Novels that Passed the Fidget Test

Writers are readers first, and I read a lot of novels last year. That's not to say I finished all of them. Sadly there were a few which had they been paperbacks and not downloaded on my Kindle, I might have chucked across the room. This is one of the drawbacks with reading from a tablet. No satisfying thump as the book hits the floor. A click of the keypad and the offending title is removed from sight, leaving only the regret of having wasted a valuable hour of one's life plodding through the first 50 pages.

Of the novels I finished, a few were such a pleasure to read, I slowed down the better to savour every sentence. Such moments are rare. That's not the fault of the novelist so much as the method of reading. Reading from a tablet is a fidgety business. Attention spans grow ever shorter. A few dull sentences, and it's hard to resist the urge to look in on Twitter or surf for yet more novels you probably won't finish. Books which passed the fidget test were of two types, The first were just too beautiful to want to rush. The second, those heart in mouth thrillers, where you can't turn the pages fast enough.

So which were the books I wanted to chuck? Knowing how much love and hard work goes into writing any novel, never mind the gruelling business of seeking a publisher, it would be unfair to name and shame. Here instead then, are my Top Tomes of 2014. Note, not all were published in 2014, there were several gems I was late catching up with. So here goes:

'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn was one of the few thrillers I read that lived up to the hype, keeping me super-glued to the last page. The ultimate marmite novel, those that hated it, blamed protagonists, Nick and Amy. How could you care about such an obnoxious pair? I could. I confess my sympathies lay with Nick. Psychologically complex and nuanced characters, dialogue that dazzled and a plot that kept me guessing until the final sentence. I couldn't fault it.

'The Play Date' by Louise Millar was another super-glue job which had me turning off the Wi-Fi on my Kindle and ignoring cups of tea requests from Mr.Vincent. As subject matter, young mums at the school gates would normally leave me cold, but Millar's treatment lifts the genre to a whole new sinister level.

'The Tenderness of Wolves' by Stef Penny moves from domestic noir, to the 19th Century Canadian Wilderness. Following a group of strong characters across the unforgiving landscape in search of justice kept me enthralled. It's also one of the rare novels which made me cry. The hype had put me off reading at the time of publication, but I'm so glad that I overcame may resistance in the end.

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tart is another marmite novel, (or perhaps we should change that to peanut butter) which I'm told many people were unable to finish. Yes, it is a might tome, but this is one advantage of reading the e-book. No cricks in the neck, or shoulder spasms. Okay, it might have benefitted from a tighter edit, and as an editor as well as a writer, this is something I'm always on the alert for. Somehow though when you're reading a work of art, the odd superfluous passages is more likely to be a bonus than a bore. Maybe it brought out my maternal instincts, but I was literally aching to give the protagonist, Theodore, who is 12 years old when we meet him, a hug. More than that, I wanted to adopt him on the spot! I couldn't help but follow his life's journey through all its tragic twists and turns. Another rarity that made me laugh and cry in equal measure.

'Winter' by Christopher Nicholson This was one of my slow-down and savour each sentence, reads. A beautifully understated fictionalized account of Thomas Hardy's later years with his second wife. The scenery and wintry atmosphere is spell-binding, almost a living presence. But it's the sympathetic portrayal of his wife which makes this so riveting. For a man who prided himself on mould-breaking heroines like Bathsheba Everdene, Hardy it seems gave both his wives a rough ride. This book had me turning to Claire Tomalin's biography in order to get the bigger picture.  

'The Poet's Wife' by Judith Allnutt is another fictionalized account of a literary icon, in this case the poet John Clare whose spells of insanity must have driven his poor wife close to madness herself. I discovered this book by accident having first read a riveting biography of Clare. On finishing I had one of those literary light-bulb moments. Wouldn't it be a great idea to write a novel from the perspective of his wife? Doing the research I stumbled upon Alnutt's book and cursed. Somebody got there before me! On reading however, I realized she'd done a fine job, better than I could ever have achieved. It's a lyrical, heart-wrenching account of a family who become virtual outcasts in the community, thanks to a lack of understanding about mental health problems. The rural setting is beautifully evokes and the historical detail utterly convincing.

Of the wild cards last year, Suzanne Joinson's 'A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar' ticked the boxes for me. Far from being an intrepid traveller myself, a character isolated in remote foreign parts is always hard to resist. I was expecting a whimsical, mannered style, like so many other titles of late, but not so. The authenticity of the heroine's plight, trapped in the desert with a deluded sister and her zealous missionary 'friend' is impressive. It also says much about the often unrequited nature of parental love.

Given that this is the season for ghost stories, I'll end with the collection 'Ancient Sorceries' by Algernon Blackwood. To call these ghost stories, is to do Blackwood a disservice. There are none of the chain rattling phantoms beloved of the genre. I discovered Blackwood as a teenager, and devoured his entire works, scaring myself silly in the process. Of this collection, the two outstanding stories are 'The Wendigo' and 'The Willows.' They're not so much about disembodied spirits but of the spirit which haunts a wild landscape, the particular fear which can take hold in an isolated and unfamiliar setting. The foreword of this collection describes them as 'psychic adventures' and that's exactly what they are.

A brief apology to my writer friends whose novels I enjoyed last year. It would be unfair to single out one or two, so among the living writers included here, I confess that none of them are personally known to me.