Books of 2015: Something New

Here, in the second part of my ‘books I loved the most in 2015’ roundup, I list my five favourite books from 2014/2015 that I read this year. It was only when I came to write this that I realised they were all by women. I don’t know what that says, but it’s probably not bad…

 DEPT. OF SPECULATION

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You can pretty much read Dept. of Speculation in one go, which I most definitely did. It’s a really engaging fragmentary novel about life and marriage and expectations and parenthood and all the sharpest moments of domestic life. It goes deep on the humanity even though the vignettes are short. They’re to the point, recognisable and humane. Thinking about it now, it’s so striking and sparkling that I want to read it again ASAP. I recently read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and they’re similar in that when someone can make a fragmentary novel work smoothly, they really work.

BAD FEMINIST

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I enjoyed Bad Feminist so much. It’s the only non-fiction to make it into either post on my fave books I read this year. Roxane Gay’s collection of essays is educational, thought-provoking and unbelievably readable. I found that I enjoyed the chapters that weren’t strictly about feminism the most: her time in a competitive Scrabble league was probably my highlight of the book. I would recommend this book to absolutely anyone with even the mildest interest in feminism, race, contradictions, complexities, pop culture. She’s a really remarkable voice and companion to guide you through these topics and feelings and questions.

A LITTLE LIFE

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See here for my thoughts on A Little Life

DAYS OF ABANDONMENT

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I read four novels by Elena Ferrante this year; the first two of the Neapolitan novels and two standalone novels. Although I can recognise the Neapolitan novels as outstanding achievements and probably better works of fiction, I prefer reading her standalone novels. I find the Neapolitan novels almost too much. Too absorbing, too psychologically complex, too detailed, too intense, and I have to really gear myself up to reading them. The Lost Daughter and, especially, The Days of Abandonment, felt much more manageable without the psychological preparation. Detailing a woman’s life in the wake of her separation from her husband, it’s a fascinating, disturbing chronicle of an unravelling.

HAUSFRAU

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I know one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but my God what a lovely cover this edition has. In terms of general reading experience, I think Hausfrau was my favourite novel I read this year, and was definitely my favourite recent book I read this year. Some of the books I’ve listed in this and my previous post are probably technically much ‘better’ but I just adored Hausfrau. It touched me and spoke to me and I loved reading the central character and reading her life and reading about the weirdness of being an outsider in Switzerland and the discomfort of having an unhappy marriage. I loved it all, even in its dark moments. It was just captivating.

Books of 2015: Something Old

So far in 2015, I have read 62 books. I know this because I keep a chronological list in the back of my diary of what I read and when I read it, which is partly for my own information and partly to make writing lists like this easier. As it worked well last year, I decided again to break up my favourite books of the year into things published in the past two years, and things that were published before that. Here is the Something Old section…

A PALE VIEW OF HILLS 

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Of all the many Kazuo Ishiguro novels I read this year, A Pale View of Hills stayed with me in the most profound way. It’s probably the most subtle book I’ve ever read, to the extent to which I feel I need to read it again at least twice to really understand what happened. Told from the perspective of a middle-aged Japanese woman in  England, it’s a blurred recollection of her life in post-war Japan alongside the recent suicide of her oldest daughter. It’s lonely and haunting and although it’s brief, it encapsulates so much about grief and trauma and how memory works. Even though it’s set very much in the ‘real world’, there’s something about the narration that makes it feel as if recollections are another place. I almost can’t believe it’s a first novel, it’s so careful and striking and thoughtful.

THE LINE OF BEAUTY

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A few years ago I tried to read The Stranger’s Child. I couldn’t get into it, and I felt disappointed because Alan Hollinghurst seemed like someone who would appeal to me. I was interested in reading The Line of Beauty, but felt my lack of interest in The Stranger’s Child didn’t bode well. I’m glad to report that I was wrong. Set in the 1980s under Thatcher, in the home of a Tory MP, it’s the story of Nick, a friend of the MP’s children, and an outsider- gay, not from London, not from the upper-middle class. The Line of Beauty is so fascinating and gripping in its construction of an almost nightmarish world of power and privilege, not-fitting-in and secret lives. The political and social backdrop are absorbing, the characters are entirely believable and the world of the novel felt so real that I often think ‘that’s very The Line of Beauty’ when I walk around west London.

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

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After loving The Easter Parade so much that it was one of my books of 2014, I decided this spring that I was emotionally ready to read Revolutionary Road- another mind-bogglingly impressive debut novel. It appeals to, and repels me, because it’s a novel about what’s probably my biggest fear: how do you know what to do with your life? How do you know what to choose? What if you can’t change your mind? Revolutionary Road is the story of a married couple with a life in a comfortable Connecticut town. They want to believe they are better, more interesting, than their pedestrian surroundings but struggle to maintain their own lives and identities in the context of work, family life and contemporary norms. It’s devastating and difficult. The writing is calm and clear but the climate and the implications burrow under your skin instantly. I think of Revolutionary Road often, especially when thinking about my future.

HEARTBURN

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Earlier this year I took a holiday to New York. I had the beautiful fortune to be staying with Kristy, world’s nicest person and official biggest fan of You’ve Got Mail. In one of our conversations I told her how much I wanted to read Heartburn, having neither read the book nor seen the film, and when I returned to the apartment after a hard day’s stomping, what had Kristy bought me and left on my pillow? I was delighted, and read it all on my last day, between subway rides, solo meals and cafe sitting. A day on which I saw none other than Ephron Babe Meg Ryan ahead of me in the queue at the Whitney on its first day in the new location. As you can see from the rest of the list, I read a lot of dark, bleak books. This, although it’s about acute heartbreak, is neither dark nor bleak. It’s entertaining, lovable, memorable and unbelievably readable on food, relationships and life after betrayal. I just adored it.

THE LITTLE STRANGER

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Good job I didn’t write this post before last week. The Little Stranger will end up being one of the last books I read in 2015 but definitely one of the best. It’s a ghost story in which hardly anyone believes in ghosts. It’s terrifying, heartbreaking, and, for a novel of more than 500 pages, a perfect example of how to construct and pace a story. It’s about how an old gentry family deals, or fails to deal, with their crumbling estate and dwindling fortunes, while being plagued by shocking events which may or may not be supernatural. The narration is channelled flawlessly through their doctor Faraday, who becomes their family friend and confidant. I found his tone of voice and overall character one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve ever read. A gothic horror that plunges you into a world that no longer exists with events that trouble and tear the heart..

Got to give it up.

Breaking Bad taught me an important lesson: if I think I dislike something from the outset, I’m probably right. I started watching Breaking  Bad in good faith. I wanted to like it. And yet episode after episode, I failed to be wowed or excited or moved. I ploughed on, though, for several seasons, having heard there was some kind of ‘turning point’ at which it was universally accepted that it ‘got good’. It wasn’t until I discovered I’d passed the so-called turning point that I realised I should probably trust my own judgement on this stuff. It’s not as if I don’t like TV series, or serious drama or ‘cult faves’. I loved Mad Men from episode one even though it often gets branded a ‘slow burner’. The Sopranos is probably my favourite series of all time, and thrilled me instantly. It’s not a commitment issue, it’s simply that my judgement on my own taste is generally pretty insightful.

The same applies to books. If I’m not impressed, intrigued, drawn in by the beginning of a book, I feel perfectly justified in giving it up because, firstly, life is short, and secondly, there are plenty of books out there that have grabbed me from the opening pages, if not paragraphs. There are simply too many books in the world that I haven’t read and will absolutely adore. I can’t spend my valuable reading hours on something that doesn’t even have the decency to give me a good beginning, let alone middle or end. I have absolutely no guilt or no regret about abandoning books early on. Looking at the list of what I read this year, the only book I can say I properly disliked was one I didn’t like at the beginning and only continued to read because I thought it was ‘important’ that I stuck with it. I got very little out of that experience.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading Shirley Jackson’s absolutely remarkable We Have Always Lived In the Castle, which I really loved. After that, though, I really struggled. I had a look at what was on my Kindle (which is a mix of illegally downloaded ‘classics’ and whatever my parents buy off Amazon, plus a few books of my own which I tend to read as soon as I download them). First I went for Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes which I gave up on pretty quickly on the grounds that I found the style annoying. Then I tried Closed for Winter by Jorn Lier Horst, hoping for some kind of contemporary Scandinavian crime thriller. Pretty quickly I established it was something militaristic (planes? Boring as hell, get off my lawn) and tapped out. Next was Missing You by Harlan Coben which was not only peppered with cliches but had an egregious typo in an absolutely heinous sentence. If you’re wondering, it was

Wow. Just let that realization roll over you for moment.

Was this written by a human? Does anyone edit these books? I, friends, deserve better. So I tried A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. I really wanted to like this one but I think it was just too dense and intricate for my needs at the time. I abandoned the Kindle and looked at my pile of books at home. It was time to start H is for Hawk, which my friend Jo had lent me.

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I read most books in 2-3 days because I have a nice, sitting-down-on-the-bus commute and always take an hour for lunch so can get a lot read. It took me 12 days to read H is For Hawk. At first I thought I wasn’t enjoying it. I could barely read more than 10 pages at a time before finding myself doing something else. Yet I kept reading and the idea of giving up didn’t really occur to me. I pressed on, wondering why it was such a struggle when the book itself is fascinating, moving, difficult, objectively great. Then I realised why: I couldn’t concentrate on anything right then. I was trying to read this complex, intense book at a time in my life where I was so stressed and anxious that I was signed off work. No wonder I found myself getting distracted from it so frequently when my nerves were rattling like a jar filled with marbles, stresses just rolling around and noisily bumping off each other. As my week off work wore on, and I felt more balanced in myself, I found myself more able to focus on H is for Hawk, able to read longer stretches at a time, able to better engage with the story and the emotions that go with it. And I’m so glad I did. I’m so glad my reading intuition works sufficiently well that I know when not to give it up just as clearly as when I know I’ve got to give it up.

Why I recommend… Carol.

Hello friends! This is the first in an ongoing series of posts about books I automatically recommend when people are asking for inspiration. Often that exchange takes place on Twitter where I’m space-limited, so I wanted to account for why I always recommend them, and why I think they have universal appeal.

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My first recommendation to anyone asking me for a great book to read is always, always Carol by Patricia Highsmith. If this isn’t my favourite book, then it’s in the top two, and every single woman I’ve ever recommended it to has adored it. It’s the story of young shopgirl and aspiring theatrical set designer Therese who spots an older woman, Carol, in the toy department of the store where she’s working, just before Christmas in 1948. They strike up an odd, tense friendship first and then…

Well, that, for many people, is the appeal. It’s a beautifully-told queer romance that at times is utterly heart-stopping. It captures the early days of infatuation, obsession, true love, better than anything I’ve ever read. It makes your head spin and makes you want to fall in love like that while making you recall so painfully the times you were in love like that and how utterly disturbing they were.

Set at a time when homosexuality was an absolute no-go, it’s a startling document of the layers of denial, both to the self and to others, of what makes up a love, a relationship, desire, companionship. Setting the character of Carol as both a woman with a husband and a daughter, and a history (even a brief history that we know of) of some kind of involvement with another woman, points to the very real impact of living out this repressed duality. What is Carol’s sexuality? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter much, all that matters is her attempts to find out will never be fully realised when there’s only one acceptable path for her to take. The men in Therese’s life are disappointing, entitled, immature, and not a patch on beautiful, enigmatic, sophisticated Carol, yet there’s no indication she has considered her sexuality before. It’s a non-option, until Carol walks into her store.

One of my favourite things about the novel is the ‘third woman’- the character of Carol’s closest friend Abby. She’s written as a totally human mix of contradictions: is she friend or foe? Is she helping Carol and Therese play out their relationship or is she trying to hinder it? I find Abby really fascinating as a figure of a more liberated queer female sexuality, and Carol’s gateway into self-exploration.

Highsmith is a thriller writer, and although this is not, it has the pace, momentum, energy of one. There’s a section of the book, though, that is pure, shocking thriller, while always retaining the intense, sincere, romantic core of the story. It hurtles along at such speed to a conclusion that you pin so many hopes on and know, really, can never satisfy you… and yet it does. It really does.

The ending of Carol is my favourite ending of any book. I’m sitting at my desk at work thinking about it and my eyes are literally filling with tears as I type. I’ve never been so completely bowled over by the conclusion of a novel.

SPOILER: THE ENDING – SCROLL DOWN TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT

Against all odds, Therese chooses a life with Carol. Walking away from the security of anonymity and lies, she accepts that Carol is what she wants, and what she can have. A queer love story with a happy ending is a rare thing, and all but unheard of when this book was written. Maybe it was Highsmith’s way of writing out the fantasy she knew would never be real for her, or maybe it was the only ending Carol and Therese deserved, but it is immensely satisfying, in both literary and moral terms.

SPOILER ENDS HERE

And why should you read Carol right now? Well, the truly stunning film adaptation comes out next month. I saw it a little while ago and it is absolutely perfect, everything I dreamed of, and it will disappoint absolutely no one. And besides, the novel grabs you instantly and compels you to read in one sitting, which is perfect for blustery, dark days.

Genre Trouble.

Yes, I read a lot. But I read a lot of the same stuff. 90% of what I read could be loosely termed “literary fiction”, with the other 10% as my beloved crime thrillers. I know it’s my own failing rather than any author’s, but I find fiction set in any kind of alternate universe extremely difficult to enjoy. Unless I could really believe in something happening and really relate to it or judge it by the world I live in and the people I have encountered, I just don’t enjoy it. This extends to authors I otherwise adore: Kazuo Ishiguro is hands down my favourite author. Until this year I had read every one of his novels except The Unconsoled (hadn’t got around to it yet, is on my to-read list). This year, that went up to every one but two, and will remain an incomplete list forever because I just know I’ll probably never read The Buried Giant. The combination of historical and fantasy was more than enough to put me off. Again, I reiterate: this is my problem, not Kazuo Ishiguro’s. But I can’t really get past it.

There are, however, a very select few books that have that made it through my Very Serious Fiction filter. Upon reflection, they’re all characterised by being set pretty much in the real world but with a key difference to what our world is actually like. The landscapes they portray are real places. The situations the characters are navigating are fundamentally human ones. The science isn’t at all central to the progression of the plot. I never feel distracted from the Human Story by the sci fi/dystopia elements, and I think that’s what my problem is with most sci fi/dystopia/fantasy novels.

Anyway, here are a few sci fi novels I truly love.

NEVER LET ME GO

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Yep, it’s ya boy Kazuo again. This is one of my all-time favourite novels of any genre by anyone in the world. It disturbed me in a way few books have, creating a persistent beast that burrows deep inside me and resides in the saddest, darkest place. The title doesn’t give anything away, doesn’t hint at the plot, the themes or the darkness. It could be a high-brow romance novel. But it isn’t. Imagine a future where human cloning is not only possible on a large scale but ethically permissable. Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy, a teenager at a boarding school in the countryside where students are treated well, encouraged to express themselves via art and creativity, and most importantly of all- kept healthy. Their physical health is paramount because they are clones, ‘born’ with the express purpose of having their organs harvested to donate. You could ask endless questions and try to pick endless holes in the premise, but you just don’t. You focus instead on the unbelievable pain of people who are born with the express purpose of dying, who see death as a career path. When one of her best friends hears that organ-harvesting can be ‘deferred’ if you fall in love or create particularly compelling art, the levels of hope and delusion and desperation that motivate their already limited lives become even more painful. It’s one of the most original and haunting books I’ve ever read.

UNDER THE SKIN

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If you think you don’t need to read Under the Skin because you saw the film, think again. I’ve never seen a film so different to its source material, and I would be interested to hear if anyone who’s read and seen Under the Skin can think of one. While in the film the whole plot was ‘alien assumes human form travels the roads of Scotland in search of men’, the motivation behind that is fully fleshed out in the book (pardon the pun). The novel reads like extremely elaborate pro-vegetarian propaganda: alien assumes human form, travels the roads of Scotland in search of men to paralyse with a drug, kidnap, return to a farm where she lives with other aliens, fatten up and eventually kill to harvest their meat and send back to their home planet where it’s consumed as a delicacy. It’s essentially about a human foie gras industry perpetrated by aliens who can undergo elaborate cosmetic surgery to look like humans. It is, unsurprisingly, dark and weird. It’s a wild concept executed so seamlessly and flawlessly that, much like Never Let Me Go, you don’t question the premise and just enjoy the outrageous ride. Even though Isserley, the protagonist, is an alien, she appears to the male hitchhikers in a human female form, exposing her to all the dangers that actual human females are exposed to. This, much like in the film, adds an intensely gendered dimension that makes the novel even more disconcerting. Michel Faber’s writing is so sensitive, nuanced, understated and satisfying that it makes a wild tale about a murderous alien feel intimate, human and compelling.

STATION ELEVEN

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I loved Station Eleven. I saw a lot of people talking about this book, thought “oooh gonna get involved” then my enthusiasm instantly evaporated when I discovered there was some kind of sci fi/dystopia angle. I’m really glad I read it anyway, because it falls so perfectly into the category I enjoy: yes, sci fi, but where that element is so horribly believable it’s more about human experience and reaction than anything else. Especially post-Ebola pandemic, I can easily believe that a virus could instantly wipe out almost everyone on earth and that civilisation as we know it could come to an end. What, then, becomes of the people who survive? What does survival mean? How do you reconstruct a society when there are both people who lived through the old world and those born into the new world who could never imagine electricity, internet, consumerism? And not just technology but culture. After the end of the world as we know it, does art, culture, theatre matter less or more than ever? The Station Eleven is chilling, thought-provoking and hopeful.

I am sure a lot of people will want to recommend Margaret Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was too young to appreciate it and am going to re-read soon, but I read Oryx and Crake to please someone I was dating, and really did not care about it at all. But, based on this post, if there are any other novels along these lines you care to recommend, I would like to hear about them.

The one genre I will almost certainly never be able to enjoy in any way is fantasy, but if you think you can recommend me something sufficiently outstanding then I’m willing to challenge myself, so please do hit me up!

A Little Life / The People In The Trees – Hanya Yanagihara’s novels.

Highlight the white space following this intro to show content notes for both books. I discuss some of potentially triggering elements here in very general terms so maybe skip this post if you are sensitive to this material, or if you plan to read the books. I would advise real caution with A Little Life in particular. Extreme content note for childhood sexual abuse, self harm, intimate partner violence and suicide in A Little Life, and childhood sexual abuse in The People in the Trees.

A LITTLE LIFE 

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I’ll start by saying: A Little Life is my favourite book I’ve read this year. Maybe my favourite new book I’ve read in many years. There aren’t many books I read this quickly and obsessively, and hardly any at all that aren’t mysteries/thrillers. It’s 700 pages long and I read it in 4 days. One day, I spent extra long in the bathroom so my boyfriend would fall asleep and I could read A Little Life without feeling like I was boring him. That’s how desperate I was to keep reading.

When it begins, it could be any post-college American novel telling the story of four talented, interesting friends. JB is an aspiring painter, Willem is an aspiring actor, Malcolm is an aspiring architect and Jude is… well, it turns out Jude is the main character. It is Jude’s little life we’re reading about, and his three friends are, to varying degrees, the supporting cast. The plot is, essentially, Jude trying to live in a brutal world in the shadow of an abusive childhood, surrounded by his friends, his mentor and mentor’s wife, and his devoted doctor. It takes in Jude’s career, his interpersonal relationships and, most of all, his own internal struggle with what he was subjected to and the person it’s left him as.

I had seen a couple of people refer to it as “harrowing” but I think I thought it would just be a one-off sad moment. I’ll state, explicitly: A Little Life is the most upsetting book I’ve ever read in my life. It contains stuff I’ve never read and, in fact, stuff I’ve barely even thought about. It’s relentless and it’s painful. Although there are emotional highs (the only time I actually cried while reading it, rather than roaring with anguish, was at a happy moment), they are not commensurate with the lows. It is a bleak, sad, painful life punctuated with moments of real beauty and joy. You read it in horrified disbelief, thinking “yes, I suppose this is how some people’s lives turn out”. It’s frequently absolute agony.

I loved the way it was written. Hanya Yanagihara’s writing is dense and detailed but so readable. The characters are so clearly drawn and fleshed out with pasts, sensitivities, motivations and desires that they feel like people you could know.

Something I found really fascinating that I thought worked really well was the way it takes place in a time and space completely devoid of historical markers. It’s America (specifically New York City and the Boston area) and it’s now (they use mobile phones), but there are no years- despite the book spanning a 30+ year period. We meet the characters when they’re out of university, and stop tracing them when they’re around 50, but the years are shaped only by their birthdays, Thanskgivings, Christmases. There are no historical or political moments or markets. It is its own world.

I could see a lot of skeptical old white people critics saying they didn’t believe the diversity of the characters. Many characters are queer and / or people of colour and the main character is disabled. But it’s the 21st century and this is New York City and, frankly, if your friends are all straight white people then that’s probably more your problem than Hanya Yanagihara’s. The only thing I had trouble believing was that JB was allowed to have a long and successful career as a visual artist when he only ever painted four people over and over again.

Another criticism I’ve seen from people that didn’t work on me is that they did not believe Jude could be so “unlucky” as to be the victim of such flagrant abuse as both a child and an adult. I felt that the book, as much as real life, gives more than enough context for how that could happen. To demand to know otherwise strikes me as the kind of victim-blaming that would get applied to real people as much as fictional characters.

I loved A Little Life the way I loved Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides or What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. I think I have a place in my heart for big, modern American novels that burrow deep into a character’s brain and life and pains. I need more.

THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES

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Straight after reading A Little Life, but after taking a break to read Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People In The Trees.

The plot (which is all laid out in the prologue and first chapters so not really spoilering) is fairly simple: a medical researcher called Norton Perina goes to a geographically remote and culturally isolated community in Micronesia: the island of Ivu’ivu. He is accompanying an anthropologist who is researching the island’s population, and while he is there, they come across reasonable evidence that something on the island is giving some of the inhabitants the ability to live, essentially, forever. The price is the mental degeneration that accompanies the physical ability to live way beyond all other humans. After his initial trip to the island, Perina continues his research, and on every trip back to Ivu’ivu, adopts more children who he brings back to America. At some point, one of the children accuses him of sexual abuse.

This is a wild novel. I remembered hearing something about it being based on a true story but I just couldn’t believe it was true, and it turns out, the one element I found particularly fascinatingly fantastical (the immortality bit)  is not lifted from the true story that the novel is based on. The People In The Trees is, to a non-scientist/non-anthropologist like me, meticulously research and written, bringing to life a community I not only will never come into contact with, but one I had no idea about. The descriptions of the landscape, the people, the weather and the traditions of Ivu’ivu are so absorbing, vibrant and sometimes uncomfortable that they make you simultaneously wish you were there and deeply glad you aren’t. It evokes shades of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and has strong Nabokov flavours without ever feeling derivative or anything less than compelling.

I found the structure particularly well-conceived. All of Perina’s recollections are marshalled via a colleague, or more accurately, a professional admirer called Ronald Kubodera, who is collating the narrations that Perina is sending him in installments from prison. These are bookended by a prologue and epilogue by Kubodera and peppered with footnotes that either give greater factual detail, or editorial input/personal opinion of Kubodera. The only spoiler I could give is to fully explain how and why the structure is so great, but when you see the effect of an unreliable editor on an unreliable narrator, the impact is breathtaking.

It is disconcerting, troubling, intense and always engaging. If you’re at all interested in anthropology/ethnography, geographically isolated communities, virology or just brilliant fiction, I highly recommend The People In the Trees. I promise it’s an easier ride than A Little Life.

Thrillers I rate/thrillers I hate.

If you asked me my favourite genre, I wouldn’t have to think twice. I am all about thrillers. It doesn’t matter how many I’ve read, I’m still a really naive reader and don’t often see twists coming, which makes the whole experience very satisfying. Thrillers come in especially handy as a palate-cleanser after I’ve read something dark and heavy (for example, A Little Life), but, realistically, I would rather always be reading a thriller.

Not all thrillers were created equal, though, and some are much more thrilling than others. I never feel more cheated than when the promised thrill fails to materialise, and make a mental note never to trust the author again (except in one instance which I’ll come to, which I still regret). So, I figured it would be useful to do a little roundup of my fave thrillers, and the ones that left me cold.

If you have particular sensitivities or triggers, I have written content notes in white text below each book description which you can highlight to reveal. I thought this was a decent way to indicate themes that people may find difficult without having to give explicit details, and to a lesser extent, key plot details.

Thrillers I rate

Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn

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Yes, the Gone Girl woman, except her far, far superior first novel. Slick, sick southern gothic, it’s dark, daring and extremely unexpected. I’ve read all Gillian Flynn’s novels, and this one really stands out as the most memorable and original, without the tricksiness of Gone Girl. It’s utterly unpredictable and totally absorbing, and makes you wonder where the hell she gets her ideas from.

Child abuse via Munchhausen’s by proxy

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

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As much as I love wild, weird stuff like Sharp Objects, I really love the tense, believable accumulation of mistakes and events that compose Apple Tree Yard. It’s set in a London I can believe, populated by characters I understand, and builds to an unbelievably nerve-wracking conclusion. It brings up essential questions about respectability politics, being a woman, and the consequences of our actions. I read another of her novels (Whatever You Love) and was much less impressed. It felt less tight, too sprawling, not focused enough. Apple Tree Yard, to me, is perfect.

Rape, sexual violence

Disclaimer – Renee Knight

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I did not expect to love Disclaimer as much as I did. When I read the plot, it sounded too much like a thriller I had read and hated (Her, by Harriet Lane, which I mention in the second half of this post), but I plunged into it none the less. It’s rescued from any comparisons to Her by being a thousand times more layered and intense and dark and sad and human. One reason I like thrillers is because they’re often so silly and fun that they give you emotional distance, but there’s something about Disclaimer that’s profoundly human and unsettling.

Rape, sexual violence

Irene / Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

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Originally I was just going to mention Alex because I think it’s 100% great as opposed to Irene’s 80% great, before remembering that they are a series and just because I read the second book first, it doesn’t mean anyone else will want to. Basically: read Irene so that Alex doesn’t spoiler it for you, but also read Irene to get to Alex. Alex is outstanding. You wonder how the plot (which at first glance is ‘a girl locked in a room on her own to be eaten alive by rats) is going to be sustained after about 40 pages, but the way Pierre Lemaitre builds and sustains an extraordinary storyline with meticulously fleshed-out characters is amazing. Ignore the rubbish cover.

Childhood sexual abuse

A Place of Execution – Val McDermid

Execution

I read this while I was a teenager and have thought about it often since then. It’s probably my single favourite thriller. Although I prefer single-timeline stories because I am a Basic Bitch, the past and present timelines work so well in A Place of Execution. It’s of an average length (around 400 pages) but it has the scope and detail of a much longer book, taking in lives and histories and events motivated by entirely credible forces. Now I come to think of it, I think it’s what started off my long-standing love of thrillers. It’s pitch-perfect on human desperation, isolated communities and an inability to forget.

Childhood sexual abuse

The Book Of You – Claire Kendal

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The Book of You creates an effect not dissimilar to claustrophobia. It’s chest-tightening, palm-sweating, nausea-inducing. Even if you’ve never experienced anything as extreme as what takes place in this book, I can’t imagine many women who wouldn’t identify with the utterly gendered fear that permeates it. The antagonist is an utter monster while being totally believably human. The kind of absolute creep that we’ve all known and warned our friends against. Chilling.

Rape, stalking

This section, on thrillers I hated, gives much more detail on plot, so if you’re going to read them, I would recommend skipping my descriptions for a spoiler-free experience.

Thrillers I hate

Her – Harriet Lane

Her

This is the worst thriller I’ve ever read, and I hated it with every fibre of my being. Although it was initially promising and not badly, written, the ending is so extraordinarily bad that it’s unforgivable. The story is about a woman who sees someone from her past, becomes obsessed with her, starts stalking her up to the point where she tries to murder her kid. Why, you might ask? Because her dad flirted with this girl shortly before her parents split up. They didn’t bang. She didn’t run off with him. That’s it. Imagine you’ve invested time and energy in reading a whole book and discover at the end that it’s all built on the fact that the protagonist is a weird little brat. Imagine reading Her.

Daughter – Jane Shemilt

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Daughter is another one that I can’t contemplate recommending since the ending is so bad, but it doesn’t even have the decent writing of Her. It’s frustratingly thin, both in terms of writing and plot. It has moments and turns that are memorable, but overall it’s just a whole lot of nothing. It’s not menacing, it’s not scary, it’s not thrilling, it’s not sad. It’s just pointless. Pointless like the conclusion being that she ran away to live on a caravan park.

The Secret Place – Tana French

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I’ve read three Tana French thrillers and found only one even partially satisfying. Her books are much too long, and contain so few thrills and surprises that the length is inexplicable. The Secret Place felt particularly flat. I find hardly anyone can write teen/preteen characters convincingly, and Tana French is no exception. The conclusion is really underwhelming, undramatic and I can’t say I would recommend it to anyone at all.

Before We Met – Lucie Whitehouse

before we met

This really feels like psychological-thriller-by-numbers. I found very little original material here, which I know is a tall order at this point in the history of literature, but at least when I see derivative stuff it’s often reworked in an engaging way. This isn’t. The writing is fine, but it’s utterly predictable and not particularly exciting. Makes you wonder why bother writing a thriller in the first place. I recently read a similar book to this, which did it about 1,000 times better and I would strongly recommend with a content note for domestic violence, which is I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh.

I don’t know if you noticed anyway, but all but one of these were written by women. Even though I would rather read books by women in general, I’m an equal-opportunities reader. It just happens that women are much better at writing thrillers than men. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect that women are more in tune with the many, many ways there are to be scared, people there are to be scared of, and ways you can be hurt.