Our writers share their best reads of the year. You’re welcome.
This is not the best book I’ve read all year (that accolade goes to Elizabeth Gilbert’s magnificent 2013 novel, The Signature Of All Things), but The Versions of Us has been the best book of 2015 to find itself on my bedside table.
Not because it’s grandly written (although its three alternative realities playing out side-by-side, Sliding Doors style, are each powerfully wrought), or particularly groundbreaking (I mentioned Sliding Doors, right?).
In fact, its central duo, Eva and Jim, are relatively unstarry, and the moment that simultaneously brings them together and shatters their lives into a triptych is pretty mundane: aged 19, Eva has a bit of trouble with her bike and Jim happens to walk by and get tangled up.
However, Barnett draws this pair’s divided worlds so crisply, sparing neither them nor the reader any tumult or pain, that you quickly forget the schmaltzy premise. And what you’re left with is actually quite devastating at times. The pair’s many potential relationships are unpacked, dissected, folded back in on themselves, stifled, encouraged, pushed, pulled, stretched, squashed and allowed to billow unceasingly.
It is all movement and hope and chance, and it’s difficult to not be thoroughly sucked in.
The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
(Chosen by Lili La Scala)
The Shepherd’s Crown is simply a matter of life and death. Written when Terry Pratchett was suffering from the ‘embuggerance’ of Alzheimers, it’s a farewell to both the Discworld and to his readers. It’s like saying a fond farewell to an old friend.
The book is led by Tiffany Aching, the witch of the Chalk, and she is a glorious role model; brave, clever, conscientious and puts others before herself. But she has a steely streak sewn through her like gold and she doesn’t suffer fools.
The minutiae of everyday life in the cities and plains created by Pratchett’s imagination are a source of constant joy. His protagonists are usually everyday people doing everyday things in situations only slightly skewed from our own, giving it a beguiling familiarity.
I adored The Shepherd’s Crown; it is imbued with Pratchett’s wry, witty humour and I cackled out loud, more than once. It is also the most poignant of his books and I wept as a conversation with Death became, for me, a conversation between Pratchett and that scythed gentleman: “Well, the journey was worth taking and I saw many wonderful things on the way, including you, my reliable friend. Shall we go now?”
Pass the tissues.
A Notable Woman: the Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield
(Chosen by Jane Hill)
You won’t have heard of Jean Lucey Pratt. Born in 1910, she lived through two world wars. She lived much of her life alone in a small cottage surrounded by cats, worked variously as a journalist and a bookseller, and wrote one published book, a biography of the 18th-century actress Peg Woffington.
She also wrote a diary. From 1925 onwards she wrote about anything that came to mind: work, food, money, love, the war, politics and her cats. And in that diary she expressed the faint hope that one day it might be published.
The author Simon Garfield came across Jean’s diaries when he was working on the archives of the Mass Observation project. She contributed regularly to MO during the war years, and some of her more public diary entries featured in Garfield’s earlier book on that project, under the pseudonym Maggie Joy Blunt.
But this is her private diary, and it’s an extraordinary read. For 700 pages (yes, it’s a long book, but compelling throughout) you feel like you are inside another person’s head: a stubborn, bright, passionate, naive, intelligent, living, breathing woman.
She’s unmarried, childless, easy to ignore and often unconsidered. Sometimes you want to reach back through the years and shake her soundly: she loves horoscopes, fortune tellers, has her aura read, believes in psychic surgery. And there’s one particular “affaire” (her spelling) with a complete cad that will have you screaming at her.
This is an astonishingly intimate story of one woman trying to make sense of life and the world during a time of great upheaval – and if there’s a moral, it’s that life is untidy, scrappy and just keeps on happening.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
(Chosen by Karen Campbell)
Now a book about religion and sci-fi wouldn’t normally float my boat but if it’s got Michel Faber’s name on the cover then I’d read his sniffer’s guide to dog poo.
The Book of Strange New Things is a beautifully written, thought-provoking tale of love, life and humanity. It opens with a pretty normal story of a couple – Peter and Bea; Peter is a pastor and Bea is the loving and devoted wife. However, the normal soon turns to the abnormal as we learn that Peter has been picked for an extraordinary mission; to be sent to work with aliens on another planet as their missionary.
What follows is a tale of discovery, limitations, faith and love as Peter unfolds his strange new world on planet Oasis and immerses himself in his new followers (the Jesus lovers) while Bea’s life alone on Earth presents huge tests, not only of her beliefs but of her and Peter’s relationship.
Due to Faber’s gorgeous interwoven language and deep understanding of basic human needs, both Peter and Bea’s stories and experiences are told with such resonance that the overarching emotion is pure love. Love in so many forms: between husband and wife, friends, followers and the love both Peter and Bea feel for themselves; the ultimate test is whether it will be enough.
Faber penned this novel in tragic circumstances while nursing his terminally ill wife through cancer and apparently wrote at least two lines every day on her insistence. Knowing that makes this truly moving tale even more poignant and an absolute must-read; I certainly can’t wait to read it again.3359 Views
Some of Standard Issue's brilliant women's carefully crafted words for your reading pleasure.