I love reading. I particularly love reading fiction, which is one of the main ways in which I relax. On holiday, or when the sun is shining during the UK summer, I can easily read a novel a day. It’s my idea of bliss.
I’m currently in two book clubs – one face to face and one online. I enjoy talking about books, and having a spirited debate about our different responses to what we have read. And I am always keen to hear recommendations from others about what they think is well worth reading, and to share recommendations of my own.
Over the summer of 2022, I read a considerable amount. And I read some fascinating things. Now we’re into November, and the Christmas break is ahead, I thought I’d share some of my fiction reading recommendations. Many of those who follow me on Twitter are still working in schools, and the Christmas break may be an opportunity to carve out time for reading. Some may want to buy books as gifts for others, or to add specific titles to their own Christmas wish list.
So I’ve chosen five of the novels that I particularly enjoyed over the summer months and hope that my review of each is helpful to those who read the blog. They are quite different in a number of ways, but I found each well-written, absorbing and compelling.
‘The Abstainer’, by Ian McGuire
I recently watched the television drama ‘The North Water’ (featuring an almost unrecognisable and mesmerising Colin Farrell in a character role unlike anything else I’ve ever seen him portray) and found it very powerful. Ian McGuire wrote the book on which that drama is based, and when a friend recommended ‘The Abstainer’ to me, and I made the connection between the two, I decided to have a look.
‘The Abstainer’ is a work of fiction but it is rooted in real events. It is set in Manchester in the 1860s and follows the actions of James O’Connor, a policeman who has been brought to England from Ireland to help local police deal with an Irish terrorist threat. It is dark, brooding and atmospheric. The characters are well-drawn, and the story is simply plotted but compelling, with carefully crafted tension at key moments. I felt emotionally engaged throughout, caring about what happened to James and those for whom he felt compassion and attempted to protect, but all the characters drew me in, on whichever side of the conflict they fell. I found myself holding my breath and reading more quickly as the ending approached.
Incidentally, in the light of this I also read ‘The North Water’ – disturbing but memorable and exceptionally well-written. I would recommend both if you feel this type of fiction is to your taste.
‘City of Girls’, by Elizabeth Gilbert
For one of my book clubs, someone recommended Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘The Signature of All Things’, which I enjoyed very much. I am always pleased to discover a new author, so after the book club meeting I read two further novels by Gilbert: ‘Eat Pray Love’ (which I had heard of, perhaps because of the Julia Roberts’ film, though I hadn’t seen that) and ‘City of Girls’. I liked both, but thought ‘City of Girls’ was particularly interesting.
The novel begins in Manhattan in the 1940s, where 19 year old Vivian, having dropped out of her Ivy League university, is ‘banished’ by her family, sent to live with her bohemian aunt who runs a down-at-heel theatre. Vivian is mesmerised by the colour and the glamour of New York, and we follow her adventures, her friendships, her mistakes and her growth into maturity and greater wisdom over several decades. This is a book which is very much about women, how they can be mistreated, shamed and abused, but also about their strength and spirit and camaraderie. I was totally caught up in the story and the characters throughout.
‘History of the Rain’, by Niall Williams
A friend recommended Niall Williams’ ‘This is Happiness’, which I enjoyed and, as with Elizabeth Gilbert, it left me keen to explore a new author. I discovered his ‘History of the Rain’ had been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, so that was the novel of his that I chose to read next.
This is a gem of a book – perhaps the novel I read over the summer which touched me most deeply and which has stayed with me ever since I finished it. Like ‘This is Happiness’, ‘History of the Rain’ is set in Faha, on the banks of the Shannon in County Clare – where it rains. A lot. The central character, 19 year old Ruth, is confined to bed as a result of serious illness, and she takes the opportunity to record the history of her family, her home, her community, while commenting wryly on her own temperament and current situation. There is humour and great warmth, poignancy and tragedy in the stories Ruth tells, against the backdrop of literature through the ages: Ruth’s close companions are the almost 4000 books of her father’s library which occupy the room in which she remains, and their influence is tangible. As a reader, that resonated strongly for me. I loved what Williams had to say about stories, including this: “We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or to keep alive those who only live now in the telling.”
I will be thinking about this book for some time to come.
‘Manhattan Beach’, by Jennifer Egan
A few years ago I read, and was captivated by, Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ – a book which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and which often appears in lists of ‘books to read before you die’. As a result, I went on to read several other books by Egan. Then over the summer, scrolling through the books in my Kindle library, I discovered a book by her which I had bought some time ago and, for some reason, had forgotten to read. So I opened ‘Manhattan Beach’ and plunged in.
As with ‘City of Girls’, this is a book set in New York at the time of World War II, but this is firmly based in Brooklyn, the Navy Yard rather than the world of theatre. The central character is another young woman, this time Anna, who trains as a diver – a gruelling process which is brilliantly described – and strives to be accepted as a woman in a team of men trawling the bottom of New York harbour repairing battleships.
The story begins when Anna is 11 and her father Eddie takes her along with him when he visits a member of the mob, Dexter Styles, for whom he is acting as a ‘bagman’. Three years later, Eddie has inexplicably disappeared and his family hear nothing from him as the years pass. The book explores the relationship between Anna, her mother, and beautiful, disabled and magnetic younger sister Lydia; it describes Anna’s friendships and her relationships in the Navy Yard; it shows how the family’s lives become caught up with the life of Dexter Styles, and the repercussions of her father’s disappearance. As with all the other books I have reviewed in this blog post, it took me to a new world and gave me insights into the lives of characters whose experience is so different from my own – but fascinating and, certainly for me, totally engaging.
‘Still Life’, by Sarah Winman
My final choice was a book I read again for one of my book clubs. One of the joys of book clubs is that they introduce you to new titles and often new authors, though in this case I had already read three of Sarah Winman’s other books.
‘Still Life’ is, I would say, the best thing she has written. Again, I was absorbed in a world about which I previously knew very little – Italy as the German occupation came to an end; the East End of London post-war; later Florence at the time of the great flood in 1966. The group of characters Winman assembles is captivating, colourful, entertaining and engaging, and we follow their progress and the interweaving relationships through the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s (and, in the case of the wonderful art historian Evelyn, back to 1901). I loved how Winman chose to end the book, and I loved what she had to say about the power of art, including: “It’s what we’ve always done. Left a mark on a cave, or on a page. Showing who we are, sharing our view of the world.”
Apparently the actor Hugh Bonneville said he only had one criticism of this novel, which was “that it ended…” I understood his point.
So there we are – five brief reviews to give you a taste of some of the fiction you might enjoy, or might want to share with others. Since I produced my three short novels I have been thinking often about what motivates people to start a book, share a book, talk about a book. I am grateful to all those who have read ‘The Dresser’, ‘#OneWord’ or ‘The Button Box’ and thrilled when people tell me they enjoyed them. Enjoy your fiction reading. Let me know what you would recommend?