Books of the year, 2018: paperback fiction

51fe1shobzl-_sx323_bo1204203200_The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. The Catholic novel par excellence follows an unnamed “whisky priest”, an ordained man on the run from the authorities in a Mexican state where Catholicism and the priesthood have been outlawed. The priest’s fugitive condition is set against that of Padre José, who has succumbed to the government’s demand that ordained men enter marriage. José is constantly shamed and belittled by children and by his new wife (formerly his housekeeper); Greene portrays him as you might a confused dog. The whisky priest, meanwhile, is a weak man and a bad Catholic, but in his final acts, in his attempts to encourage kindness and love, he redeems himself. Greene is more humane than his thematic counterpart, Evelyn Waugh, and The Power and the Glory is both stern and poignant.

51dwaae3rzl-_sx320_bo1204203200_Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan. An excellent introduction to hardboiled science noir, and a huge amount of fun. Morgan treads in cyberpunk territory, but he is happier to make things readily comprehensible than the great names of cyberpunk usually are. (I read Altered Carbon just before Neuromancer, so Gibson’s novel felt weirdly familiar but less accessible.) This world has developed a way of remotely storing consciousness, so that that which is you—memories, cognition, personality—can be contained in a small implant near the base of the neck, known as a stack. (One of the great weirdnesses in the book is the distinction between killing someone’s body, and causing Real Death; the former is quite routine, while the latter—effected by destroying a stack, and the backed-up data if there is any—is considered a serious offense.) Morgan writes like a demon—gripping, compelling, bursting with brilliant, weird, revealing ideas about how societies work.

51pyv2bpvkl-_sx324_bo1204203200_This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart. This is set on Corfu and involves a witty, spirited failed actress, a ruggedly handsome grumpy man, attempted and actual murder, smuggling, currency market inflation, abduction, and a dolphin. Our heroine, Lucy Waring, is the aforementioned failed actress, a failure about which she is quite sanguine. I’d never read Stewart before, but she’s very funny, an effect mostly achieved through use of pitilessly accurate similes. The mystery, and the villain, are genuinely chilling and villainous; so often in books of this vintage the stakes feel absurdly low, the evil underdeveloped, but here Stewart conveys a sense of real menace and cruelty. I also read it under perfect circumstances: during the summer heatwave, sprawled on my bed, eating raspberry sorbet. Heaven.

41wf6v2bt7dl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Goblin, by Ever Dundas. The critical and commercial neglect of this book has been a travesty. It’s a novel set in WWII, during the Blitz, but it’s utterly unlike any other such novel I’ve ever read: scarier, fiercer, and infinitely more successful at conveying how completely and utterly the world has changed over the past seventy years. Like The Madonna of the MountainsGoblin allows the reader to inhabit the essential strangeness of the past. Wartime England’s dark and disturbing side is brought to life through the voice of its eponymous protagonist, an unwanted child whose best friend is a dog named Devil, and whose entire difficult life is an extended proof that animals are more trustworthy than humans. Weird, creepy, heartbreaking, and totally convincing.

668282The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark. I’m not sure that I “liked” The Driver’s Seat, but its single trick is so horrifying and so impeccably revealed that it has to make a best-of-year list. It’s impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers, so I won’t; suffice to say that you can only read The Driver’s Seat for the first time once. Subsequent readings might illuminate the pattern and structure of the novel, but nothing will ever make a reader forget that plot. It’s macabre and entrancing, impossible to take your eyes off. Lise, Spark’s main character, has no interiority at all, but that’s the point: we’re not meant to be able to understand her. It’s a brave thing to do in fiction.

s-l225A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine. This is such a complicated piece of work that I’ll need to read it again and again to get the whole thing. Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell’s pseudonym for her more literary crime novels—whatever that means) writes with the psychological insight and the absolute patience that I first encountered in Tana French’s novels. Vine’s narrator delicately unwraps the layers of respectability, self-delusion, silence and manipulation that lead to violence. It’s not only a fantastic novel about a murder, but a fantastic exploration of the strength of social mores, a strong Exhibit A for the argument that the recent past is more alien than science fiction. Genuinely disturbing without ever once being less than decorous.

81yf15ngyelThe Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer. It took two and a half goes to get into this, for some reason, but when it finally clicked for me, it was superb. Wolitzer takes a group of smart, talented teenagers who all meet at a kind of hippie artistic summer camp in the 1970s, and catapults them forward in time, mapping the ways in which their relationships to each other, and to other people, change. I’m a real sucker for writing about other art forms, and also for books about friendship groups developing (as opposed to static friendship groups, as in The Secret History, although I love that too in its place), so The Interestings really did it for me: Wolitzer perfectly grasps the unpredictability of adult life, and the tenacity of youthful love.

81oxlxekxxlConvenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata. Keiko’s social skills have always been on the idiosyncratic side. We might think of her as autistic, or neuro-atypical, though there’s never any attempt to diagnose her in the book. Constant cries of “can’t you be normal?” baffle Keiko so much that, by the time she’s an adult, she’s decided to aim for social acceptance through mimicry. Most of the time, she manages it, but it’s not really enough; after eighteen years of working in a convenience store, she still isn’t married, and the demands for normalcy are returning with a vengeance. The crisis of the novel, the choice which Keiko has to make, is: will she give up the only identity that has ever made sense to her (that of a convenience store worker) in search of social acceptance? Dark yet funny, sweet yet disturbing, Convenience Store Woman is unforgettable.

isbn9781787478039A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley. This is perhaps a book whose time has come. It’s basically speculative fiction; the action begins with a scene in which Tucker Caliban shoots all his livestock, salts his fields, burns his house, and walks out of the (fictional) Southern state in which he lives, accompanied by his wife and their baby. The entire black population of the state follows suit, and the rest of the novel takes the points of view of various white men, including a small boy and the son of the white family for whom Tucker Caliban used to work. Kelley writes sentences with the clarity and declarative confidence of Hemingway; his characters are vulnerable and sympathetic even while they express ignorance, prejudice, and—at the very end—bloodthirsty cruelty. It is a totally brilliant book, one I’ve been thinking about ever since finishing it.

9781780227344The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell. Sixteen-year-old Lalla lives in a London where Regent’s Park is home to a tent city; Oxford Street burned for three weeks, and the British Museum shelters homeless squatters. Her father, Michael, has been making plans for some time, and they finally leave London behind on a heavily provisioned ship that Michael has been stocking for years. Lalla’s parents have protected her, and her naiveté is infuriating to the reader as well as to the people who surround her, but that is the point: even if she grows up late, she has to grow up, and that means being responsible for yourself, instead of waiting for others to take care of you. Full of clever religious symbolism, and much more a portrait of the present than is comfortable.

9780099581666Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre. A novel about the marriage of Sir Kenelm Digby, famed sailor, alchemist and adventurer in the time of Charles I, and his wife Venetia, the most renowned beauty of her day, who is now thirty and who, as the novel opens, is seeking a tonic that will preserve her youthful allure. Eyre melds this historical narrative with what might be called flashes, or glimpses, of the future; Sir Kenelm’s ornamental obelisk at his country home, Gayhurst, becomes a radio mast, the narrative voice conflates his voyages with the space travel that humans will achieve a few centuries hence, and Venetia’s obsession with controlling not only her face, but the production and distribution of her image, is shown to be the forerunner of the modern brand management practiced by celebrities like the Kardashians. Absolutely genius.

original_400_600Quarantine, by Jim Crace. I read this so recently and it’s still so obvious that it’s book-of-the-year material. Crace is an atheist, but this book—maybe the one for which he’s best known—reimagines the experience of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, during which, according to biblical authority, he was tempted by the devil but rejected his advances. In Crace’s version, Jesus isn’t in the same place on his life trajectory: he’s a much younger man, almost a boy. A group of equally lost souls is camping in the caves of quarantine, and each of them wants something from this period of spiritual cleansing. Jesus doesn’t survive his forty-day fast—no one could—but Musa, Quarantine‘s anti-hero, seems to see him at the end of the book: in a sort of Schrodinger’s resurrection, Jesus is neither clearly living nor clearly dead. For me, the most Christian element of the book is the friendship between, and emancipation of, the two women in the caves: they find comfort, acceptance, and courage in each other’s presence. Deeply thought-provoking and moving.

Also completely excellent this year, and now in paperback, was Anna Burns’s Booker Prize-winning Milkman. I finished it last night and want to give it a proper Reading Diary review, but it’s on this list in spirit. A massive accomplishment.

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Reading Diary: long and short, or, God and sex

28191591Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (out in Feb): This outrageously good-looking book is also outrageously long: well over 600 pages in proof. It is also only the first in a projected trilogy, entitled Dark Star, focusing on African mythology. Neil Gaiman’s puffed it as an African Tolkien with flashes of Angela Carter, which actually doesn’t seem too far off. It focuses on a mercenary known only as Tracker, whose prodigious gift for finding and following scent is mostly used to hunt down debtors and shiftless husbands until he is recruited to find a missing boy who might just be the rightful heir to the throne of the kingdom. James frames most of the narrative as a story told under interrogation, presumably to keep us in suspense about how Tracker comes to be imprisoned as a result of his quest, but for long stretches of time it’s easy to forget about that. Chronological leaps, a profusion of characters, and the aforementioned sheer length of the book meant that for a fair fraction of its pages–maybe a fifth to a quarter–I was reasonably confused about what was happening and whose side we ought to be on. Luckily, I think that’s exactly the reaction James intends; he wants people to need to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf over and over again. And for all that it’s baggy, it’s also intense and immersive; I read it over four days and could barely stand having to do other things like sleep and go to work. The book is rich in brilliant imagery–a city built in the trunks and branches of enormous baobab trees; a fish the size of an island; murderous spirits who walk on the ceiling–and much of that is imagery that white readers won’t be automatically familiar with. James also does Tolkien one better by making (gasp!) explicit sex, and explicit queerness, part of his world. Black Leopard won’t be for everyone, but it’s an incredible experience.

51zSm5C7lWL._SX326_BO1204203200_The Hook, by Raffaella Barker: Books like The Hook fascinate me because they are clearly the products of skilled professionals, and yet they would be virtually unpublishable if anyone tried to sell them to an editor tomorrow. The Hook was first published in 1996 and there must have been something in the water in English literature in the ’80s and ’90s, because those decades are full of books like this, where–it seems–the author is just telling us a story. How crazy that sounds now! How crazy that it sounds crazy! It’s not that The Hook has no plot; au contraire; the minute we meet eighteen-year-old Christy and learn that her mother’s just died, she’s dropped out of sixth form, her father’s bought a trout farm in the countryside, and she’s met a man named Mick at a bar, we know bad things are afoot. Maybe it’s just that Barker appears to be writing without an agenda. She does tell a story about a young woman being led astray by an older man who is not all he says he is, and let down by the people who ought to be protecting her, but it’s hardly #MeToo territory. There is nothing in the narrating voice that forces us to see the novel’s events in a political light or even in the light of wider society. I can’t decide whether that makes it incredibly subtle and delicate in a way that publishing is missing out on now, or whether The Hook simply has…well…no hook. Or maybe a bit of both. Has anyone else read Barker? What do you think?

original_400_600Quarantine, by Jim Crace: Crace is an atheist, but this book–maybe the one for which he’s best known–reimagines the experience of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, during which, according to biblical authority, he was tempted by the devil but rejected his advances. In Crace’s version, Jesus isn’t in the same place on his life trajectory: he’s a much younger man, almost a boy (and he never goes by the name Christ, being referred to by the narrating voice always as “Jesus”). The “devil” is a man named Musa, a merchant, wife-beater, and, later, a violent rapist, whose near-fatal fever is unwittingly cured by Jesus on his first night in the desert. The caves of quarantine are not as deserted as he would like; others are in them, seeking other things. Aphas, an old man, wants a cure for his cancer; Shim wants the enlightenment that he believes he’s entitled to; Marta wants to get pregnant; Miri and Musa are there simply because the caravan in which they were traveling left them behind. Throughout the novel, characters wrestle with what they want. Crace shows us that desire is often better left unfulfilled: one of the primary questions of the book is whether everyone would have been better off if Musa had not been miraculously cured. And yet Crace’s vision doesn’t seem so bleak, at least not to me. Jesus doesn’t survive his forty-day fast–no one could–but Musa seems to see him at the end of the book. In a sort of Schrodinger’s resurrection, Jesus is neither clearly living nor clearly dead, and it’s suggested that Musa’s inveterate storytelling habit becomes the catalyst for the New Testament narrative that we know now. Meanwhile, Marta and Miri’s friendship and eventual emancipation is, for me, the most Christian element of the book: two people finding comfort, acceptance, and courage in each other’s presence. It’s a gorgeous piece of work.

the-dreamers-9781471173561_lgThe Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker (out in Feb): This is exactly the sort of science fiction that will receive extremely positive mainstream press attention and high sales; like Station Eleven, another of that kind, it deals with the fall-out of a world-changing event, not so much with the nature or provenance of that event itself. In a small college town in California, students start falling asleep. They’re not in a coma–they’re just sleeping–but nothing will wake them up. Brain scans reveal that they’re dreaming, and not only that, but they’re dreaming more vividly, with more intense cerebral activity, than any normal person. Thomspon Walker follows several point-of-view characters (a few more than she needs to, although she keeps an omniscient narrator throughout, so that pesky problem of differentiating voice doesn’t arise): an isolated freshman named Mei; the idealistic and unusual boy she falls in love with, Matthew; one of her professors, who left his wife for another man decades ago; another college student, Rebecca, who becomes pregnant just before succumbing to sleep; a young couple, Annie and Ben, and their newborn baby, Grace; and two little girls whose father is a doomsday prepper. On the whole, I agree with other assessments I’ve seen of The Dreamers around the Internet: the style is lovely and languid, there’s a bit too much fetishizing of babies and breeding, and everything that’s written about Rebecca’s situation reads painfully like an anti-abortion manifesto. I’d quite like to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, which deals with similar issues and won the Clarke Award in 2012; The Dreamers, meanwhile, is diverting and interesting while you’re reading it, but has faded fairly quickly from my memory.

51FE8d3qeHL._SX287_BO1204203200_The English Gentleman’s Mistress, by Douglas Sutherland: This was published in the late ’80s by Debrett’s (yes, that Debrett’s), and constitutes a sort of tongue-in-cheek nature guide to that most peculiar inhabitant of high society, the gentleman’s mistress. In many ways, it’s funny and charming and contains some cracking anecdotes, including one meant to illustrate the difference between Frenchmen and Englishmen, in which one Frenchman casually informs another that he is sleeping with the latter’s wife, only to be met with “Oh yes? Tell me, is she any good at it these days?” In many other ways, it’s a startling reminder that the late 1980s were as rampant with gross sexism as the late 1880s: women are referred to as mares, for instance, with all of the sexual value judgments that the word implies, and this is clearly not a world in which any sensible woman would prefer having a career to being “kept”. A weird, often enjoyable, often really distressing little volume. I’m glad I have it, if only for self-educational purposes.

27220616Devotion, by Ros Barber: In the near future, just after the death of Richard Dawkins, moves are afoot to reclassify religious fundamentalism as a form of mental illness. In this climate, Dr Finlay Logan must assess the sanity of April Smith, a ninteen-year-old woman who has committed a religiously motivated act of mass murder. Logan himself is struggling to come to terms with the death of his daughter Flora in a skydiving accident; his grief is threatening to destroy his marriage, as his wife–Flora’s stepmother–is increasingly stymied by his inability to communicate his pain. Meanwhile, in the course of investigating April’s condition, Logan comes across a charismatic researcher named Gabrielle Salmon, who offers both him and April the chance to undergo a procedure that, she claims, will allow them to experience direct contact with the divine.

The ideas in Devotion are in many ways more compelling than the characters whose actions are meant to express those ideas: Logan is frustrating, selfish and self-pitying, while the event that drove April to murder is at best predictable, at worst a reduction of female pain to an inevitable origin in sexual trauma. I’m also uncertain about Barber’s portrayal of faith. She writes about it in a way that seems to see only three options: crazed, God-talks-to-me fundamentalism, pure atheism, and a kind of “spiritual-but-not-religious” state that manifests in a vague, fuzzy feeling of one-ness with all life. There are many other ways of experiencing what is generally referred to as the divine–there is an enormous distinction between “religious faith” and “religious fundamentalism”–and it would have been refreshing to see some more acknowledgment of that; it’s still so rare in mainstream literary fiction. Devotion is absolutely worth reading, though, even if it only goes halfway, and I’m slightly surprised that it was never on the Clarke Award shortlist.

9781783526215Don’t Hold My Head Down, by Lucy-Anne Holmes (out in Feb): The subtitle should make it pretty clear why I was interested in this. Holmes hit her mid-thirties and became aware–after a disappointing wank to Internet porn–that she wasn’t having nearly as good sex as she wanted. So she made a list (slow sex! A bit of kink! Maybe some bum stuff! Full-body orgasms!) and set off to see what she could find out about how to bang better. It’s a fun read, certainly, but much of it feels (and I accept that it’s very easy to criticize) a bit…basic? Not in terms of the sex she has–Holmes does more stuff in the name of let’s-see-what-this-is-like than I ever have–but in terms of the tone and the attitude, which is all a bit jolly-awkward-Bridget-Jones-falling-into-a-mud-puddle-whoopsy-I’m-such-a-silly-tit. There is a lot of caps lock. There are many exclamation points. A writer can’t help the person that they are, but I was hoping for something that I’d be able to connect to on an emotional level a bit more. Instead I found myself repeatedly thinking “for Christ’s sake, woman”, not helped by the fact that Holmes meets a man halfway through the book and ends up entering a serious relationship with him, eventually having a baby. Perhaps that’s meant to be a happy ending, but it did rather close off some avenues of exploration. Maybe I’ll have to write my own version of this book.

7B0DFC0F19-347A-4F63-B619-6C84B99E8F6F7DImg400John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead: Before this I’d only read The Underground Railroad, but Whitehead’s reputation preceded him: he’s versatile and has a permanently active, connection-making mind that’s on full show in John Henry Days. John Henry is an American folk hero, although he probably did really live, in some form or another, a steeldriver on the C&O railroad. Faced with the prospect of losing his job to an automated steam drill, he’s said to have challenged the drill to a contest, and won, before dropping dead of exhaustion. Using this semi-historical, semi-mythological event as a thematic focal point, Whitehead riffs on the value of work, particularly on the value of work done by undervalued bodies (brown ones and/or female ones, predominantly), in late-capitalist America. His other protagonist, J. Sutter, is a black journalist who is on a junketeering streak: for months, he’s been at a PR event every day or night. His latest assignment is the official unveiling of the new John Henry postage stamp, and the John Henry Days festival, in the town of Talcott, West Virginia. Whitehead is so exuberantly creative, both with language (which he uses in the manner of an extremely skilled and show-off-y chef wielding a very sharp knife) and with the scope of his ambition (chapters range from the recounting of a violent Rolling Stones concert to the story of the first musician to put the folk ballad on paper), that sometimes the book feels unfocused. But who gives a shit when there’s this much going on?

Thoughts on this batch of reading: So much God stuff! So much sex stuff! An extremely long book and several pretty short ones! Also, I love how excited I’ve been by reading the paperbacks that I chose for myself in Crouch End a few weeks ago (in this batch, that was The HookQuarantineDevotion, and John Henry Days).

Books of the Year 2018: hardback fiction

It is much too difficult to narrow down to ten the 192 books I have so far read this year (two over my Goodreads goal of 190, but I still have ten days to hit my actual, crazy-person target of 200). Also, this must be the most diverse year of reading yet, in terms of genre as much as of reading literature by people of colour, women, and LBTQ folks. To make life easier for myself, this is the first of three Books of the Year lists, focusing on hardback fiction. The second will be a round-up of the best paperback fiction I read this year (e.g. older stuff, not published in 2018), and the third will be my nonfiction Books of the Year picks, both hardback and paperback.

36441056The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch. 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. Yuknavitch’s novel centers bodies, the female body especially, and the reproductive capacities of the female body: how bodies can literally tell stories, carry history, and be sites of political resistance. It is resonant with where we are now, as a world, in ways that are both subtle and in-your-face. I was surprised and saddened not to see it on the Women’s Prize or Man Booker Prize lists.

cover121907-mediumThe House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara. I send this to everyone who loved A Little Life: it has the same feeling of youth, friendship, sexuality and the vivid mania of New York City. Based on the real-life House of Xtravaganza, the first exclusively Latinx drag house in NYC, the novel takes in both the beauty of the 1980s ball scene – the community, love, sisterhood and sass – and its dark flipside: the constant danger of physical and sexual violence, and the opening skirmishes of the community’s fight against HIV/AIDS. It’s beautifully written, and should have been on the Polari Prize list at the very least.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers, by Tim Pears. The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy,  but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, following Leo Sercombe’s peregrinations after being cast out from his family’s cottage on the Prideaux estate, and Lottie Prideaux, his childhood playmate, as she fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique. A truly under-sung writer.

ursula20flight20coverThe Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst. Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy. She is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, and in theatre, with ambitions to become a female playwright. Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and she’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenage eye makes her a very enjoyable narrator. Perhaps unfairly overshadowed by The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, this book is delightful.

31937362The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman. What does it mean to be an artist? Does genius excuse monstrosity? The Italian Teacher centers on Bear Bavinksy, a charismatic painter when we first meet him, in Rome in 1955, with his wife Natalie (nineteen years his junior) and son Charles, known as Pinch. Most of the novel is given over to Pinch and the ways in which his father’s fame, and his own thirst for approval, cripple his adult life. Art and art criticism, the terrible knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only between artists, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all in this deeply engrossing and moving novel.

overstorybritproof

The proof cover is nicer than the finished cover, IMO.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers. There have been rumblings of critical dissent over this book – some people find it overly preachy stodge, while others think it brilliant. I’m in the latter camp. I don’t mind preaching in fiction if the prose moves me, and Powers’s does. There is also something intensely admirable about the ambition of a writer whose novel contains nine point-of-view characters, all of whom we are meant to care about but all of whom are also presented as being the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time. As a fictional project, it’s one of the most deeply sophisticated and exciting things I’ve read for years, even if some of his characters don’t seem strictly necessary.

 

51ehaprfykl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Painter To the King, by Amy Sackville. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on the life and work of Diego Velazquez, King Felipe’s court painter for nearly forty years. While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to see the world as a painter does. Her prose style is gorgeously tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, heat and coolness, sky and earth. It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.

cover3Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans. Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage, but now women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.

51wwwsztqml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. A deceptively short book, almost a novella, Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students—are less devoted to historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen, but Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere. It is also very tightly written: everything is thematically connected, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.

9780571336333The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida. The book starts in 1923, with a girl called Maria Vittoria embroidering sheets for her dowry trunk. From there, Elise Valmorbida spins the story of Maria Vittoria’s life: marriage, children, the ascent of Mussolini’s government and the onset of WWII. The novel feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Maria Vittoria is very much of her time, and her responses to life are so consistent that it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world. The Madonna of the Mountains is one of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. I’m delighted to have found it.

original_400_600Evening in Paradise, by Lucia Berlin. Berlin is the writer who converted me to short stories. She uses the raw material of her own life–alcoholism, young sons, constant moving, the American West and Southwest–in stories that circle around similar themes and characters. They are written in startlingly lucid yet straightforward prose, vivid with imagery, often illuminated by a single unexpected word or phrase. This is her second collection of her work to be published after her death, and it isn’t, by any means, a collection of the second-best. She explores sexuality, marriage, the bohemian life, poverty, whether making good art requires you to lead a cruel life. Berlin is simply brilliant.

Extremely honourable mentions go to: The Devil’s Highway, by Gregory Norminton; All the Perverse Angels, by Sarah K Marr; Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton; The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley; All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison; Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller; Varina, by Charles Frazier; Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson; The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley; House of Glass, by Susan Fletcher; The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell.

Conversation with myself on the bus

Do you know almost the worst part, of all of it? I know that if it had happened to someone else, I would feel jealousy. Pain, even. Because despite how utterly horrible it was, it felt like being chosen. Because violence and desperation are the tithe paid to beauty and to sex, to the irresistible. Awful as it is, it means I’m worth something. It means a man thought me worth the effort: the effort of preparing me, of subduing me.

I know that’s not true. I know that violence and desperation are not, in fact, a helpless response to beauty, that nothing is irresistible. That those things are a homing in on weakness. I hate that I was picked out of the herd: the limping elder, the stumbling calf. I hate that it was so obvious.

And yet I would hate it to be any other way. If there’s to be blood, let it be mine. If there’s to be a choice, let it be me. If there’s to be a sacrifice, let it be me. Let me never be unseen.


There is a voice in my head. No, dear heart, it says, coolly amused, flicking the ash of its cigarette onto the pavement. No one wants you. Why, you didn’t—its composure nearly breaking now, the sharp fin of a laugh just under the surface—you didn’t seriously think he was looking at you? Oh, sweetpea. It’s because you’re disgusting. Not because you’re desirable.

Reading Diary: with clouds descending

It’s ADVENT, season of the best carol ever! It’s also been rainy for the past fortnight (or, at the very best, cloudy all day), so, you know, doubly appropriate.

9780241951439_43Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen: I picked this up on a whim and I’m so glad I did. Karen Blixen moved from Denmark to Kenya in 1913 to run a coffee plantation with her husband (who, magnificently, she fails to mention in this book until after page 300. There are only 336 pages in total, in my edition.) This is a collection of her writing about the farm, her experiences with the Kikuyu people who worked for her and those who didn’t, and with the Masai who lived in the Reserve that bordered her property. It is, of course, a record of a vanished way of life: as a farmer, she shoots any and all lions, which one can hardly imagine a landowner getting away with now. There is also a certain level of paternalism with regards to her musings about “Natives”, even though  she clearly respects the individual men and women who work for her, and they were obviously fond of her. On the whole, though, the impression is of a woman almost totally without ego – she wants to describe Africa, not to foreground her personality – and deeply observant. She is also, to my surprise, highly spiritual; a section late on in the book consists of short segments that often focus on the presence of God in the beauty of the natural world. Her sensibilities are deeply literary and allusive, and as a European aristocrat, she moved casually in the circles of high society (she talks of the Prince of Wales having dinner at her house, and she was extremely close with Denys Finch-Hatton, eventually having an affair with him after her divorce). She could also write with an extreme simplicity and clarity which seems characteristic of her time: “I had a farm in Africa,” the book begins, “at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” That sentence speaks directly to you; it’s rhythmic, even musical. Outstanding.

9781526602121The Flower Girls, by Alice Clark-Platts: Bloomsbury’s Raven imprint started out really promisingly, with work from Laura Purcell, Alex Reeve, Stuart Turton and Eva Dolan making it clear that this was no ordinary crime label. The Flower Girls, unfortunately, is something of a downward turn. It focuses on a crime committed by two sisters, Laurel and Primrose, who lure a toddler away from a playground and kill her, in a manner clearly calculated by Clark-Platts to recall the murder of Jamie Bulger. Laurel, aged ten, is deemed capable of standing trial; Primrose, who is only six, is not. Laurel is found guilty and sent to prison, but nineteen years later, as Laurel’s potential release date approaches, another little girl goes missing in a hotel where Primrose – now living under the name Hazel Archer – is staying with her new partner and his teenage daughter. The novel is hampered by a number of things: there are too many point-of-view characters, nearly every plot point and emotion comes fully explained in case the reader somehow fails to grasp its import, and the twist ending is visible from a mile away. (It’s still horrifying, but being horrified by horrifying things is a reaction based in a reader’s human decency, and does not constitute masterful plotting or pacing.) The entire plot requires a reader to accept that Laurel has made a particular decision for a particular reason, and it is simply not clear enough. There are things Clark-Platts is trying to do and say with which I sympathise, especially things to do with the nature of victimhood, but it’s all a little…I don’t know…clumsy.

foe-9781501127427Foe, by Iain Reid: Foe is a weird book. It starts off as a kind of Black Mirror episode-type story: Junior and Henrietta are apparently happily, if quietly, married, and they live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. One day a man from the government turns up in a shiny car and delivers the news that Junior has been selected as part of an exploratory mission to create a human community in space. It is not possible to refuse. However, Junior is told, his wife will be kept company during his absence by an entirely lifelike replica of him. After this, I expected Foe to split, one narrative strand following Junior as he adjusts to life in orbit (and, presumably, discovers some less-than-savoury secrets about the government’s project), the other following Hen’s adaptation to life with something that looks and behaves in every way like her husband. That did not happen. Instead, Reid keeps the action firmly on Earth and inside Junior’s head; the book is mostly concerned with his reactions to the mysterious government representative who will explain nothing and who eventually moves in with them, the better to conduct permanent surveillance for “research purposes” before the big launch. The reason that Reid maintains this narrow, even claustrophobic focus, becomes clear with the big twist, which is also visible from a mile away. So far, so clever; my problem with the big twist is that it requires us to accept that Hen has acquiesced in—even encouraged—something which has no clear benefit to her whatsoever, as well as enormous potential to damage her. If we are meant to see her as coerced, Junior’s point of view is not objective enough to convey that convincingly. And ultimately, I don’t think that big twist can carry the novel: it happens so near the end that its ramifications are barely gestured at. In a way, Foe might have been better either as a short story (with this plot), or as a novel that really did try to explore what it might be like to live with a robot stand-in husband, or to live among the stars knowing that your wife was at home with a perfect replica of you.

41glscwyk3l-_sx309_bo1204203200_The Last, by Hanna Jameson: The problem with The Last isn’t so much that it can’t decide what it wants to be—thoughtful end-of-the-world novel a la Station Eleven, or classic murder-mystery-in-an-inescapable-environment a la A Christmas Murder—but more that it hasn’t realised it needs to decide at all. It wants to be both, and it can’t be. Set in a hotel in a remote Swiss forest, it focuses on the academic historian Jon Keller, who’s attending a conference when the lights of the world go out. Wisely, Jameson doesn’t spend much time trying to explain the sociopolitical situation that led to global nuclear war; at one point Jon recalls hearing a woman cry, “They’ve bombed Washington” and not even being sure who “they” are, which, in the current political climate of semi-permanent confusion and proliferating news sources, seems much more likely than anyone having a firm grasp of whys and wherefores as the world burns. Keller’s anxiety about his wife (with whom he argued before leaving for Switzerland) and children is nicely judged, and Jameson is good on the way people coalesce around a leader in times of uncertainty. She’s also, refreshingly, hopeful: the community that Keller and his fellow hotel guests find at the end of the novel doesn’t seem to be a trap or a cult, but a genuine attempt to live well in the ruins, even to build a new world. It’s just that there’s a lot going on in The Last, and the murder mystery – despite its interesting philosophical question of whether it’s worth investigating injustice in the midst of a meta-disaster – takes a back seat too often. (And the solution is…let’s not talk about it.)

9780099581666Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre: This is extremely my sort of thing, and gloriously, it did not disappoint. It is a novel about the marriage of Sir Kenelm Digby, famed sailor, alchemist and adventurer in the time of Charles I, and his wife Venetia, the most renowned beauty of her day. Venetia is aging as the novel opens (well, she’s thirty, but obviously in the 1630s that made her past her prime), and Kenelm’s refusal to provide a medical beauty aid drives her—along with several of her friends—into the arms of Lancelot Choice, a convincing quack who prescribes a tonic known as viper wine, distilled from the bodies of serpents which he farms in industrial quantities in his cellar. Eyre melds this historical narrative with what might be called flashes, or glimpses, of the future; Sir Kenelm’s ornamental obelisk at his country home, Gayhurst, becomes a radio mast, the narrative voice conflates his voyages with the space travel that humans will achieve a few centuries hence, and Venetia’s obsession with controlling not only her face, but the production and distribution of her image, is shown to be the forerunner of the modern brand management practiced by celebrities like the Kardashians. Eyre takes advantage of Kenelm Digby’s unique intellectual and historical position: one of the sources she quotes describes him as the single English mind that links the medieval and the modern, just as happy distilling mercury in alembics as he is keen to follow the latest scholarship from Galileo. She figures him, and Venetia, and the age in which they lived, as a kind of conduit, through which the past and the future can mingle. Viper Wine‘s a clever book; it’s also witty and contains some marvelous setpieces, including a voyage in a sort of proto-submarine. Not to be missed.

81zwgr0mpnlHow Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti: Some books are ahead of their times. Some books don’t need to be that far ahead to still be ahead. Such is the case with Heti’s first novel, which was published in 2010 and was well received, but which didn’t create nearly such a stir as Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, which followed only seven years later yet which has somehow become a sort of cult novel, a touchstone for young tormented artistic types who find themselves beset by the difficulty of justifying creative endeavour in a world that manifestly doesn’t give a damn how special you think you are. How Should A Person Be?, which is autofiction, is filtered through the eyes of Sheila, who, in her twenties, has gotten married and been commissioned to write a play. The marriage and the play fail, and she meets a painter called Margaux with whom she develops a friendship both intense and somehow laissez-faire. What Rooney has most clearly taken from Heti is the voice: dry, ironic, detached, yet possessed of an increasingly obvious vulnerability. Something about How Should A Person Be? is less annoying to me than Conversations With Friends was, though. Perhaps it’s the sex, which, although Sheila has it with a plainly dreadful human being, is obviously great; I could never convince myself that Rooney’s Frances and Nick were having sex that good. There’s also something to be said for the clean dirt of Heti’s plotting choices: Sheila knows perfectly well that she’s having sex with the divinely awful Israel for bad reasons; they’re both single, so there’s none of the mess of an affair that Rooney’s characters struggle with; and, most importantly, Sheila decides to end the whole thing when it becomes clear that Israel is both stupid and obsessed with humiliating her. How Should A Person Be? is a weird book, but it’s certainly emotionally compelling.

813annxxbmlDream Sequence, by Adam Foulds: I requested this because, you know, Adam Foulds, but I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. It’s the story of two people: one, Henry, is an up-and-coming actor who’s about to break out of the TV period drama circuit with a starring role in a film by a major director; the other, Kristin, is an American divorcée who bumped into him at an airport a year ago, and who has since been consumed by the delusion that they are meant to be together. It’s not anything like the last Foulds novel I read (The Quickening Maze, about the institutionalization of the poet John Clare in the same asylum as Tennyson’s brother Septimus). Foulds is exceptionally talented at putting us inside Henry’s and Kristin’s heads; his insights into the acting industry, particularly into the world of cinema and celebrity, auditioning and waiting to hear back, are brilliant and convincing. Henry’s permanent semi-conscious awareness of his body—hunger, muscle, fasting, lightness, the unusually beautiful structure of the bones of his face—is especially well rendered. In the sections involving Kristin, meanwhile, Foulds climbs into her head such that we not only see her madness, but understand it, intimately; her divorce has cost her a young stepson and the loss of his small, innocent love is something that she keeps coming back to, a hole in her heart that her obsession with Henry cannot fill. The story clearly can’t end well, but Foulds shows tremendous restraint right up to the finish line. Dream Sequence is very good, and very hard to pigeonhole.

Three Things: November 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: This month, I read a lot of proofs of things that aren’t out until January, which is frustrating because it means I can’t sell them to people right away. I also did an extremely silly and self-indulgent thing: on a Friday that I took off in lieu of overtime pay, I walked into Crouch End and bought *checks notes* eight new books. There’s a Waterstones there, but I went to a little place round the corner called House of Books which must have some kind of deal with distributors, because, like Minster Gate Bookshop in York, you can get quite a lot of titles from particular publishers (especially Gollancz, Wordsworth Classics, and Vintage Classics) for £3 each. Reading as a bookseller is so often a question of being entranced by proofs for the Next Big Thing; selecting books purely for pleasure felt like such a glorious luxury. From that pile, I’ve already read Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen; The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell; and Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre. Every one of them is wonderful. (Reviews forthcoming.)

Looking: I am OBSESSED with Dynasties, the new David Attenborough series about animal families. The first episode, which is set in a troop of chimpanzees, is positively Shakespearean: the shocking physical violence, mob psychology and cunning strategic moves wouldn’t be out of place in a production of Coriolanus. Several episodes since then, including the one on emperor penguins, have been less obviously political tragedy but still extremely moving. The most recent, on painted wolves, was another family saga of inter-generational rivalry (a matriarch’s daughter forms another pack and challenges her for territory) and bloody vengeance (one pack kills a pup from the other group in battle; it was Titus Andronicus with dogs). Riveting.

Thinking: There hasn’t been much time to think recently. I can feel whatever thoughts are generated pinging around the inside of my head like trapped moths. Mostly, at the moment, I’m trying to get up the gall to write the chapter that includes the key scene of my novel-in-progress. It’s not a sex scene, before you ask, but it’s going to be awfully difficult and I think I’m psyching myself out about it, a little. I know how to lead up to it, and I know how to approach the scene itself, but I need whoever reads this book to be really convinced of the protagonist’s state of mind in order for it to make sense, and I can’t quite let go and trust that I’ve done enough. Any advice?!