Mumsnet Book of the Month: What we read in 2016
Last year, we read a huge range of fantastic fiction and non-fiction, from Julian Barnes to Hollie McNish. Here's the full breakdown of what we read and discussed as part of Mumsnet's Book of the Month
The Illuminations - Andrew O'Hagan
Set in Blackpool, O'Hagan's gentle narrative about love, loss, memory and secrets in a time of modern war remains hopeful, while asking important and ambitious questions.
“January always feels like a slower paced, mindful time of year and reading this book dovetailed perfectly.”
“I’m always amazed when I hear male writers say they can't write women, or female writers saying they can't write men. Think! Observe! Imagine! Remember! I know it's odd, but I hear women's voices as much as I do men's, and I am a man, last time I checked!”
Frazzled - Ruby Wax
An honest and practical guide to dealing with depression through mindfulness, punctuated with Ruby Wax's hilarious and honest insight.
“I really enjoyed hearing Ruby's experiences of mindfulness and her writing about her depression is very honest. The book is a nice mix of background information and practical exercises, and it's very easy to dip in and out of."
“The point of the book is making it accessible and easy to use in everyday situations, so you don't have to go to some hillock and tie your legs in a knot over your head to practice. You can do it waiting for a bus or on the tube in those minutes you're not doing anything else so it won't take up your precious time.”
The Noise of Time - Julian Barnes
The story of the composer Shostakovitch, whose latest opera has stripped him of celebrity status and branded him an ‘enemy of the people.’
“The novel to me was written like a piece of music in short snappy paragraphs like a staccato effect, crescendos and interludes. A very clever effect based on the musician's opera of life. Well worth a read."
“Shostakovich was the figure in the entire history of Western music who was under most political pressure on a weekly, yearly, lifelong basis. I wanted to examine the collision between art and power, and look at the consequences of that conflict.”
Girl in a Band - Kim Gordon
Sonic Youth's legendary Kim Gordon writes a gripping memoir of her rock'n'roll life – from the beginning of her music career to motherhood and marriage.
“Kim communicates a really strong sense of time and place in her descriptions too. For instance, New York as she describes it sounds like such a complex and thrusting scene to be part of… you feel the things she describes could only have happened at that time and in that city.”
“Writing the book made it easier to think about it all and sort of figure out how I got to where I am in my career and life."
The Wolf Border - Sarah Hall
Sarah Hall's entrancing novel follows the story of a woman reintroducing wolves to Cumbria, and explores what it is to be wild – and what it is to be human.
“I found this book very addictive, and I'm not even sure why; I just felt captivated by the atmosphere of the estate and all who were on it, by Rachel's own journey and the experiences of human nature it explores.”
“I’ve always been interested in the environment and landscapes – probably comes with being brought up in the Lake District – and the reintroduction of apex predators and the good effect they can have on a place seems to me to be a very important part of thinking about how we manage our wild places today, how we create a healthy ecology.”
The Lost Tudor Princess - Alison Weir
Who was Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, and why was she never queen of England? Alison Weir recounts the fascinating life of an extraordinary woman.
“An amazing book – I didn't really know anything about Margaret Tudor other than seeing her name on Tudor family trees and being aware that she was the grandmother of James I of England. The book really describes how precarious court life could be and it is remarkable how Margaret relentlessly campaigned to further her ambition for her family.”
“Writing history is a stricter discipline because it has to be based on evidence. Writing historical fiction allows you more freedom, because you can use your imagination to fill in the gaps; even so, what you write must be credible in the context of what is known about your subject, so you can't indulge in wild flights of fancy!”
Noonday - Pat Barker
Pat Barker's third novel in her second wartime trilogy follows the intricate lives of the three protagonists through love, loss, and loneliness – historical fiction at its finest.
“A highly perceptive examination of everyday lives forced to keep going in the face of adversity, and laced throughout with the ominously dark undertone of wartime horror. The well-developed narrative transports the reader to WWII London and the Blitz, and we follow the characters as their paths and lives overlap in their struggle to survive yet another war.”
“I always try to go to letters and diaries rather than to read biographies and memoirs. We all reshape our memories to fit in with what we think ought to have happened or wished to have happened. What the novelist needs is initial reactions and raw emotions and there is a particular delight about looking at the real handwriting of the character you're writing about.”
This House of Grief - Helen Garner
This House of Grief is Helen Garner's heartbreaking account of a real-life murder trial in which a man is accused of drowning his three young sons.
“Having finished the book, it is playing on my mind greatly – a book hangover. Heartbreaking but real insight into how court works, and so frightening to think that so much vital information is kept from a jury in the interests of fairness – when that same information has such a huge bearing.”
“I was in court every day of the two trials, and also the appeals. My feelings and thoughts constantly changed, according to the evidence that was being given. Sometimes I would be overwhelmed with pity, at other times with anger and disbelief, but mostly something more like grief. I’ve tried to build these fluctuations into the book, so people will know how it felt to be there, and how this might have affected my rational mind, such as it was.”
The Green Road - Ann Enright
Ann Enright's fantastically well-crafted dissection of a dysfunctional adult family called together for Christmas is both funny and painfully poignant.
“The writing is so lyrical. I don’t normally pay much attention to descriptions in novels, but I was struck by the beauty of the writing, which did much to convey the various settings of the book’s episodes.”
“I hope there is someone in the book for everyone. Some people think Dan in New York is exciting and moving and are disappointed to be stuck back in Limerick with a slightly overweight mother who has a boob issue, the others fall on Constance with great relief after all that ghastly gay sex. As I say: something for everyone.”
The Actual One - Isy Suttie
Isy Suttie, of Peep Show fame, hilariously navigates the awkward transition from fun-loving twenties to responsible adult.
“Thank you for my copy of this book – it was like taking a trip down memory lane! It felt like I was going through old diaries – with hilarious descriptions of highly embarrassing situations… Thank you!”
“I've never felt embarrassed about writing about my own life. What was more of a question to me was whether it was relevant and funny. I think when you're a stand up you lose a bit of that reluctance to reveal personal stuff, as you are always scrabbling about for material. It feels good to take risks.”
The Book of Memory - Petina Gappah
Petina Gappah's stunning debut tells the story of Memory, a Zimbabwean woman convicted of the murder of her adoptive father.
“Thank you Mumsnet for my copy and thank you Petina, I loved it! I couldn't put it down. I was fascinated by the description of life in Zimbabwe. The characters, both major and minor, were so well drawn. The way the story unfolded was very clever. I can't stop thinking about it. The ending was really unexpected yet made perfect sense.”
“In The Book of Memory I wanted to explore in fiction the experience of that dislocation. So I created a character who had, as part of her childhood, gone though some of the actual experiences that I had had as a child in addition to an imagined experience, being on death row, that I hope never to have."
The Wicked Boy - Kate Summerscale
The Wicked Boy is the true story of a horrifying Victorian murder case: that of Robert Coombes, a 13-year-old boy on trial for the murder of his own mother.
“I loved this book. It felt like a bit of a slow burn at first (in a good way). I liked the restraint of the prose style, and the later parts of the story were mind-blowing. Full of hope and redemption – I think. Thank you – it's a book I will be recommending to many.”
“Many of my favourite novels were written in this era – books by the Brontë sisters, Dickens, Wilkie Collins – and I think that stories and ideas from this time continue to shape the way we think and feel today. The period also shapes my life in concrete ways: the building I live in is Victorian, as are the train lines on which I travel, many of the institutions in which I do my research. The 19th century feels close enough to imagine from within, yet far enough away to observe from outside.”
In the Unlikely Event - Judy Blume
Judy Blume's final novel for adults (sob!) takes a multi-faceted look at 1950s small town America, shaken by unprecedented disaster.
“What I liked most about this book was the honesty in the relationships, hearing/seeing the characters as a whole – no stone left unturned!! Needless to say, I was an emotional mess reading this book. Even more so when I read that it was based on actual events.”
“I would say that I'm most proud of this book — I feel it's the book I was meant to write, the story I was meant to tell. I knew about the crashes, of course. We all did. But the fact that I had this story buried inside me for all these years and never thought to write about it has me baffled.”
The House by the Lake - Thomas Harding
Thomas Harding uncovers the stories of five very different families who once lived in his grandmother's now-derelict house on the outskirts of Berlin.
“I'm finding it hard to put this book down! It's a fascinating account of the last hundred years of German history and while I'm pretty well informed on the build up to WW2, I've found the post-war story fascinating! Well worth reading – non-fiction can be hard to read sometimes but I've found the flow of this book very easygoing.”
“This isn't a book I would necessarily have chosen to pick up but I am absolutely loving it. I am finding the historical content fascinating, and the way it is all told via the conduit of the house and family, adds a personal perspective that prevents it from ever becoming 'dry'. I thoroughly recommend this book.”
The Improbability of Love - Hannah Rothschild
This sumptuous feast of a novel follows broken-hearted Annie McDee, who finds herself inextricably embroiled in the seedy side of London's art world.
“I enjoyed this book very much – it's a rollicking, rolling romp through the art world. I know nothing about art and was a little apprehensive about being bored by the references to paintings, painters and academic critiques – but I wasn't at all."
“There wasn't a particular painting but I did come face to face with a Watteau in the Louvre when I was about 16. It's called Pierrot or Giles and it was the saddest, loneliest looking clown I had ever seen. At that time (I was on an exchange) I felt exactly the same way and was very relieved that another person understood how I felt."
Mad Girl - Bryony Gordon
Journalist Bryony Gordon's fearless book is a funny yet sincere account of life with OCD – a must-read for anyone who's ever suffered from mental illness.
“I applaud Bryony for her complete honesty and admire her bravery writing open-heartedly about such a sensitive personal matter, which she did in such a fearless and often hilarious way. I cannot remember ever reading a book which made me laugh out loud one minute and cry the next – that shows the strength of prose in this amazing book.”
“Chime away people! We NEED to break this stigma… we must not suffer in silence anymore. The more we scream and shout about it, the less people in positions of power are able to ignore us!”
The Outrun - Amy Liptrot
Amy Liptrot's inspiring account of recovering from alcoholism in the remote Orkney islands will make you yearn for water to swim in and time to collect your thoughts.
“This book was beautifully written and was a very honest account of Amy's addiction and healing. The descriptions of life in both London and Orkney were vivid and whilst I could already relate to elements of her London life, I was left wanting to go and visit the Orkney islands.”
“When I wrote the book I really felt like I had nothing to lose and wrote with abandon. But I chose what to present and how to present it, with thought and agency. But it does have an emotional toll – I've spent a lot of this year, since it was published, feeling like my nerves are exposed or that little pieces of my heart are being carried in people's bags and kindles.”
The Sex Lives of English Women - Wendy Jones
An exploration of both the sex lives of English women and their equally fascinating everyday lives – empowering and moving.
“I was struck by how the individual women's voices stood out – I could almost hear them speaking! I found the book empowering in many ways; one story in particular really struck a chord with me and made me think “it's okay – this is normal!” which felt very comforting. For that reason I would definitely recommend this book."
“I found writing the book very emotionally difficult at times. I often cried with the interviewee in the interview as I was so moved by what I was hearing, and sometimes disturbed too. Conversely, the interviews were often a lot of fun and funny – there was a lot of laughter. Most of all there was respect – I felt so much respect for the women I interviewed.”
Waking Lions - Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
A fast-paced and absorbing tale of an Israeli neurosurgeon, who makes a split-second decision which spirals out of control and forces him to question his morals.
“An interesting moral tale which asks the reader what they would do in the same situation. A complex but nevertheless absorbing story from start to end.”
“I’m glad you liked the title – it was the same in Israel, in Hebrew: “Lehair Arayot”. I liked the idea of a hidden predator within all of us, and what happens when this predator suddenly awakes…”
The Biology of Desire - Marc Lewis
An investigation into the complexities of addiction, in which Marc Lewis argues against the current medical orthodoxy that addiction is a disease.
“This book has helped me piece together my behaviour and thoughts in a way that nothing else I have read has ever managed to.”
“I couldn't put this book down and will soon be re-reading it, with a view to promoting it to my colleagues and sharing some of the views within it. It has been eye-opening to consider addiction in the context of normal cognitive and neurobiological processing.”
The Secret to Not Drowning - Colette Snowden
Drawing on her own experiences of emotional and domestic abuse, Colette Snowden's novel reveals the horror and frustration of a toxic relationship.
“The style of writing captured the insidious nature of domestic abuse so perfectly. The violence and aggression was so matter of fact and normalised and that's exactly how it is. It becomes a part of everyday life and accepted, not the huge drama that you might expect from outside the relationship. The feeling of walking on eggshells was strong throughout. The story is exciting and engaging and I really cared about what happened to Marion. Absolutely gets five stars from me.”
“I met a lady at a workshop who told me that the book had made her make some big decisions she'd been putting off for a long time. I've tried to articulate how insidious domestic abuse can be – without even becoming violent. I hope the book will help people see that others will understand their situation – and give them something to share to help explain their situation, if they can't find a way to explain their own experiences.”
Nobody Told Me - Hollie McNish
Hollie's collection of poetry and prose should be on every new parent's reading list. It strives to show that nothing in parenting should be taboo.
“Just finished Hollie's book the other day and although I don't read much poetry generally, as the mum of a six-month-old baby I was blown away by how she managed to put word to many of the feelings and reflections I've had through pregnancy, birth and beyond. It's really reassuring and made me feel like I'm part of a community of mothers/parents.”
“I think the majority of people just seem grateful whenever anyone else lets out a stifled truth about how they’re feeling! That’s the main feedback, the whole ‘thank God I’m not the only one’. I think for the majority, more talk, rather than less, is definitely a positive.”