Choosing the books that I’ve loved, recommended and bought the most copies of for friends wasn’t difficult, whittling them down was. Because of that, I’ve gone for fifteen books that I enjoyed the most this year. If you click on the title of the book, it will take you to my original review.
Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser
Questions of Travel follows Laura and Ravi. Laura chooses to travel, using her inheritance from her aunt to do so; Ravi is forced to travel when the civil war in Sri Lanka visits his doorstep. de Kretser considers the myriad of ways in which we travel in modern society in a novel that’s sublimely written with a perfect ending. Winner of three awards in Australia, I’m astonished it hasn’t had a bigger fanfare in the UK.
Love, Nina contains a series of letters from Nina Stibbe to her sister Vic, written in the 1980s. At the time, Stibbe was a nanny to the sons of Mary Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB. Alan Bennet frequently pops round for dinner, while the street contains a number of the UK literati. Stibbe’s letters are full of keen observations delivered in the same tone, regardless of the participants, and this makes the book both warm and humorous. It’s one of those books that’s larger than the sum of its parts. A joy.
Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty
Apple Tree Yard tells the story of Yvonne Carmichael, a 52-year-old geneticist, who embarks on an affair with a stranger. An affair that will threaten her family, her career and ultimately, her freedom. Told in retrospect beginning with Yvonne standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, Apple Tree Yard had me up late at night, frantically turning pages. It’s a tightly plotted tale with an ending that will leave you gasping.
A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki
A Tale for the Time Being is the dual narrative of Ruth, an American novelist living on a Canadian island, and Nao, a Japanese school girl. Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on shore, containing Nao’s diary, some letters and a watch. She assumes it is debris from the 2011 tsunami. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary and the store of her family unfolds, we read Ruth’s story and are manipulated by it. A wonderful story of time and quantum physics.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride
After almost a decade of rejections, the small, independent Galley Beggar Press published this gem which went on to win The Goldsmith’s Prize. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is the story of an unnamed female narrator as told to (for?) her brother who is dying of a brain tumour. It is brutal both in its short, staccato prose and in content. (I don’t recommend reading it in the depths of January, it’ll send you over the edge.) This really is ‘a new voice in fiction’.
The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries is a yarn of a tale set amongst gold diggers during the gold rush in New Zealand. It is a story of murder, theft and love with a with a structure that builds throughout the first half and explodes with revelations in the second. One to indulge in.
Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
Barrington Jedidiah Walker, 74, born in the Caribbean but resident in London has kept a secret for fifty years from his wife and two grown-up daughters: the love of his life, his best friend Morris. Barry decides it’s time to come-out but obviously, it’s not going to be that easy. Evaristo has a wonderful ear for dialogue and the rhythms of Barry and Carmel’s speech are a joy.
Jacob’s Folly – Rebecca Miller
A story told from the point of view of a fly shouldn’t work but it does and it does so brilliantly. The fly is the reincarnation of Jacob Cerf, an ex-peddler from 18th century France. When Jacob the fly becomes aware that he can influence others, he decides to meddle with the life of Masha Edelman, a 21-year-old Torah Jew and Leslie Senzatimore, a man who lives his life in order to help others. Miller uses their stories to consider whether we really have free will or whether our lives are constrained by other forces.
The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer
Six friends meet at summer camp in the 1970s and their lives become entwined forever despite the huge differences in their statuses. Wolitzer follows them through adult life looking at the choices they make and how these affect the whole group dynamic. It’s a dense novel but one that is driven forward by a non-linear narrative and a thread that you know is going to explode spectacularly.
The Engagements – J.Courtney Sullivan
The Engagements opens in 1947 with copywriter, Frances Gerety, creating the line ‘A diamond is forever’. The novel then goes on to intertwine her story – one of a woman who definitely doesn’t want an engagement ring – with those of four others: Evelyn Pearsall, whose son Teddy has just left his wife and children; James McKeen, a medical responder whose wife was recently mugged; Delphine Moreau, whose young lover has betrayed her, and a human rights officer whose helping with the preparations for her cousin Jeff’s wedding to his boyfriend, Toby. An unashamedly feminist look at our society’s values.
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, bound to relive her life until the changes are made that prevent her previous death. The concept sounds bizarre, the execution is brilliant. Atkinson takes us through the war, affairs and a meeting with Hitler. The section of the novel during The Blitz is particularly well drawn, so much so, you’ll want to hide behind your hands during some passages. This one will leave you wanting to find someone else who’s read it to discuss in detail.
The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon
The only book on the list not published this year, however it is one of this year’s Fiction Uncovered titles. Set in 1830, 14-year-old Mary tells us about life on her father’s farm with her four sisters and her elderly grandfather. Offered work at the vicarage, Mary is forced to go and tend for the vicar’s ill wife. When the vicar’s wife dies, she is kept on and the course of her life takes a turn for the worst. A novel about the control of men over women told with a voice that will have you rooting for this young girl.
The story of Theodore Decker, who’s caught in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, in which his mother dies. The attack leaves him with the painting ‘The Goldfinch’ in his possession and a ring that he’s to return to James Hobart. These two things will set his life on a dangerous course. Told in immersive detail, this is a wonderful novel which will have you living Theo’s eventful life alongside him.
The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes
The Shining Girls is the book that reignited my love of thrillers. It’s the story of Harper Curtis, time-travelling serial killer (stick with it, it works) and Kirby Mazrachi, who should have been one of his victims but who survives his attack and sets out to track him down. But The Shining Girls is more than that, it’s also the story of all Harper’s victims and those victims tell the story of women through the twentieth century. Shining, indeed.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was the first book I read to make the list. It’s the story of Hattie, who leaves the segregated south for Philadelphia and a better life. Hattie is already pregnant with twins and with her womanising, gambling, alcoholic husband whom she can’t stay away from, Hattie will have another eight children. These, along with her first grandchild, form the twelve tribes of the title. Each chapter tells one of their stories, stories of homophobia, abuse and mental illness. A beautifully written story of a family and one woman’s quest for survival.
Thanks to all the publishers who’ve sent books for review this year.
Interesting list! I’ve read most of them and especially loved ‘The Colour of Milk’ and ‘A Tale for the Time Being’. I have a copy of ‘Questions of Travel’ here and hope to read it soon. Fingers crossed I love it as much as you did.
Thanks, Jackie. I’ll be interested to hear what you think. I bought the Andrew Solomon after seeing your comments about it, hoping to get to it over Christmas.
I really hope you enjoy ‘Far From the Tree’ as much as I did.
I have only read Life After Life and The Luminaries, but for what I can see your list is a perfectly eclective one and it pretty much stands for all the works being produced by women right now. I am glad though that most of those books are well-known although I do believe most of them are quite underrated, like Life After Life.
The only one of those I have read is The luminaries – which I too loved. My list of the year – I will do just before New Year – but won’t contain many books published this year – because I read so few “new books”. You have some on your list I want to look out for – especially Love Nina.
I’m looking forward to your list, Ali; I’m determined to read more back catalogue books next year.
A great list and lots on there I’d love to read, I will be referring back to this list for sure, keep up the excellent work!
Great list Naomi. I’ve only read a handful (I tended to read more backlist stuff this year; I get sick of everyone rushing to read the latest book by so-and-so and getting all competitive about it – ba humbug). My best of is going up on Christmas Day, but I can tell you that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing will be on it, as will Apple Tree Yard. Glad to hear you loved The Colour of Milk — that was on my best of list for 2012 — such an astonishing voice.
Thanks, Kim. Well one of my resolutions for next year is to read more back catalogue mostly because I’ve discovered so many writers I’ve loved this year who have huge backlists – time to dive in, I think! Looking forward to your list, I’ve picked up lots of suggestions from your blog this year.
Thanks for this, Naomi! Some really interesting picks – I’m really intrigued by the story of ‘A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing’ 🙂
Thanks, Laura. It’s like a coming of age misery lit told in a way that transcends either of those genres. Don’t read it if you’re feeling low though, it’ll finish you off!
Haha thanks – duly noted!
I’m rather late with my comments here (sorry), but I finally got around to buying a copy of ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’. I’ve been trying to persuade the library to invest in it but an out-of-stock situation with their usual supplier has resulted in my request being placed ‘on hold’. I’m really keen to read this one, but I might leave it on the shelf for a couple of months (till March or April, maybe).
I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Luminaries’ and it’s great to see it on your list of the year’s highlights. I have ‘The Goldfinch’ but I’m still toying with the option of reading ‘The Little Friend’ as my next one by Donna Tartt. I have ‘Life After Life’ too, but there’s something stopping me from wanting to read it. I think I’ve heard too much about the premise and snippets of the narrative (not from you I hasten to add!) and it’s not waving at me at the moment. I’m sure I’ll read it later this year, probably once the fuss has died down and I feel in the mood for it!
Don’t worry, Jacqui, I don’t keep a tab! You’ll have to let me know what you think of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. I think you’re right not to read it in January/February though – it’d send me over the edge!
I know what you mean about Life After Life, there’s been lots of talk about it. I think you’ll be surprised though as some of the most powerful moments in the book (and those that remain vivid in my mind) haven’t been discussed, as far as I’ve seen. Again, I’d be interested to know what you think of it.