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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Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Rating: 5 stars

birdcage walk.jpg

This is the final offering from the wonderful novelist and poet, Helen Dunmore, who died last June. And what a fine last novel it is.

I was gripped right from the outset when the author explains what led her into wanting to find out more about one of the characters, Julia Elizabeth Fawkes; after seeing her grave in a Bristol cemetery, with the inspiring headstone, bearing the words “Her words remain our Inheritance”, Dunmore first wanted to find out more about her and then imagined the world she inhabited.

Julia is central to the novel, but it is her daughter, Lizzie, whose moves we follow intensely, taking us with her on a dangerous journey with her husband John Diner Tredevant. Diner, as he’s known, is a property developer in Bristol in 1792, just as the French Revolution is coming to a head, with disastrous consequences for the Bristol property market, while Lizzie, his young wife, comes from a revolutionary background, and at first supports the changes in France. Lizzie is torn between her feelings of duty and loyalty, both to her husband and to her mother and stepfather Augustus. When Julia dies after giving birth to Lizzie’s half-brother Thomas, Lizzie feels compelled to take care of him, despite her knowledge that Diner strongly disagrees with her. Over the months that follow, matters come to a head for Lizzie and her loved ones, and she finally learns more about Diner and his first wife, who was French, and whom he’s told her has died in France.

As ever, Dunmore creates fully credible characters, from Lizzie and Diner to their servant girl Philo, Julia and Augustus, their servant and companion Hannah, and Augustus’s friend Caroline Farquhar, who has plans of her own for baby Thomas. The background of the French Revolution threatens and rumbles, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes quietly in the background, making lives which are unstable already even more so. As winter approaches and settles, life becomes more and more arduous for Lizzie.

The descriptions of life in Bristol in 1792 are so vivid I really felt as if Dunmore had been there and experienced the cold hard winter days herself, and understood exactly how tough life had been for Lizzie, isolated in her brand new house on a street which Diner has been developing at great personal cost, both emotional and monetary. His schemes fail. In the wake of the Revolution, workers are laid off and not replaced, and his grand plan cannot be completed. His own house, built to be a show home of sorts, has its furniture removed.

Dunmore was noted for undertaking intense research, absorbing it and then using it to breathe life into every tiny detail in her novels. In The Siege she brought to life the appalling war-time years in Leningrad when hundreds of thousands of people were trapped within the city for long months. In Birdcage Walk, it’s the dual background of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, with its creation of new levels of wealth and poverty, which comes to life in the pages. Diner’s increasingly menacing presence and Lizzie’s bravery are compelling forces, working together and against each other by turns. And we feel Julia’s presence through Lizzie long after Julia has died.

I shall miss Helen Dunmore’s piercing intelligence and humanity, and her ability to weave life and magic into imagined people in real situations, and real people in imagined situations. For now, it’s time to turn back to her earlier works, starting with Zennor in Darkness, and reread them, savouring each in turn.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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