The Lost Words: A spell book by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, £20 (£18); 978-0-241-25358-8)
The Lost Words is an utter delight. Having lamented the omission of words such as acorn, bluebell, dandelion, kingfisher, and otter from a children’s dictionary, MacFarlane and Morris have created “a spell book for conjuring back these lost words”. The spells consist of evocative, poetic invocations, each of which is also an acrostic for the lost word it is summoning. These are set among stunning paintings, in some of which the letters of the alphabet are hidden so that readers can gradually discern, by searching, which spell is next.
A young child reading this with an adult could delight in finding the letters and revelling in the pictures, but it will kindle the adult’s imagination, too.
The Revd Dr Malcolm Guite is a poet and singer-songwriter. His latest collection of poetry is Love, Remember: Poems of loss, lament and hope (Canterbury Press, 2017).
The Lost Words is reviewed here.
The Constant Soldier by William Ryan (Pan Macmillan, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-1-4472-5506-2)
Although The Constant Soldier was short-listed for a Crime Writers’ Association Dagger award, it’s not really a crime novel in anything but the broadest sense. It’s a beautifully written, nuanced exploration of one man’s struggle with the ethical implications of his past, and his attempts to make amends — to find redemption, if you like — through the choices he makes. Can the damaged German soldier Paul Brandt remain true to himself while honouring the sensibilities of the people he cares about and feels responsible for? Ryan’s luminous prose enchanted me, while the page-turning story gripped me from beginning to end.
Kate Charles is a former Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association and the Barbara Pym Society. Her latest novel is False Tongues (Marylebone House, 2015).
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Fourth Estate, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-00-813830-1)
It’s the Second World War, and the calamitous progress of Nazi rule across Europe is described through the growing pains of two teenagers: Werner, an orphan in Germany; and Marie-Laure, a blind girl in Paris.
Werner, “good with radio”, attends a brutal boarding-school. “Who do you think is the weakest person in this group?” It’s a weekly question for one of the boys to answer. Whoever is named faces an ordeal.
Meanwhile, the resourceful Marie-Laure is evacuated from Paris to St Malo, where she has to learn a new house and a new town, without sight. Will the paths of these two teenagers cross? It’s both thriller and meditation, pondering how crisis dismantles everything — though the book is never depressing; there’s always light. And does it have the best book title ever?
Simon Parke is the author of the Abbot Peter murder mystery series. The latest title is The Indecent Death of a Madam (Marylebone House, 2017).
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber, £8.99 (£8.10);978-0-571-22520-0)
These days I consume vast quantities of student prose, and need to detox with poetry and non-fiction. But there are exceptions. This year my stand-out novel-reading experience was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It’s been years since I lay awake at night fretting about someone else’s fictional characters. At one point, the narrator disavows theologising: “The operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist.” But grace glints off every surface of this brilliant tale. I now use it as an important teaching point for my MA students: if you want to win a prize, never publish a novel in the same year as Francis Spufford.
Catherine Fox is a novelist and lecturer at The Manchester Writing School. Her latest book, Realms of Glory, is reviewed here.
Farm by the Shore by Thomas A. Clark (Carcanet Press £9.99 (£9); 9781-784103-52-1)
I have recently become entranced with Farm by the Shore by Thomas A. Clark. It’s poetry written with an eye for the space on the page and the shape of the author’s thoughts. There are no titles, which leaves poetic fragments to flow from page to page with precise evocative imagery. Titles might have drawn me to read on to the next poem, but here, at every page I stop, almost with the pace of ritual, and savour it as I would a painting or a short story. Each part needs more time to read than a page a night would allow. There is also no conventional storyline, but a strong sense of place meanders through snow, mountains, wind, and sea, while the author’s observations or thoughts about life create a sense of wholeness. A remarkable portrayal of our contemplative relationship with nature.
perceptions are dew
people are mist
days are thistledown
The Revd Marie-Elsa Bragg is a Duty Chaplain at Westminster Abbey, and a priest in the diocese of London. Her latest book is Towards Mellbreak (Chatto & Windus, 2017).
The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig (Little, Brown, £16.99 (£15.30);978-1-40870-929-0)
One of my favourite novels this year was The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig. A warring London couple are caught in property hell, and can’t afford to divorce. Instead, they decamp to deep Devon, where property may be cheaper but the living isn’t necessarily easier. Craig has written a state-of-the-nation book, taking the temperature on all sorts of issues that affect most of us: the property bubble, city v. country living, immigration, zero-hours contracts, Brexit, difficult teenagers, love gone sour. Throw in a murder mystery, and you’ve got it all. It’s beautifully written, smart, funny and moving, and will make you think about the many challenges the UK faces today.
Tracy Chevalier is author of Girl With a Pearl Earring. Her latest book, in collaboration with the charity Fine Cell Work, is The Sleep Quilt (Pallas Athene Books, 2017).
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré (Penguin Classics, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-14-119452-3)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the most surprisingly excellent of all the books I have read this year. It no longer reads like a novel about spies, even though the background of espionage is done with astonishing force and economy. But it’s really, underneath, a story about loyalty, and about love, in a world where both are treated as weakness and brutally exploited, but where it isn’t possible to live entirely without them, either. The characters we care about all act from love, from loyalty, or from idealism, and continue to do so all the way to death, which is the closest any of them get to victory, or even to redemption.
Andrew Brown is a leader-writer and member of the editorial board of The Guardian. He is the press columnist for the Church Times.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-571-27704-9)
A novel published in 2017 which is hard to forget is Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End. It’s set in the US during the vicious wars of 1861-65, and tells the story of two young men, Irish Thomas McNulty and American John Cole, who are boys when they meet. They earn their living as “dancing girls” in bars, until they grow up too much to be dressed in drag; they then join the US army, and find themselves drawn willy-nilly into the vicious war against Native Americans.
This war morphs into the Civil War. Thomas and “handsome” John fight on, ordinary young soldiers, but with a secret: they are lovers, close as any couple. They even adopt a child, a Native American girl called Winona, whose parents they probably killed in the heat of battle.
The war ends at last, and the novel becomes richer in texture when the two men and Winona travel down to rebel country, and live contentedly, farming in Tennessee, as some of the most fateful years in America’s history slide into the past.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.