Best of..., book round-ups

Books of the Year: New Fiction

We’re hurtling towards the end of the year, and so it’s time for my annual lookback at what I read this year and for me to try and pick my favourite things. Today we’re looking at the new release fiction that I’ve loved this year. And trust me when I say it’s been tough! And it doesn’t happen often, but for once some of the books that I loved have made it onto a bunch of best books of the year lists. Oh and I should add that this only looks at standalone books and not later instalments in series.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin*

Cover of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

I’ve already recommended Gabrielle Zevin’s novel to a bunch of people – and it’s been named Amazon’s Book of the Year, as well as being voted Fiction book of the year in Goodreads Choice Awards as well as Book of the Month’s favourite of the year in their vote and it’s on The Atlantic’s Most Thought-Provoking Books of the Year too. It’s a hard one to describe – even Zevins says she struggles! – although I did give it a go in my BotW review but it’s a story about friendships and opportunities missed and love all set in the world of computer games development. I think there’s something here for most people, even if they’re not expecting it. It’s being turned into a movie – so read it now and be ahead of the game!

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Cover of Lessons in Chemistry

And another of my favourites that other people are picking too is Bonnie Garmus’ novel about Elizabeth Zott. It also won a prize at the Goodreads Choice awards – this time best debut, but it’s also on the Good Housekeeping list, and she’s also Waterstones’ Author of the Year. Elizabeth is a chemist turned TV chef who uses her platform to try and improve women’s lives, all while bringing up her daughter alone. I read this the same week that I read The Unsinkable Greta James (see below) – so this ended up in Quick Reviews rather than as a BotW – but it was in my best books of the first half of the year – and I’ve kept recommending it since, but do please bear in mind the warning for sexual violence and death early in the book. This one is also getting an adaptation this time into a series – Brie Larson is starring in it and it’s going to be on Apple TV+ next year apparently.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry*

Cover of Book Lovers

I’ve actually done quite well in the Goodreads Choice awards this year – because Book Lovers won Best Romance – beating out TikTok favourite Colleen Hoover, even if you add her two nominated books together! This is big city literary agent in a small town for the summer where she discovers a professional enemy is also in residence. It’s a delight – I love enemies to lovers romances as you know and add a twist on the small town trope and it’s just a delight.

The Unsinkable Greta James by Jennifer E Smith

Unsinkable Greta James

Now this got a whole lot less attention than the picks above, which is a shame because I adored it. I picked it as a BotW over Lessons in Chemistry partly because it was lesser known, and it really annoys me that more people haven’t heard about it. Greta is an indie popstar with a problem – she has writers block after her mother’s death and a meltdown on stage. She finds herself accompanying her father on the Alaskan Cruise that he was meant to be taking with her mum and things happen. It’s wonderful if sad at times, but the ending is perfect.

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Killers of a Certain Age

Now this was nominated for Best Crime and Thriller in the Goodreads Choice, but lost out to Nita Prose’ The Maid, which I read at the start of the year and enjoyed, but I think this is more fun. It’s about a group of women who have spent their lives working for an elite agency of assassins, but upon retiring find that they are now the targets. If you like Raybourn’s historical mystery series, you’ll like this. And if you’ve read the Richard Osman Thursday Murder Club books and are looking for something sort-of similar (The Bullet that Missed was also nominated in the same category) this might well scratch that itch.

That’s my five fiction picks. Honourable mentions should go to Carrie Soto is Back – which won the Historical fiction prize in Goodreaders choice (beating Lessons in Chemistry) – Thank You for Listening, Mad About You and Something Wilder.

Award nominated, books, Classics, Prize winners, The pile

Award-winning books

I read a lot of books.  I have read a lot of books.  I like to think I read widely and across a lot of genres. But I have not read a lot of award-winning books.  Why is this – and what am I going to do about it?

In researching this article, I printed myself out a list of the winners and nominees of the Booker and the Orange/Bailey’s prize and the winners of the Costa awards.  I settled down with a pink highlighter to mark up what I have read.  There is not a lot of pink on the lists.  But there are a lot of books that I think I should have read – and others that I would like to read, but have never got around to.

What do I mean by not a lot?  Well, I’ve read seven books from the list of Booker winners and nominees – yes, just seven. Of that seven, two are winners (Ghost Road and Wolf Hall), one I studied at A-Level (The Handmaid’s Tale), two have been read in the last month (Mrs Palrey at the Claremont and Loitering with Intent) entirely coincidentally and the remaining two have been read in the last year as well (Good Behaviour and Restoration).  You may have noticed from that little list that I have only read two books from the last 20 years of Booker nominees.  Now considering that I think of myself as a book person, I’m a bit ashamed of myself.

The Handmaid's Tale and Restoration
Handmaid was one of my A-Level books (the battered cover is from my schoolbag!), whilst Restoration is a more recent acquisition

There are some authors on the list where I have read some of their other works – just not the prize-winning ones, people like Muriel Spark, Nina Bawden, Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh and David Lodge.  But there are some authors where, despite their reputations and in some cases multiple entries on the list, I haven’t read any of their books – let alone the prize-winning ones.  People like Salman Rushdie (although I listened to some of Midnight’s Children when Radio 4 serialised it when I was about 14), Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge and Ian McEwan to name a few.  There are some who I have books by on the Kindle waiting to be read – two of this year’s list including the winner – that I haven’t got around to because there’s always something “better” there as well.

So what’s my problem?

Well, I think it’s partly in my head – I think they’re going to be boring and hard-going.  My mum used to read the Booker winner every year – a habit she gave up when she got stuck while reading Ben Okri’s Famished Road.  I can remember her saying that there was no point in reading something you didn’t enjoy, that she hadn’t enjoyed the last few winners and she wasn’t going to force herself to read them just because they were winners anymore.  I think this has stuck with me – I avoid them because they’re award winners or nominees, even if the blurb on the back makes them look interesting – I think it’s a trick.

A shelf of books
My collection of pretty Designer Virago books – and a couple of other VMCs by award nominees

Now I am starting to get over this – the two nominated books I’ve read in the last month, I’ve enjoyed – and I didn’t know they were nominees when I picked them out and read them.  In fact I was surprised when I found out – because they were interesting and funny.  I’d also like to thank Virago for their role in this – they keep turning out attractive looking reissues of intelligent (and often funny) women’s fiction.  I have half a shelf of their Designer hardbacks – many of which I’ll admit I first picked up because they looked beautiful – and I have a lot of their paperback Modern Classics too.  They are widening my horizons.

The other issue – that I can think of anyway – is the size of the to-read pile and the Goodreads challenge, both of which mean I often go for books I know I can read quickly so I can get them off the pile.  I leave long books and “difficult” books on the shelf – favouring short ones and “light” fiction.

A pile of books
As you can see, there are a few books by nominated authors waiting to be read

Writing this has made me feel a bit embarrassed – and very ill-read.  So. I’m going to try harder. I’m going to try to do better.  I’m going to try to improve my hit rate with prize winners and prize-winning authors.  I’ll start by working my way through the books on the to-read pile that are award nominated or written by prize winners.  And to make sure that I do do better and read these books that I say I will – I’ll keep you posted too.

Help me on my way by recommending me your favourite prize-winning or award nominated books in the comments below.