Saturday, 2 January 2016

Books of the Year 2015

It's been a busy year, what with writing The King's Revenge and The Double Axe, and plotting the latter's sequel; not to mention other projects and the demands of that thing called Life. Nevertheless I have been reviewing and reading steadily, and these are the books that have particularly caught me over the last year. 

Benjamin Wood: literary thriller

It may seem odd to start with an omission, but I've been much looking forward to Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void, and alackaday have yet to be able to start it; it's first on my list for this year. On to what I did read: Benjamin Wood's second novel, The Ecliptic, was an intelligent and able literary thriller about art and the processes of creation. Tessa Hadley, always elegant and finely-tuned, discussed family politics in The Past, full of gorgeous moments humming with delicacy and power. However strange Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant may have been, it was still intriguing in its use of the Matter of Britain and its understanding of humanity and memory. For pure enjoyment there was Martin Millar's The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies, a clever romp set in ancient Athens; and David Mitchell's bonkers horror story, Slade House, featuring transdimensional immortals that eat your soul. Also splendidly entertaining is my friend Catriona Ward's terrifying Rawblood, a post-modern Gothic mash up which will have you checking behind your shoulders on even the sunniest of days. Rock on!

Children's and Young Adult Fiction

It was a good year for children's fiction, led by Sally Gardner's The Door that Led to Where, a moving account of a damaged young man who finds solace in time travel. Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree is her finest novel to date: a delicious mixture of thrilling revenge narrative, feminism, natural science and askew realities. Philip Reeve's Railhead is a slick space opera with hints of Blade Runner, seeing a young boy, set to steal from the imperial family, discovering something much more dangerous at play. Cressida Cowell's How to Fight a Dragon's Fury was a perfect end to a much-loved series, taking its place amongst the classics of children's literature. And The Story of King Lear by Melania G Mazzuco, in Pushkin Press's "Save the Story" series, was a dark, moving version of what is, in my view, Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. 

Recent Non Fiction

I haven't read much non-fiction this year, being engaged upon a wade through Robert Tombs' magnificent The English and their History, but I did finally manage to get to Sandie Byrne's The Unbearable Saki, a fine biography and critical study of the soigné short story writer, which suggests that the apparent effeteness of his heroes is in fact all a part of his conservatism. I must also recommend The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, which I reviewed for The Times Literary Supplement - edited by Daniel Hahn, it makes a useful and entertaining guide to a field of literature expanding in many interesting ways.
Recent Fiction

Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is funny, tender and skewers modern life with glee. I became obsessed, briefly, with Robertson Davies, devouring The Cornish Trilogy and The Deptford Trilogy in a matter of weeks, and I thoroughly recommend them to anyone looking for a hearty, brainy feast. Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake is rather an extraordinary piece of work: told in a shadow version of Anglo Saxon, it follows a displaced Saxon as the Normans begin their reign of terror.
Recent Children's Fiction

I missed all the fuss about Kevin Brooks' The Bunker Diary when it won the Carnegie: it's a marvellous book, threatening, menacing, involving; its ending may be bleak but that is an inherent part of its structure and composition; it is by no means gratuitous. Melvin Burgess' Junk is a brilliant account of two teenagers who become heroin addicts: convincing, funny, scary and poignant, it both conforms to and breaks the boundaries of children's fiction. I've also been feeding my Catherine Fisher addiction, hoovering up Corbenic - surely a minor masterpiece of Arthurian fiction - and Incarceron, which features a mysterious prison and a world controlled by computers to resemble a medieval castle. Splendid, and Fisher should be much more widely known and read. 


By far the best classic I've been reading this year is George Eliot's Middlemarch; but, on January 2nd, I have still got 100 pages to go, so I can't really count it. Turgenev's Spring Torrents and Fathers and Sons are both beautiful novels; the one infused with youthful spirit; the other with an elegiac tenderness. I would also count Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker as a modern classic - its weird post-apocalyptic visions stayed with me for days, nay weeks, afterwards.

Classic Children's Fiction

Elizabeth Taylor's Mossy Trotter was a funny, exquisitely observed story about a little boy's daily travails (including being forced to have a birthday party). And I cannot believe that I have got through life so far without having read Alan Garner's Elidor - superb, sharp, strange, a take on Childe Roland that throbs with mysterious and electric power. Similarly, Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners is a violent, unflinching account of how children act when they are not observed. I always return to Ursula Le Guin, and have been using A Wizard of Earthsea to teach: I re-read it this year, and it is still one of the most thoroughly imagined, firmly-constructed, wise and vivid pieces of fiction for the young that there are. Out of 12 students, only one liked it, which rather shocked me - this book came before Harry Potter, and is so much more interesting, thematically, than its shadows. Finally, I re-read Ted Hughes' The Iron Man with a young boy not particularly interested in reading - the effect on him was as if a spell had been cast - we read it together, without stopping, for an hour, totally absorbed in its galactic, poetic struggle. 

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