As chosen by the bloggers of An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.
All the posh newspapers go in for this: choosing your best books of the past year. It’s always fun reading the results. What you see here is our way of pointing people towards what to read in 2010, when the excesses of this winter’s wassailing are over. Some of the contributors to this blog have picked two books each (read this year!) and I hope everyone enjoys perusing these recommendations.
For adults: Blackmoor by Edward Hogan
Set in my home county of Derbyshire and during the era of the miners' strikes, I found this a fascinating reflection of the terror of a small-minded community and how it feels to be the brave odd one out. When I first started reading this I wondered if it was actually a YA novel, as it opens with a teenage boy in a scene dealing with an angry father. Edward could easily write wonderfully in the YA market but this is for adults. I wonder if I should get in touch with him and suggest this!
For children: Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
When I read the blurb for this novel, I groaned. Reality TV set in the future? Blurgh. But I could not put this down. Suzanne is unbelievably expert at ratcheting up the tension and making the reader want to see just how bad things can get. I also think this is a template for writing about extreme violence in a non-gratuitous way.
Frances Hardinge has produced only three novels, but for my money she has already established herself as one of the most exciting and versatile fantasy writers around. After the domestic fantasy, Verdigris Deep, this year she moved into new territory with Gullstruck Island. The eponymous island offers us a volcanic landscape, spirit travel, and many races – some native, some of more recent origin – as well as a highly appealing heroine. I won’t begin to attempt to indicate the book’s riches here, other than to say that as a piece of world-building, as a gripping story, as a meditation on intercultural conflict and the power of tradition, and as a showcase for some beautiful observational writing, it has few peers.
Victor Watson is well known among scholars of children’s literature, but Paradise Barn is his first book for children. I picked it up with a certain trepidation, and the old slander ‘Those that teach, can’t do’ ringing faintly in my ears, but I needn’t have worried. This is an old-fashioned story, both in the sense that it is set in the autumn of 1940 in a quiet East Anglian town, and in the sense that it involves three children stumbling upon, and solving, a mystery – a pattern long familiar from Enid Blyton among many others. But Paradise Barn, while not setting out to subvert the essential cosiness of the genre, invests it with a degree of psychological insight, observation, and stylistic economy, that sets it apart. Victor Watson has revealed himself to be a very good fiction writer indeed: I look forward to his next.
Wishing for Tomorrow by Hilary McKay
A sequel that seamlessly blends the old and new, bringing a new perspective on a much loved original. Highly recommended.
Gone by Michael Grant
Paranormal stories are everywhere just now, but for me, this was head and shoulders above the crowd. What would happen if all the adults were to disappear? Grant's answer to this question is both dark and gripping.
Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd is a super story set in Northern Ireland in the eighties. A teenage boy finds an ancient body in the peat. The hunger strike is effortlessly woven into this so you never feel that the book is preaching. A moving story which justifiably won the Carnegie.
The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day is a lovely book. It’s the story of a family holiday in Blackpool in the late 1950s: a week when secrets are revealed and families find out about each other. I picked this at random to read not having read the writer before and enjoyed it.
For adults: Fire—Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson. Collaborations often don’t work. This one does-beautifully. Five very different tales about fire: two by McKinley and three by Dickinson . The writing is, as always with these two, wonderfully imaginative and rich. I went straight back to the beginning and read it all over again as soon as I got to the last page, and I have no doubt I will return to it in the future. Dickinson’s ‘Phoenix’ tale in particular stuck in my brain for days, and McKinley’s two dog characters, Flame and Sippy, can have a place in my story pantheon of excellent hounds any day.
For children: Troubadour by Mary Hoffman. I am ashamed to say I knew very little about the Cathars before reading this book. But this moving and detailed tale of love, music, religious divides and the cruelty of war is not only one of the best children’s novels I’ve read this year, but also an historical education in the life of 13th century France and the minstrels who roamed its roads and played in its castles and towns. It’s a great story, weaving real history and fiction just perfectly. If you haven’t read it, you should put it on your list right now.
Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel is my choice for adult readers, in a year which has seen so many good novels that it’s hard to name only one. This was well reviewed both in newspapers and online but no one hyped it, and it wasn’t in supermarkets and therefore I feel it may have disappeared before it acquired the readership it deserved. Perhaps when it comes out in paperback, things will change but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s an extraordinary tale, like Primo Levi crossed with the Brothers Grimm and I can’t praise it highly enough. Not only do you turn the pages as eagerly as you would with any thriller, but the story stays with you, makes you think and refuses to give up every one of its secrets in one reading. The writer is also a movie director. You may have seen the rather good film, I’ve loved you so long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime) .with Kristin Scott Thomas. That was both written and directed by him, and his previous novel, Grey Souls is also outstanding. Alas, it seems to have sunk without trace but it’s worth seeking out. He’s brilliant, so do give his books a try.
For children, I’m choosing Carol Ann Duffy’s New and Collected Poems for Children. There was great rejoicing when she became Poet Laureate, and in this part of the world (Manchester!) more than anywhere else because she lives here. She’s given readings in the local Oxfam shop and I’ve even had a chat to her in the aisles of our local Sainsbury’s so we feel a bit partisan about her. This book is wonderful and would make a super Christmas present. She’s a poet whose work for children is all of a piece with her other writing and these verses don’t insult kids by presuming that the only thing which will capture their imaginations is doggerel of one kind or another. There’s lyricism here and beauty and mystery and fairytale and also inspired silliness. Lovely stuff and in a beautifully produced edition.
Notes on a Exhibition by Patrick Gale had me gripped, intrigued and moved in a way I hadn't been for years. Promptly signed up to see the author at a festival and he was as interesting and engaging as his book - and he replied to my e-mail at once!
The Declaration by Gemma Malley is sci-fi exploring the Big Question of what would happen if we found a way to live for ever. It's thought provoking and challenging but cracks along at a great pace and has characters to warm to and root for.
For adults: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Never has a book kept me reading so avidly until so late at night, as this one, and left my head so full of dreams that in the morning I’ve felt I’ve spent the whole night in avid conversation. Mantel conjures up a world so real and underpinned by human psychology that I doubt I’ll easily be won over to any other novel set in this period.
For teenagers: The Kiss of Death by Marcus Sedgwick. A seductive setting in perfect Gothic style, Sedgwick truly understands pace and plot but it’s his flowing language – sometimes quite dark – that beguiles the reader. ‘The world is a vampire sent to drain us of our souls’. And who can resist the words of the opening letter… ‘I will go on squeezing until your lips have stopped twitching and you are no more.’ The reader is trapped from the very first page.
Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd is one of those books that sweeps you along with it so hard you can't put it down until the very end. Holly Hogan is newly fostered from a children's home, but is trying to find her mother. She reminded me of the kids I used to see hanging round the playgrounds all day when they should be at school, she needs attention, bucketloads of it, and on her risky journey from London to Fishguard we readers find out, step by step, alongside Holly, what happened.
The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman with illustrations by David Roberts, is a lovely picture books for older (top juniors? me?)readers. The Dunderheads are the class losers, beautifully and characterfully drawn, who always get the worst of teacher Miss Breakbones. In this book the kids, done horribly wrong by nasty Miss Breakbones, club together in heart warming and ingenious ways to put things right.
For adults, I just came across The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. I loved it because it bewildered me, delighted me and made me feel ambitious about what writing can do.
For children, no-one told me that The Knife of Never Letting Go was part of a trilogy and I was utterly gutted by the non-ending. That’s a measure of how much I loved it, especially the dog and the sheep.
I pretty much guarantee that none of you will have read the adult book I'm going to recommend. It's a debut, very new, completely ignored (as far as I can see) by newspapers and published by the tiniest of publishers, The Linen Press. It's called The Device, The Devil and Me by Stephanie Taylor. It's not a perfect book, and the beginning and end both have faults, but I have no hesitation in recommending it because it's the first adult book for a very long time that has gripped me so strongly that I read it in two sittings. It's hugely emotional, raw, very fresh, rather unusual, and a fine debut. If you want to buy it, PLEASE do so from The Linen Press website (www.linenpressbooks.co.uk) - if you want to know why, read where I blogged about it here! (http://helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com/2009/11/whod-be-small-publisher.html)
My choice from books published for younger people is The Witching Hour by Elizabeth Laird. I wrote on the same gruesome and cruel historical topic in The Highwayman's Curse - the "Killing Times" in Scotland, a period of shameful religious warfare - but Liz has done it so much better. She manages to convey the power and horror with gentle paint strokes, whereas I have a nasty habit of piling on the grimness with abandon! The Witching Hour is a great example of controlled, strong story-telling, and it's my favourite of hers, or perhaps equally with The Garbage King.
I know, I've mentioned it before, but The Writer's Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook is the most engrossing and thrilling account of the creative process, and listening to Davies is like being with a vivid character in a novel. (Lots of pretty pictures of David Tennant have nothing to do with my choice, hem hem.)
From the very first line of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book I was wishing I'd written it (all right, racked with envy). I was completely wrapped up in Bod's life and its dangers and joys. The wise, brave, complex Silas knocks every other undead hero out of the ring (without so much as a single snicker). And of course it's beautifully written.
I've caught up with two teenage spy novels this year: Scorpia by Anthony Horowitz and The Dark Side of Midnight by Carol Hedges. Both are part of a series but read well alone. These books have fast moving plots and plenty of thrills as you would expect, but both are also well written with unexpected emotional depth. Boy spy Alex Rider journeys to Venice to infiltrate the shadowy Scorpia organization seeking the truth about his father, while spy girl Jazmin Dawson infiltrates the rogue Roztok Institute looking for her mother. Boy spies are obviously more popular - I only came across the Spy Girl books by accident (and almost walked past them because of the sparkly "chick-lit" covers), but they are equally brilliant.
Favourite bits? Scorpia: when Alex BASE jumps into Scorpia's headquarters (always wanted to try that). Midnight: when the evil scientist raises the angel Azazel from the dead (least of Jazmin's problems).
One of my books of the year is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It’s a wonderful fresh view of a much-visited era of history, truly great writing. The other is Alice in Love and War by Ann Turnbull. This is a sensitive, moving description of the Civil War from the point of view of one of history’s most despised women – the camp follower.