The Stranding by Kate Sawyer.
If I had to choose just one book that blew me away this year then it would be The Stranding. I was bewitched by it. It’s just so good it’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel. I know that a book is extraordinary when I finish it and feel changed in some way. I’m never sure what has happened, but there’s a tiny, imperceptible change, to the air around me, how I feel and even the way I perceive the world. The Stranding left me feeling calm, thoughtful and as if a lot of the small things worrying me didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. I cared deeply for the characters and their grief, and strangely proud of them for what they managed to achieve. The author created an incredible sense of New Zealand and the whale that becomes Ruth’s saviour, and mother – birthing her and Nik into their new world and sustaining them. Her detailed descriptions left me fully immersed in this world, so much so that when I finished reading, it took a while to adjust back to being in Ruth’s ‘before’ and my 21st Century world. It has a unique narrative structure of two timelines: one represents ‘before’ and finishes where Ruth finds the whale; the second is ‘after’ and starts at the whale moving forwards. We don’t know what the apocalyptic event is, but it divides Ruth’s world into before and after. Nik is literally the last man on earth and their teamwork is vital if they are to survive. The Stranding might sound depressing, but it isn’t. It’s a post-apocalyptic landscape but the book celebrates the human spirit, our capacity for change, resilience and even love. It’s an incredible achievement.
The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell.
I was so excited to receive a proof of this latest novel from one of my favourite authors. I love the mix of gothic horror and historical fiction that she excels in. So I came to it full of anticipation. I was hooked by the end of the first chapter and didn’t put it down. Our narrator is Miss Agnes Darken, living in Bath with her invalid mother and nephew Cedric. Agnes earns her money cutting silhouettes or ‘shades’ for people, but her art is put under threat not just by newer inventions, but by a mysterious killer stalking the people who have sat for her. Desperate for answers, Agnes visits a spirit medium – an albino child named Pearl who lives with her sister Miss Myrtle West, and an invalid father. Agnes and Pearl try to conjure the spirit of one of her murdered sitters, so they can find the killer. Unfortunately, they have underestimated the power of what they have unleashed. This is an excellent gothic mystery, that grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go. I thought the characters were well developed and fascinating – even the ones who are no longer there! I liked that were transgressive females who had their own agency and independence. I enjoyed the author’s sense of place, the evil portents like the magpies and the build up of tension. I also liked the contrast between those living in poverty and those with a more middle class lifestyle. The supernatural elements are always spooky with Purcell, so the seances and visitations are unsettling, but so are the real life people. As the mystery deepens you won’t be able to stop reading, because you’ll have to know what’s going on. There’s a saying we use about timid people – afraid of your own shadow – and that’s what this book does, it makes us afraid of what others might see in us, and who we can become in the dark. An utterly brilliant addition to Laura Purcell’s work.
The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner.
Nearing her ten-year anniversary, Caroline stumbles on a secret that takes her to London on holiday and to explore. She stumbles across a man who takes tourists out mud larking and joins them, finding wandering the shoreline looking for objects in the mud, strangely relaxing. She follows their guide’s advice that she shouldn’t look for an object, but look at patterns in the mud for an absence of something. Not long after she finds a bottle, an apothecary bottle, with a crude etching of a bear. Our second narrative takes us to the depths of eighteenth-century London, where a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo forward through the centuries to Caroline. I thought the author conveyed both 18th and 21st Century London really well. I could imagine myself there with all the sights and smells she conjured up. I loved the description of the apothecary shop, back in its heyday and as it was when Caroline rediscovered it. The ending of Nella and Eliza’s story was unexpected, but showed the strength of female friendship and solidarity. I found myself hoping that Caroline would do the same – choose an unexpected and unknown future of her own making. This was a brilliant read, historical fiction at its best and an incredible debut from an author I’ll be watching in the future.
Cold as Hell by Lilja Sigurdardóttir.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading Lilja Sigurdardóttir before and this novel grabbed my attention very early on with it’s reluctant protagonist, quirky characters, and an almost lunar landscape lit up by twenty four hour daylight. Āróra is being pestered by her mother. She hasn’t heard from Āróra’s sister Īsafold for over two weeks now and she’s very worried. She wants Āróra to fly out to Iceland and find out what’s going on from Īsafold’s partner Björn and their family who are still based there. Āróra lives in the north east of England and rarely goes back to Iceland, despite being born there. She mainly travels there when Īsafold needs rescuing from Björn. The whole family have known for some time that she is suffering domestic violence, but despite several attempts to help and convince her to leave, Īsafold always returns to Björn. Āróra has given up trying to help her sister; you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. I loved the depiction of the relationship between these two sisters: the sibling rivalries; the roles of eldest and youngest; that push and pull between loving and resenting each other. Īsafold is continuously putting herself in the role of victim and even though it’s positive encouragement and support from Āróra, she will still say she’s being pushed and persecuted into leaving. I actually wondered whether this behaviour had lead to her death? Had someone become so tired of helping, only to hear her being beaten again the following week, that they’d snapped? Āróra remembers the last time Īsafold called her and she chose not to come. What if she’d said the right thing this time and her sister chose to return to England, safe and sound? In fearing her loss, Āróra stops seeing a problem and starts seeing her sister. The barrier between them melts away as she lists her regrets and acknowledges she hasn’t been the perfect sister either. But is it too late? This was a fascinating tale, from a clever author whose words can manipulate us into racing through the thrilling twists and turns, then stop us in our tracks with a moving tribute from one sister to another.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
This novel is exceptional. It’s beautiful, moving and speaks about women’s experience in such a unique, but brutally honest way. It’s an incredible piece of auto-fiction, which is half memoir and half novel but all poetry. Our narrator is a mother of three small children and she has a fascination with the Irish poem ‘Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire’ where an Irish noblewoman laments the death of the her murdered husband. Such is her passionate grief, that on finding his body, she drinks handfuls of his blood and then composes the extraordinary poem. For our narrator, the poem has echoed down the centuries and is her constant companion. As she reads it aloud the poet’s voice comes to life. The author writes her own life to its rhythms and wants to discover the truth of the poem’s story. I loved how her recording of 21st Century motherhood is treated as an epic. I loved consciousness running through the book. As if her words join hundreds and thousands of others in a never ending stream of female consciousness. This isn’t just about putting your experience into the world, it’s about having a source of female wisdom to draw from whenever you need it. This is a female text and in it’s search for the meaning of women’s lives it is reassuring, it lets us know we’re not alone, but it also inspires us all to create meaning. To add our voice to the women’s wisdom, expanding that collective consciousness and making our mark.
Bad Apples by Will Dean.
Wow! Will Dean does like to put his heroine in some terrifying situations. There is so much about this series that I love, then a good 20% that makes me feel a bit sick or unsettled. In the last book it was snakes that had me a bit on edge. This time? Well it’s saying something when a severed head is the most comfortable thing about one of Tuva’s investigations.We’re back in Gavrik, deep in the northern most part of Sweden and Tuva is back at the local newspaper, but has a more senior role and a new colleague to oversee in the shape of eager young newbie Sebastian. In fact, things are pretty good in Tuva’s world. This book picks you up and takes you on a fascinating and thrilling ride that builds in tension to a terrifying ending that I didn’t see coming at all. I had to stop reading at one point, because I realised I was so tense I was gritting my teeth! I’m sure the author has a hotline to my fears and this ending tapped into them perfectly. Needless to say, if I was Tuva, I’d be packing up the Hilux and leaving the hill folk to murder each other! I think the way the author depicts Tuva’s deafness is interesting. Usually Tuva uses it to her own advantage – taking her hearing aids out when she’s writing a piece means she can focus and taking them out at home means she can’t hear next door. However, it can also leave her vulnerable and the author uses it to intensify the horror element of the book, particularly towards the finale. There’s something about another person touching her hearing aids that feels so personal and also like a violation, depending on who it is. Every time I know a Tuva Moodyson book is coming, the excitement starts to build. By the time it’s in my hands I’m ready to drop all my other reading to dive in. Of course when something is so anticipated there’s also a fear about whether the book will live up to expectations. Bad Apples did not disappoint and is a fabulous addition to this excellent series.
The Return by Anita Frank.
This beautiful historical love story just made it under the wire as I was compiling my Top 21 Books for 2021 and it truly deserves it’s place next to the others on the list. I was gripped by the story of Jack, who makes a very different promise to his new bride Gwen on the eve of WW2. Most soldiers are promising to see them again, to return, but Jack is quite clear. If he should survive the war, he won’t be back this way again. Gwen prays he keeps to his promise, but as they celebrate VE Day she does keep looking over her shoulder. What if he reneges on his promise? War has changed Jack and he is no longer the man who made that bargain. He wants to return and claim Gwen as his bride again, but little does he know that this could set in motion a chain of events that will leave he and Gwen fighting for what they love most. We go back and forth in time throughout the book, but begin with Jack fleeing his Newcastle on the night train, shielded by a friend who works on this south bound train. Jack is a riveter in the shipyards and lives in a terrace house with his Mum and sister Jenny, when a terrible twist of fate leads to a violent act of revenge. Stowing away on the night train, Jack plans to hop off somewhere where he can find work. So, as he walks down a country lane next morning, he finds a young woman who has fallen from her horse, but has her foot trapped in the stirrup. He hurries to help Gwen and takes her home to her family farm where she lives with her father. Jack is in luck, because it’s a busy time on the farm, and when he’s invited to stay for a home cooked meal he meets Gwen’s dad Jim. Jim asks if he would like to stay and work and Jack accepts. As Gwen talks about their daily routine and shows him his bed in the tack room, Jack thinks he may have fallen on his feet for the summer. What he doesn’t know is that Gwen is about to put him in a very difficult position and he won’t want to miss another opportunity to rescue a woman in distress. This book captures early 20th Century farming beautifully and you will be rooting for Jack all the way.
My final seven books of the year are coming on Sunday 19th December.