Can you hear it? The Yule log burning in the hearth, hopefully warming kin and not a lonely heart. Soon spring will insert its chirps into our story, but for now winter holds court. So, pull up a chair, pour yourself a toddy, and light the shag in your pipe. It’s the end of a year and time to share our stories, dear reader. These ten books are my offering. They are in reverse order, chosen for enjoyment given or impact felt this year. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. We begin in a land far, far away…
At number ten is Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. If I had to describe this book in three words it would be travelling without moving, no not the Jamiroquai song. Famed travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s gives us a kinda love story, set within a non-fictional account of aboriginal life in 1970s Australia. There’s nothing sentimental here but there is a very powerful description of the songlines of the Aborigines. I don’t want to spoil it but some things give you a different way of thinking about the world. Those things, are very important.
Coming in at nine is George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl. I have perhaps now read this to my six-year-old daughter five or six times. I love its anarchy and novelty. For me it is one of Dahl’s most tightly written children’s stories. Great for six to sixty-six year olds, unless you have a cold, dead heart and take yourself far too seriously and think literature should be about real stuff (if so, perhaps we need a chat about your ontological error: literary fiction isn’t real, darling, note the ‘fiction’ bit).
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman comes in at number eight. My mum recommended this one to me. I was converted to Neil Gaiman late last year by the brilliant Neverwhere. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a dark and melancholic look a childhood, or maybe it’s about how adults remember it. It could be for children but it’s just as easily an adult book. Like much of Gaiman’s work, I was left thinking that it was great storytelling and what genre or age group to plonk it into is just a matter of helping marketing agents and search engine algorithms.
Another Neil Gaiman book is at seven.American Gods won many accolades. Sort of sci fi, sort of magical realism, sort of difficult to place so we’ll plonk it in ‘speculative fiction’ shall we, elfkins? Brilliant in its conception and scope, it is a story of the in between. Oh yeah, and it inspired me to learn some coin tricks, and for a little while my daughter thought I could actually do magic. Which was pretty cool.
At six is Needful Things by Stephen King, and weirdly enough this also features coin tricks and sleight of hand but that’s not why it’s on my list. This is one of my favourite King novels. There isn’t a whole lot of gore. Instead, King is at his subtle best. The dynamics of a small town are spot on, and the premise is simple but beautiful in its execution. I also read King’s Salem’s Lot, The Stand and The Dark Tower this year. None of them had the impact on me that Needful Things did. It drew me in and kept me enthralled all the way to the crescendo ending.
I remember exactly when I first bought Matilda by Roald Dahl, which is number five on my list. I was in a bookshop in Hinkley and I was ten. I pestered my mum to buy me the just published hardback and she did. At the time, being assessed as significantly dyslexic the year before, I had the reading age of a seven-year-old, just. My mum helped me to read the book and I’ve loved it and the memory ever since. She did all the voices. I’ve lost count how many times I have read it to my daughter at bedtime, with all the voices of course, but it’s at least twice this year. She loves it too: the genius little girl who could read anything and move things with her mind.
The next book doesn’t really stand alone, being the last in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, Foxglove Summer. Set in a present-day London, think murder mystery, cop drama meets magical underworld. It has a great first person narrator, the last trainee wizard-policeman in Britain. There are demi-gods, spooks and fey. Aaronovitch’s world building is amazing. His weaving of the metaphysics of the world into genuine historical people and events is deft. And the story telling is of the absorbing, page turning variety. Each book has been a good stand-alone read, as well as having strands of a meta-story being slowly revealed. Dark, perilous things are coming, with their roots in WWII. I can’t wait for the next book.
At number three is my last Neil Gaiman book, I promise. It’s the wonderfully dark children’s story The Graveyard Book. About a boy brought up in a graveyard by ghosts, with a vampire as his guardian. This is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. The world is quirky and imaginatively rich, in Gaiman’s the world between the cracks style. I don’t think there was a wasted word in the whole thing and the structure is tighter than a wrestler’s headlock.
A big dollop of pulp fiction comes in at number two, with The Rats by James Herbert. A classic I kind of stumbled upon, and it was a page turning, yarn ripping, gore filled, action packed ride the whole way to the climax. Published in 1974, it was dated, but in a way I loved. It was like drinking a can of Coke after two years in an ashram: I guzzled it down. It felt so bad for me but in a good way. Not the Booker Prize but you know what you can do with your Booker Prize?
And finally, my number one read from this year was Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Quite simply one of the best books I’ve ever read, for grown-ups or little people. A book about August, a boy with a severe facial disfigurement, trying to settle into a mainstream school. Being a six feet two inch, shaven headed bloke, I naturally had to spend most of my time trying not to cry, and failed several times. There was one little flaw I felt with the ending, that ran against the grain of natural justice for me, which if you are a puppy petting, trigger warning, safe room needing social justice peacock you wouldn’t agree with me. It’s only a minor flaw in an otherwise moving narrative about family, friendships, growing up and the societies we make together. I read it on summer holiday and I still think about it now in the winter, as our Yule log burns low. Oh, and I see you are in need of more shag in your pipe, so this seems like a good place to end.
Tune in tomorrow to see which books made Gareth Dickson’s ‘Best Reads of 2016’ list!
Check out Daniel Soule‘s fiction below: