I’ve read so many wonderful books this year, it really is difficult to narrow it down to three but, after much deliberation (and sorrow at having to leave off my list Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault – there I’ve mentioned them at least), here are the books I have read this year that have inspired me, made me laugh, kept me up reading until four in the morning (‘just one more page …’), and generally rocked my boat.
I love short stories, so it is no surprise that the first book on my list is a collection by one of my favourite writers – Ali Smith. Public Library and Other Stories is an unusual book in that it intersperses brilliantly playful and clever pieces of fiction (they are written by Ali Smith, what did you expect?) with a short section extolling the virtues of libraries and reading by writers such as Pat Hunter (‘Because libraries have always been a part of any civilization they are not negotiable’) and Sophie Mayer (‘For me, the public library is the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space, a community of consent’). The stories themselves are innovative, beautifully written and wryly humorous. From the woman who grows a rose bush out of her chest, to the unlikely juxtaposition of DH Lawrence’s ashes with a fraudulent credit card bill, the stories in this collection are funny, clever and original.
My second choice is Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. A young woman named Harriet Baxter comes to Glasgow around the time of the International Exhibition and befriends an artist, Ned Gillespie. Harriet becomes part of Ned’s somewhat troubled family, providing companionship to his wife and children, and helping the struggling artist through his lean years. However, tragedy strikes and we begin to realize that Harriet may not be the angel of mercy she seems, and that something altogether darker is going on. What I absolutely loved about this novel was the way the author lulls us into viewing Harriet in one way, only to pull the rug out from under us as we near the end of the book and make us question all we have been told by Harriet, as narrator. Nothing is as it seems, and the result is a novel that is utterly compelling.
I love it when I discover a new writer, even when it turns out that everyone else discovered them long before me! This year, I have read three of Jon McGregor’s books, all of which were hovering around my best books of the year list. In the end, I have chosen his short story collection, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, simply because there are stories in that book that are still reverberating in my head some months later. They are strange stories, and dark, with the chill often hitting you quickly and without warning. For example, ‘In Winter The Sky’ a teenage boy is falling in love and thinking of what that means when ‘he drove into a man and killed him’. As you are getting your breath back, the boy buries the dead man, and the story continues with beautiful detail of the couple’s life together afterwards. It is a mark of McGregor’s great skill that, despite the heinous crime the boy has committed, it is hard to feel anything but sympathy for him and the girl who eventually becomes his wife, as they struggle to come to terms with what he has done. ‘Keep Watching Over The Sheep’ (a fantastic example of how to tell a story via an unreliable narrator) and the truly heartbreaking ‘We Wave and Call’ are other standout stories in a masterly collection.