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sadly, no newspapers or magazines have asked me this year. so here they are, for anyone who happens to be passing:
'the girls' by emma cline: it's the late sixities and 14 year-old evie is drawn into a manson-like cult as a result of her infatuation with a group of girls who already members. more than anything else, it's about the heady, disconcering passions teenage girls can feel for one another. it also passes the bechdel test with flying colours. the dangerous, sometimes psychopathic men who might have hogged the limelight in another writer's version of the same story are pushed to the margins here, and rightly so. plus she writes beautifully. i can't remember when i last read a novel in which both the psychological insight and the use of language were this impressive.
'between the world and me' by ta-nehisi coates: toni morrison thinks this is required reading ('i've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after james baldwin died') which should be recommendation enough. written in the form of a letter to his teenage son, it's about the experience of growing up black in america. it's muscular and lyrical and angry and unexpectedly gripping.
'instrumental' by james rhodes: a memoir following the pianist's journey into the world of classical music (about which he is gloriously irreverent). true, it starts with the story of his horrific sexual abuse and the debilitating mental illness from which he suffered as a consequence, but surprisingly the book is the most exuberant i read all year. it simply bounces with energy and excitment. it also has a playlist.
'the vital question' by nick lane: you need a bit of science for this one and i confess i found some of it tough going, but it is intellectually thrilling. it grapples with the huge question of how life came about on planet earth and why it took the form it does. i got many thingsfrom the book, but perhaps the most mind-boggling is this: for two billion years there was only bacterial life on earth. only after two billion years did ONE bacteria engulf another creating a complex cell from which EVERY complex life form on earth evolved. just think about that. one event in two billion years of bacterial interactions over the surface of an entire planet. there may be life out there on another planet but it will be single-celled and too small for the naked eye and therefore a huge disappointment. complex life (you, me, elephants, mushrooms, ferns...) is eye-wateringly unlikely.
north and south by elizabeth gaskell: long dead, i know, but shamefully i'd never read her till this year. i'm a convert now. i won't bother reguritating the plot because i'm sure you all got there well before me. if you didn't, then haste ye.
i notice that men are winning 3/2 so i'd like the point out that my favourite books of last year remain equally good twelve months later if you've not got around to reading them yet (all were shortlisted for the wellcome prize, which i helped judge, and therefore came thtough 3 consecutive readings with flying colours): 'the iceberg' by marion coutts, 'all my puny sorrows' by miriam toews and the wonderful but unjustly overlooked 'bodies of light' by sarah moss.