snow garden.jpgWell here’s an appropriate book to have been reading on March 1st and 2nd 2018, when what should be the first days of spring turned out to be the coldest March days in living memory. Snowed in and unable to get out of the house, what else could I turn to but these short stories by Rachel Joyce, widely known as the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry? (This was a long-list finalist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and won Joyce the UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year. It was also the best-selling hardback book in the UK from a new novelist in 2012.) As a great fan both of Rachel Joyce and of short stories I was delighted to be given A Snow Garden and had been saving it to read when I next had long train journeys.

It’s a set of seven exquisite and very different stories, taking place over a fortnight at the end of the year and all slightly interlinked. Each story shows the delicate touch of humour and empathy that typifies Rachel Joyce’s work, and her ability to plunge us right into the lives of others. She has a great way of thrusting her readers right into the heart of each tale. A Faraway Smell of Lemon, the first story, opens thus:

It is half past nine and Oliver will be eating porridge in his Asterix bowl. At the age of thirty-three he has no regular habits but these – the porridge and the bowl – and he is faithful to both. ‘Sod him,’ Binny snorts, striding into the morning traffic.

Instantly we are placed into the difficult world of Binny, coping with her children and Oliver, trying her best to make some sort of sense out of it all and to take the practical steps she needs in order to be ready for Christmas, when it’s already the last day of term and she’s done nothing at all so far. An unexpected encounter in a shop makes her see her life differently and find a way to go on.

The stories frequently have similar twists – people muddling through their lives, as we the readers all often feel that we do ourselves, suddenly finding new ways of dealing with events and emotions, perceived obstacles and real ones, finding strengths and admitting weaknesses and the need to accept help from outside. In the title story, A Snow Garden, divorced father Henry is expecting his sons Owen and Conor to stay for several nights just after Christmas and has rashly promised them there will be snow.

The boys kept asking if there would be snow at the new flat. ‘Yes,’ he told them. It began as a joke but then it got to be serious.

This clearly isn’t something over which he has any control, and he knows all too well that he was crazy to promise it. Luckily, in Rachel Joyce’s fictional world miracles can happen and his promise finds a way to become true, when he has no control over events and just lets things happen.

The stories end, as they began, with Oliver, but in Trees he’s the central focus of the story whereas in A Faraway Smell of Lemons our focus has been squarely placed on Binny. Like Binny, Oliver is trying and struggling to cope with the recent changes in his life and in Trees it’s his father who provides the unexpected twist when on New Year’s Eve he announces:

‘I wish I’d planted more trees.’
Oliver dug his fingers through his hair. It was what he did when he was confused. ‘Trees?’
‘Yes, trees.’
‘You didn’t plant any trees, Dad.’
His father groaned as if he’d been punched.

Over the next few hours, as the year runs to its end, Oliver and his dad work together to remedy this and to heal both their fractured relationship and their individual lives.

Joyce isn’t saying that things will run smoothly for any of her characters from here on. Instead her characters come to accept that things are as they are – life just is – and we can accept our lives and welcome change or not. The whole collection of stories captures what Joyce is so wonderful at evoking – possibilities of new beginnings even in extraordinarily painful endings.

Oliver’s story was not over, it was still happening, and the night he planted the trees was just a new twist. He could learn from it or ignore it. The choice was his.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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