We asked members to nominate their book of the year for 2018. What was the book you most enjoyed reading, the book you would most heartily recommend to other members of the Circle because you loved it so much. Our reading inevitably informs our writing so it is always fascinating to know what books our fellow writers have enjoyed most. We’d like to think that as well as providing a useful list of recommendations for the new year, this is also an opportunity for members to get to know each other a little better. There is nothing more revealing of who we are than the books we read.
Perhaps not surprisingly, in respect to the diversity of people in the Circle, as well as the vast number of great books out there in the world, each choice was distinct. What is most remarkable, however, is that one particular author had three different books nominated. It is therefore possible to announce that Elizabeth Strout is the unofficial LWC author of the year for 2018.
Starting there, Gill Osborne chose Anything is Possible. Constructed as linked short stories, characters from a rundown rural community in Illinois are depicted with heartbreaking insight. The style is pared back, unsentimental, with barely an adjective in sight. There is sibling rivalry (and love), parental cruelty (and love), poverty, bullying, tears, laughter, pain and healing. Gill recommended reading Strout’s masterpiece ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ first, for context.
Linda Fulton selected Olive Kitteridge, another Strout novel constructed as a number of short stories with interlinked characters, all revolving around one middle-aged woman in a small east coast community. She described it as full of pathos and humour with insightful character building.
Emma Storr nominated Strout’s first novel Amy and Isabelle. In a similar small town setting, Isabelle is a single mother working in a dull office job and harbouring fantasies about her boss. Amy is her 16-year-old daughter who is discovering the joy and power of sexual encounters. Mother and daughter have a difficult relationship and secrets they want to retain. They both behave badly which makes for fascinating reading as the plot unfolds. Emma suggested that Strout is particularly good at exploring her character’s inner worlds and thoughts as they progress through life, facing the challenges of growing up, relationships and loss.
Two nominations were for novels set in Nigeria.
David Cundall chose Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. He said that he could do no better than reiterate the description from The Guardian’s Gary Younge: “a brilliantly-narrated yarn about camaraderie, inspiration, desperation, corruption and salvation”.
Terry Buchan picked The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin, about a polygamous household in Nigeria. Chapters are written from the point of view of each of the four wives and the patriarch. Terry found it entertaining, insightful, humorous and tragic, greatly enjoying Shoneyin’s lively style and sly wit.
A couple of members selected books with a local setting.
Graeme Hall found it easy to plump for The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. A gripping—albeit very dark—account of the Cragg Vale Coiners. Graeme suggested that Myers skilfully balances a recognition of the hardships of the time that led to the coining, with a portrayal of the gang that makes it clear they are no Robin Hood types—all accompanied by stunning nature writing that captures perfectly the Calder Valley. The book went on to win the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction.
Pat Belford chose Streets of Darkness by A.A.Dhand, an original, gritty, crime novel set in Bradford, the first of a series featuring DI Harry Virdee. She admitted to having a special interest because the author is her local friendly pharmacist in Headingley. His subsequent novels in the series, ‘Girl Zero’ and ‘City of Sins’ are also best sellers. Pat added that as key speaker at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School last August, Amit demonstrated his meticulous attention to plotting by showing the huge spreadsheets on which he had every chapter of his next book described in minute detail.
Staying with the crime genre, Guy Newton said that he’d been working through Susan Hill’s series of crime novels featuring Simon Serrailler. His favourite was The Betrayal Of Trust, the sixth in a series of nine. Guy said the author was well into her writing stride at this point and all her regular characters were fully formed. He thought the plot of this novel was particularly gripping.
Something very different from Krishna Padmanabhan, who nominated The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, a Japanese work originally published in 1964. He described it as a phenomenal novel about the travails of an amateur entomologist who is offered lodging for the night at the bottom of a sandpit, only to find next morning that he is trapped like Sisyphus or Tantalus. His only companion in that misery is a young woman and their fates become intertwined in an eerie fashion.
Continuing with classic works of fiction, Andrew Davies picked Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour Trilogy, which he first read a hard-to-believe fifty years ago. It follows the course of the second world war through the eyes of Guy Crouchback, a man who feels he has failed in life. Andrew said it is a masterful description of the futility of war, reflected in the largely ignominious actions of the anti-hero.
Joanna Bucktrout picked Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk, although she said it could easily have been any of a number of novels by the same author that she read last year. Jo endorsed the critics who suggest her prose is fluid and lyrical and captures the presence of the past. This was Helen Dunmore’s final novel before she so sadly died in 2017.
Mark Pennington came up with Landscape With Machines by L.T.C. Rolt, the autobiography of an engineer from the first half of the 20th century, observing with enthusiasm and wistfulness the technological and social changes of which he was a part. Mark said that it was very well-written and full of life, as with all Rolt’s books.
A change of genre for the choice of Sunyi Dean. She nominated Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. She suggested that Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) doesn’t get much “cred” in the literary world, but Vandermeer’s strong literary edge is now becoming generally accepted. Borne offered her everything she looks for in a speculative fiction novel. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by biotech/wetware, all of it as beautiful and ingenious as it is insane and deadly. Two days after finishing, Sunyi said that she was still not okay because she had all the feels for an inhuman murderous tentacle monster. Be warned then. The full review on her blog can be read here.
Staying a little alternative, a suitably quirky choice came from Charlotte Eichler with Poor Things by Alasdair Gray. She described it as a very funny postmodern revision of Frankenstein.
Another intriguing choice came from Roz Kendall, who nominated Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. She said that it may not be exquisite prose but he always picks up the latest mad trend. This time we have time travel. Roz said that she hopes he might latch onto the drone fad for his next book.
Ann Clarke promoted Naomi Alderman’s The Power. She said she loved it, although acknowledged that it’s a novel that has divided opinion— often a sign of a book worth reading. She said to give it a try and see what you think.
Bob Hamilton nominated The Overstory by Richard Powers. He said that it was the kind of book he would love to be able to buy in bulk and give to everyone he knows. It starts with what are eight disconnected short stories, each very different, all quite brilliant, which are then gradually woven together through the overstory of a forest. It’s a compelling read, full of wonderful science and exquisite prose. It’s a novel of such epic design that it inevitably has flaws, but the writing is so good, and of such passion, that Bob thinks they can be forgiven. He wanted to offer a disclaimer by saying that he’s had a lifelong love of trees, which makes him a little biased towards this book.
Other nominations were from Sandra Hogarth-Scott for Angela Carter’s Wise Children, described as weird and wonderful novel writing; from Margaret Greenwood for The Sacrifice by Joyce Carol Oates; from Sandra Burnett for Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift; from Pat Pickavance for Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street; and from Janet Dominey for The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, a random find in the library that she was surprised by how much she enjoyed.
A few members tried to sneak in some poetry as an extra choice. It seems right to give those a quick mention. Perhaps next year, if we deem this exercise a success, we should have a separate poetry section. Sandra Burnett offered The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage. Charlotte Eichler nominated Venus as a Bear by Vahni Capildeo, described as a joyful poetry collection full of objects, animals, art and the sea. Finally, Emma Storr chose the dazzling Luck Is The Hook by Imtiaz Dharker.
Thanks to everyone who contributed. If you missed the communication, you could still add your choice by adding a comment to this post. And do let us know if you come to read any of the books recommended. Perhaps there’s a challenge here for you to pick one that’s outside your normal sphere of interest, a book that you might not otherwise have chosen to read. Let us know if you do.
Wishing all members a happy new year and great writing—as well as reading—for 2019.