Doctors and fairies and spiders and orcas and hiking: my top five reads of the last year

I’m a terror when it comes to recommending books. I’m a literary fundamentalist doling out titles and authors like scripture, convinced with the immovability of stone that all of these books must be read by you right now. And I rarely repay the favour, or, if I do, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait between two and three years for me to tell you that I’ve finally read the book you wanted me to. NHS mental health waitlists got nothing on my to-be-read piles (which exist on a variety of physical and virtual planes: Amazon Wishlist, bookshelf at home, under my desk at work, Sticky Notes on my laptop, bookshelf in childhood bedroom, emails to myself, parents’ bookshelves, my brain).

The puritanically-restrained number of five books below represent the crème de la crème of the legions that I have read in the last year. I will be very happy if one reader of this blogpost reads one of these books.

But I’d be even happier if everyone read all of them starting tomorrow.

Top five

  1. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, Adam Kay

Devastating, side-splitting, teeth-gritting. I can’t get enough of medical memoirs (hell, that’s going to need a whole other blog post), and this is my latest delectation. You need to have strong stomach or, better yet, an affinity for gore in order to read it.

Adam Kay was a junior doctor. But he left. Now a comedy scriptwriter, he’s brought his old diaries out of hibernation. Many of the stories are very, very funny, but this is a chiaroscuro of a book – extreme light, extreme dark. Kay is angry, at the way he and his colleagues were treated, and at the way they are treated now by governments. You cannot read this book without caring.

It does, however, feature a singular patient case that will forever make you shudder at the word “de-gloving”. A patient case that Kay decided to read OUT LOUD at a lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine a few months ago that I attended. I have never been more grateful to not be a man, than I was that night.

 

  1. The Cruel Prince, Holly Black

More and more these days, YA fantasy leaves me cold. And I can’t convey to you how much this breaks my heart. YA fantasy is my reading womb. Maybe it’s just because I’m growing older, but I don’t buy that, when I see publishers and agents gush about these books.

The Cruel Prince was a little saviour. I’d heard about Holly Black before but this is the first book of hers that I’ve read (and it certainly won’t be the last). Although it’s set in a world she’s already written about, I didn’t feel disadvantaged as a reader in any way.

The story follows Jude, whose life changes violently the day a fairy murders her parents and spirits her and her sisters away to be raised in fairyland. Jude is ambitious, fierce, headstrong. I rarely notice the narrating character – plot usually grabs me more – but I noticed her. She even loves the fairy who orphaned her, in a dark and bittersweet way.

And Jude walks in a world that’s beautifully realised. One thing that gets hammered into your brain when you’re looking for advice on writing for young adults is that every single word counts and you’re not allowed to linger, like in literary fiction. I have the feeling that if Holly Black had been a debut author, her imagination would have been curtailed. I am exceedingly grateful that she is not, and it was not, because it was fairyland most of all that gripped me, and – that most rare of things – it spurred me on with writing my own novel.

 

  1. Wild, Cheryl Strayed

I possibly read this longer ago than a year, but oh well. Read Wild if you have any love at all for walking or hiking or the outdoors.

At the age of 26, after the death of her beloved mother, drug addiction, and heartbreak, Cheryl Strayed decided to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon. 1,100 miles.

1,100 miles.

She meets rattlesnakes and mountains and good people and bad people. She eats, a lot. And she walks (with a gigantic backpack that other hikers of the PCT that year came to nickname Monster).

Her voyage is interwoven with the memories of the life that brought her to this trail. It could have descended into mawkishness, the literary equivalent of those pretty pictures overlaid with sugar-sweet inspirational quotes, but Wild always remains a hard-edged beauty. And I genuinely believe that I would have gone to the PCT to walk in her footsteps, for just a few months if that was all I had, if I wasn’t trapped in my defective body.

Reading this book is as close to soaring as words will ever bring me.

 

Honorary mention: A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Think of this as the irreverent east-coast mirror to Wild. This is Bryson’s tale of his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia. It is joyously funny, and more than a little educational about the United States’ relationship(s) with its wild spaces. This book was my long-overdue introduction to Bryson, and I can’t get enough of his stuff now.

 

  1. Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

I don’t read quite as much sci-fi as I do fantasy, so I can’t be sure that this is the best sci-fi ever written, but I’m 93% sure.

I am not a hardcore space opera fan. I cannot deal with insidious empires that have both an “x” and a “z” in their names.

What I’m trying to say is, you don’t have to like traditional space sci-fi to love this one. The story begins with a mistake: on a distant, terraformed planet, a virus engineered to speed up evolution is administered to spiders instead of apes. The spiders change. They grow, physically.

And they become intelligent.

The true genius of this book is the creation of a spidery world and spidery characters that is utterly different, utterly recognisable, and utterly believable. A seamless blending of science and story.

There are humans, too, and when they meet the spider race created by their ancestors, they react quite predictably. But this book is anything but predictable. And I know I’m going to bestow the ultimate honour on it by reading it again in the future.

 

  1. Beyond Words, Carl Safina

Back again to Earth. To other minds. Safina is a scientist and prolific author. In Beyond Words, he does all he can to open our eyes to the sentience of other animals, focusing chiefly on three different species: elephants, wolves, and orcas.

I didn’t need convincing, but I was still floored. This is The Book that I would choose if I had the power to make every single human being in the world stop and read one thing.

Because it would change everything.

 

Honorary mention: The Idiot Gods, David Zindell

A fantasy-esque imagining of the memoir of an orca who decided to try and make contact with the humans, in the hope of making them understand that they are destroying his world. The last page made me cry. The last few lines are the most beautiful last few lines I’ve ever read:

Someday, you will come to love the world. You will sing of life, you will sing our songs. You are the hush lovely fire that whirls across the starlit deeps and sings into creation all things.”

 

Bonus recommendation: On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

If you have hardly any time at all to read, read this novella. It quietly devastated me. I still can’t believe it was written by a man.

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