Does it make sense to talk about books of the year with a whole month to go? It does in my case because I’ve moved onto next year’s releases in the search for my Hot Picks 2016 selection. 2015 has been very busy for me with a lot of time I’d normally spend reading devoted to finishing my novel. Therefore I have ‘only’ read 75 others, well down on last year’s total of 95 but who’s counting? I read for pleasure, without targets or quotas (although I seem to consistently have a natural female:male ratio of 2:1) – if a book sounds interesting, I’ll try it and indeed many of my best finds continue to be unsolicited arrivals I’ve never heard of. I look back on 2015 as a year of diamonds and duds – my critical radar has been working overtime.
So let’s talk diamonds!
I’ve featured dozens of fantastic books on the Literary Sofa in 2015, many of which would have been worthy contenders for today’s ‘honours’ but in the end, these are my own personal favourites, simple as that. Since I’ve already written short reviews of most of them (see links) I’m just going to say what gave them this mysterious power over me. You never know, it might work on you too…
It’s a tie between The Last Pilot and Early One Morning (below) for my *Book of 2015*. Ben Johncock’s debut has all the things I love about American fiction and he’s not even American. Gorgeous spare prose, authentic sense of time and place, a poignant story told with sensitivity and restraint – I have raved about this book so much it’s embarrassing.
With equally beautiful writing and a style of its own, this debut has several qualities in common with The Last Pilot. It is also richly evocative of Rome and a marvellous example of a narrative that stems from an act of impulse. I felt deeply attached to the characters who really touched me and live on in my memory. You will not hear me say this often – in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever said it – but for me it was flawless.
I enjoyed this immensely and in my view this very European novel deserved to be as big here as in the US, where it was a bestseller and high profile summer pick. Intriguing, challenging (it’s told in reverse) and with an cast of ‘characters’ bristling with moral ambiguity, there’s far more to recommend The Rocks than a virtual summer in Mallorca, though at this time of year, that certainly has its attractions…
I have a huge weakness for novels set in the art world – apart from anything else, they tend to be by people whose aesthetic sense comes through on the page. Even in a strong field, The Ecliptic stood out; it is sophisticated, scarily immersive and vividly imagined. This is literary fiction that truly merits the designation – my appreciation was barely dimmed by the inclusion of one of my pet hates. That’s how good it is!
I’ve read three of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels this year and they keep getting better and better (this is the third, I’m saving the last one for Christmas). Fearlessness and emotional honesty are qualities I admire and want in fiction. Ferrante has a just reputation for her uncensored dissection of women’s inner lives – like many of her fans I regard her as something akin to a god. If her continued anonymity is one of the reasons she can express ‘the unsayable’, I respect that, although in the wider context of writing by and about women, this troubles me.
This life-affirming book only crossed my radar when the translation came out this summer – prompting me to seek out the original French! Reading a lot more in my second language has been one of the pleasures of my latest project, along with regular trips to Paris, where this novel is set. This is a depiction of the city in a gentler era (not without its own troubles) and as a place of refuge for outsiders. It’s told with great tenderness and has a sense of community and solidarity which will resonate with many readers following the tragedy of recent events – if your instinct is to return to Paris because you love it, this will do nicely until you can get there.
I’m a big traveller – travel and reading form a kind of virtuous circle of inspiration, one of the reasons I started the very popular Writers on Location series (featuring three of the locations in this post.) The term ‘literary thriller’ perfectly describes Orient, a disruptively compelling and stylish ‘noir’ mystery, to which I award the highest compliment I can pay any long book – that it doesn’t feel like it. I became fascinated with the remote north fork of Long Island, New York, never imagining that I would turn up in Brooklyn to find that my friend has bought a cottage in Greenport, about ten minutes’ drive from the tiny hamlet of Orient. We spent the most glorious autumn day taking in the north and south forks and Shelter Island in between. Beautiful place, brilliant book.
I’d love to hear about your favourite books of the year. Have you read any of mine?
Apologies for the glitchy layout – I blame technology.
No post next week as after a slow start (damn that radar), the pressure’s on to have Hot Picks 2016 ready for publication on 18 December. It’s really coming together now and I can promise you the usual diverse and interesting selection.