At the end of last year, I set myself the difficult task of choosing five highlights from the mass of books I had managed to consume within the previous twelve months; and, throughout December, I am very much a traditionalist so have decided to do the same again. I have not counted the individual books which I have read this year, though I can say with confidence that the total will absolutely be lower than last year’s impressive forty six. Hey, it’s been a very busy year at work and with getting married in August I barely had the energy to hold a book upright never mind read one most days; though having said that, a nicer way of putting it might be to say that I went for quality over quantity in my reading material this year, which is clearly evidenced by the excellent selection of top-tier books mentioned below.
The Five – Hallie Rubenhold
No, this list is not in any kind of ranking order, but ironically this one is called ‘The Five’. One of the few genres which is able to pique my enthusiasm as much as historical fiction is true crime, so when a colleague mentioned ‘The Five’ and how it covers the real life stories of each of the victims of Jack the Ripper in Victorian London, I was hooked from the synopsis alone. I’m not sure how much creative freedom Hallie Rubenhold was able to use within their stories; I would imagine a fair amount would be needed when trying to piece together accounts of the lives of relatively unknown women from records which were made over a century ago.
However, either way, it was clear throughout the book that the author had put a huge amount of effort into preserving what few historical records were available for these women, but was able to present them in a way that was as easy to read as any other fictional story, which is certainly no easy task. I was completely dumbstruck to learn that the majority of Ripper victims were not actually prostitutes, and most of them began life in an entirely different social context to that in which they died, and I am ashamed to admit that I had always believed the media hype that the Ripper was a killer of sex workers, which perpetuates the wider myth that this is all the victims’ lives were. From a feminist point of view, I felt a bit sheepish to have had that stereotype entirely disproven by walking in the victims’ shoes and experiencing the complex lives of these five interesting women from their own unique perspectives.
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter – Hazel Gaynor
This one is probably a bit of a lazy or a cop-out point to include, since I did already give this book its own individual review earlier this year, however it is absolutely deserving of a second mention, and was quite possibly my favourite literary discovery of the past year. Having grown up spending the majority of my youth in Northumberland, I have always been well-versed in the legendary story of Grace Darling; but she is sadly a heroine who receives quite minimal attention outside of the geographical area within which she existed, and I’m certainly not aware of any other fictional novels about her life (though please do send me links via my home page if they do exist).
As with ‘The Five’, breathing new life into a story with which people may already be familiar through historical documentation is no easy feat, and very little is known about Ms Darling’s life since she was famously very private. However, Hazel Gaynor manages to humanise the legendary figure through the suggestion of a possible secret romance which, although history suggests is unlikely to have happened, is really thrilling to imagine and is communicated with such care and dignity so as not to undermine the factual accounts of her life that it was an absolute joy to read.
Courage of the Shipyard Girls – Nancy Revell
Again, it’s probably a cop-out answer to include things I’ve already reviewed this year, and an instalment of a saga which I have already reviewed to death on this blog (I will not apologise for this, and will continue to fill this page with more Shipyard Girls-related hype for as long as Nancy Revell continues to grace us with it); but when I really thought about this list, Courage of the Shipyard Girls is something which immediately jumps out to me as a book which I vividly remember enjoying this year, so it can stay.
Although I love the whole saga, this specific book continues to stand out to me as the highlight of the series, in terms of character development and the emotional impact of various climatic plot twists which genuinely left me in tears as the story concluded; and although I am always an advocate of any saga being read in the correct chronological order, Courage of the Shipyard Girls forms the exception to this rule, and I would say that if you are only able to read one book from this saga for some reason, then make it this one.
The Horsekeeper’s Daughter – Jane Gulliford Lowes
Yet another cop-out answer, but really, if a book is so good that it makes my top five in an entire year, then it makes logical sense that I would have already enjoyed it enough to decide to give it its own post, yes? Quite similarly to ‘The Five’, this is an odd mix of fact and fiction, which follows the very real Sarah Marshall on her journey as a migrant to Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although it isn’t written through the voice of the main ‘character’, the author manages to achieve a delicate balance of allowing the protagonist’s voice to be heard through the personal touches she adds to existing concrete facts; so it reads very much like any other historical fiction book despite being very much a factual account of real events. I must admit that when this was first recommended to me, I was sceptical and thought ‘surely that can’t really work, it’s either fictional or it isn’t’. However, Jane Gulliford-Lowes’ writing talent expands far beyond my scepticism, and within ‘The Horsekeeper’s Daughter’ she creatively masquerades a sequence of hisorical facts as a really enjoyable piece of prose – it’s like the literary equivalent of a Sunday afternoon blockbuster on TV, it just ticks every box for a relaxing yet intriguing read.
Our House – Louise Candlish
‘Finally!’ I hear you exclaim, something which I haven’t already bored you with by rambling on about it earlier in the year. I genuinely have no idea why I didn’t allow ‘Our House’ its own review; and I will confess that I just spent a good few minutes scrolling through my own content, having previously been convinced that I did. Evidently I did not, and I cannot explain why because I recommended this book to pretty much everyone I spoke to back in March. The mind boggles. Anyway, I picked this book up in the Waterstone’s ‘buy one get one half price’ bin when I was buying something else, and I must admit thrillers are not my usual choice (as clearly evidenced by the barrage of historical fiction I’ve just thrown at you in the last few paragraphs), but something about this book struck me, and once I started reading it I began to understand why.
The story begins with a woman returning home and discovering total strangers moving into her house, which has been emptied of all its contents and bought by someone else. Initially, I thought this was going to be a kind of ghost story because it seemed so improbable, but in a very ‘Gone Girl’-esque twist of a marriage turned sour and a husband and wife working against each other, I discovered that her husband had mysteriously disappeared and had had the house legally sold without her realising; which is communicated excellently through a totally unbelievable plot which holds more twists and turns than a back road through rural countryside.