It's hard to choose among many books I've read in 2016 I'd like to write about, but here's just a few of my favourites, most, but not all, published this year.
Lucy Ribchester's The Amber Shadows (published 2016). Sometimes the way you come across books are stories in themselves. When I saw the cover of this one I felt immediately drawn to it. Font, colours and design are very important to me. I don't believe in the old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover' or rather I'd change it to 'go by your feelings when it comes to a book cover.' I hardly ever buy full-price new books (I borrow from the library, rummage in charity shops and am given books to review) but the cover and the subject matter were making a strong case to undermine my resistance. Then one day I came across a copy in a charity shop and snapped it up. It takes place at Bletchley Park during WWII and it is truly a nail-bitingly tense thriller. But more than that, for its descriptions of states of mind are so perceptive. Along with the main protagonist, Honey Deschamps, you flip from one way of seeing and assessing what is going on (particularly when it comes to Felix), to its opposite. It keeps you doubting and questioning throughout and the ending was quite unexpected, in a way I thoroughly approved of, as it seemed to be leading to a more conventional outcome.
Alison Anderson's The Summer Guest (published 2016)
While The Amber Shadows played out like a monochrome film, in winter penumbra both literal and psychological, Alison Anderson's novel is full of colour, warmth and summer sunlight. The sensuous atmosphere seduces you into sharing the reveries and descriptions written in the journal of an invalid young woman who meets Chekov and his family. The natural world shimmers in heat, and in the developing friendship between them, which might hide a literary secret. Or might be the product of someone's imagination. Or even fiction. As well as Chekov's nineteenth century Russia, the novel takes place in present day France and London, with a visit to Ukraine. I particularly liked the literary theme, the lyricism, and the quest, which involves not just Chekov but the very nature of what fiction is. Subtle and entrancing writing.
Ioana Pârvulescu's Life Begins on Friday (2016) is a delightful novel set at the end of the 19th century, in Bucharest. While there is a mysterious stranger who turns up wearing strange clothes and with odd manners, all the characters are memorable, and most of them are warm-hearted. The way of life, particularly in the newspaper office, evokes nostalgia for a kinder less stressful era where people have time to talk to and care for each other. (full review can be read here).
Elizabeth Jane Howard's autobiography Slipstream is fascinating. It's an account of a life in a particular time and place, taking in WWII and post-war London. It depicts her struggle for recognition as a person and a writer and has an endearing honesty and an inspiring insight, through her experience, into others' characters but mostly, into herself. She has an admirable capacity of being non-judgemental about others and herself, though she depicts without drama what she sees as her own flaws, weaknesses and repeating patterns of relationships that bring initial intense euphoria followed by disappointment and unhappiness. It's like being given a guest ticket to the green room of London's literati, actors, artists, editors and publishers. Stories and character sketches of those she knew, worked with and/or loved, Cecil Day Lewis, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, Romain Gary and Kingsley Amis, just to name a few.
Joseph Brodsky's Watermark is described as 'part confessional, part meditation on water and stone, past and present'. This is the kind of writing that poets often do so well, for they have insight and perception and a wondrous capacity for description. But Watermark also tells us about the author himself, his relationship in particular with Venice, and his associations with water and time, his responses to art, architecture, weather, Greek myths, light etc. He writes “This is the winter light at its purest …..And the city lingers in it, savouring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private.”
Other great books I've read and written about this year, with links to full reviews.
Volker Weidermann's Summer Before the Dark - in 1936 several émigré writers such as Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Irmgard Keun met up in Ostend. It reads like a novel, lyrical and tender. I think it is a novel, a true novel. (2016)
Biography of Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu (2016)
Whatever the Sea - a brilliant anthology of poetry (2016)
Catherine Czerkawska's The Jewel - novel based on the lives of Robert Burns and his wife, Jean Armour (2016)
Faruk Šehić- Quiet Flows the Una
A poetic meditation on the river Una in Bosnia, this book features in other 'best of 2016' lists and is gathering awards. (2016)