As 2015 draws to a close, it is a time for reflection. In that spirit, here is a countdown of the top 12 books that I have read in the past year, out of at least a hundred! Note: they need not necessarily have been published in 2015, and certainly haven’t been read in this order.
As a writer, I find each and every one of these authors inspirational. They have all, in different ways, shaped my thinking about what good writing, especially good literature, consists of.
12. Colm Tóibín Brooklyn
Clever and profound, Tóibín’s novel is about Irish immigration to the United States. It is subtle, sensitive and thought-provoking.
11. Hillary Mantell Bring Up The Bodies
Hillary Mantell is an author whose historical writing cannot be beaten for the sheer intelligence, the knowledge and her ability as a storyteller. Having been sceptical about historical novels, as a genre, before I read ‘Bring Up The Bodies,’ I can see why Mantell has so many prestigious awards to her name.
10. Manda Scott Into The Fire
I do not normally read detective-style stories, but the clever juxtaposition of the protagonist and Joan d’Arc made this story worthwhile and enthralling. Scott’s narrative cracks a great pace.
9. Lyndall Gordon Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson
Gordon gives us a real insight into one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of poetry. He enables us to understand Emily Dickinson and the motivation behind her poems.
8. Joseph Pierce Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile
A fascinating background into one of the greatest Russian writers, ‘A Soul in Exile’ . I never realised Solzhenitsyn had such a sense of humour.
7. Sunjev Sahora The Year of the Runaways
A deep and poignant story, which creates characters whose lives I could not possibly have understood, had I not read this novel. Not only a great read, but an important one, too.
6. Dave Boling Guernica
Boling mixes the fact of the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War with a fictional narrative about a Basque family, affected by the Franco regime. Tenderly characterised and beautifully brought to life.
5. Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive
A very important book by a very talented writer. I met Matt on my MA course earlier this year and he is a genuine inspiration. ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ banishes the myths and the stigmas of mental illness and shows how one person’s triumph led to brilliant writing. This book should be on school reading lists.
4. Sarah Winman A Year of Marvellous Ways
A beautiful and poetic novel, the central character being an 89-year-old Cornish woman, who demonstrates physical strength and self-sufficiency, and tells a gripping and impactful story about her past to a young man with much to learn. I met Sarah in a Waterstone’s in Truro, and love both of her books. She is an inspirational writer.
3. Patrick Gale A Place Called Winter
This is a profound book, which tells the story of the protagonist in flashbacks. The central character, Harry Cane, is banished to a life of hardship in Canada. The harsh backdrop is a stunning metaphor for Harry’s coming to terms with his needs, his lifestyle and his past.
2. Paul Kingsnorth The Wake
‘The Wake’ is one of the most important books any writer can read. It shows how a determined writer, who believes in what he writes, can triumph in the writing of something entirely original and innovative. ‘The Wake’ is set in 1066 and written in a language which Kingsnorth calls a ‘shadow tongue,’ a version of auld English updated for accessibility to modern readers. It is post-apocalyptic, bloody, bold and breathtaking.
1. Roddy Doyle The Guts
Roddy Doyle is the master at writing bittersweet stories. He is the master of evoking characters we can love for their honesty and he puts them in a setting where we cannot help but admire their vulnerable humanity. ‘The Guts’ is a continuation of ‘The Commitments’ in which Jimmy Rabbitte has bowel cancer. The story deals with Jimmy’s life and his desperate need to survive after he realises he is ill. No-one creates tenderness and bravery through humour in their characters quite like Roddy Doyle can. You will laugh, you will empathise and you will share in the unfolding tragedy.