February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

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24 thoughts on “February Superlatives

  1. Excellent month with lots of reading (unlike me). So I may have to reread The Essex Serpent as well at some point. I did love parts of it, but overall it was just a bit too much and long for me. Like you, I adored The Uncommon Reader – so funny, especially the thought of the Queen conversing with the French President. I’ve made a note of Orangeboy, because yes, I am not a huge fan of YA…

    • Oh my gosh, the Queen trying to talk to the French pres about Genet is one of my absolute favourite bits! I do think The Essex Serpent rewards rereading – I wonder whether it’s SO full-on that at normal speeds it’s a bit too much.

  2. Helen Alston says:

    Charlie is reading Homegoing right now (my Christmas book present to him) and he’s going SO SLOWLY—I am SO psyched to read it!

    • Helen Alston says:

      PS… we read Swing Time for my little book club and had SUCH A ROLLICKING DISCUSSION about the main character. That book! I get the flack, but it was a great one to talk about and I think ultimately I enjoyed it.

      • What’s your book club?! I have been thinking of trying to create one, but it’s all about the people, and all my book people live scattered far from each other.

  3. Tell me more about Paul Kingsnorth. I thought he lived off the grid(ish) but with wife and kids. I *d0* get that vibe from him, not so much from his books (I’ve only read The Wake) but from his newsletter, I have definitely rolled my eyes and been like, “dude, c’mon”. But I fucking loved The Wake so much!

    • See, The Wake was what made me wise to it! All that “Buccmaster is admirable” stuff when actually (SPOILER ALERT) he’s a goddamn rapist! And also what we might today call a terrorist, in a strangely individual way…(as in he doesn’t have the dogma of a group; he just wants the Normans out, personally and psychotically.) He reminded me of the stereotype of the hillbilly farmer with shotgun. The fact that Kingsnorth can actually write is frankly annoying, a bit like when I read Money with every intention of hating it and found I couldn’t because Martin Amis can write, the rat bastard.

      • I agree with everything except “Buccmaster is admirable”, I didn’t read it that way, I never thought he was supposed to be. I saw it as delusions of grandeur. To me he was the the last remnant of a dying way of life… also a rapist, wife beater, child abuser.

        But then I have a Jonathan Franzen obsession so you can take my opinion on gross male writers with a big ol grain of salt haha!

      • Heh, oh Franzen… Yeah, maybe you’re right. I thought there was a level of “look at this grassroots opposition to imperialist oppression! Look at the proud heritage we’ve lost!” in The Wake, but as the opposite side of your coin, I am well known for my tendency to see obtuse misogyny in the works of most men and not a few women.

  4. Am just about to start Homegoing so you’ve got me looking forward to the end already. Just finished Days Without End and loved it – beautifully rough as you say. And as for Paul Kingsnorth I just found that The Wake annoyed the shit out of me. Thank Christ I’ve not progressed to his newsletters!!

    • Hehehehehe… I appreciate what he was doing with language in The Wake, but it took some time to settle into. I’m SO pleased you loved Days Without End, too. What a stunner.

    • Which is totally fair! I think responses to TES are primarily dependent on how you feel about Cora, and I just didn’t adore her. “You never wanted friends or lovers, you wanted courtiers,” Martha tells her, and I see that so clearly. Still: beautiful, atmospheric, will read whatever Perry writes next!

  5. Your comment section is highly entertaining today. So much so that I’ve forgotten what I was going to comment on myself!
    I think the book I would choose from here right now is Days Without End. It sounds like a safe bet. Although, now I’m pretty curious about Kingsnorth…
    I loved Homegoing so much, and yes, that is a pretty great cover.

    • Haha, I aim to provide diversion 🙂 Days Without End is superb, and gorgeous. I really also want to push people towards Black and British, because I think it’s fascinating, and Rick Bass’s short stories. Kingsnorth is worth reading but if you like length for your buck, don’t buy it – get a library copy – it’s just so short!

  6. As a non-short story reader I appreciate the tip on Bass! Also, totally agree that Uncommon Reader is an awesome comfort read. A Very good month for you!

  7. Shannon says:

    Hi Elle,

    Lovely post, really appreciate your taking the time to go through your month’s reading in such a fun way!

    Just curious, have you read any mystery/crime/thrillers that have even come close to Tana French? I love her work dearly, so much that I end up hoarding her latest book until she releases a new. I simply cannot bear life without the possibility of a new Tana French to read! What will I do if I get cranky and nothing can save me but a fresh Dublin mystery? I’d love to have another author to go to for that craving…

    • So, I personally haven’t read these books yet, but my colleague is RAVING about Mick Herron’s novels. He writes more spy thrillers than straight-up police procedurals, but what I’m hearing is that his grasp of plot and good writing is similar.

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