I did not read enough books last year and I’m really pissed off about it! I don’t know why this should be. I read every night as I always do and I took the same amount of books on the same amount of holidays.
But in 2016 I read only 33 books, compared to 39 in 2015, 38 in 2014 and 41 the year before that. I do not like this trajectory. And I just realised that I have read only three books thus far this year. And one of them was tiny.
Is it an age thing? Is my brain slowing down? I am destined to read no books at all by the time I’m seventy?
Anyway. Enough moaning. Here’s the full (not long enough) list:
A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine
THE SHORE by SARA TAYLOR
THE BLACK PATH by PAUL BURSTON
WHEN SHE WAS BAD by TAMMY COHEN
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE by MAGGIE O’FARRELL
A DANGEROUS CROSSING by RACHEL RHYS
THE COURSE OF LOVE by ALAIN DE BOTTON
THE HOUSEKEEPER by SUELLEN DAINTY
MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by ELENA FERRANTE
I SEE YOU by CLARE MACKINTOSH
THE SWIMMING POOL by LOUISE CANDLISH
A HISTORY OF LONELINESS by JOHN BOYNE
A GOD IN RUINS by KATE ATKINSON
MISSING, PRESUMED by SUSY STEINER
THE STRANGER IN MY HOME by ADELE PARKS
THE ONE MEMORY OF FLORA BANKS by EMILY BARR
AS WEEKENDS GO by JAN BRIGDEN
THIRST by KERRY HUDSON
THE GIRLS by EMMA CLINE
UNDERTOW by ELIZABETH HEATHCOTE
LIE WITH ME by SABINE DURRANT
LYING IN WAIT by LIZ NUGENT
THE HOPE FAMILY CALENDAR by MIKE GAYLE
ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS by BRYN GREENWOOD
THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT by KATE HAMER
THE GREEN ROAD by ANNE ENRIGHT
STRICTLY BETWEEN US by JANE FALLON
BODIES OF LIGHT by SARAH MOSS
EILEEN by OTTESSA MOSHFEGH
IN HER WAKE by AMANDA JENNINGS
THE BLUE by LUCY CLARKE
DISCLAIMER by RENEE KNIGHT
TATTLETALE by SARAH J NAUGHTON
Ten were proofs I was sent to read for a quote (incidentally, I probably got sent forty books last year to read for a quote. I only read the ones I think I’m going to like). Five I read either in advance of or after meeting an author for the first time. Four I read after reading good reviews in a broadsheet. One I read because a reviewer on Amazon said my book The Girls reminded them of it. One I read because it had the same title as one of my books. One I picked up in a supermarket because it caught my eye, one because it was the author’s first fiction book in nearly twenty years and seven I read simply because I loved the author’s last books so much.
And as ever I did not read one bad book. Apart from the one I didn’t finish which therefore doesn’t go on the list and which wasn’t a bad book per se, just a book I couldn’t quite manage to pick up again once I put it down to read something else.
But some books lit up my world more brightly than other books, not, as I always say, because they were better, just because at the very moment and in the very place in which I read them I made a connection with the book that had me turning pages and desperate to go to bed at night or get back on the sun-lounger to read one more chapter. And these are they:
A reader reviewing The Girls on Amazon said that it reminded her of this book by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine. I’ve never read a Barbara Vine before and I liked the sound of the synopsis so I bought it. And I must say, having now read it I take that reviewer’s comment as a gigantic compliment. This is the story – and it’s not a new one, it’s been done many times before and since – of a group of mismatched young people finding themselves claustrophobically holed up together in a country idyll over a long hot summer. People drift in and out of this hedonistic set up, wantonly selling off antiques to survive, living outdoors under fur rugs, drinking wine by the gallon and being a bit full of themselves. Until something really serious happens and the group disbands as quickly as they came together never to see each other again. And then one day ten years later the bodies of a woman and a baby are uncovered in a pet cemetery in the grounds of the old house and they are forced to confront the events of that long ago summer. It’s a story of atonement and crime and punishment, masterfully done and joyful in its technology-free, shit-car 70’s and 80’s settings.
In Her Wake
I met Amanda shortly before I read her book. Both experiences were highlights of my year. Amanda is a glorious, pocket firecracker in leather. In Her Wake is very different but equally as compelling. It tells the story, in shimmering, sure-handed prose, of Bella, an introverted woman in a slightly uncomfortable marriage whose mother has just died and whose father is about to blow out his brains after telling her something truly shocking about her childhood. Desperate for answers, Bella abandons her slightly uncomfortable husband (I was not sad about this) and heads to the West Country to discover the truth for herself. This is the only of my top reads that I didn’t read on a sun-lounger so it gets bonus readability points for that.
The Girl in the Red Coat
Eight year old Carmel is taken from an alternative festival by a charismatic elderly man claiming to be her grandfather. Her mother Beth is left behind to try to come to terms with her daughter’s disappearance. The story is told in alternate chapters between Beth’s and Carmel’s points of view. Kate Hamer has written what is at first sight a standard psychological thriller but is actually something much gentler and more complex. The old man’s motivations for abducting Carmel remain clouded for much of the narrative and Beth meanwhile is not your classic grief-crazed mother hell-bent on finding the truth, but a lost woman trying desperately, day by day simply to keep her life together. The ending is unsignposted and very, very satisfying.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
If the story of a neglected, nymph-like child and a huge, tattooed, trailer-trash biker fifteen years her senior falling in love and trying really hard not to have sex with each other turns your stomach then you should either a) not read this book or b) read this book and prepare to have all your preconceptions about what makes a good love story completely overturned. Loner Kellen takes on the role of protector to the young daughter of his drug dealer neighbours when she is eight years old. He gets her to school and he keeps her safe. As the years pass he finds himself more and more drawn to Wavy as a woman but what he doesn’t know is that Wavy fell in love with him at first sight. This is a truly breathtaking love story told over many years and from the perspectives of Wavy, Kellen and a dozen other eclectic players including Wavy’s parents, her schoolmates and a local policeman. It’s utterly beautiful.
Lie With Me
This is the third of Sabine’s novels I’ve read and while her first two were excellent, edgy page-turners, this was in another league entirely. And I think this is mainly down to her decision to write it from the first person perspective of a massively unreliable and on the whole completely unlikeable male narrator. Paul is one of those guys, you’ll recognise the type; fortysomething, single due to commitment phobia, not quite successful (he’s had one novel published and is still living in the faded glow of old glory), losing his looks and his louche guy-around-town act is wearing very, very thin. In a moment of desperation (he’s moved back in with his mum after his mate whose Bloomsbury flat he’s been passing off as his own for many years comes back to the UK and asks him to move out) Paul sort of manipulates a vaguely attractive middle-aged widow into inviting him along on her annual summer holiday with friends to a villa in Greece. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Paul is not as clever as he thinks he is and that the player is being played. As a veteran of villa holidays with friends I loved the authenticity of this, the descriptions of flip flops and empty beer bottles left abandoned, of overheard conversations, of being left alone by a sinisterly empty pool when everyone else decides on a last minute day trip. Brilliantly tense, twisty and atmospheric, thrillers don’t get any better than this.
I was due to publish a book called The Girls in the US last year but because of this book coming out in the same month and being, ooh, approximately fifty times more of a big deal than my book, we decided to change the title of mine to The Girls In The Garden. But I was far from immune to the hype surrounding this book and couldn’t wait to read it. It’s a loose retelling of the Manson family story, told from the perspective of a young, soul-searching girl who gets briefly embroiled in a similar cult during one long hot summer but stopping just short of involvement in the final bloody chapters. The story is told between the present day and the past. The prose is dazzling and I was swept away by the sheer force of the narrative as it drifted dreamily, unbearably towards the inevitable conclusion.
My US editor’s assistant sent me a brief outline of this book in a terribly polite email asking me if I might, just possibly, consider reading it. And I knew from that outline that I would love this book and I was totally correct. It’s the story of Annie Morgan who has been working as a chef at her boyfriend’s posh London restaurant. Until he dumps her for another woman and not surprisingly she can’t really face working there anymore. Lost and bewildered she decides it’s time for a change and when Bohemian and glamorous lifestyle guru Emma Helmsey offers her a job as a housekeeper she snaps it up. Suellen does such a brilliant job of describing Emma’s huge unkempt Richmond house, from the dust that billows out of the ancient armchairs when you sit down in them to the expression on her congenitally lazy terrier’s face when it’s time to go for a walk that I felt like I was there alongside Annie, helping her fold tea towels and put together the evening meal. Emma’s family is warm but disorganised and very soon Annie is completely indispensable, becoming a discreet ear for each member of the family, particularly Emma’s charismatic husband, Rob. But there another story building beneath the cover story; a story of a blighted, shocking childhood and a terrible betrayal that is about to knock Annie sideways.
As for me, well I have just finished rewriting book 14. It’s currently called Then She Was Gone and is about a woman grieving for a teenage daughter who went missing ten years earlier and has just been found dead in a shallow grave in woodlands miles from home. Shortly after finally burying her daughter she meets a charming man who is a single dad to a young girl – who looks exactly like her daughter. Not only that but she thinks she might once have known the child’s mother. Weird coincidences build upon weird coincidences and gradually it becomes clear that her perfect new man is not entirely what he seems and her daughter’s death was not as random as she thought.
It’s a strange book, written in lots of voices and from many different perspectives across a ten year time frame. And at the centre of it all and talking the loudest of all is possibly the least likeable character I have ever written about. Everyone seemed to universally love my last book, I Found You and now I am terrified that this one will be much harder to love and everyone who loved the last one will be really disappointed. But that is the risk you take every time I suppose.
Wishing you all a happy February (it’s way too late now for wishing you a happy new year, I’d say) and a joyful Spring,
Lots of love,
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She was fifteen, her mother's golden girl.
She had her whole life ahead of her.
And then, in the blink of an eye, Ellie was gone.
Ten years on, Laurel has never given up hope of finding Ellie. And then she meets a charming and charismatic stranger who sweeps her off her feet.
But what really takes her breath away is when she meets his nine-year-old daughter.
Because his daughter is the image of Ellie.
Now all those unanswered questions that have haunted Laurel come flooding back.
What really happened to Ellie? And who still has secrets to hide?