When I was asked to write about a book that engaged or moved me this year, a few came to mind. Marnie McBean’s The Power of More is one that speaks about the lessons learned on a journey and reaching your goals. In some ways, it is common sense, but to be able to articulate complex thoughts and break them down is a real skill that resonated with me.
But when I really thought about it, the book that I decided to write about was Alix Ohlin’s Inside, which I was asked to present at this year’s Giller Prize. When I started reading the book, I did not know what to expect, but I was completely engaged and moved by the story, quickly intrigued by how the characters’ stories were intricately intertwined, and the complexity of each character. The book compelled me to be more open and to really look around. I was also intrigued that so much of the story, though very complex, was completely shaped by basic human needs, which made it very real. Each story was different, but there were aspects of each character you could connect and empathize with.
I was really moved by the realization that everything is interconnected: people, choices, interactions; they all shape the path you take. It is human nature to want to have a positive impact or to be a positive influence, though many people question how to have this impact. Life never follows the path you intend. Inside shows that your life is shaped by choices or instinct, following that small voice within that guides you regardless of what rational thought may tell you. Inside showed me that during each interaction or situation you are placed in, the decision you make can shape the path you take in your life and the influence you can have on others.
Rosie MacLennan won the gold medal in trampoline at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
My book of the year is an intellectual thriller which, because it was written by an academic and published by a university press (Harvard), may not have received due recognition for what it actually is: an absolute page-turner. R.I. Moore's The War on Heresy is ostensibly about the roots of Catharism, and the attempts by the medieval Church to extirpate it. A well-trodden path of enquiry, you might think – except that Moore's thesis is as jaw-dropping as it is original. Far from existing as an independent phenomenon, he argues, Catharism was in truth a phantasm conjured up from the nightmares and ambitions of those who went looking for it. The true begetters of the heresy were not Manicheans mysteriously transplanted from the ancient Middle East to medieval Languedoc, but rather the very men committed to its destruction. The relevance of this for today's world, haunted as it is by its own paranoias and anxieties, hardly needs pointing out. Startling, unsettling and revelatory, The War on Heresy is Homeland in cowls.
Tom Holland’s most recent book is In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.
I was aware of The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt, before I bought it, like you're aware of a train that's approaching the tracks you are presently tied to (you being an unfortunate cartoon damsel). In late 2011, I was on a book tour myself, and at every lit festival I showed up for, people were only a bag of confetti short of throwing a party for how much they liked Patrick deWitt's western. It was winning awards left and right, it was highlighted in every festival program, and several times I overheard someone say the name of the book in conversation while the person they were talking to nodded sagely. In short, I heard it was “pretty good” and when I finally picked it up, it had a reputation to live up to.
The Sisters Brothers did not disappoint. For a story of two ruthless hit men – the eponymous Eli and Charlie Sisters – the story packs a wallop of warmth and humour. DeWitt has a talent for a charming turn of phrase that is impossible not to like. It may be a gritty, violent world that the brothers live in, but it is rich with irresistible characters, conversation and musings on life (also, toothbrushes). It's not that you don’t ever expect a western novel to offer something more than straight-faced good/bad/ugly types pulling guns on each other in grim seriousness. However, when a book is good enough to be a proper western and win the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour on top of that, we're talking about a rare gem indeed. I liked The Sisters Brothers so much that soon after finishing I found myself in front of a cash register to buy many copies for other people, just to do them a favour, like a good citizen.