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Looking for books for Christmas gifts? My top 10 fiction reads of the year

As Christmas is fast approaching, I thought I’d blog this week on my favourite ten books I’ve read this year. This doesn’t mean they were written this year, in fact the oldest amongst my choice (The Go Between) dates back to 1953. It was a hard choice to narrow my list down to ten, bookworm that I am with always about two or three books on the go. But I hope you’re inspired to read some of these or buy them as Christmas gifts. All ten of the below come highly recommended (they are in no particular order).

1) LONGBOURN by Jo Baker

This is the story of the inhabitants of Longbourn, home of the infamous Bennett Family from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, told from the perspective of the servants; if you like, a Downton Abbey in novel form with none of Downton’s clunkiness. Even if you have never read Pride and Prejudice (or, like me, you read it many years ago), in its own right, this is a fine novel with beautifully drawn, memorable characters and some of the best writing I have had the fortune to read recently.

2) SMALL ISLAND by Andrea Levy

How could I not have read this before? It is one of those books that had been sitting on my shelf for years and, for whatever reason, I hadn’t got round to reading it till recently. The tale of Jamaican immigrants to London in the 1950’s (Levy herself is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants) through four varying perspectives, this book made me both laugh out loud and moved me to tears. It deservingly won the Costa Novel award for Fiction in 2005 and is definitely one I shall re-read in the future.

3) BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett

A large group of people celebrating a birthday party in an unnamed South American city are taken hostage one evening by a group of gun-wielding guerillas, seeking the release from prison of their comrades. What begins as a violent encounter, slowly transforms into the most unexpected exchange of ideas and mutual respect, but as the days pass, how can the guerillas release the hostages after all that has passed between them? I was blown away by this book: the intricate workings of relationship that Patchett builds between the characters and the unusual but highly compelling setting.

4) ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey

The author of this novel was young when she wrote it, still only in her twenties, and she penned it over five years during lunch breaks from working in a London gallery. Yet what she has created in this impressive debut it an accomplished, exciting and moving story of dementia, displacement and mystery. The protagonist, an 82 year old woman is confused. She doesn’t know where her friend Elizabeth has gone and, as the action jumps back and forth between the 1950’s and the present day, she is also unsure what happened to her older sister many years ago when she vanished from her family’s life. Part mystery detective story and part moving elegy to the ravages of dementia, I enjoyed this book hugely.

6) THE GO-BETWEEN by LP Hartley

Set in 1900, this is the story of one summer that a young boy spends at the house of a friend in rural Norfolk. Dazzled by the friend’s elder sister, she takes advantage of his admiration and naivite to use him to carry messages between herself and the man she secretly loves, with ultimately devastating consequences. A heart-breakingly poignant story of one boy’s loss of innocence and its far-reaching consequences.

7) STONER by John Williams

The friend who gave me this book, upon asking her what it was about, she replied that it was the story of a man and his quiet life, with not a great deal happening to him. How dull did that sound? However, this tuned out to be one of the least dull books I have ever read. With great warmth, intelligence, subtle wit and insight, John Williams charts the everyday joys, frustrations, sadnesses and triumphs that make up each and every human existence. This book is a subtle masterpiece and I would highly recommend it to anyone, particularly for those wishing to experience beautifully-crafted writing.

8) THE READER by Bernhard Schlink

Thought you’d read everything there was to read about the well-document period of the Holocaust? Think again. Even if you have watched the Kate Winslet movie adaptation, this book is well worth reading. Charting an intense relationship between a teenage boy and an older woman in post-war Berlin, the only way she seems really at ease is when he is reading to her. Fast forward several years to the Nuremberg Trials which the boy, as law student, is observing. Only then does he realise the truth about his former lover, raising the questions of accountability not only for those who persecuted the Jews, but for humanity itself. A fascinating psychological read which digs far deeper than the film, well-made though it is, is able.

9) TWO BROTHERS by Ben Elton

Apparently this has been the year for discovering surprisingly good books set in the bleak WW2 period of Germany. I’d read a number of Ben Elton edgy pop-culture books before, but this is his most personal novel. It is based on a fascinating premise: twins are born in 1920’s Berlin to a Jewish family. When one of the twins dies at birth, at the same time in the hospital ward a mother without family dies in childbirth. Her baby is handed to the grieving mother and the boys are raised as twins. But it is only when anti-Semitism spreads its steely grip across Berlin that the family must cash in one of their son’s Aryan roots as they all begin the fight of their lives for survival. Addictive reading.

10) NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman

After reading this book, I decided that Lyra, the novel’s feisty protagonist, surely must be one of the strongest female characters in literature I have come across for some time. Fearless and cunning, Lyra lives in a parallel-world Oxford, in which every human being is accompanied by a ‘daemon’, almost a part of their soul, that goes everywhere with them and changes form between different animals until they reach adulthood and the daemon settles on a single form. When Lyra’s powerful Uncle Asriel visits, Lyra overhears him speak of a frozen northern world, witches that never die, the power of ‘dust’ particles and a quest that she is determined to join at any cost. Fantasy as its very best, this book is the first in the Dark Materials trilogy but Northern Lights (or Golden Compass as it’s known in the US), to my mind is the most exciting.

10) LOST GIRLS by Angie Marsons

This was my surprise read of the year; surprise because (save for the occasional Kate Atkinson) I very rarely read crime fiction, particularly not crime fiction in which a detective is trying to trace the abductors of two nine year old girls (I have a nine year old myself, so it felt a little close for comfort). However, I can’t deny this was compulsive reading with a tightly executed, intelligent plot full of twists and turns, building towards a dramatic, highly satisfying conclusion. Although this was the first of Marsons books I have read in the DI Kim Stone series and it is able to stand alone, it would probably be beneficial to read the first two books beforehand, Silent ScreamEvil Games.

 

I would love to know if anybody reads any of these books or, if you give them for gifts, what the recipients think of them. Happy buying / reading!

Oh, final thing…If you haven’t already read my novel here it is!

THE POET’S WIFE

From a reviewer:

‘The Poet’s Wife is the hugely impressive debut from Rebecca Stonehill. A sweeping historical family saga spanning three generations of women, this book was just amazing and I loved every minute of it. Set in Granada, Spain from the 1920’s, through the civil war and right up until the death of General Franco, this story had me hooked right from the prologue and it’s not often a book can keep me enthralled in such a way.’

3 replies
  1. Renita
    Renita says:

    Great post, Rebecca. I have Longbourn on my reading list. Loved Small Island and Elizabeth is Missing and Northern Lights and adored Lost Girls. Will look out for your other recommendations.

    Reply
  2. Deb Cox
    Deb Cox says:

    I just finished all 3 Angela Marsons books in about a week. Im a big Cathrine Coultaire and Iris Johansen fan, but Angela’s books are right there. I cannot wait for more from her. Glad Silent scream showed up as a suggested post on Facebook.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Stonehill
      Rebecca Stonehill says:

      Hi Deb, Yes I really do need to read Angela Marsons other two books, I found Lost Girls pretty addictive so can see how you read all three in a week!

      Reply

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