A Year In Novels
“This will be my year!”
That’s a mantra I often used to hear people repeat on New Year’s Day. Probably trying to exercise the power of positive thinking. Fair enough, I say. In the end sometimes it was their year and sometimes it wasn’t.
Personally I don’t remember having “a year” or even thinking that in particular – I was cautious about tempting fate. But this year – finally – I was ready to hope for “my year” as my debut novel was due to be published. The release date had already been put back twice due to the pandemic but I was sure that 21 January 21 was an auspicious date for it to finally be released upon the world.
I hadn’t counted on the pandemic coming roaring back stronger than ever and us all being in lockdown again.
Of course being confined to our homes isn’t nearly the drawback it would have been in the past. People could buy the book online from all the places people normally buy books. However, I suspect having to rely on online only promotion and sales meant slightly less visibility as my plugging got lost in the noise.
Never mind. The important thing is that people read and enjoyed, which some did. Of secondary importance (from my perspective anyway) is that they leave reviews as they always help, especially in an online arena – Goodreads or Amazon, I’m not fussed!
Naturally I should practice what I preach. So here are my top ten books of the year – in the order in which I read them rather than any order of merit and I suspect the list will end a few months ago. But I don’t like the way listicles always use such strange numbers (Number 17 will blow your mind!) so I’m sticking to ten. You also might think it a bit early for books of the year but I also recently lost my reading mojo (it happens sometimes). So I may as well do it now.
NB my “books read this year” count is over 100 so this top ten definitely stood out.
1. The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean
The twins decide to fake a ghost photograph, ostensibly to scare people at school, but this irresponsible act of fakery sets off a chain of events that lead to much darker places, and even threatens to uncover proof of the supernatural world that they so much want to believe in...
The plot is gripping and engaging, walking the fine line between credulous and sceptical like an expert and contains the written equivalent of jump scares that would make a horror movie proud.
Recommended to anyone who used to carry a pack of Zener cards around in their school satchel or mess around with home made ouija boards...
2. Embers by Josephine Greenland
3. A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker
Given it was written before 2020, this book is UNCANNILY prescient and has unwittingly ended up asking the question "What if all this never really ends?"
Singer songwriter Luce Cannon is one of the last artists to perform in the Before and as people get used to the new normal she has to start breaking the law to indulge in her passion. Young woman Rosemary Laws was only a child in the Before and now as an adult is thrust into a strange new world when getting a job at StageHoloLive recruiting bands to perform online in the VR of “Hoodspace".
4. Be guid tae yer Mammy by Emma Grae
The story is told in a number of strong first person Scots voices, women across three generations who are all so distinct that the reader instantly knows whose perspective they are sharing. Of particular note are young Kate whose OCD and anxiety are authentically described and her grandmother Jeannie who – despite the respect and fear in which some of the other characters regard her – is a fascinating mixture of regret and confidence. Switching point of view also gives multiple perspectives into the feud and allows you to draw your own conclusions as to where the blame lies even before things come to head in a trial.
However, most importantly of all this novel highlights the expectations traditional society has of women of all generations from the 1940s to the present day and how – despite the age difference – hopes dreams and aspirations for a better and more fulfilling life are an essential part of the human experience whether the woman in question is in her twenties or nineties.
The characters' voices stay with the reader long after the last page has been turned, leaving an enduring impression on the memory.
5. Your Friend Forever by Zena Barrie
Maud's voice is authentic and – despite thirty years of experience – her character remains constant across both eras of her life. The narrative is intricately constructed and contains plenty of surprises. It's also very funny.
As someone who used to write to my favourite singer in the 1980s I could really relate to this, and would recommend it to anyone who has ever been a teenager.
Poignant, convincing and laugh out loud funny.
6. The Twenty Seven Club by Lucy Nichol
Emma is genuine, well-meaning and flawed, the kind of person any reader can instantly relate to and root for. As she travels through this fateful year life throws all sorts of obstacles in her way, some partly of her own making and others beyond her control. The characters around her – work colleages, dad, best-friend – are all authentic, becoming quickly familiar as the reader is drawn ever onward through the story, eager to find out what's next.
A heartfelt, satisfying and funny reflection on life and anxiety.
7. Billy Lemonade by Sarah J. Maxwell
A melancholic and evocative portrayal of teenage life, especially the way social structures and status at school loom so large despite – or perhaps because? – of more alarming and uncontrollable parental factors back at home. Billy and Jane are both tragic but compelling figures that you find yourself rooting for almost instinctively as they travel through the mournful tunnel of the school year, and their ultimate destination is as unexpected as it is satisfying.
8. TWICE: A Novel by Susanna Kleeman
Through the eyes and mind of the protagonist Nim, the reader is exposed to multiple points of view and explanations for what is going on from die-hard scepticism at one end of the spectrum to naive gullibility at the other. Also shines a light on Stockholm Syndrome, true identity and the nature of humanity without ever opting for easy explanations.
9. Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson
The unease felt by protagonist Iona – an architect who sometimes feels as if she's been nearing retirement for as long as she can remember – is palpable. On the surface the wooden city and its rules make perfect sense but she can't help feel that there must to be more to it. Words that come to her in dreams which have no meaning but nevertheless seem to have an unmistakable verisimilitude...
Iona's curiosity is infectious and the reader will soon find themselves just as keen as she is to find out what's going on. Unravelling this mystery is both rewarding and illuminating; a reminder to always question the current state of affairs if it becomes patently clear that it makes no sense.
10. Psychomachia by Kirsty Allison
It's addictive and you can't look away.
The hedonistic agitation of those days is painstakingly drawn with all its flaws and defects highlighted and yet Scarlet – our unreliable yet brutally honest narrator – is unable to escape or see what's as plain as a pikestaff to the reader. She is heading for a fall. The style – including tangential footnotes like a wandering train of thought which detail the endless deaths due to misadventure, malice and immoderation in rock and roll since its inception – is immediate and visceral, a total immersion tragedy which highlights the abhorrent truth: some people's response to encountering vulnerability will always be to exploit it.
Will leave you reeling and live in your mind forever after.
Photo by Min An from Pexels.