Donal Ryan, author of Best Novel contender 'From a Low and Quiet Sea' © Anthony Woods

The Best Books of the Last Twelve Months

28th December 2018

Launched in 1971, as the Whitbread Prizes, the Costa Book Awards aim to identify and acknowledge some of the most enjoyable books of the year across a range of genres. They’re a pleasure to review. There are five categories – First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book – and one of the five category winners will be selected as the overall Costa Book of the Year.

We review the best Novel category, the best First Novel category, and also take a look at the contenders for the best Children’s Book Award.

The Category Winners (including those for Poetry and Biography) will be announced on Monday 7 January, and the Costa Book of the Year will be revealed on Tuesday 29 January 2019.

The Silence of the Girls: Pat Barker

Hamish Hamilton | reviewed by Jill Glenn

It’s become distinctly fashionable to take a classical text as inspiration or to reinterpret it as a fresh tale entirely; Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Costa-shortlisted this time last year) and Madeleine Miller’s Circe spring immediately to mind. Now veteran writer Pat Barker has followed suit, with this powerful reimagining of events from Homer’s Iliad, telling the story of the siege of Troy as experienced by the women enslaved by the Greeks – in particular, Briseis, the ‘war trophy’ taken by Achilles, and then siezed by Agamemnon.

The Silence of the Girls begins competently, but soon gets into its stride, sharing its voice between Briseis’s own and an intimate third person narrator who articulates on behalf of Achilles. The shift feels odd, initially, but Barker is a good enough writer to pull it off.

She has a thoughtful and intelligent understanding of what war does to men (witness her Regeneration trilogy), and an enduring interest in the lives of working class women. Together these create a rich seam of knowledge which she has mined with care and impeccable attention to detail, breathing life and heart-stopping humanity into characters who are little more than names or plot devices in the original text.

This is an eloquent and an important book; with pointed anachronisms, for example, she reminds us that the world still sees women as spoils of conflict. The Silence of the Girls is a story that is as shocking as it is absorbing, as contemporary as it is historic.

The Italian Teacher: Tom Rachman

riverrun | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

Pinch has grown up in the shadow of his talented and charismatic father, the celebrated artist Bear Bravinsky. He’s just five years old, and living a sheltered life with his mentally ill mother, Natalie, when his father comes to live with them. For a time Pinch’s life is a technicolour whirl of playtime and parties – an exciting, if dysfunctional time for a young child – until the philandering Bear gets bored and moves on, leaving the shell-shocked mother and son pair alone again to look after each other.

Pinch is insecure and socially awkward; he finds it hard to make friends and his relationship with his mother is claustrophobic: he’s at times protective, at times disdainful of her. His sole focus is to rekindle his father’s attention, and he does so in a series of painful, fruitless gestures, such as emulating his dad’s painting style (until Bear tells him bluntly ‘you’re not an artist. And you never will be’).

Art fans will appreciate the references to Bear’s twentieth century contemporaries – there are inevitable comparisons to Picasso’s womanising, for example – and there’s much interesting debate about the nature of art (‘an artist doesn’t see as normal people do’, Bear declares). Rachman is an astute writer (at one party, Natalie observes, ‘the moneyed all speak of art, the artists all speak of money), and while this is a book to be admired, sadly, I didn’t find it enjoyable. Pinch’s wasted life trying to impress someone so deeply narcissistic makes for an excruciating read.

Normal People: Sally Rooney

Faber & Faber | reviewed by Jill Glenn

This attentive account of an on-off relationship (a lot of alcohol, a lot of sex, a lot of pain – and plenty of dark undercurrents in what look like charmed lives) is profoundly reassuring about the ways in which love and friendship change and nourish us. It’s brave and moving and beautifully articulated.

This was previously reviewed as a Man Booker 2018 shortlisted title; see also: optimamagazine.co.uk/read/leisure/books/1890-2018-man-booker-review-normal-people [not a hyperlink]

From a Low and Quiet Sea: Donal Ryan

Doubleday Ireland | reviewed by Jill Glenn

You can’t argue about the quality of Ryan’s writing, and his ability to probe and penetrate the tender places in men’s hearts. Written with both elegance and compassion this is a powerful study of love and loss, of what makes us human and what makes us connected. It may be small, but it’s perfectly formed

This was previously reviewed as a Man Booker 2018 shortlisted title; see also: optimamagazine.co.uk/read/leisure/books/1877-2018-man-booker-review-from-a-low-and-quiet-sea [not a hyperlink]

Pieces of Me: Natalie Hart

Legend Press | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

Amidst the heat and haze of Baghdad, Emma and Adam meet and fall in love. They’re both fighting to protect innocent Iraqis: Emma, a civilian, by processing asylum applications and Staff Sergeant Adam by carrying out the orders set by his US Army superiors.

After the couple marry, they move to Adam’s home town of Colorado, where together they settle into their new life, awaiting news of Adam’s next mission. As an Englishwoman, Emma’s accent sets her apart from the other military wives, as does her perspective, since only she understands what it’s like to live in an intensely dangerous combat zone. What she has yet to learn is that she is still to face an even more demanding challenge.
This is a slow-paced, moving exploration of love, narrated by the reserved and likeable voice of Emma. It’s loosely divided into three parts: ‘pre-deployment’, ‘deployment’ and ‘post-deployment’, but the book skips back and forth in time and we learn of the couple’s marriage before we learn how they meet.

The strength of this novel comes from the nuanced way it teaches us about the complexities of war. To her small town American neighbours, Emma is a ‘damn liberal’ whose compassion for war victims is misunderstood, but our protagonist conversely understands the call and the exhilaration of battle. Ultimately, we all gain greater understanding of war’s potential for utter devastation.

An Unremarkable Body: Elisa Lodato

Weidenfeld & Nicolson | reviewed by Jill Glenn

A woman is discovered dead at the foot of the stairs at home, her neck broken by the fall. There’s no suggestion of foul play, but there is something about Katharine’s life that her grief-stricken daughter, Laura, feels she must explore. It was not a conventional upbringing, and Laura, now 31, has not quite got the measure of it yet.

Each chapter is headed by an extract from the medical examiner’s report, with the idea of using the relevant body part as a way in to some aspect of the past. It’s a clever conceit, but it just doesn’t always work. A note of Katharine’s torn earlobe plunges us right into dysfunctional family life; the information that her heart weighed 670g and the cardiac valves were healthy has no impact on the section that follows it. What should tether us into Katharine’s story ends up disconnecting us from it.

There is a secret to be discovered here, but it’s not hidden terribly deeply under the surface; one wonders how Laura, a journalist, has not unearthed it sooner. Moreover, the perspective is frustrating too; Laura is the only narrator, meaning that Lodato has to rely on her to tell us about events in the lives of other characters as if she had been there. It’s all very strange.

An Unremarkable Body is a perfectly good read, but, ultimately, in all probability, a forgettable one – ultimately, despite a generally pleasing style, it is just too slight to endure.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton

Raven Books | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

We begin with our hero running through a dark forest in the middle of the night; he’s breathless, his heart’s thumping, and he has no idea who he is or how he got there… which just about sums up my reading experience of this exhilarating page-turner of a thriller. I raced through this novel, often holding my breath as I careered through its brilliant twists and turns – but just as often struggling to recall important plot detail or individual character quirks. This is a Big Book, with an ambitiously dense and original story line – think Hercule Poirot mixed up in a creepy version of Groundhog Day, with more than a nod to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
In true Agatha Christie style, the protagonist – named Aiden Bishop, as we later discover – finds himself at a 1920s house party, alongside a cast of villainous and mysterious aristocratic guests… but here the similarity ends. In a supernatural twist, Bishop is doomed to inhabit the bodies of those guests, for a day and a night in turn, over the course of a week – retaining a growing essence of himself, but no tangible memory of his life before. The only way he can break this monstrous cycle, he learns, is to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle – a woman who’s cursed to die nightly until he does.
With such complexity, I’d recommend this as a read for someone with the time to savour it; but I do encourage you to make the time…

Meet Me at the Museum: Anne Youngson

Doubleday | reviewed by Jill Glenn

Written in the form of letters between Tina Hopgood, a Suffolk farmer’s wife, and Anders Larsen, a curator at the Danish museum where Tollund Man (a naturally mummified Iron Age corpse, exceptionally well-preserved) is kept, Meet Me at the Museum is perhaps the most charming of this year’s shortlist. What begins as a simple enquiry and a courteous answer develops into an exchange of thoughts on archaeology and history, on farming and the natural world, and, eventually, on the circumstances of their own lives.

Once you’ve suspended your disbelief at such an unlikely correspondence getting off the ground in the first place, this an absorbing read: meditative, analytical, thoroughly lovely.

It’s perhaps inevitable, in an epistolary novel, where characters write at length in their own voices, that making the distinction between one and another is challenging, particularly for a debut novelist; taking a sentence at random, you’d be hard pushed to identify whom you’re reading, so similar are Anders and Tina in style. But that’s no matter; the pair share an outlook on life that makes it not unfeasible that their expressive powers should coincide. In any case, it doesn’t spoil one’s pleasure in the story.

Meet Me at the Museum is tender and generous, full of insight. It’s moving and wise, underpinned by hope and the possibility of change.

The Colour of the Sun: David Almond

Hodder Children’s Books | reviewed by Jill Glenn

‘The day is long, the world is wide, you’re young and free’… so says Davie’s mother, as she ushers him out into the sunlit morning one hot summer’s day in the middle of the holidays. It’s the sort of opening that should lead to an adventure – and it does, after a fashion, but something more of a personal transformation, something more of a rite of passage than a conventional cut-and-thrust.

Davie is at a difficult age, and not bereaved of his father. With a sketch book, pencils and provisions in his haversack, he drifts through his little Tyneside town – he sees the body of a boy he knows, murdered (apparently), the result of a longstanding feud between two local families; sensitive younger readers need not fear, however, for we have already been told that this is ‘the day Jimmy Killen dies and comes to life again’ – and out into the rural spaces beyond, where he encounters a sequence of strange characters (and animals) who offer interesting ideas and philosophies to the young pilgrim. It’s not quite fantasy, and it’s certainly not reality: a liminal, imaginary, nature-rich space in which Davie faces down some demons and has his perceptions of life and death challenged.

Almond’s view of the book is that it embodies his ‘constant astonishment at being alive in this beautiful, weird, extraordinary world.’ The Colour of the Sun is a very adult take on a child’s experience: slow, meditative, other-worldly, hard to pin down.

Bone Talk: Candy Gourlay

David Fickling Books | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

This has all the charm of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (our hero Samkad is not an orphan like Mowgli, but he has the same guileless affinity with the natural world) along with all the disturbing misanthropy of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: the seminal Victorian novella that dared to raise questions about imperialism and racism; or their modern day counterparts, Avatar and Apocalypse Now.

Ten year old Samkad lives an idyllic life in a Filipino village, enjoying play with his friend and his dog. He did not know ‘it was possible for there to be people with hair a colour other than black and skin a colour other than brown’. When the sunburnt Americans arrive ‘with spears that eject missiles called bullets’, his village’s way of life changes forever.

In her notes, Filipino author Gourlay writes that when she originally researched the US invasion of 1899 (known tellingly in America as the ‘Filipino Uprising’) she couldn’t find any unfiltered Filipino voices; instead she was moved to write a fictional account, to give a voice ‘to the multitude that need to be heard’.

While cruelty and injustice pervade, this book nonetheless radiates a compelling warmth. Samkad’s growing maturity and the way he navigates his relationships with his friends and family are heartwarming; and while it would have been easy to resort to racial stereotypes; the characters are good and bad, compelling or repugnant, despite the colour of their skin.

Orphan Monster Spy: Matt Killeen

Usborne | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

As a Jewish child in Berlin at the outbreak of WWII, Sarah’s life is at risk; indeed, she has already lost her whole family and is living by her wits, attempting to flee to the relative safety of Switzerland. When she narrowly escapes capture by a German Captain, he whispers, ‘trust no-one’ – and yet somehow she intuits that this is someone she might just be able to put her faith in.

The Captain takes Sarah under his wing and places her in a boarding school exclusively for the Nazi elite. Here, as danger surrounds her, she’s forced to become a model example of a young National Socialist, learning songs celebrating the glory of the Third Reich and denouncing its Jewish enemies. She’s an ‘orphan’ and a ‘spy’, but she’ll never be a ‘monster’ like them. Yet will her cover eventually be blown? And what will happen to her if it does?

As fictional heroes go, Sarah must be up there with one of my favourites. She’s feisty, fearless and quick-witted, and through her eyes we learn so much about the insidious power of propaganda.

The fact that this is an intriguing history lesson doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s also an exciting, fast-paced adventure story. It’s the perfect read for any young, enquiring mind and I’m so excited to learn that it’s set to become the first of a series. Sarah, I’m sure, has the potential to become an enduringly popular protagonist.

The Skylarks’ War: Hilary McKay

MacMillan Children’s Books | reviewed by Jill Glenn

This is a delight from start (the birth of a girl, and the death of her mother, in 1902) to finish (a heart-stopping moment of pure and unexpected joy some 25 years later). It is elegantly and engagingly told – interweaving family drama and social change in a perfectly paced, unputdownable package.

Clarry Penrose and her brother Peter spend glorious summers with their grandparents and cousin Rupert in Cornwall. The rest of the year they are at home in Plymouth with their emotionally absent father, reliant only on each other for nourishment and support. It is a dreary life, but they are not dreary children: they are bright and funny, determined and resilient, both with a pleasingly independent streak. When Peter goes off to boarding school, Clarry defies her father to get an education of her own. When the First World War comes, there are challenges for all of them, at home and abroad.

Beyond the Penroses, The Skylarks’ War is richly peopled: friends, family, neighbours, servants – each facing their own demons in different ways – all contribute to this fully realised, fully believable world.

This is both a traditional family tale, and a sharp-eyed insight into the impact of war. Powerfully moving, it is sombre in parts, but never maudlin. There’s no doubt that it will become a classic.

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