absolutely ridiculous: a proof/library TBR

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On the left: the next six proofs for me to read, all of which (I try to read proofs in order of release date and in the month before they’re published) are out on the 6th of February. On the right: my stack of library borrows, all of which are due back on 26th January. The top three are part of my children’s literature project; the next two are a combination of my Guardian Top 1000 novels project and a half-conceived notion to borrow all the Penguin or Vintage classics off the shelf in order; Celestial Bodies just sort of… fell into my hand, and the final two are Guardian Top 1000 choices from the list’s crime segment, which is statistically the one in which I’m least well read.

Avanti!

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: I actually finished this between the time I took the photo and the time I started writing this post. It’s very reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but uses its sfnal/magical realist conceit in a different, more concentrated manner. I think it will be extremely successful, although I’m still constantly unsure of how I feel about using non-realist conceits in novels that purport to show the pains of slavery. And then I feel unsure of whether I have a right to feel unsure, since Coates has done the thinking and possesses the heritage that gives him the right to tell the story however he likes.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts: One of my relatively rare non-fiction choices. From the press release: “Siberia’s story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell. Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos – grand instruments created during the boom years of the nineteenth century, and humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes[…] That stately instruments might still exist in such a hostile landscape is remarkable. That they are still capable of making music in far-flung villages is nothing less than a miracle.”

The Good Hawk, by Joseph Elliott: A YA adventure set in an alt-ancient Britain where one of the children tasked with guarding a sea wall has Down’s syndrome. She teams up with an un-self-confident boy to journey into a mysterious country of magic and secrets. This sounds amazing, has had terrific reviews, and the last YA title I read published by Walker Books knocked it out of the park (Rules For Vanishing; review here).

Swimmers in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski: This is giving off serious Aciman/Greenwell vibes. Two boys meet in Poland and, over the course of the summer, swim in some beautiful lakes and fall in love. Aahhh. Yes.

A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher: I’m still not quite sure what this is about, but I think it is about a group of friends who, radical in their youth, make compromises with the boring adult world as they age, except for one of them—Spike—who does not, and the effect his refusal to compromise has on his life. I have never actually read a Hensher novel, but a new one seems like the place to start.


And, from the library:

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve never read Gaiman’s writing for children, though I liked American Gods a lot (and Neverwhere slightly less), so this will be a new experience. The story of a small boy called Bod who is raised by the spectral inhabitants of a graveyard when his entire family is murdered, I’ve heard rumours that it’s somewhat uneven, and am keen to find out for myself. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

The Skylarks’ War, by Hilary McKay: As a child I tended to gravitate towards fantasy, but warm/familial fiction set a little in the past (a la The Railway Children) was another great love. This seems like that sort of thing, only written by a contemporary author, and was the Costa Children’s Book Award winner in 2018; other than that I don’t know a lot about it but am optimistic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

The Girl of Ink and Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Another children’s fantasy, but this time taking in the art and science of cartography, as Isabella has to leave her island to save her friend. Millwood Hargrave was only twenty-six when this was published and it’s already become a modern children’s classic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

A Man of the People, by Chinua Achebe: A short sharp shock of a novel about an unnamed African country’s Minister for Culture, his corrupt and opportunistic ways, and the initially idealistic young student who first challenges, then succumbs to (I think), that life. Of Achebe’s work, I’ve only ever read Things Fall Apart and found it a bit too schematic to genuinely enjoy, but then it’s a general rule that an author’s worst book is the one taught to high schoolers, so maybe this’ll be better. [Penguin Modern Classic]

Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin: I fell in love with Baldwin’s writing through reading Giovanni’s Room last year. Go Tell It…is the semi-autobiographical story of a young man’s disillusionment with the church in which he’s raised, and I can’t wait. [Guardian Top 1000 + Penguin Modern Classic]

Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi: Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, and the first such to be a translation from Arabic. I finished it this morning; it tells the stories of three Omani sisters – Mayya, Asma, and Khawla – their marriages, and their parents’ marriages; the collision of old and new in a country where slavery was only outlawed in the early 1960s (and persisted in essence for years after it was officially illegal); the collisions of love, honour, poetry and money that make up any good family saga. A worthy winner, I think, and most surprising in its somewhat experimental form, particularly the half-dreaming narration of every other chapter, told by Mayya’s husband Abdallah. Heartily recommended.

Live Flesh, by Ruth Rendell: A man commits a crime, goes to prison, gets out, and recommences the obsession that led him to commit the crime, all over again. A common enough story, but my last Rendell (technically a Barbara Vine) was incredible because of the way the story was told, so I’m hopeful this one will be too. [Guardian Top 1000]

Sidetracked, by Henning Mankell: The only Mankell on the Guardian list and I plucked it off the shelf because, well, he’s solid, right? I’ve been under the impression I’ve read at least one Mankell novel for some time, but I think I’ve just watched enough of the Wallander series (both English and Swedish) to have given me the gist. Anyway, I imagine it’ll be good competent distraction. [Guardian Top 1000]


How should I prioritize these?! I almost certainly won’t get through all the library books before they’re due back, which is fine, and I like being able to do full, in-depth reviews of each book I finish for the children’s lit challenge before moving on to the next one, which tends to slow me down. But I also want to keep a steady pace with the proofs, unless a title is dull or frustrating enough to DNF. Thoughts?

Books of the decade: 2010-2019

Can there be a ten-year period in which more changes than the one between being seventeen and being twenty-seven? Of course everything depends on circumstance and there are anomalies, but it does strike me that this is the decade in which I went from child under my parents’ roof to adult paying my own bills, and what—even assuming the acquisition of a life partner and the possibility of one’s own children—can possibly compete with that for upheaval? So the task of choosing ten books of the decade (and I will limit myself to just ten, this time) feels like not just a commentary on my reading, but on how that reading has shaped and reflected my life.

81thpjdmfnl2010: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. It has to be this. 2010 was the year I started university, and Mantel wins it by a whisker; George Eliot (particularly Daniel Deronda and The Mill on the Floss) is close behind. But up until then, I don’t think I had quite realized that it was possible for contemporary fiction to be as rich and dense as what I rather naively and snobbishly thought of as “the classics”. Wolf Hall was the first novel I read that opened my mind to that possibility.

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2011: The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney. The vast majority of my reading in this year was for university, and there are lots of reading memories that seem ineradicable, but The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia was perhaps the longest (I also read The Faerie Queene in 2011, mind you). I got through it during shifts at my summer job back home, not even bothering to be surreptitious and read it under the counter. It’s outrageously overcomplicated allegorical pastoral Tudor romance, and yet I found myself entranced.

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Arden Shakespeare editions

2012: Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I know this is a dick move and Desert Island Discs lets you have them for this very reason, but in the summer of 2012, I read every single word that William Shakespeare ever wrote, as well as some he probably didn’t. It took a little less than three months and by mid-July I was starting to dream in blank verse. Nothing else even came close to matching that experience that year.

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2013: The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. An odd and messy year. I graduated, continued living in Oxford, scraped together internships at literary agencies and my old college’s Development Office, and read a fuck of a lot of Terry Pratchett, for no doubt obvious reasons. However, Tanizaki’s extraordinary perception about romantic and social relationships in mid-20th century Japan reminded me forcefully of Jane Austen, and I’ve not stopped recommending this book since.

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2014: Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris. This was the year in which I started blogging about my reading more seriously, reading other litblogs, and writing for the now-defunct Quadrapheme, which meant free books and new contacts in publishing house. In amongst the riches, Young God stood out like a hammered thumb: it’s reminiscent of Winter’s Bone in that it’s about a young Appalachian girl who grows up before her time, but it is, if possible, even grittier, bleaker and more disturbing. What a winner.

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2015: The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall. The first year in this decade where the winner is hands-down obvious and uncontestable. I was sent this for review and was so smitten, I read it twice in four months: the combination of lush landscape writing with an utterly unsentimental but also un-bleak portrayal of single motherhood fit its subject matter so well. It didn’t just show me what good writing was; it showed me that there are a million ways to live, and most of them are only just now being written into stories.

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2016: The Likeness, by Tana French. Not the first Tana French novel I read, but as I finished that within about a day and turned immediately to this, the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, the distinction is fairly academic. And academic is the point in this deliciously clever engagement with The Secret History tropes (overintellectual young people are faced with murder, must navigate treacherous shoals between story and reality; so meta, I fucking love it). It’s my favourite of hers because of the descriptions of the house and the friendship dynamics—she gets into the meat of how people relate to each other—and I read it just as I was beginning work on my own book, which has similar themes.

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2017: Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Getting harder now; 2017 was the year I started working at Heywood Hill and my access to books skyrocketed (no longer was it necessary to buy new titles with my own money or indeed even request them half the time; boxes of proofs come to the shop every week). Thien’s Booker- and Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel is a gorgeously written family saga set in communist China, about music and integrity and survival. I rather wish it had won both prizes.

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2018: Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. I couldn’t stop talking about this, all year, and all of 2019 too. The first five pages are a devastatingly scary, moving, gut-grabbing experience, and the rest of it—telling the story of teenage Silvie and her father’s increasingly unhinged obsession with neolithic British customs—hurtles, with an extraordinary stop-start combination of sticky tension and humid tedium, towards what feels like an inevitable climax. It’s utterly magnificent and it, too, should have won both the Booker and the Women’s Prize.

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2019: As we know, 2019 was an exceptionally good reading year overall—so good that I couldn’t even narrow my top books down to ten, and had to settle for twenty. There was no one standout title, though, so instead I’m nominating Willa Cather, and the three of her books I read this year. She is an exceptional writer whose evocation of landscape and grasp of psychological nuance makes her feel well ahead of her time. Both Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Song of the Lark are wonderful, not to mention the much lesser-known A Lost Lady: short but perfectly formed and breathtakingly empathetic.

This list, written on a different day, would probably have produced a different outcome—choosing books to represent a whole decade is so subjective a task that the decisions, though not totally arbitrary, often feel balanced on the knife’s edge of how I happen to feel right this minute. All of these are brilliant books, though, and have meant a lot to me over the past ten years.

Do you have any books of the decade you’d like to share?

Library Checkout!

I’ve started using my local public library a lot more recently, thanks in large part to this rather magnificent Twitter thread from Secret Library Gorgon. It reminded me that I do, in fact, possess an Islington Libraries card, and that until two weeks ago, I had only used it once in the course of nine or ten months. So I went down to the library a fortnight ago, borrowed five books (most of which were mentioned in my last reading roundup post), and had a whale of a time.

They were all due back today (one of the most embarrassing things about my relative virginity as a public libraries user is that I was genuinely unsure whether that meant I could return them at any time today, or whether I had to return them by the time it became today, e.g. yesterday. For anyone else similarly struggling: it is the former.) Duly, I returned them and immediately borrowed seven more:

One of the very nicest things about a public library is its free-ness. This should be obvious, but it allows for all sorts of experimentation in one’s reading that would be harder to defend if spending of actual cash were required. My job does provide me with a lot of free books, but these come from publisher’s reps and, as proof copies, are in the nature of “previews” of the things they’re going to be releasing this season. If I happen to want to read something published longer ago than, say, six to eight months, the reps are unlikely to have proof copies (though sometimes miracles do occur—reprint editions, how I love thee), and I will have to spend money on it in order to possess it. My staff discount from Heywood Hill is extremely good—we can buy books at cost price, more or less, which in practice generally means at least 45% discount and sometimes as much as 55%—but it’s still, you know, money.

I am, as you can probably see from the above pile, trying to expand my knowledge of iconic crime and science fiction, and it is much easier to do that when I don’t have to spend money on a book whose quality I can’t predict, precisely because my knowledge base in that genre is currently limited. I’m also trying to fill some of my classic literature gaps; these are probably smaller than most people’s, by the nature of the degree that I did, but with the best will in the world, even after three years of reading the Anglophone canon, one is going to have missed some things. And I’m being guided, in a vague sort of way, by the Guardian’s Top 1000 Novels list (although the more I examine it, the more I realize that it is noticeably biased, though the nature of that bias has yet to clarify itself. It contains, for instance, five novels by Michael Dibdin and three by Ian Fleming in the “crime” subcategory, which is itself composed of 146 titles. Even his champions will probably balk at the notion that Ian Fleming, neither the world’s greatest stylist nor its greatest plotsmith, wrote three—three!—entirely indispensable books. I have read two of the listed, Goldfinger and Casino Royale. Only the latter has a claim to that kind of significance, and its claim is mainly historic. The former is not even particularly good.)

Tangents aside, this is what I’ve come away with this time:

  • The Drowned World, by JG Ballard [on the Guardian list]
  • Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss [on the Guardian list]
  • Sorcerer To the Crown, by Zen Cho [on my personal to-read list for years]
  • The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke [on the Guardian list]
  • Blood Shot, also published as Toxic Shock, by Sara Paretsky [on the Guardian list]
  • Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë [on the Guardian list]
  • How Do You Like Me Now?, by Holly Bourke [recommended by my trustworthy colleague Faye]


Anyone read any of these, or want to? What should I read first? I’ve never read any of these authors before, except for Brontë, obviously.

Rebecca at Bookish Beck runs a regular Library Checkout feature, from which I’ve snitched this post title; the most recent one is here.


If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?

20 Books of Summer, 2019 Edition

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I’m playing again! Cathy at 746 Books hosts this (extremely chill) reading challenge; you’re allowed to do a 15-book or a 10-book version, swap out books as you go, etc. I’ve decided to aim for the 20-book goal. Most of the books on my list will come from my proof TBR; as the challenge runs from 3 June to 3 September, I’ve decided to try reading five proofs being released in each month (June, July, and August), plus a final five which are drawn from my stacks at home. With any luck, I’ll read many more than twenty books this summer, but these are the first priority!

  1. Rough Magic, by Lara Prior-Palmer [June, nonfiction]: The world’s youngest, and first female, winner of the Mongol Derby, on the mental and physical discipline of horse racing. She’s also the sister of a former colleague of mine. (review)
  2. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, by Elif Shafak [June, fiction]: An Istanbul sex worker is killed; in the ten minutes after her death, a series of flashbacks reveals her childhood and early life. (review)
  3. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton [June, nonfiction]: The life and times of Maud West, who opened her private investigation agency in London in 1905. (review)
  4. Dressed: the Secret Life of Clothes, by Shahida Bari [June, nonfiction]: I’m an absolute sucker for fashion/style analysis, particularly as it relates to material culture. (DNF’d)
  5. Big Sky, by Kate Atkinson [June, fiction]: The next in the Jackson Brodie series, and long-awaited too. I need to read Case Histories first. [READ, not reviewed]
  6. Patsy, by Nicole Dennis-Benn [July, fiction]: An undocumented Jamaican woman in New York, and her daughter growing up without her on the island. Looks magnificent.
  7. Supper Club, by Lara Williams [July, fiction]: I know very little about this, except that it’s about female rage, and must involve food at some point. Sign me upppp.
  8. Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo [July, fiction]: Taddeo basically embedded, like a war reporter, into the lives of three women over eight years. These are the stories of their love lives over that time. Modern New Journalism + exploration of contemporary female sexuality = 100% my jam. (review)
  9. Exhalation: Stories, by Ted Chiang [July, fiction]: Chiang wrote “Story of Your Life”, which the movie “Arrival” is based on. I’m told he’s excellent, and this is his first collection in a decade.
  10. Rose, Interrupted, by Patrice Lawrence [July, YA]: Lawrence’s earlier YA novel, Orangeboy, really impressed me. Rose, Interrupted is about a girl who escapes a cult with her brother and has to learn to be a Normal Teenager while also Following Her Path. Sounds good. Cover’s adorable. [decided against]
  11. Life For Sale, by Yukio Mishima [August, fiction]: According to the jacket copy: “When Hanio Yamada realizes the future holds nothing of worth to him, he puts his life for sale in a Tokyo newspaper, thus unleashing a series of unimaginable exploits. A world of revenge, murderous mobsters, hidden cameras, a vampire woman, poisonous carrots, espionage and code-breaking, a junkie heiress, home-made explosives and decoys reveals itself.” Need I say more?
  12. The Truants, by Kate Weinberg [August, fiction]: Sort of The Secret History, but on a campus in East Anglia instead of the woods of New England, and minus the classical references. Worth a punt.
  13. The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware [August, fiction]: Ware’s brand of contemporary Gothic thriller is eminently suited to a rewrite of The Turn of the Screw.
  14. Girl. Boy. Sea., by Chris Vick [August, YA]: A British boy and a Berber girl, both shipwrecked, must help each other to survive. This looks wonderful.
  15. The Offing, by Benjamin Myers [August, fiction]: Post-WWII, following an unlikely friendship between a sixteen-year-old miner’s son and an older woman in Robin Hood’s Bay. Myers has loads of critical acclaim and I’ve never read any of his work before; this seems like a good time to start, though his other stuff appears to be much darker than this sounds.

The final five are subject to change, but may look something like this:

  1. Pericles, by William Shakespeare (review)
  2. Daemon Voices: Essays On Storytelling, by Philip Pullman
  3. Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell [READ, not reviewed]
  4. A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
  5. The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

Other possibilities for the final five include: The Summer Without Men, also by Siri Hustvedt; The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphael Jerusalmy; Breathe by Dominick Donald [READ, not reviewed]; Lowborn by Kerry Hudson; Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen; If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson.


Have you read any of my choices? Do you particularly recommend (or dis-recommend) any of them?

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In 2018

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 so, so much better than last year; it wasn’t just about surviving, but about thriving: finding out, as Dolly Parton so wisely said, who I am, then doing it on purpose.

In 2018, I:

celebrated my lovely colleague Faye’s wedding, with other bookshop chums

attended a celebratory black tie dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club for the engagement of two more friends

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found a new flat, with a new housemate

helped plan my cousin Sarah’s wedding, as her maid of honour, and in company with her brilliant bridesmaids

sang Irish songs, drunkenly, on a rooftop in the snow

received incredibly helpful mentoring and advice on my novel from the infinitely generous Antonia Honeywell

experienced a hen do in Brighton

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sang at York Minster (and had some verse solos in the canticles, in the presence of Iestyn Davies. Swoon.)

participated in the Womens Prize Shadow Panel again

sang for, danced at, and generally revelled in Sarah’s wedding to the wonderful Gareth

hosted my mum in my new flat

travelled to Paris for an utterly unforgettable long weekend with my beloved friend Kendall

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relatedly: eaten a meal in Paris that I will remember for the rest of my life—seven courses, four hours, wine

started a regular paid Sunday singing gig

visited Chatsworth, home of my employers, for the first time

caught up with my goddaughter Beatrice, and her lovely parents, Esther and Bojan, in Oxford

went to IKEA for the first time in my adult life

celebrated my twenty-sixth birthday with beloved friends and so much sushi I could barely stand afterwards

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threw a housewarming party in the new flat, with my excellent housemate Joe

sang at St Paul’s with old college chums, then immediately afterwards attended the reception for Kerry and Alvina’s wedding

hosted my little brother Nick and his brilliant girlfriend Emma on their London holiday

ticked another cathedral (Southwark) off my list of Places I’ve Sung In

heard Susan Graham, live

drank in the private pub for Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London

took myself on my first solo holiday, to Brussels, where I survived on goat’s cheese, baguette, chocolate caramel spread, and ratatouille

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…and where I also wrote thousands of words’ worth of my book

chatted to an agent about said book, and promised to send a draft when finished

accidentally insulted Sebastian Faulks

flew home to visit my family, during which time we picked apples, drank coffee (and a lot of wine), strolled in downtown Charlottesville, basked in late autumn sunlight, drove up into the mountains. I also brunched joyfully at Helen and Charlie’s wedding reception, and wrote more thousands of words

attended the Young Writer of the Year Award announcement, along with lots of blogging friends (and where I met the incomparable Sarah Moss)

cooked a Thanksgiving meal for some American (and non-American!) friends

got a sparkly gel pedicure because why not

sang in four Christmas concerts

re-permed my hair, also because why not

celebrated Christmas at Canterbury Cathedral, thanks to the kind hospitality of Sarah and Gareth

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finished off the New Year with gigs at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s

read exactly 200 books

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.

#6Degrees of Separation: The Outsiders

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 The Outsiders, which I read as a kid—my dad must have brought it home for me. I don’t remember much about it, but the main character is named Ponyboy, which is hilarious, and it’s something to do with teens in gangs.

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Another book whose title follows a “The Plural-Nouns” formula is Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Interestings, which introduces us to a group of talented kids at hippie summer camp, and then tracks their lives over the next few decades.

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At one point in The Interestings, a character whose employees are killed in the September 11 terrorist attack promises to pay their families the salaries that they would have earned. In Julie and Julia, Julie Powell’s decision to cook her way through Julia Child’s magnum opus is catalyzed by her misery in her job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation—formed to distribute $10 billion in federal funds in order to rebuild areas destroyed by the attack.

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Meryl Streep, of course, stars in the movie version of Julie and Julia. She also plays the Clarissa Dalloway character in the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which is itself a triptych that updates Mrs. Dalloway and looks at Virginia Woolf’s own life.

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The Hours won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999. That year, the nonfiction prize was won by John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, a book collecting his writings on American geology. McPhee is a criminally underread writer, at least in the UK and right now; he was a staff writer for the New Yorker for years and is one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary writers of nonfiction.

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My godfather is a geologist. I have never seen him read a book, but he used to come and take me on roadtrips when I was young. We’d drive out to some backwater of rural Virginia in search of cool rocks, or just to the local plant nursery for something to put in his garden. Once he turned up unexpectedly, and I forgot to put my book down before I got in the car with him. It was Anna Karenina.

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I used to reread Anna Karenina every spring, before deciding that I should just do an Annual Spring Russian Read. (Sometimes I forget.) I also have an Annual Winter Dickens, which I forget less regularly. Last year it was The Old Curiosity Shop, which I’d rank firmly in the middle tier of Dickens novels, mostly because half of it is unnecessarily manipulative padding. (Incidentally, if any of you have opinions on which Dickens book should be my next, please choose from the following options: Barnaby Rudge, Nicholas Nickleby, The Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood.)

From teenage greasers to gambling granddads, via hippie nerds, lifestyle blogging, Woolfian musings, geology, and Russians: where will your 6 Degrees take you? Next month is Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, which is my favourite book of all time, so hooray!