The Versions of Us – Laura Barnett

I adored this beautifully written ‘what if’ novel. Barnett’s writing is so assured and wonderful, seamlessly navigating all three storylines, she’s a natural storyteller and tells this with huge heart. Hugely recommended; a real triumph.

In the Unlikely Event – Judy Blume

I dragged my dad in the bookshop, such was the need for the new Blume novel in my life and this didn’t disappoint. Based on true events, it’s accomplished and brilliant. With a multiple-voiced narrative that weaves a tender, very real story, Blume makes us want to take every single character, especially the leads, into our hearts. Wonderful.

Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

Sharp, elegant prose binds a tight narrative as we follow the unravelling of Anna’s marriage and life. It took me a little while to get into this, to understand Anna and her choices, but the plot becomes a slow-burning page-turning and the final third is especially gripping and poignant.

I Let You Go – Claire Mackintosh

Great, accessible writing that immediately grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the final page. A big mystery, told from the perspective of Jenna, who has been involved in a tragedy, and the policeman, Ray, trying to solve it. Packs a brilliant twisty punch.

Sister Noon – Karen Joy Fowler

Wonderful, gorgeous prose from one of my favourite novelist’s of last year. A dazzling, brilliant story that follows Lizzie Hayes in San Francisco in the 1890s and her late-life awakening.  It really will linger in your mind.

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

Oh, Teddy. The companion novel to Life After Life – this novel orbits around Ursula’s brother, Teddy, throughout his life from a young boy, bomber command during the war and, finally, as an older man. The narrative is enthralling and shimmering, with an entirely heartbreaking conclusion.

Your Father Sends His Love – Stuart Evers

One of the best contemporary short story writers (in my opinion), Stuart Evers returns on masterful form with this book. A collection that focuses on family and relationships. Brutal, inventive and interesting this is a surprising collection and nothing sort of fantastic.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets – Eva Rice

One of my favourite books, it’s like a comfort blanket. The pages are so well-thumbed and faded and I think I know the story like the back of my hand but I’m always surprised by the ending, how everything is neatly tied together in such a wonderful, gentle way. The cast of characters, setting, clothes, dialogue is so carefully and brilliantly captured – it’s a perennial delight.

My Sunshine Away – M.O. Walsh

This isn’t out yet in the UK but I managed to get my hands on an early proof and what a story. It’s a Southern Gothic mystery that begins with telling the reader a crime has been committed, in a tight-knit Baton Rouge neighbourhood in the late 80s and early 90s, and the narrator is one of four suspects. The story examines the aftermath of the crime and how it profoundly affected the narrator and the community; and shaped the man he grew up to be. An excellent debut, stuffed full of plot and suspense.

Astonish Me – Maggie Shipstead

This book swept me into a frenzy. We follow Joan’s ordinary life as a dancer in the corps in the New York Ballet to suburban life, married with a son who turns into the extraordinary dancer Joan always wanted to be. Dazzling and dizzying, as close to a perfect novel as can be.

The Girls from Corona Del Mar – Rufi Thorpe

Sharp and beautifully observed take on female friendship. Mia, grown-up, dissects her relationship with childhood bestfriend Lorrie Ann, who is beautiful and perfect, until Lorrie’s father dies. They tumble together through the end of high school, pregnancy, abortion, college and relationships and Thorpe writes with such precision and fierceness.

Villa America – Liza Klaussman

I was so excited for the follow-up novel from this lady and it didn’t disappoint. Though I am a self-confessed fan of the people who made up the Modernist movement (and there has been a spate of novels about this recently), I never tire of learning more. This is a private look into the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy, bestfriends of the Fitzgerald’s, the Hemingway’s, the MacLeish’s et al, and what a resplendent one it is. Klaussman paints a glossy and wonderful picture, the characters are so well-drawn you really do feel the love Sara and Gerald had for one another. Tragedy circles the novel and, ending with a real sadness, serves to add a real honest and human depth to it.

The Shore – Sara Taylor

This novel is formed from interconnected short stories linked together to form one narrative about generations of the same family who live on a patch of islands off the coast of Virginia. Meandering but well-crafted prose that discusses domestic violence, poverty, drug addiction, death and love. Fearless storytelling and a work of genius.

Lost and Found – Brooke Davis

I loved this book. I was so charmed by it because it’s such a relatable story and it deals with a big issue (grief) with such heart and believable characters. Top marks for a distinct narrative and beautiful prose.

Johnny Cash: The Life – Robert Hilburn

I’m endlessly fascinated by American ‘folk’ figures and was eagerly drawn to this epic study of Cash’s life. It gives a full and unflinching portrait of one of the most intriguing musicians to grace the stage.

A Place for Us – Harriet Evans

I love an excellently plotted family drama. This one is bursting with secrets that unravel beautifully when Martha Winter, matriarch of the Winter family, invites her children and grandchildren home to celebrate her 80th birthday. Convincing and wonderful with characters who feel completely real.

Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

Probably the most talked about book so far this year and justifiably so. Centering around what Rachel sees, or thinks she sees, one day from her train window. Compelling, gritty and full of twists and turns, it makes for a read that stays with you long after turning the last page.

Etta & Otto & Russell & James – Emma Hooper

I could talk about this book for hours! Such wonderful prose that bounces off of the page. Beautiful narrative about Etta, Otto and Russell and their relationship as it has grown and stretched through the years. I loved it.

All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews

I took my time with this beautiful book. It’s a devastatingly real portrait of sisters: Elf, celebrated pianist and severely depressed and Yoli, writer of rodeo romances and single mother, and their family. It’s poignant, wry and covers the most sad of subjects whilst remaining one of the most exquisite books I’ve read in recent months.

Mobile Library – David Whitehouse

This book has so much heart. The characters are so well imagined that even though this feels, at times, like a contemporary fairytale, it also deals with big, real issues. This novel is charming and devastating but magical throughout.

NON-FICTION

The Examined Life – Stephen Grosz

Fascinating account of a psychoanalyst’s career and chronicles some of his most striking sessions with clients and the lessons he has learnt from them. It’s modest but detailed and gives an exacting portrayal of therapy which, overall, is interesting and quite profound.

I’ve read a grand total of 64 books this year – I’m rounding out my top picks with 21 of them. Here’s to 2014 and a year of amazing books! I’m also pleased to say that it’s almost exclusively women on my list!

Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell

This lady redefined YA for me. This book is devastating and wonderful in equal measure and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a long time. It’s a love story at its heart but it’s also so much MORE. I was lucky to see her in real life in London and she’s bloody fantastic.

Longbourn – Jo Baker

I love Pride & Prejudice. It’s my favourite Jane Austen novel (I can’t wait for Curtis Sittenfeld’s reimagining next year) and this is P&P reimagined from the servants point of view. Beautiful writing that captured a whole different side of Regency era England and still wonderful to see the characters from P&P pop up here and there.

The Engagements – J Courtney Sullivan

This lady is one of my favourite contemporary writers. Centering on an engagement ring from 1946 to 2012, it charters an all manner of relationships and proposals. Great, ambitious stuff.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

In a word: wow. I was enraptured by this novel. Atmospheric and fantastically written, it kept me gripped until the end. Despite the fairly maudlin (true story) subject matter, it’s tackled with a steady and sure grace.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

If you haven’t read this yet, then do! It follows a world ravaged by an airborne flu and what’s left afterwards. It’s dystopian fiction, yes, which might not be your first choice but it is so much more than that, almost every principal character’s life is intertwined in the most brilliant of ways. Truly excellent.

The Husband’s Secret  – Liane Moriarty

Can’t have my top books without including this. Following a heartbreaking secret kept under lock and key for years, it packs a massive punch and the twists keep on coming. Moriarty’s breakout novel (all her others are also fantastic) and it’s commercial fiction at its very best. A true masterclass.

The Fever – Megan Abbott

Dizzying, feverish prose which I whipped through. Concentrating on a mysterious hysteria that young women are falling plague to, we follow Deenie, her brother and her father as they navigate their life in the midst of it. I read three of her most recent novels in very quick succession and she just keeps getting better and better.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

After I read this one I was giddy. I wanted to talk about it and recommend it to everyone. In a year of truly outstanding books, this stood out from the crowd and was something exceptional.

The Secret Place – Tana French

The 5th title from the genius that is Tana French. (Yes, I may be biased.) She’s unrivalled in the suspense stakes and this, which investigates a murder in a girl’s boarding school in Dublin, is her best yet. Spellbinding.

We Were Liars – E Lockhart

The subject matter at the heart of this YA novel is endlessly fascinating to me. The story revolves around 17-year-old Cadence and the mysterious accident that befell her two summers previously. It’s sharp, smart and the prose blisters off the page until the very end. It will stay with you for some time.

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

I feel like the novel hasn’t got the recognition it so deserves. Every word is so crisp and clear in this book which tackles the death of a much loved daughter in a mixed race family in 1970s America. Devastating but real perfection.

Shotgun Lovesongs – Nickolas Butler

This is a big novel full of heart. Centering around four friends reuniting for a wedding, it charters the murky waters of friendship and what that really means. I had Bon Iver in my mind as I was reading as it’s set deep in the Midwest and it was like reading in your duvet. I can’t wait for Butler’s second novel.

The Ten Things I Learnt Above Love – Sarah Butler

Stunning debut novel revolving around a woman who returns from travelling, back to London, to see her ailing father and a homeless man searching for his daughter. Heart wrenching and poignant, this is an author to watch.

Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Wood

I raved about this as soon as I finished. I love this time period and find the characters that are so effortlessly written about and imagined, endlessly fascinating. This is graceful, exquisite and elegant.

NON-FICTION

Not That Kind of Girl – Lena Dunham

In recent months, Dunham has received incredible amounts of flak for her book which has perhaps done her a disservice. I had the pleasure of seeing her in conversation with Caitlin Moran at the Southbank and promptly fell in love with her. Her book is written, at times, with painful and cringy honesty but you feel her heart, right there, poured onto the page.

Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay

I got this for Christmas, having wanted it since it was published, and finished it in a day. Gay is whipsmart and she writes with such a honesty I found myself nodding along to everything she was saying. Although I don’t agree with everything she says, she’s captivating.

My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff

This, I think, was my surprise breakout book of 2014. A memoir set in 1996 chronicling Rakoff’s first job out of college at a top literary agency in New York. It’s fascinating and delicately written, I gobbled it up. (I think I also found it interesting given my own chosen profession.)

AUDIO BOOKS

Not My Father’s Son – Alan Cumming

This is a brilliant memoir covering a difficult time for Cumming in 2010 when he was taking part in Who Do You Think You Are? and struggling with some personal news from his father. Flashing back to his childhood and to present day, it’s poignant, electrifying and read beautifully by Cumming himself.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS 

American Wife – Curtis Sittenfeld

The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer

 

A selection of wonderful bookish treats for November:

Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

Masterful first volume in the series. Sharp, snappy brilliant observational dialogue and characterisation. Compelling and makes you immediately want to read the next. Can’t think why I haven’t read him before, particularly when I was living in SF.

More Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin 

As snappy and sharp as the first volume. Addicted to this series because of the brilliant characters; they carry this story alongside Maupin’s astonishing voice. More please.

The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan

Startling and sparkling essays and fiction from a young Yale graduate who died prematurely, five days after her graduation. SO MUCH brims from this work, which makes it very special indeed.

Dare Me – Megan Abbott

The 2nd in my Megan Abbott season and WOW. This is dizzying, electric prose that pulls and pushes you through such an exciting narrative. Teen girls are fierce, infinite monsters and beauties in this brilliant book.

The Fever – Megan Abbott

The 3rd in my Megan Abbott season and I tried to hold off on this one until next month but I couldn’t. Another searing novel from an absolute master. Can’t wait for her books now and I hope there will be a new one before 2016.

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

Everything I hoped for and more. Defies what I even expected because it’s so brilliant. Amy’s voice is so genuinely funny and there’s such a sweetness to her book as soon as you put it down it instantly makes you want to pick it back up again.

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

Beautiful, compelling debut. Original premise that’s executed excellently and confidently right until the end. Very well done.

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

This is one of my books for 2014. It feels huge saying that as I have read so many incredible books this year; but I swallowed this one in an entire weekend. It is so carefully written and not a sentence feels out of place – extremely resonant and so devastating. It’s one of those books that has a secret power and wrests it so beautifully.

BOOKS OUT IN 2015

A Place Called Winter – Patrick Gale

Beautiful. Tender and richly told, a gently powerful, poetic story. This originally came from the author’s personal family history which he has embellished and filled in with such vivid and well imagined details. I really loved it.

AUDIO BOOKS

Bossypants – Tina Fey

In a word, hilarious. Perfect companion to having read ‘Yes Please’ this month too. So witty and actually made me laugh aloud on the tube – no mean feat. She’s a smart lady and I loved it. Tina Fey completes my set of smart, brilliant women to read and I recommend them all. (Most recently: Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham)

Not My Father’s Son – Alan Cumming

This was an excellent choice for audiobook. Written and narrated by Alan Cumming, he tells it so richly and exactly as it should be told. It chronicles his relationship with his own father against the search for the truth about his maternal grandfather. His story is so poignant that, when coming to the end of it, I almost had to stop myself from getting teary.

 

 

The first in a new monthly series from me – September and October will be one bumper edition! (I also took a holiday at the beginning of September which might account for length of list). This is where I try to read everything that I like or books that have gotten a lot of buzz recently.

In The Woods – Tana French

French’s first and what a dynamite debut it is. Taut and tightly woven, compelling until the last sentence. I can’t think why I hadn’t read her first before now. (Her fifth, The Secret Place, is out now and is her best to date).

Pieces of You – Ella Harper

This novel packs an emotional punch and is a quick read. Commercial women’s fiction at its best.

The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer

This novel had been on my to read pile for a year. This book is simply brilliant. Meg Wolitizer is ambitious and rightly so, the story is beautifully told with plenty of wryness and irony – it’s one of my top books of 2014.

The Vacationers – Emma Straub

Sharp, witty and wry this book is another super quick read but really well done. The smart and brilliantly drawn characters are what carries this novel.

Bittersweet – Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Obsessed with books with this subject matter. It’s clever and dark with poetic prose that stayed with me long after reading.

Before We Met  – Lucie Whitehouse

Dark and twisted domestic noir, sagged slightly in the middle but picked up for a dramatic ending.

Shotgun Lovesongs – Nickolas Butler

I adored this book. Appealed totally to my American literature sensibilities fostered by my degree. It’s beautifully written and elegiac and makes me want to read everything that Butler has ever written.

Daughter – Jane Shemilt

This one kept me reading and finished it in a few days – excellently plotted and well-drawn, this is a standout debut.

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

This book will stay with me for a long time. It’s so clever and compelling whilst also being beautiful and poignant. It’s such a fantastic book, my words do it no justice. Read it.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

LOVED this one. So deserving of its shortlisting for the Manbooker. Funny, sad and ultimately extraordinary. It deserves every success.

What Alice Forgot – Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty is my go-to lady for brilliantly written commercial fiction with heart, voice and extraordinary stories packed with secrets, heartache and drama. This one is great.

The End of Everything – Megan Abbott

Mesmerising, magnetic and majestic. Megan Abbott had soared to the top of my to read list. A brilliant book.

Not that Kind of Girl – Lena Dunham

This book of essays captures so easily our preoccupations with love, life, work and relationships. Told with Dunham’s trademark candour – I fell in love with her all over again.

The Good Life – Martina Cole

Martina Cole at her very, very best. A fast, energetic ride through gangland London from the early 70s to early 2000s. She’s a master.

BOOKS OUT IN 2015

The Ice Twins – SK Tremayne

Raced through this creepy thriller – great suspense and tightly plotted. Hope to see more from this author.

Hidden – Emma Kavanagh

The 2nd standalone from former police psychologist – brilliant, pacy and full of twists. Read her debut, Falling, because she’s one to watch.

Firstly, apologies to all for my woefully late review and also my lack of reviews in general. I’m desperately trying to keep up with reviews for this blog but, recently, I just don’t have the hours in the day to read and review!

Anyway, this is the second book by Costa nominated Sarah Naughton. Her first book, The Hanged Man Rises, I reviewed earlier last year. If you like historical novels, you’re always in for a treat with Sarah!

The year is 1646, tales of witches, murder and changelings are rife and a dark era is about to begin… Barnaby Nightingale is the perfect son; Strong, handsome, daring, everything his father wants him to be, and yet for his mother, Frances, he will never be the son she desires. Frances believes that her real son was taken from her as a baby by the local village folk who believed him to be a changeling, and Barnaby left in his place. Constantly disappointing his mother, Barnaby is spoiled by his father and despised by his younger brother, Abel. But when the beautiful and mysterious Naomi catches Barnaby’s attention his world is thrown into chaos as superstition and dark folklore take hold of the small village and Naomi is accused of being a witch. Fear and suspicion spread and soon Barnaby finds himself on trial too and facing the ultimate penalty… death.

I really like historical fiction so I was drawn to this title and also wanted to see what Sarah had to say after the success of her debut novel. One of my favourite things about Sarah’s writing is that she’s not afraid to be dark, or to let her imagination run wild. Her novels are also underscored by a huge amount of research which is evident within the text. The themes that trace their way across this cleverly woven narrative are compelling and interesting; they pull you in sharply. The writing is also incredibly visual; you can almost see and feel everything that happens.

I found the character of Frances, initially, to be hugely interesting. I was questioning her motivations and her lack of bonding with her child, whom she thinks is a changeling. She goes on to have a second child, Abel, and the story then focuses on the relationship between teenage brothers, which I found myself wanting slightly more of.  When was this obsessive hatred first manifested? Abel is such an oddball and motivated by deeply religious leanings.  The Witch Finder General, Matthew Hopkins (a real-life figure), is brought to the village and Barnaby and Naomi are soon thrust under his gaze.

The story really picks up in the latter half of the book and becomes quite a pacy thriller. The characters unfurl a little, too, and they develop slightly more. This adds the necessary depth to the narrative and demonstrates that there is a huge amount constantly bubbling under the surface.

Overall, this is quite a dark tale, not unlike her previous offering, with compelling and interesting points. I’m really interested to see the direction Sarah goes in next.

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