Reading has always been my happy place.
My safe space too, a place of escapism and reassurance, especially when I was growing up and my days were filled with bullying and a constant sense, gleaned from some of the people at the church where my dad was a minister, that I was not, and never would be good enough (my family, by way of contrast, was quite loving, thank goodness).
So, books have comforted me and and held me close, given me places to escape to and wildly compelling characters to go adventuring with, surrounded by a cocoon of security that I am safe with words and imagination and the power of the created to be an ally of the real.
Bookstores too have given me much joy over the year, most recently when I attended my favourite bookshop’s Christmas shopping event and soaked up two hours of book browsing and buying with one of my besties, and whenever I needed a pick-me-up after a horrible day when the only way to soothe my soul was to wander bookselves until I felt better.
Sure, my TBR is now big enough to get me to the moon but I no longer see that as a burden but a world of enticing, exciting reading possibility, and besides, it gave me the following 25 astonishingly good titles without which my world would have been all the poorer …
Artifact Space by Miles Cameron
With meticulous detail and real insight and empathy, Cameron constructs a story that gives you a startlingly vivid look into the world of future humanity but most particularly the life of those in the space-based merchant navy who draw on countless millennia of human tradition, including catchphrases aplenty (the origins of which are lost on many people who used them nonetheless) to do their jobs and build their lives.
This is humanity as it will be but also as it is now and Cameron brilliantly combines who we are now – the distant past in the book, of course – with who we will become to tell a tale that has all the energising highlights of classic space opera with a powerfully rich understanding of what it means to be someone who needs their new life to work or die trying.
While there have been and continue to be plenty of protagonists desperate to make a go of things in space operatic novels, Nbaro is one of the standouts, a character so relatable and accessible and movingly real that you can’t help but be drawn to her and her story, one which takes in a whole universe of conspiracy, violence and possible war, but which comes alive most importantly in the small intimate moments of raw humanity, the kind which give all the action energy and verve and which ultimately make it mean something.
Artifact Space is action with soul and heart and stunningly detailed worldbuilding and narrative momentum, so marvelously well written and realised with fully-realised characters and sparklingly vivacious and authentic dialogue that you will find yourself living its stories every bit as Nabro and her colleagues and friends, eager to find out what happens next and desperate for the kind of ending that someone as real and determined as Nbaro deserves and should get if there is any justice at all in the galaxy.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
A hymn to the outlier and a love letter to the outcast, which will strike a chord with anyone who has ever found themselves confined to the thankless margins and who has had to fight to any kind of meaningful life, Where the Crawdads Sing is a book that cannot simply be read.
While you savour every word you read and luxuriate in every word that you privileged to enjoy, Where the Crawdads Sing does far than engage your mind, holding your close for the entirety of its beautifully told tale, filling your soul with horror and wonder and consuming you with a glorious sense of how gloriously good can be even in the face of so much bigotry, terror, grief, pain and loss.
Nothing and no one should be able to come back from the kinds of things Kya has to endure but thanks to a staunchly resilient spirit, a fearless intelligence that perseveres even in the face of overwhelming challenges without solution, and people who stand by her she so many don’t, Kya emerges out the other side somehow intact, alive in a way that few others can match, in a world stricken with great evil but also hope, love and wonder, all of which finds profoundly moving evocation in the wondrous storytelling gem that is Where the Crawdads Sing.
Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
The young violin prodigy, who has the power to move people with her music in ways epic and quietly sublime, is a study in healing contrasts; when Satomi first finds her she is emotionally and physically bruised, certain of her gender identity beyond a shadow of doubt but broken into so many self-doubting pieces that it takes considerable unconditional love and support from Satomi, her housekeeper and friend Astrid, Tran and her AI daughter Shirley just to start bringing her to some kind of wholeness.
Watching her heal from a lifetime of bigotry and abuse is one of the great joys of Light From Uncommon Stars which sparkles with the vibrancy of identity truth and which happily celebrates the wonder that is a unique and diverse person whose worth and value are writ large if only you have to openness to see.
Satomi undergoes her own amazing journey, going from a resigned and somewhat disillusioned though accepting person living only to reclaim her music and her soul, to someone who finds real, unconditional love, a chance at an unexpected and out of this world new beginning, and a family and a purpose she never knew could be hers.
Light From Uncommon Stars orbits in ways beguilingly small and transformingly large around these two central characters, and a host of other major and minor players, its heart and yes, soul, richly and deeply alive with joy, hope and possibility, even in the face of prejudice and darkness, which in turn renew anyone who reads it, especially if you have ears to listen, a heart to take it in and importantly, given its subject matter, a soul open to the glorious diversity of a world that is so much bigger and more wonderful than you ever imagined.
The Keepers by Al Campbell
Nuanced and insightful, quietly desperate and yet possessed of moments off rare transcendent joy and victory, The Keepers is an all-enveloping, richly woven and liberating story which never once feels like a slow, deadening plod through the existential weightiness of someone’s life.
With elements of almost urban realism set against a life that is grindingly real and sometimes oppressively lacking in options or respite, The Keepers is really a celebration of sorts – of tenacity, of hope, and of continuing on even when a thousand terrible options fill your waking and sleeping hours.
Don’t expect cake and streamers though – it’s not that kind of celebration; what it is, and it feels more precious than the light, bright confetti-filled giddiness of yet another gathering of people for an hour or two of jollity, is an evocation of what it feels to have the weight of the world thrown at you and land on your shoulders, and yet, how despite all that, and the weight on Jay is neverendingly considerable, you still keep walking.
The Keepers holds up high in terms both furiously agonisingly and quietly accepting, and always honest to its core, a tenuous, fragile sense of victory that Jay has survived her mother’s abuse, her husband’s immaturely cruel indifference, a community that professes care but seems unwilling to genuinely deliver it, and that she has emerged, wounded but standing and alive, her two gloriously good sons with her, at the other end, with a future that might still be uncertain but which will still happen in some form, however imperfect, laced with a hope that Jay scarcely can believe is hers to hold.
The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd
Shepherd’s great gift is that she understands that we all want to believe that there is something magically unseen beyond our mortal line of vision, and we all crave the kind of adventure that could mean; even so, we are all in desperate, fundamental need for connection, belonging and love, that sense that we mean something to someone else, or many someone elses, and that without it, our lives are broken and barren in ways that can never fully be repaired.
Nell is someone like that, her estrangement from her father creating a cratering void professionally and personally so vast that it seems unfillable; that is until the shocking death of her dad, the uncovering of a bog standard ordinary map and a journey into the just-out-of-reach strangely alluring all come together to offer the kind of healing and redemption she told herself she’d never have but which she needs, like we all do, beyond measure.
What makes The Cartographers such a wonderfully compelling novel to read is the way it takes on an astounding journey, step by mysterious step, every clue a portal to more discoveries that will thrill your soul and seduce the mind, while always keeping beating, grounded humanity at its very heart – it is a rare and beautiful thing Shepherd creates in this novel, a mix of mystery and meaning that come together so perfectly and with dexterous storytelling thrill and with such insight to what it means to be human, that you will be thinking about it long after the last page is turned, wishing that perhaps you too, sans the loss of a loved one, might too find the tantalisingly unusual hiding just out of bounds of the grimly normal, and maybe, just maybe, find some healing there.
The Island Home by Libby Page
Where The Island Home excels and captures your heart is that while it offers the very real prospect of hope and healing, it doesn’t diminish the pain and loss of the past, and the still-bleeding injuries of the present, by pretending they can be swept away in a new romance or a single conversation or an epiphany high atop a clifftop lighthouse.
For all the rich warmth of the future it holds in store, and make no mistake The Island Home is a novel that celebrates renewal, hope and the restoration of sad and broken things in ways that feel like an enveloping hug long-delayed, this is a story that knows how dark and bleak life can be, and the lingering scars it leaves behind, and which looks them straight in the eye and addresses them without flincing.
Happy ever afters are what we all want and crave, but the ones that matter, the ones that last and don’t break up in a disappointing welter of fairytales spun brokenly apart, come after we have surveyed our pain, held it painfully up in the light of day and dealt with even as we cry with all the things lost and the fear of never locating the things yet to be found.
The Island Home is a rich, beautiful, emotionally substantial gem of a novel which knows life can cut deep and hard and often and that it often makes no apologies or provides no reparations for such grievous acts, but, and this is where your heart will soar after legitimate and hard-won liberation, it can also come alive again in ways you had long given up expecting, especially if you see it in its loved-up and supportively embracing form, and are brave enough to face up to past hurts to find that once-mythical future may not be so fantastically impossible or out of reach anymore.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (BOOK OF THE YEAR)
Why are women deemed to have no worth in the workforce? Why must they never stray from the home and why aren’t their minds worth as much as a man? Why is their only value as producers of children and polishers of the silver? And why does religion hold so much sway that it is scandalous for a woman, never the man it seems, to have sex out of wedlock and bear a child?
All those whys, and a thousand others are voiced directly and indirectly by Elizabeth in Lessons in Chemistry which is awash in a vivacious, life-filled questioning of the social order, every page stacked to the brim with a willingness to simply be true to yourself, something our wonderfully forthright protagonist does, not to cause trouble for trouble’s sake, but simply to get people to ask themselves why things are the way they are, they should and can change, and how much better and right it would be if they did.
As revolutions go, Lessons in Chemistry is a stunningly evocative, affectingly grounded and unexpectedly hopeful gem, a rallying cry to change everything if it needs changing, to be true to yourself no matter the consequences and to never accept the dead, stifling hand of orthodoxy if it means your life, or that of those you love, is lesser.
Through means immeasurably incisive, quirky and buoyantly, poignantly human, this masterfully-written novel prosecutes its case in ways that endear you to Elizabeth, in all her self-belief and integrity of self, fully and completely and which will inspire you, if you have ever been consigned to the margins, to realise that change begins with you and it can, if you’re willing, start right now.
My Heart is a Little Wild Thing by Nigel Featherstone
It brings you so much joy and sublime happiness reading My Heart is a Little Wild Thing, a novel which keeps its feet firmly planted on the ground (of the Monaro and metaphorically) while daring to dream in the big and vaulting kind of way that cuts right to the heart of our humanity and reminds us that living a vivaciously wild and hope-filled can still be the preserve of those caught in the mid ranges of life.
You can’t help but be changed by reading this beautiful, exquisitely well-wrought and richly poignant novel which dwells in the quiet, pause-filled places of life while fomenting a revolution that sees one wounded, stoically lost man find a new purpose and home, far from the ordinariness of life and off where it is still possible, because My Heart is a Little Wild Thing is always gently adamant that it IS possible, to find our true self, to realise our hopes and dreams and to go to wild and unpredictable where the sun has not yet set on possibility and we can be made anew.
The Guncle by Steven Rowley
Thankfully, though, what The Guncle also does, and in ways that will make your heart sing with the sheer restorative hope of it all, is reacquaint you with the way in which life can bloom again.
Patrick has spent four near-Greta Garbo-esque years deciding it cannot, pushing away people like possible new love Emory, who’s fun but grounded in a way that enchants but also unsettles Patrick, neglecting his career, and doing as little as possible that might smack of engaging with life.
But when nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant come along, all open emotional wounds with no words to describe them and desperate to find someway to make sense of the inexplicable, Patrick has to deal with their pain and his in a way that remakes life not even remotely as it was – there’s too much pain and loss for that to happen – but as it could be.
The lesson learned throughout is that being vulnerable, truly opening yourself to life’s unpredictable twists and turns, with the capacity for hurt and happiness in sometimes equal measure that entails, is the only way to begin to live with grief.
You never really emerge from it nor are you ever fully healed but The Guncle, full of snappy oneliners, witty comebacks and Guncle rules to live by that are as sage as they are winningly funny, makes the case, with humour, wisdom and reassuringly insightful empathy, and charm in bountifully uplifting quantity, that it is possible to live again, to find a reason to go on and that when you do so, with the help of those around you, life might just surprise you in ways that will living once again seem like something truly worth doing.
A Caravan Like a Canary / Spring Clean For the Peach Queen by Sasha Wasley
You desperately want things to go well for everyone concerned, save of course for the bikies, and for a while there Tara’s mum (she is drawn with such nuance and understanding that her transformation is a thing of affecting wonder), but so honest is the novel about the rock hard depth and enduring qualities of traumatic experience, and the way in which it holds us tight way beyond our capacity to handle it, that you wonder if it possibly can.
But hope springs eternal, even for someone as closed down as Tara, and as she, Zac and Danh speeds up the coast, and secrets get revealed and tender hopes of buoyant possibility make their presence felt, it begins to feel like maybe, just maybe, Tara’s long-suppressed dreams might come true, and do so, in ways she never saw coming (partly because she long since given up longing for them to make an appearance, anyway).
This is richly honest and harrowing story at times because it doesn’t minimise even for a second how damning pain, grief and loss can be, but A Caravan Like a Canary is also a joy to read, full of characters who make sense and whose humanity, good or bad, affects you profoundly, situations redeemed when you think there is no way they can be, and a grounded understanding of life and broken humanity that doesn’t see the shattering of existence peace and contentment as permanent and which dares to believe perhaps happy endings, even ones flawed as those the Buttons know all too well, might just come true.
Yes, Spring Clean for the Peach Queen has a pleasing amount of hope and love of the romantic, familial and friendship kind to go around, and you do feel a special kind of joyous loveliness reading it, but it is also very real and true and doesn’t pretend that the very worst of times can be come the very best of times in the flick of a wrist.
That doesn’t happen in life and it doesn’t happen in this heart and hope-affirming novel that understands that people and families are fiendishly complex and that working our way through dark and terrible times, even when a light begins to shine stubbornly at the end of the tunnel, is never easy and can take everything we’ve got.
It’s that slice of gritty realism that makes this vigorously alive such a pleasure to read because while hope, unconditional love and moments of playful fun are bursting out like sun after a particularly destructive storm, you know that Lottie has earned every leas centimetre of happiness and satisfaction climbing out of the hellish pit that is her home at the start of the novel.
Vibrantly, joyously alive with the possibility life, friendships and family, found and flesh, anew, Spring Clean for the Peach Queen is one of those redemptive that feels as muscular and rawly honest as it is heartwarmingly hopeful, an all-enveloping hug of a novel that also feels like a good kick up the proverbial and which earns every last words of its upliftingly truthful ending (which is supremely clever and poetically imaginative all at once) by not playing to the easy crowd but taking the hard road, leaving Lottie, and us, all the better for it.
The last Blade Priest by W P Wiles
It’s one of those reads that feels all-encompassing in the very best of ways, a far-from-surface read that provides lots of action and intrigue but which also knows how to deep dive into the human psyche and see what drives a narrative that, while it barely pauses for breath, is possessed of a rich intimacy and emotionality that reassures you over and over that here is an author who understands the perfect and necessary marriage of action and humanity.
Some writers miss this, serving up epic fantasy without characters that matter, but not Wiles, whose storyline is already a thousand times richer than its already superlative self because it bothers to remember that people are at the heart of the thrilling, realpolitik-infused story it weaves.
You really care about Inar and Anton, Duna and Anzola, all of whom are far from perfect but richly, enthrallingly human, people who find themselves swept up in events far beyond their control or imagining, who have to keep pivoting like crazy just to stay somewhat in the game, which they do magnificently and in a way that will endear them powerfully to you.
The Last Blade Priest is an absolute gem – stunningly well-written with emotional resonance aplenty bound into a fantastical tale that is also groundedly, confrontingly human (and not in several key ways), vividly alive with characters who pop off the page and mean something, to you and the story they inhabit, and a world so well realised that you often feel like you could step into it, although if you do, tread wisely for trouble lies ahead and who knows where it may lead?
Book Lovers by Emily Henry
Impressive too is the way that Henry manages to keep the spark and passion richly alive even when she is cutting right to the marrow of both characters.
We come to understand, not simply by what they say to each other but by what they think to themselves, just how well-rounded and vulnerable these two injured but hopeful souls are, with Henry quickly moving, through people like Nora’s closer-than-close younger sister Libby for whom she would do anything, and the townspeople of Sunshine Falls where the two sisters holiday for a month and naturally have their lives changed, to flesh them out well beyond our initial sharp impressions of them.
They are from being intense one-note characters and this is established time and again so that by the time Libby’s plan come to fruition, and rather happily it’s not even remotely what you imagine what it will be at the start, yet another sign of Henry’s happy ability to routinely subvert expectations, you feel like you know the two central characters super well and want them to have all the happiness in the world.
Honestly you’ll be buoyed and energised near the end of this piece of emotionally substantial romantic confection, that you’ll want everyone in the town to live happily ever after, yes even weird dating option Blake (well, maybe) but mostly you’ll want all the loveliness and hope and possibility to come Nora and Charlie’s way because while they are falling for each other, you’ll be falling in love with them.
Ledge by Stacey McEwan
At its heart, Ledge is a thrilling and wild ride into rebellion, freedom fighting and self realisation and preservation that harnesses itself to a full-on narrative which even at its wildest, most intense moments still feels like it has the time to let people fully experience their inner authentic selves or deal with revelations that quite frankly are big and broken enough to rip a soul apart.
One of the best fantasy novels to come along in a while, deftly combining massively big story with raw, alive humanity, the kind which cannot stand by while injustice and cruelty run amuck, Ledge is a highly energising, often moving, read which places two people in need of healing and a place to belong into the centre of a novel which talks big, feels big and dares to be big and which nails it on every single page, all of them packed with a heady if terrifyingly overwhelmingly sense that the world is only as bad as those who do nothing allow it to be.
Dawsyn and Ryon are manifestly not those people and it’s exciting to think we have two more books in the trilogy to see who they will become, where they will go and how different, in so many good ways, the world they live in will become simply because they give a damn and are willing to act when so many others won’t.
Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse
Written in a way that is as lyrical and poetic as it grounded and honest, Black Sun is a gem of a novel, a story that sings the hope of things changing, that knows how great the obstacles are and how bloody the destruction of the old order might be because those guarding refuse to relinquish even a sliver of power, but which dares to believe that change can come and which gives so much time and emotional weight to telling the tales of the marginalised and dispossessed and evoking why they fight so hard to claim some measure of society’s long-denied bounty for their own.
A blisteringly good series debut in ways almost too numerous to mention, Black Sun sizzles with characters so alive and rich in humanity that you are rooting for them to succeed at every turn, a story that feels like one of the ages and yet wholly , refreshingly its own, and enthralling world-building that offers a world unlike anything we have seen in fantasy before but which feels groundedly relatable and true, offering a story that feels epically expansive and intimately meaningful all at once as the world it brings to the fore so richly and wonderfully changes far beyond anyone’s reckoning.
Five Bush Weddings by Clare Fletcher
Five Bush Weddings is a joy because Fletcher, while she has an eye very much on the romantic prize, knows that here the destination is not the entire story.
We often think so because happy-ever-afters are such a seductive thing, like dessert at the end of long meal, and who among us doesn’t want to skip dinner for dessert (well, those with a sweet tooth, anyway), but when you stop and think about it, it’s all the moments leading up to the big declaration of love unending and eternal that we’re really there for.
We want the characters to dance around each other, we want them to get close, pull away, get close again, rinse and repeat, and we want to see the full and gloriously lovely, and not so lovely fabric of their lives because all of the lead-up stuff makes the payoff so much richer and more enjoyable.
Fletcher gives us all that and so much more in the gently funny and emotionally resonant Five Bush Weddings which is cut above, and by a considerably appealing degree, your average rom-com, and as Stevie and Johnno finally make it to that point they’ve been evading for one reason for over a decade, you want to shout for joy because a lot of work has been put into making it all matter and it does in a way that makes the reading of this novel one of those rare joys that last beyond the final page.
The Stranger by Kathryn Hore
Yes, The Stranger is dark and troubling and ferociously intense, but it is also richly alive with hope and possibility, the latter two elements, once near-invisible in Darkwater, increasingly coming to the fore though not with out with some real muscular intent on behalf of its residents, especially people like Chelsea who have to be brave enough to put faith in the Stranger words and believe the world outside has the promise that their visitor says it does but also, more importantly, that they have the power within themselves to effect the change they crave.
The Stranger, whose links to the town go back far further and in far more bloody fashion that anyone first realises, save for Granger and his ilk, doesn’t promise to rescue them; instead she simply accelerates what’s already happening in the town and encourages people like Chelsea, Miss Kenzie the schoolteacher and others like Christian the hotelier and saloon operator, to stand up and be counted when the time comes.
An evocatively gritty tale of imprisoned people, most especially the women, being set free from fear of all kinds, with a queer thread throughout that sings of the power of freedom too, The Stranger is brilliantly good storytelling, a beguilingly well-spun narrative that maintains the tension of what is and what will be to an entrancing degree, and which shows what can happen when fear is outside, hope is taken up instead, and life begins again in ways that rewrite everything everyone has ever known for the better.
Loveland by Robert Lukins
It is all too easy to recoil when the ugly truth of Casey and May’s lives are laid bare – though she knew next-to-nothing about her grandmother’s life back in Nebraska, May quickly feels bound to her in ways that speak to their sad commonality of life experience – and you are right to do so, because the events described are nothing but horrific.
Lukins does not spare us this horror but he is also such a gifted writer that we are never left with cliches, tropes or cardboard cutout renderings of people or events, with Loveland full of graded and nuanced depictions of lives dreamed of, achieved and lost, hoping to be found again.
It’s a rare art to depict such ugliness while simultaneously evoking the beauty there too, and even though you know that the realisation will not be easy and will involve more pain before anything good comes of it, if there is any good resulting at all, Lukins achieves it in masterful storytelling that reaches deep in your soul and leaves you gasping at both the darkness and flickering light of life.
It is true that Loveland is a novel stained with the very worst of humanity, all of which is told in ways unstinting and desperately broken and bare, but it is also redolent with two remarkable women who, knowing all too well how big and locked tight their prison is, nevertheless seize the chance they’re both given to make a change, their gripping stories told is in language and empathy so rich, deep and compellingly lyrical that you will marvel at Lukins’ ability to speak of the ugliness of life in ways that are so beautiful that you begin to appreciate how it is that May and her grandmother can hold onto the beautiful things even when the world around seems irretrievably and forever dark.
The No-Show by Beth O’Leary
At the end of the day, what The No-Show is is a novel that really knows what it is like to fall for someone, to struggle to relate to them through a mountain of your own limiting issues and what it feels like when trust is finally given only to have it possibly thrown back into your face.
Miranda, Siobhan and Jane are all wonderfully fleshed out characters, as is Joseph in the end and the affecting brilliance of The No-Show is that it never shortchanges any of its characters, giving each of them plenty of time to tell their story, in the process serving up a story of romantic possibility and life’s harsh realities, its joys and great sadness, and reminding us that no matter how dark it gets at times, that there is hope, in some form just around the corner (even if it’s painful to get there much of the time).
Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan
It’s funny, replete with catchy, well-written dialogue and moments that tip their hat to the tropes and clichés of the genre but are in no way captive to them – it’s not an easy feat to pull off but Monaghan manages it effortlessly – and a strong sense that here is a woman who wants to forge a connection and be unconditionally loved but will do just fine if that doesn’t happen.
Well, that’s not strictly speaking completely true, as the inevitable kink in the road to romance demonstrates all too graphically and again with a sense of truthfulness, even if it pivots on an instigating moment that is one of the very few parts of Nora Goes Off Script that feels a little contrived and silly (even if there is some emotional truth behind it), but overall Nora has learnt to stand on her own two feet and will be just fine whatever happens (once the tears stop anyway).
Nora Goes Off Script is one of those books that you walk away with a tangible shift in your emotional state, its escapistly light emotional buoyancy surviving far longer than the usual fluffy rom-com euphoria because Nora feels real, her life just as much so and her romance too, with Leo turning out just what her life doctor ordered.
It all results in a love story that makes you sigh at the possibilities of romance, glory in how substantial and far from cardboard cutout Nora and Leo feel – which makes their romance feel far more muscularly real too – and reassured that love can find you anywhere, even in the midst of the bowels of every day life where Cupid does not normally deign to show his romantically heady face
Mercury Picture Presents by Anthony Marra
For all of its depictions of the very worst of times and the worst of people, and it doesn’t get much worse than World War Two and its horror chamber of villains, Mercury Pictures Presents is also a song of hope, kindness, forgiveness and the glorious heights the human spirit can reach, even in the face of brutality and incessant terribleness.
Time and again we bear witness to the ripping of families, the killing of innocent souls and the destruction of a once-certain status quo, and yet Marra understands how marvellously, fulsomely and humourously adaptable people are, pouring it all into a story that is as moving as they come even as you laughing, yet again, at writing that induces laughs just before a knowing wince of truthful insight.
Making no bones about the fact that we crave glamour and glory but end up swimming in the sewer far more than we’d like to, Mercury Pictures Presents is nevertheless, thanks to Marra’s sublimely clever and achingly funny writing, which soars even as its characters often do not despite their best efforts, brimming with the hopeful tenacity of the human spirit which somehow survives despite everything thrown at it, and which is funny and wittily observational even in the face of a reality that is anything but and which may never be what the aspirational gods ordered.
Devotion by Hannah Kent
While there is heartbreak and sadness, loss and pain in amongst all the good and wonderful things that their love gives them, expressed by Kent in ways so breathtakingly real and emotionally resonant that you don’t read Devotion so much as experience it if you’re heart is open, it possesses a vitality and real that make life come alive again in ways you might have thought our world has methodically snuffed from existence.
Love might seem like the most cosy, sweet and home-sculpting things there is, and it is, but it is also muscular and brave and daring in its purest form, something Hanne, outlier to the end, and Thea have in abundance, and it fills Devotion with language so lovely and skilfully, emotionally resonantly wrought that their story in all its glory and pain is something so impossibly, transformatively, impactfully beautiful will linger with you so powerfully afterwards that you will question if you truly understood what it is to give yourselves over to someone, or something, before you experienced the raw emotional power of Kent’s ode to love, truth and yes, devotion.
World Running Down by Al Hess
While the background of Valentine’s quest to live his true life as his true self is brutalist and apocalyptic, it’s not so different, existentially at least, from a host of queer people who daily face misunderstanding in their earnest need to simply live their truth, and who must make some tough decisions to make that happen.
Hess has captured the enormity and expansively intense emotional scope of how this feels and how it manifests in real and tangible ways and set against an enthrallingly epic broken world where anything is possible but coterminously so few things are.
That’s the deeply affecting beauty of World Running Down – it offers a sci-fi story so well-realised and so imaginatively told that you feel every last pothole on the salt flat roads and every last flash of disappointment and hope, all set in a world so completely different to our own in a potent physical sense but which feels very much like our reality where the rich control everything, the poor struggle at the margins and those who simply want to be themselves, like Valentine face an uphill struggle to be true to themselves and in so doing, make the lives of others better too, regardless of the cost.
You can’t read this superlatively good book, which bristles with all kinds of dark and terrible things but also the rich truth and moving humanity of being true to yourself, without fervently hoping that things will work out in the end, and that even if they don’t, at least central characters like Aimee and Osric will stay rewardingly true to who they are right until the end of this utterly beguiling and deeply affecting romp across a future dystopian America.
Just Like Magic by Sarah Hogle
For such an outrageously over-the-top premise, Just Like Magic has a huge amount of moving humanity at its heart.
Filled with a lushness of Christmasness that feels like Santa hugging you all the time – if you’re a Christmas tragic like this reviewer, you’ll long to have someone like Hall who’s so into the season and able to conjure up anything; it’s a Christmas decorating fantasy sprung to bauble-decked life – and characters who are beautifully fully-formed and dialogue that pops with humour and meaning, Just Like Magic is a richly-written rom-com wonder that goes precisely where you know it will but not without stopping to have a whole lot of fun and fix some truly broken hearts along the way.
If you think there’s nothing new under the storytelling Christmas tree, think again (and while you’re at it think “Make my wish come true” because who knows if an amenable Christmas spirit is listening?) because Just Like Magic is the most breathtakingly fun and wondrous, heart-filled merry and bright, slice of festive silliness that will utterly tickle every last one of your funny bones while giving you the sort of bighearted reassurance that love and change for the good are all possible, not just at Christmas but all through the year which will seem all the more magical for reading this most perfectly upbeat and hilariously emotionally thoughtful and magically alive of second-chance rom-com novels.
Holiday Romance by Catherine Walsh
Many of the books in the genre are perfectly serviceable and lovely and you close the novel all aglow with the warmth and loveliness of love, especially when it takes place in a cosy, life-changing village/bookshop/cafe/petrol refinery (okay, likely not the last one), but they hardly rock your festive reading world.
Not so Holiday Romance which is so imaginatively fun and alive, so ripe with possibility and so breathtakingly spirit-uplifting, that you reach the epilogue and wish wish WISH you could stay with these groundedly wonderful human beings who deserve all the friendship, love and turkey they can get.
There is much rich emotionality and vibrant humanity in Holiday Romance, not to mention dialogue so zestfully in play that watching Andrew and Molly go back and forth is the most fizzily delightful of word exchanges, filled with hope, longing and the certainty of love almost, just, about-to-be realised, all of which set in wildly epic landscape of connections and outlandish moments that are all grounded in the most intimate of human connections.
Holiday Romance is a festive rom-com for the ages, a book so gorgeously well-written and so hilariously heartfelt and intelligently delivered that you wonder if it is possible to better; it has the happy ending, the lengthy slow-burn lead-up, the crazily manic bit in-between but most of all, it has a soul-restoring sense that love can conquer anything, even tight connections at airports and ferry terminals, and if that isn’t the best of all Christmas gifts, then you have to wonder what is.
The Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan
Warm, vivacious and fun, and thoughtfully reflective when it needs to be, The Christmas Bookshop is a joy to read, a shot in the arm to anyone, tired after a long and wearing year, who needs to believe the joy of the season is real.
Not only that, that life can be redeemed and life trajectories given a new, shiny path, one that connects you to people, that affirms that niggling, pushed-down inner sense you have a lot to give and that validates a lingering suspicion that with the right opportunities and willing to carpe diem then hell out of them, that your life might really be something.
The loveliness of The Christmas Bookshop is that all of this self-discovery and reinvention, both romantically, relationally and career-wise takes places at Christmastime, a romantic time of the year that comes ever more vivaciously alive in a city that is beautiful anyway, but even more so when things are merry and bright and there’s all kinds of unexpected joy in the world.
Having your heart warmed by a Christmas rom-com is one of life’s perfectly-rendered great joys and Colgan more than delivers on that front in The Christmas Bookshop, offering a story that is every bit as festively escapist as you want and need but which comes with some achingly real humanity and a sense that while we are all capable of getting things dreadfully wrong, we can also, with the right help and circumstances get them wonderfully right, not just at Christmas but right through the year.