When I first thought about doing this blog, I discarded the idea because ‘everyone’ does it.
But then I decided that my choices are different from anyone else’s, and you might just be interested in them. I don’t read exclusively in my genre — psychological thrillers — or even particularly in the broader crime genre. I read (fiction) widely, hoping that I will learn from other authors, no matter what they’re writing about. I’m interested in compelling stories, because that’s what I want to write.
So here are some of the books I have loved this year, in no particular order:
Ten Minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World
by Elif Shafak
I saw Elif speak at the Henley Literary Festival in October. A well-known Turkish writer, academic and activist, she now also writes in English — superbly well.
She came across scientific studies that showed that the brain is active, mostly in the area of long-term memory, for around ten minutes after the body dies. She tells the story of Leila, or Tequila Leila, a prostitute in Istanbul who is murdered. The story follows the minutes after she dies, while her brain remembers her childhood, her five very special friends, all misfits like her, and her life.
As a lover of Istanbul, I was particularly struck by Elif’s descriptions of the city, in particular the Cemetery of the Companionless outside Istanbul.
This story is simultaneously wonderful, poignant, funny and deeply sad.
by Roy Jacobsen
Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
Apologies to those who read my previous blog about this book, but it is one of my favourites!
Set at the beginning of the 20th century on a tiny island called Barroy off the coast of Norway, this is the story of the hardship experienced by a family trying to scratch a living in the brutal weather from fishing and farming.
They endure extreme physical hardship as well as the joys of nature – the eider down from the few ducks they’re able to look after, skating on the sea when it freezes. But all the time society is changing and they have to protect their small island.
Beautifully descriptive, this is a fascinating story of a time gone by and a forgotten lifestyle. Though it’s bleak, it’s sensitively written and very human.
by Barbara Kingsolver
A crumbling house in New Jersey provides the foundation for this novel. Kingsolver follows the lives of two families living in the house a century and a half apart. The first is Willa, a freelance writer who inherits the home in 2016.
A builder declares the house an architectural “shambles” with a nonexistent foundation. Money is very short and Willa hopes she can get a grant, if the house has any historical value as part of Vineland, a utopian community back in the 19th century.
The second strand follows a previous owner, Thatcher Greenwood, who moves into the house in 1871. A science teacher at the community school, he gets into trouble for supporting Darwinism in the classroom. Greenwood befriends a female biologist next door, who corresponds with Darwin as a fellow scientist.
Kingsolver powerfully evokes the eeriness of living through times of social turmoil.
by Harriet Lane
The story follows a woman called Frances, who’s a newspaper sub-editor on the book pages – an ordinary job, and she seems quite ordinary herself. One night, she is first on the scene of a car accident and speaks to a woman in the car but can’t see her in the dark. By the time the emergency services arrive it’s too late.
The dead woman was Alys, the wife of famous author Laurence Kyte. Frances goes to see the family at their request, as she was the last person to see Alys alive, and tells them a lie about what Alys said. She becomes friendly with the daughter, Polly, and is accepted into the family. As her status at the paper grows through her relationship with the Kytes, we begin to understand her true motives.
Beautifully written and suspenseful, this book really draws you in to Frances’s character.
by Clare Empson
This is both a dark, disturbing psychological thriller and a love story gone wrong.
Catherine is in hospital. She’s mute and has shut down completely. She has witnessed something so disturbing that she simply can't speak — not to her husband, her children, or her friends. The doctors say the only way forward is to look into her past.
At university Catherine met the love of her life, Lucian, and joined his circle of rich, hedonistic friends. They thought they’d always be together. But one night something happens, it all falls apart and she leaves him, shattering his life forever. Lucian never marries and nobody knows why Catherine left him.
Though she marries someone else and has children, she still loves Lucian and thinks of him all the time. When they’re unexpectedly reunited, their love is rekindled.
Suspenseful and thrilling, this is a brilliant portrayal of love, loss and trauma.
Where the Crawdads Sing
by Delia Owens
Delia Owens is an American wildlife scientist and her background and knowledge of nature in the swamplands of North Carolina shines through.
The storyline starts in 1952 and follows the life of a girl called Kya, between the ages of six and twenty-five. Her dad is violent, and one day her mother just leaves home and doesn't return. Her older siblings gradually leave too. Now alone, Kya learns from the wildlife around her, befriending the gulls, evading truant officers and acquiring hunting skills to feed herself.
As a human who knows only nature, all Kya’s reference points come from her surroundings. She thinks her mother will come back, as all mother animals return to their young. Kya is a vivid and original character and the author's descriptions of the wildlife and the landscape are brilliant.