Reading Diary: Jan. 7-Jan. 13

the_devilshighwayhbGregory Norminton’s new novel The Devil’s Highway is not a long book, but it is a full one, resonant with history and myth. Bouncing back and forth between three time periods—Roman Britain, the present day, and a far future of harsh drought and a return to brutality—it stays focused on one place: Bagshot Heath, in Surrey. Here, a young Celt, Andragin, tries to barter for mercy for his brothers by delivering a kidnapped decurion back to his legion; here, Harry, a soldier just back from Afghanistan, bumps into a young girl whose father is determined to preserve the heath at all costs; and here, a pack of feral children led by the ruthless Malk attempts to make it to “the West Cunny”, where, it’s rumoured, there is still rain. Norminton’s evocation of the heath’s atmosphere is superb: this book is less about individual people and their choices, and more about the ways in which a particular landscape can fate us. Each time period is linked to the others by a palm-shaped stone that resembles a crude carving of a woman, and which is so ancient that it’s old even in Andragin’s time. Norminton is a subtle enough writer to leave the connection at that (though we may draw our own conclusions about the relationship between the young Celtic warriors encouraged to their deaths by a religious mystic, and the jihadis whom Harry fights in modern-day Helmand), giving the book a feeling of David Mitchell tinged with Paul Kingsnorth’s aesthetic. The futuristic sections are perhaps the least successful—there’s only so many times authors can rehash wild-child Riddley Walker dialect—but the book as a whole is both bold and delicate, and quite unforgettable.

cover2Equally unforgettable is Afua Hirsch’s memoir/work of cultural analysis, Brit(ish) (can we talk about the genius of that title?), which is out on the 1st of February. Hirsch’s heritage is mixed: her mother is Ghanaian and her father the child of German Jewish refugees. Both her parents had a strong cultural identity of their own, but for Hirsch and her sister, being mixed-race in Wimbledon in the ’90s meant they didn’t belong anywhere. Hirsch is never less than willing to cop to her own privilege as a lighter-skinned black person in Britain: her account of meeting her boyfriend (now husband) Sam, a black man of Ghanaian descent from Tottenham, brilliantly dissects the differences in their upbringings, with Sam constantly focused on achieving professional success because the slightest lapse in concentration might drive him off-course forever, whereas Afua’s achievements at school, university, and the world of work feel like something she’s almost sleepwalked into. But her primary thesis is that, although Britain likes to call itself a “post-racial” or “multicultural” society, this is a national self-image built on a lie: the absolute refusal of white British people to acknowledge a history of deep and terrible institutional racism. She makes an extremely compelling case, citing the American civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter as upheavals that could only occur because American society has been forthright about the fact that it was founded on racism and slavery. By contrast, British society lauds the abolition of the slave trade, but history curricula and national days of observance rarely, if ever, acknowledge the fact that for Britain to have abolished a trade in the first place, it first had to participate in that trade; in this case, for over four centuries. Hirsch is also a fantastically engaging writer, leavening rage-inducing statistics with personal anecdote and investigative journalism. Her book ought to help kickstart the conversation Britain so badly needs to have with itself.

51a7rwuy1pl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Speaking of which, Victor LaValle’s novel The Devil In Silver is a real thousand-yard stare right at the heart of the horrors of the American health-care-for-profit system. LaValle is known as a genre writer, but most of The Devil In Silver doesn’t seem like a horror or fantasy novel; much of it is more like a psych-ward version of Orange Is the New Black. Pepper, our protagonist, is a working-class white dude who gets thrown in New Hyde Hospital because the cops who arrested him for beating up his neighbour’s ex-husband couldn’t be arsed to do the paperwork down at the precinct. Pepper’s involuntary admission means he ought only to stay for seventy-two hours, but he takes some medication on his first day, and the next thing he knows, he’s been in for four weeks. The ward, Pepper soon discovers, is being terrorised by a Minotaur-like creature—a skinny old man with the head of a buffalo—who is apparently the Devil. The brilliance of LaValle is in taking the old what-if-humans-were-the-real-monsters twist and shoving our noses so far into the complicated morality of what being human involves that we can see how monsters develop. Casual cruelty amongst nurses and orderlies is prompted by a system that underpays them and finds more value in dead patients than in live ones; madness is a not irrational response to a system that really is out to get you. And LaValle comes down on the side of tenderness and of trying, every time. One character snarls to another, “You can’t save everyone.” The other says—the only line of dialogue he gets in the whole book—”You can help.”

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Two proofs of forthcoming books and one book from my shrinking TBR stack (counted, in this context, as books I’ve bought and have yet to read), all excellent. January’s going really well so far.

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Reading Diary: Jan 2-Jan 6

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The second book of the year was also the first unputdownable read: Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders. It’s a meta-murder mystery. The framework most readers will have for that is Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, with which Magpie Murders shares some similarities. Alan Conway, a very successful but very  unpleasant mystery novelist, has turned in his ninth manuscript, entitled Magpie Murders. His editor, Susan Ryeland, reads it over the weekend. It’s good: Conway’s MO is to ape Golden Age mysteries, and here he delivers an unpleasant village squire, a squabble about some land, and a whole host of suspects with convincing motives. But Ryeland comes to an abrupt discovery: the final chapter is missing. At work the next day, her boss, publisher Charles Clover, shows her an apparent suicide note he’s just received from Conway, and the next thing they know, Conway is found dead. Ryeland (and the reader) must not only find the missing pages of the manuscript and reveal the fictional killer, but find a real (though obviously, to us, also fictional) one too. The writing is fine—Horowitz isn’t a stylist but he can get you from one end of a sentence to the other with a minimum of fuss—and, although the book is probably slightly too long, it contains such wonderful nods to the whole history of crime writing that it also reads as a deeply endearing love song to the genre.

turning20for20homeIt’s very hard to describe what Turning For Home is “about”, because in the conventional sense it is virtually without plot: an old man, Robert Shawcross, has a birthday party, his troubled granddaughter Kate attempts to reconcile with her mother, and a figure from the past reappears at the party to complete some unfinished business related to Robert’s career as a civil servant, during which time he served as a diplomatic backchannel between U.K. government and the IRA. It is a book much more concerned with states of mind: Robert’s grief at the recent loss of his wife, his shock at the discovery that his contact was far more involved in IRA business than he realised; Kate’s struggle with guilt over an ex-boyfriend’s life-changing car accident, which manifests in an eating disorder that nearly kills her. This sounds a bit melodramatic, and occasionally Norris’s plot and character choices are, but for the most part, his writing lifts the events from pot-boiler territory. Instead he shows us ways to find beauty, and the keys to memory, in absolutely everything; for all the trouble in its pages, it is a very uplifting book. I preferred his debut, Five Rivers Met…, but will be recommending this to lovers of introspective literary fiction.

512jnk28gkl-_sx324_bo1204203200_The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton, is NetGalley’s lead debut for February. I can see why: its tagline, “Gosford Park meets Inception”, is inspired, and it ticks so many boxes: Golden Age crime, time-travel, redemption story. The influence I see, however, isn’t Gosford Park; it’s Cluedo (or Clue, to Americans). The whole country house/missing host set-up is complicated by the fact that our protagonist, Aiden Bishop, keeps waking up in different peoples’ bodies; he’s informed by a shadowy figure dressed as a medieval Plague Doctor that he has eight days, and eight “hosts”, with which to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the house, which occurs at eleven p.m. on the first night of the house party. Should he fail, by day eight, to have solved the crime, his memory will be wiped and it will all start again; should he succeed, he’ll be freed. It’s a great premise, although the execution is slightly shaky: there are too many “hosts” insufficiently differentiated, a lot of time is spent on building Bishop’s confusion that could be better spent driving us towards the meat of the story, and why does Bishop never wake up as a woman? (There are tons of them at the party.) The ultimate explanation of the crime is clever, but the ultimate explanation for Bishop’s presence at the house feels a little Black Mirror, and—most frustratingly for a reader who’s now dabbling more than ever in sf—extremely handwavey. (The mechanism is never explained at all.) Everyone will be reading this, and I think most people will find it extremely fun and diverting—which it is, but there’s not a whole lot behind it.

36441056Unlike The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch, which, while diverting and even in places fun, has got a lot behind it. I described it on Goodreads as “Angela Carter in space”, which I stand by. The premise is that, in an ecologically ravaged future, what remains of humanity is a race of alabaster-skinned elites floating above the Earth on a platform ship called CIEL, run by the charismatic cult leader Jean de Men. Medievalists will recognise a corruption of Jean de Meun, author of the Romance of the Rose; the parallels continue as we learn our narrator is Christine Pizan, an inhabitant of CIEL who specialises in the only art form that is now permitted: skin branding, or “grafts”, telling stories both verbal and pictoral directly on the skin. Christine’s sort-of lover Trinculo, who makes a habit of appalling the authorities with smuttiness (sexuality is illegal, and humans are devolving; genitalia and sexual difference are now things of the past), is sentenced to die, but manages to pass her a message: Joan, a child-warrior who led the earth-bound resistance against Jean de Men years ago, is still alive; she wasn’t burned at the stake, her image broadcast round the globe and through the galaxy, but escaped, and Christine must find her. There is so much going on in this book about bodies, the female body especially, and the reproductive capacities of the female body; how bodies can literally tell stories, carry history; never have I been made so aware of the body as the ultimate site of political resistance. It is resonant with where we are now, as a world, in ways that are both subtle and in-your-face. Yuknavitch’s obsession with specifically female physicality (there’s a fair bit of vagina talk and symbolism) might lay it open to charges of cis-centricity; I’d need to read it again, and talk to a trans person about it. If it is eligible for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I can’t not see it on the longlist. It’s breathtakingly good.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: I am so crime-d out. Too much crime. Enough now.

December Superlatives

There is no need for Superlatives in December, I hear you say; didn’t we deal with all that when we did the end-of-year roundup? The answer is nope, we did not! In fact, I’ve barely mentioned any of my December reads on this blog, which is a shame, because almost all of them were great. There were ten of them, a record monthly low for 2017. For some reason I always seem to read less during the holidays, probably because I’m busy being guilted into spending quality time with my family instead.

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most utterly charming: A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. Look, I will confess that I was really cynical about this one. A decades-spanning novel focusing on a Russian aristocrat placed under house arrest by the Bolsheviks and forced to live in a swanky hotel forever? <eyeroll> But I was very wrong. It’s about writing poetry and drinking champagne, sure. But it’s also about creating order, and structure, and meaning, in environments where such things are discouraged. It’s about adapting to your circumstances, and the importance of bending the rules a little, and the strength of the human mind. It deserves every accolade it’s received. Go read it right now.

best historical fiction: Walking Wounded by Sheila Llewellyn, set in a psychiatric hospital after WWI. Llewellyn has worked with men suffering from PTSD and her novel deals with the birth of the psychological techniques now used to treat the condition: group therapy and CBT. It’s not dissimilar to Pat Barker’s Regeneration—the creation of art plays a major role in rehabilitating some of the men, just as poetry does for Barker’s characters.

most heart-achingly lovely: Five Rivers Met On a Wooded Plain, Barney Norris’s first novel, about five people who are brought together one day by a traffic accident in Salisbury. Norris is the heir to Jon McGregor’s semi-cinematic approach to novel writing. Rita, the flower seller-cum-drug-dealer whose voice starts the book off, is brilliantly drawn, though I think Alison, an army wife writing a diary to the husband on tour whom she desperately misses, is the most acutely observed. The whole thing is gorgeously done.

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the Annual Winter Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop. It’s not, I’m afraid, in the first tier of Dickens’s work (for what it’s worth: Bleak House, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend). The grotesquerie is too much, the minor characters are unmemorable ciphers (who can tell me who Abel Garland is?) and the plot is stretched wildly out of shape; near the end, events somehow feel both rushed and plodding. But the diminutive villain, Daniel Quilp, is why this book lives. He’s disturbingly vivid—the threat that he poses has more than a tinge of the sexual, in a way that’s surprisingly overt for Dickens—and he’s totally unforgettable.

most harrowing: White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht. Dealing with two neglected subjects—the haenyeo or female divers of Korea’s Jeju Island, and the experiences of “comfort women” enslaved for sex by the Japanese army during WWII—it’s without doubt an important piece of historical fiction. It will probably be read more for its content than for its style; Bracht’s prose is best described as serviceable. (It’s not bad; it’s just not anything else, either.) Still, I found myself really invested in the story of sisters Hana and Emi, and rooting for both to survive and thrive.

most like inside baseball: Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor’s collection of essays, lectures and “occasional prose”. It’s a lot of fun if you’ve read her work (and is there any style to beat the slightly self-conscious mid-century Anglo-American essay style? [well, yeah]), but the collection suffers from repetitiveness if read straight through. You do get a good sense of O’Connor’s obsessiveness, and sense of humour, as a writer and a person, though.

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most exciting debut: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. I straight up loved this. Jonah Hancock is a staid merchant in Georgian London, whose most reliable captain has just sold his entire ship for what he says is a mermaid. Aghast, but needing to recoup his losses, Hancock exhibits the mermaid in a public house, to great acclaim. Its success leads him to the courtesan Angelica Neal, with whom he begins to fall in love… To say more would be to give the whole game away, but here’s a recommendation: anyone who loved Golden Hill or The Essex Serpent will adore this. It’s got spectacularly fluid writing with just the right level of period detail, perfect comic touches, and an atmosphere of total sumptuousness.

best book to read on the sofa on Christmas Eve: An English Murder, by Cyril Hare. A pitch-perfect self-aware reincarnation of the Golden Age murder mystery—complete with enigmatic butler, terminally ill aristocrat, caddish young heir, beautiful ingenue, meddling middle-class woman, country house, white-out, communications breakdown, and cyanide. Hare also deals with the social effects of the English fascist movement after the end of WWII, which feels extremely topical indeed. A real page-turner and very elegantly written too.

warm bath book: At Home In Mitford, by Jan Karon. My mum used to read these books when I was small and my grandparents have the whole series; they’re set in a small town in North Carolina and revolve around the local Episcopalian priest, Father Tim Kavanagh. Karon does actually acknowledge social issues like lack of welfare services, rural substance abuse and addiction, child poverty, and so on, though nothing in Mitford is ever what you might call gritty. Everyone reads their Bible and helps their neighbour, and no one ever swears. It’s all very Southern and very soothing.

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best book to read on the sofa on Boxing Day: A Maigret Christmas, a collection of two novellas (novelettes? They’re quite short) and a short story by Georges Simenon. In the title story, Maigret is importuned into solving the mystery of who broke into his neighbour’s flat dressed in white and red; in the second, a socially awkward police phone operator discovers a pattern in seemingly random crimes all over Paris; in the third, which isn’t really a crime story at all, a prostitute decides to do a favour for a hopelessly naive country girl on Christmas Eve. The second and third are, I think, better stories—they certainly hold your attention more—though perhaps that’s because Maigret was already a well established character when Simenon wrote the first story. In any case, I’ll try a full-length Maigret novel before making up my mind.

what’s next: Two books into 2018 already, and with a goal of reading 190 books this year (to improve on 2017’s tally of 181), I’m having to choose between three proofs of soon-to-be-released novels: Turning For Home, Barney Norris’s second novel, about the legacy of the Troubles; The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch, about which I’ve already heard amazing things; and The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton, set in England at three different points in history. Can anyone recommend one over the others?

In 2017

I never used to believe in New Year’s resolutions. I never used to believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has usually started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff was just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. This year I’ve kind of changed my mind. There are some things I want to do in 2018, including taking up yoga again, finishing a first draft of this goddamn novel, and eating more mindfully. But resolutions, like dreams, are rarely interesting to anyone else, and, like dreams, rarely appear fully-formed.

My most long-standing New Year’s tradition is to look back over what I’ve done during the past twelve months. Usually the good outweighs the bad. This year was a decidedly mixed bag. Miserable shit happened. There was also much rejoicing. A lot of 2017 was about surviving and persisting and taking control of my own thoughts. I did that, and I’m proud of that.

In 2017, in roughly chronological order, I:

landed my dream job

bought some spectacular gold shoes for £3

showed my mama around the London I know

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learned to love Bach

served on the Baileys Prize shadow panel

had my heart broken

moved house

survived a sexual assault, in the same week that I moved house

…and now disclosed it to more people than ever

used my dining rights at my old college with friends

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explored my new neighbourhood

found some great free museum cafes to write in

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turned 25

visited home for the first time in almost two years

went vintage shop-hopping with my badass brother

witnessed a solar eclipse

was reunited (and got absolutely shirt-waisted) with my Govies: Matt, Jon, and Red

took a Greyhound bus

watched the sun rise over London from the roof of my new house

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welcomed dear friends to my new home

bought my first ever house plant

celebrated my goddaughter’s first birthday

consulted on hair, makeup, dresses and shoes for my cousin Sarah’s wedding next April

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sang at Liverpool Cathedral (during the aftermath of Storm Brian!)

bought the most majestic floor-length velvet dress the world has ever seen

served on the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel

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rejoiced in the marriage of two wonderful humans, Helen and Charlie

made it to 120K words of my novel

led the music on Christmas Day at my grandparents’ parish church

earned the trust of my auntie’s traumatised rescue puppy

traveled to Scotland to celebrate the New Year with my godparents

read 181 (and a half) books

 

Books of the Year: 2017

This year, so far, I’ve read 175 books. That’s a lot to choose from, but I’ve managed to narrow down my top choices for the year to eleven. These are THE books: the ones I can’t stop thinking about, have been recommending for months, and still get something new from, every time I reconsider them. There were many, many others that I loved and thought were brilliant (they’re listed at the bottom of this post). Some titles have been left off on the grounds of ubiquity: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Underground Railroad and The Power were all incredible books which I adored, but they don’t exactly need any more attention or admiration. These eleven are my absolute hands-down all-stars, and some of them, I think, deserve a bit more love. So here they are.

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  1. For A Little While, by Rick Bass. Bass is criminally unknown in this country. He writes the most beautiful, most complete short stories I’ve ever seen: each one is like a novel, feeling full with incident and characterisation and yet never going on for too long. His geography is the American West and Midwest, but unlike other writers of whom he reminds me (Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy) he is unfailingly humane to his characters. Reading him is an absolute treat. (short review)

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2. Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry. Speaking of McCarthy, Barry’s novel reminded me of a gay-er, more tender and humane and frankly normal, riff on Blood Meridian. Barry too writes about the violence visited upon Native Americans by whites, but he does so in the context of the US Civil War and as part of the love story between his two male protagonists, Thomas McNulty and John Cole. His sentences are stunning, and he absolutely nails the dynamic of silent, undemonstrative love between men.

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3. Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. My initial impression of this stands: it’s like a Graham Greene novel and an Ian Fleming novel had a baby, then left the baby to be raised by the Coen Brothers. Dark, funny, nihilistic and magnificently disdainful of narrative convention, it’s a spy novel set in 1970s Morocco that manages to completely baffle you half a dozen times. The ending is unforgettable. (full review)

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4. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Of all the books I read this year, this is one of the most sophisticated. Juggling the stories of several young Chinese musicians at Shanghai Conservatory during the Cultural Revolution, it manages to be an overview of twentieth-century Chinese history, a family saga, and an examination of the ethics of making art under tyranny, without ever losing nuances of characterisation. Good though The Power is, this was my favourite to win the Baileys Prize. (short review)

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5. The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. This is the single book that I wish I had pushed on more people this year. It’s a hard sell, because it is about Marzano-Lesnevich’s investigation of the case of Ricky Langley, who is in prison for molesting and murdering a six-year-old boy. She interweaves his story with her own—including her childhood molestation by her grandfather—and creates a compelling, frightening, beautiful book out of it, tackling the meanings of innocence, of justice and of redemption. I think it is utterly stunning.

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6. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. Everyone has been talking about this book. No prize jury has yet seen fit to reward it, which is bonkers; it’s a book with no narrator, which ignores the conventions of the missing-girl genre as well as those of traditional nature writing, resulting in an extraordinarily compelling jigsaw of life in a rural village shaken by tragedy over the course of thirteen years. It takes almost inconceivable skill to write such a thing, and I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already. (full review)

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7. The Time Of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. This book is absolutely astonishing. Its protagonists are mixed-race (African-American-Jewish) brothers Jonah and Joseph, a concert pianist and an operatic tenor, but it is so much more than an insider’s classical music novel; it is ambitious enough to take on twentieth-century American history, inter-racial marriage, deep questions of belonging and vocation and family and home, and Powers simply writes so intelligently and thoughtfully. (It will also give you a whole Spotify playlist of stuff to listen to, if that’s your jam.) It is now on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. Can’t say better than that.

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8. It, by Stephen King. Rarely, if ever, have I been so pleasantly surprised by a book. King’s exploration of small-town horror and mundane evil is over a thousand pages long, but, reader, they will fly by, I promise you. His sexual politics are awkward and dated, but you can tell he was trying, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another author who—at his best—is so damn readable while still keeping rhythm and flow in his prose. Make time for this book. (full review)

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How about this cover. Maybe my favourite of the year.

9. Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. The sci-fi book I have been recommending to everyone who doesn’t like sci-fi. Set in an industrially ravaged future city menaced by an enormous flying bear (go with it), it tells the story of scavenger Rachel, who lives with her partner Wick in an abandoned tower block, and who finds a small lump of biotech one day on her searches. She takes it home and names it Borne, and quickly finds that the extent of Borne’s abilities—and his true nature—are way beyond her expectations. It’s a lot of things rolled into one: a suspense thriller, a mother-and-child story, a tale of friendship, a sort of romance. VanderMeer’s imagination, and ability to translate his ideas into strong visuals through prose, is peerless.

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10. The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. In the same way, I imagine, as the medical profession thanks its various divinities for Theodore Dalrymple, Henry Marsh, and Adam Kay, so are booksellers offering orisons for the work of Shaun Bythell. At last, someone who is lifting the curtain on the ridiculous/rude/implausible/plain stupid things, customers, and situations that booksellers deal with daily. And you don’t have to be in the industry to appreciate the man’s witty misanthropy. We keep selling out of this in the bookshop, sometimes within the same day of a fresh delivery.

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11. Dodgers, by Bill Beverly. This is one of those books that you almost cannot talk about, because to do so is to disturb the complex feelings of awe and sorrow and emptiness and fullness that settle, all at the same time, upon you once you finish it. It is indisputably a crime novel, but oh it is so much more. East, our protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old lookout at an LA crack house. He fucks up, and is given a chance to redeem himself: take a roadtrip with some other fuck-ups, and his preternaturally brutal younger brother Ty, to assassinate a federal judge in Wisconsin. There is so much brilliant thinking and writing in this, about brothers and violence and despair and choosing the kind of man you wish to be. It deserves to be a classic.

Other books that were incredible: Every one of these titles is something I would urge you to read as soon as you can. Run, don’t walk. Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway: viciously funny, insanely clever, on the potential consquences of a surveillance society. Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward: a stunning road trip novel; Ward is a modern William Faulkner. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towles: charming and witty, without ever losing intellectual complexity and nuance. Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, by Barney Norris: if you loved Reservoir 13, this is your next stop; set in Salisbury and utterly breathtaking. English Animals, by Laura Kaye: beat Ali Smith to being the Most Timely Brexit Novel, and also a beautifully written depiction of class/power imbalance and a lesbian relationship. A Field Guide to Reality, by Joanna Kavenna: the dreamiest, oddest Oxford novel ever, taking in thirteenth-century medieval theories of reality and contemporary metaphysics, and really set apart by fantastic illustrations. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead: you know why. Black and British, by David Olusoga: my new favourite history book, dealing with the presence of free Africans in Britain long before the Empire Windrush. The Wardrobe Mistress, by Patrick McGrath: a compelling ghost story set in the freezing winter of 1947, in London’s seedily glamorous theatre world. 2084, ed. George Sandison: some of the best sci-fi of the year, in the best-edited short story collection of the year. My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent: brutal and stunning, a contemporary McCarthy mixed with Daniel Woodrell. Balancing Acts, by Nicholas Hytner: engaging commentary on plays and staging, as well as some fun name-dropping; worth reading for his analysis of Othello alone. Lincoln In the Bardo, by George Saunders: it really is the most heartbreaking and risk-taking book, very worth reading. Night Sky With Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong: my favourite poetry book of the year, lush meditations on sex and heritage and allegiance. The Power, by Naomi Alderman: reading it is a mental game-changer; you won’t think the same way again. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow: an honest-to-God utopian novel, suggesting that the future might not suck if we work together and use tech productively. Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: a novella about a sexy, cosmopolitan pensioner, the kind of older woman we should all aim to be.

And I have to stop there—I could go on. Have you read any of these? Have I convinced you to pick up any?

2017 In First Lines

Now that I’ve finished the first book of the last month of the year, I can start with all of the usual end-of-year posting. These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it (not to be confused with the Best Of Year roundup!)

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January: “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.”—Virgin And Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson. The surest sign that my reading has changed this year is that this sentence didn’t especially register back in January, but made me raise an eyebrow high when I reread it two minutes ago.

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February: “Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along.”—Mirror Shoulder Signal, by Dorthe Nors. I remember reading this while walking to work at a restaurant in Pimlico, where I waited tables for a deeply un-fun month and a half. Sharp and fresh and kind of off-kilter; it was on the Man Booker International shortlist for a reason.

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March: “Atop the mud-brick wall stood a man stripped to the waist, with his arms stretched out to the sides as if crucified.”—Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. The pitch-blackest comedy I’ve ever read; a spy novel at once hopelessly enigmatic, deeply pessimistic, and posing the most serious moral questions. It’ll be in my Books of the Year for sure.

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April: “On Friday, January 4, 2013, Aaron Swartz awoke in an excellent mood.”—The Idealist, by Justin Peters. A biography of Swartz, a programming prodigy (he helped develop Creative Commons at the age of fifteen) and advocate of open source software and the free exchange of ideas. Absolutely essential reading for anyone who reads or uses a computer (so, you.)

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May: “I could not see the street or much of the estate.”—The City and the City, by China Miéville. A phenomenal mindfuck of a book; a riff on urban isolation and solipsism, I think, and maybe also on willful political blindness, plus there’s a great noir plot.

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June: “Like most forms of corruption, it began with men in suits.”—Real Tigers, by Mick Herron. We love Mick Herron at the bookshop; this is the third of his Slough House series, about a department of disgraced MI5 agents. One could wish for slightly fewer wisecracks in this volume, but it’s solid and tons of fun.

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July: “The teenagers would fuck it up.”—The Awkward Age, by Francesca Segal. Does anyone write about parenthood and intergenerational conflict (and surprising alliances) with more sly, sympathetic wit than Francesca Segal? I doubt it.

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August: “It had been a bad night for nervous dogs.”—Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose. A deeply thought-provoking remix of Mrs. Dalloway, set on the day of the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death.

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September: “This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation.”—Roughing It, by Mark Twain. My dad bought me this when I was home for the summer; Twain is one of his favourite writers, and it was lovely to read it back in London and think of him.

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October: “The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, ‘Why don’t you go back and sleep?'”—The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John Le Carré. What a first line. Even if you don’t know where you are, you know where you are: somewhere cold, somewhere dark, somewhere not entirely safe.

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November: “At the end, he sat in the hotel room and counted out the pills.”—The End of the Day, by Claire North. Read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel; I wasn’t entirely impressed with the occasional melodrama of the book, but the idea is very good indeed (our protagonist, Charlie, is the Harbinger of Death) and it’s often a lot of fun.

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December: “At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.”—A Gentleman In Moscow, Amor Towles. What a gorgeous book: tender, tough, and endlessly empathetic. It too will make my Books of the Year without question.

Is this representative of this year’s reading? Not enormously; I read a lot more speculative fiction than this slice suggests, although I think the male-to-female author ratio is about right (pretty close to 50:50). It’s an all-white line-up, which isn’t quite right either; I read some brilliant works by authors of colour this year: David Olusoga, Zadie Smith, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Yaa Gyasi, Colson Whitehead, Patrice Lawrence, Kei Miller, Yukio Mishima, Omar El Akkad, Nnedi Okorafor, Kamila Shamsie… (More on some of these in the Books of the Year post.)

What this fragment of my reading does accurately reflect, however, is that I read a hell of a lot of spy novels this year, statistically speaking. Clearly, espionage was this year’s escapism flavour of choice.

What seems to have improved in 2017 is either my ability to choose books for myself more cannily, or my ability to get more out of more varied titles—or, possibly, both. I don’t do star ratings on this blog because I find them at best a crude tool for describing complex things, but Goodreads pretty much makes you use them, and there were a lot of four- or five-star books this year. Long may it be so.

#6Degrees of Separation: It, by Stephen King

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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We start with It, Stephen King’s creepy clown horror novel, which I read in May and (to my great surprise) thoroughly enjoyed. I had avoided King for a long time, assuming that he was probably not all that good a writer, and was completely surprised by the fact that, actually, he writes very well. (review)

Virtually the opposite happened when I read my first John Grisham novel, Camino Island; having been proved wrong with King, I had hopes that Grisham would turn out to be a pretty good writer, but these were dashed by page five. Fortunately, it’s a quick read.

My copy of Camino Island was purchased at New Dominion Bookstore in Charlottesville, where I used to work and where John Grisham would often come in to sign (he lives nearby). My current favourite author-signed copy is the paperback of White Teeth that my brother got Zadie Smith to sign and dedicate to me. (It says, “To Eleanor – the joy is in the writing!”, and it makes me teary with happiness every time I even think about it.)

Smith published her first book at twenty-four. Another young publishing phenomenon was Catherine Webb, who now writes as Claire North. I didn’t love her most recent book, The End of the Day (review), although her earlier book The Fifteen Lives of Harry August got a lot of attention and might be worth checking out.

The End of the Day is easily compared to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, but I really got whiplash from reading it so soon after finishing China Miéville’s novel Kraken. Set in London, Kraken starts with the theft of the Natural History Museum’s giant squid, and quickly delves into apocalypse cults, Londonmancers, and the unionisation of magical familiars. It’s also Gaiman-inflected, but with some tongue-in-cheek homage to Lovecraft.

A favourite magical London is the one from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. An enormous tome set during an alt-history version of the Napoleonic Wars, it focuses on the attempts of the two titular men to revive English magic. It is rich and deep and creepy and wonderful, and you’ll never look at a mirror the same way again.

Finally, another excellent alt-Napoleonic Wars novel (yes, there’s more than one of them!) is K.J. Whittaker’s recent False Lights. Whittaker’s book contains no magic, but in her world, Napoleon wins at Waterloo and installs his brother Jerome on the English throne. Our heroine is the mixed-race daughter of a black British sea captain. It’s got romance and swashbuckling and wit, and is perfect for fans of Daphne Du Maurier, Rafael Sabatini, or indeed Susanna Clarke.

From small-town American horror to sumptuous historical fancy, via blockbusting crime and literary prodigies; where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, a firm favourite from adolescence which is now a franchise that probably reached its natural end several years ago…