Wednesday, 1 July 2015

2015 Books - the Year's Second Quarter

I know this is probably a slightly crazy way of doing it... but by the end of each year it's so hard to pick out my favourite books, and so this quarterly business is quite useful. And so, it's July all of a sudden, and I can talk about which books diverted me during the second chunk of 2015...

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. In retrospect, this probably wasn't as good as it seemed at the time. Three months on I don't remember much about the characters and even at the time some of the twists felt iffy. But I still enjoyed it a lot.

SUMMER AT THE LITTLE BEACH ST BAKERY by Jenny Colgan. There's a big spate of Romance novels this year that put bakeries / cake shops / cafes / tea rooms on a beach / garden / somewhere else lovely. I love this series of Jenny's because the characters are real to me, especially Neil the puffin. Everyone is put through their paces here, and our heroine almost loses everything she gained in the first book - as is only right in a cosy melodrama like this. I wrestled at first about whether it wasn't a bit repeat-y and whether there was enough story there, but was won over pretty quickly.

THE CAKE SHOP IN THE GARDEN by Carole Matthews. And here's another! But Carole's characters, also, are extremely vivid, and even the supposed villains of the piece turn out to have proper dimension and life to them. I don't mind these novels being wrapped in all the frou-frou stuff about cakes and recipes at the back, and so on - so long as they're well written. This one's a particularly good Carole Matthews novel - it does all the things she does best. Her romantic male leads are always terribly sexy.

THIRTEEN CHAIRS by Dave Shelton. A portmanteau of Gothic short stories - some of them drawn with great relish. There's a particular story about the crew of a sailing vessel, returning for revenge that's really, really horrible. Great YA horror - not too wordy and drawn out.

BLOOD RED ROAD by Moira Young. This is stonking bit of science fiction. It's a bit fighty-bitey in the Hunger Games / Mad Max kind of way, but this is also a really dark and bloody fairytale about a girl who has to make her own way through a brutal, violent world. I did an event at the Hay on Wye Festival with Moira in May and she's brilliant. The book is written in a very immediate style. When you read it you feel as if it's all happening to *you*, right now.

FIVE CHILDREN ON THE WESTERN FRONT and THE WHIZZ POP CHOCOLATE SHOP by Kate Saunders. I'm breaking my own rules of selection, and including two titles by the same author. I just discovered Kate Saunders' children's books this season, and she is a wonderful writer. The first here is a much-lauded return to the world of Edith Nesbit, continuing the lives of her beloved characters in WW1. The result is amazingly harrowing and touching and it feels exactly *right.* Such a clever recreation and expansion of the Nesbit world. I know it's a book that I'll return to - full of wisdom and humanity, in the guise of a fantasy tale about that tetchy hobgoblin, the Psammead.

I also read an earlier Saunders, set in her own magical world. It's a book that's so close to my own personal taste and sense of humour that it seems almost impossible. Everything about it was just spot on - from the ghost cat who tries to grow his hair back and cheats, to the very moving rehabilitation of the villain at the heart of the story. You know when you feel like a story's been written just for you? It's an especially good feeling when you're 45 and the story is ostensibly written for people much younger.

THE WOMAN WHO STOLE MY LIFE by Marian Keyes. Her tone is so natural, breezy and chatty, I find her books irresistable. This is true, it turns out, even when I get bored with the book a third of the way through. Because we begin with a story told, for some reason, in three different time zones for the opening section, the novel never quite took hold of me at first. There was quite a lot happening but all rather slowly (heroine trying to get life back together; heroine over-busy being successful in the past; heroine further in the past being paralysed and coming back to life.) I flirted with chucking the book early, but it was Keyes' voice that kept me going. Sooner or later the story straightened itself out and - even though much of it felt a tiny bit implausible - and then I was enamoured till the end.

But the lesson seems to be - don't fuck about with the chronology for the sake of cleverness, Marian. Just tell the feckin story in the order it wants to be told.

And finally (is that ten..?)

AN INVISIBLE FRIENDSHIP by Joyce Grenfell and Katharine Moore. This is a real Beach House book, in that it's been waiting for years in my heaps of TBR books, waiting patiently and modestly for ALL of my attention, which it duly got. For over twenty years these two dames wrote letters - one world famous, one completely obscure, both posh, both a bit goddy, both a bit dotty, both bird-watchers and greedy readers. Between the late fifties and Joyce's death in the late seventies they wrote huge long, gosippy, considered letters to each other describing holidays and books and states of mind. They're a bit snobby and fusty to harken to today, perhaps... but this is a glorious book. There's a gentle magic about it. They both try, without even thinking about it, to be good and kind, and to adjust and adapt to a world changing so fast around them.

It so happens that I love books of letters anyway - whether fictional or actual. There's something very inviting about them. It's like - in the nicest possible way, of course - peeking into somebody's drawers.

Just go and find it, anyhow. I'll feel better if I'm recommending something out of print and slightly obscure to you - to balance out some of the mass-market stuff that I find myself devouring and gabbling on about. (i heard someone recently saying that the mass market, bestselling fiction we have in the UK is terrible, etc. I really don't think that's true. I think the writers who sell like that and get book after book into the WH Smiths top ten are incredibly clever, reliable and, in many cases, very good writers. But then, I've always loved popular fiction as a genre - in which the characters are a little less ambiguous and perhaps more ready-made, and the plots are well-tooled and satisfactory in the way that stuff from Ikea tends to be. But at the same time, I do love a nice, eccentric, silly old book that's slipped out of circulation for thirty years or more. (Having said that, the letters describe Joyce G writing her first volume of memoirs, of which she subsequently sold SHITLOADS globally.)

So - let's hear it for bestsellers. Just the good ones, mind.

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