Books of the Year, 2020

It’s Christmas Eve. I’m still on the clock for another few hours, but apart from monitoring three inboxes, there’s not much that needs doing. It has been three months since I last posted anything about books, and now is the first time in those three months that I’ve started to feel as though maybe I have the time, energy, or inclination to try.

It wasn’t the year I expected, in a number of ways. I fell in love. There was a pandemic. Both of these things, plus renewed social justice movements in both my home countries, impelled me to read in particular ways, and to forego habitual patterns of book consumption. I read many, many fewer hardbacks and new releases this year, and found myself drawn much more to backlist titles (both fiction and non), filling gaps in my reading knowledge, and increasing the diversity of what I consume and recommend. It’s been a very rewarding year in that sense, and has helped to unshackle me somewhat from an old feeling of constant vigilance: must read the latest release, must know about all the big authors’ newest titles! No, I mustn’t. There’s no real need. If they’re very good, they’ll stick around.

Not that I didn’t read a number of excellent new releases. Some of the best, most memorable books I read this year were from debut authors whose next outing I await with excitement. Others were new releases but were perhaps a second or third foray from authors I already knew. I read a handful of the year’s It Books and, on the whole, was glad that I did.

I can never narrow a list down to ten. I read too much for ten to be reasonable (158 books thus far in 2020; down considerably from last year, but still a decent showing, and many of them excellent). My preliminary list was nineteen titles strong; after being very stern with myself, I managed to highlight six that were absolutely exceptional, that I’ll probably carry with me forever. Those six are below, with the honourable remaining thirteen to come in a later post. All of these are amazing and recommended without reservations.

  1. Kingdomtide, by Rye Curtis. Imagine that Olive Kitteredge is a septuagenarian Texan Methodist, then add a survivalist bent worthy of Cormac McCarthy, and you have the outline of Cloris Waldrip, Curtis’s protagonist in this brilliant, heart-bending debut. Cloris is the only survivor of a light plane crash in the mountains of Montana that kills her husband of many decades and the pilot. She must walk out of the hills if she wants to live: no one from the outside world believes there were any survivors, except for tenacious, alcoholic park ranger Debra Lewis. Oh: and Cloris isn’t alone in the mountains. Encompassing theology, sex, grief, and culpability, Kingdomtide asks what we owe to each other, individually and as a community, and challenges the contexts in which we judge one another. It’s also, dryly, quite funny.

2. Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann. Yes, it is a thousand pages long, and yes, it is all stream of consciousness, and no, there’s more than one sentence (several interludes from the perspective of a mother mountain lion are written in regular, multi-sentence prose), and yes, it really does need to be this long. Ellmann’s protagonist is a home baker who has turned her hobby into a business. The process of circling her head, voyeuristically privy to the themes, symbols and memories to which she frequently returns, is analogous to the lamination of dough for croissants: you genuinely need those many layers in order to build up a broad, rich picture of her state of mind. And when the plot (there is one!) takes a turn for the melodramatic near the end, we realize the significance of everything that’s gone before.

3. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Someone this year tweeted, “Every time I hear a white woman say ‘We’re living through The Handmaid’s Tale‘, all I hear is ‘I haven’t read Parable of the Sower.'” Parable of the Talents is that novel’s sequel, and although I haven’t yet read Sower either, Talents shares its alarming characteristic of feeling like both a prophecy and a history lesson. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. Written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a deeply relevant and necessary way. Profoundly disturbing, and incredibly moving.

4. Women, Race and Class, by Angela Y. Davis. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most intellectually sophisticated yet accessibly written book of its kind I read this year, or indeed any year. Davis weaves together the histories of feminism, abolitionism, and the labour movement to show the natural interconnectedness of these fights: it’s a primer on intersectionality in action, and on how, when intersectionality fails, its failure is due to a form of short-sightedness that sets everyone back. I found her analysis of the late 19th- and early 20th-century struggle for worker’s rights especially interesting, as those were stories I was less familiar with, but every page of this slim volume contains the names of heroes and heroines both well-known and obscure. Penguin Modern Classics reprinted a beautiful edition of this earlier in 2020, and for people wanting to get their heads around the sociocultural problems that sparked Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, this is an ideal starting block.

5. In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado. This earned an instant place on my Books To Save From Fire shelf. Telling of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a lesbian relationship, it is simultaneously an excavation of how narrative works in folklore and myth, a revelation of how humans use those same narrative tropes to make sense of our experience, and a gut-wrenchingly immediate yet bruisingly poetic portrait of the betrayal of trust that occurs when abuse does. Machado also weaves in brilliant, shockingly funny pen sketches of friends and family, serious discussions of how lesbian experience is erased in broader conversations about abuse, and digressions on topics such as the queerness of seemingly all Disney villains. Utterly unlike any book I’ve ever read before, and serves as a perfect blend of craft, skill, humour and intellect. It’s particularly hard-hitting for people who have suvived an abusive relationship, although has a lot to offer even readers who have not. (It was also my boyfriend’s favourite book of the year, because he accepts my recommendations and has great taste.)

6. Reynard the Fox, by Anne Louise Avery. This brand-new retelling of William Caxton’s classic medieval trickster tales, featuring sly Reynard the Fox, pompous King Noble the lion, brutal Isengrim the wolf, stalwart Grimbart the badger, and silly Bruin the bear, amongst many others, is one of the most delightfully playful, erudite, and generous-hearted books I’ve read in a very long time. Glorying in multilingualism, it incorporates slang from Middle English and Middle Dutch, German, French and Latin, and contains wonderful asides, anecdotes, and even recipes in the footnotes. The tales themselves are small miracles: surprisingly dark and violent in places, they reinforce the values of individualism, rebelliousness, resourcefulness and quick wit that we so love in our anti-heroes. Reynard is an unforgettable character, and Anne Louise Avery’s work in bringing his stories to a modern audience would be rewarded with a prize, if the world was just.

There: my top six books from 2020. Magnificent, all of them. I’ve started a new shelf on Goodreads called “breaks your heart and puts your chin up”, and each of these titles deserves its place there. They offer us what we most need right now. Go get them and read them at once!

And, of course, have a very merry Christmas. I’ll be back later with the thirteen(!) runners-up…

July Superlatives

A good sixteen books read, in print, e- and audio form, this month! This is hardly a Superlatives post, though, given that I can’t summon up the creative energies to think of the categories. I’ll just do what I normally do—a short paragraph on each book read—without categorizing them, and hope you’ll forgive me. (I’m also thinking of returning to the weekly Reading Diary format; it might be more manageable.)

Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown: A wickedly funny coming-of-age story about a young lesbian in the 1950s, who comes from dirt-poor Southern stock and eventually finds her way to New York City, film school, and freedom. Molly Bolt is the most engaging, uncompromising, self-aware and hilarious protagonist I’ve met for a long time, and her social and sexual escapades make for delightful reading, despite the prejudice she faces.

How To Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi: My problem with this book is not the book; it’s me. And it might not even be me qua me, so much as it is timing. Having already read two very up-to-the-minute nonfiction dissections of racism in twenty-first century Western society, a third hot on their heels felt somewhat repetitive: much of the material, and the general thrust of argument, is the same. This is, however, clearly an excellent book for people eager to learn, and I’d recommend it.

A View of the Empire at Sunset, by Caryl Phillips: My first book of Phillips’s, though it won’t be my last, A View of the Empire… is a fictionalized exploration of the life of Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea (which I read last month). The constant tension between her Creole upbringing and the expectations of white England infuses the book, and Phillips’s style shows a melancholy restraint that reminds me of earlier English authors like Brookner and Fitzgerald.

The Book of Queer Prophets, ed. Ruth Hunt: Like all anthologies, some entries here are stronger than others, but the concept—queer writers describe how their sexuality and their religious faiths, or lack thereof, affect each other—is a winner. Amrou Al-Kadhi’s piece on becoming a Muslim drag queen is wonderful, but the one that hit me hardest was Jay Hulme’s account of conversion and cathedrals. It’s a magical piece of writing that ties in revelation, suicide, and the appreciation of beauty. He’s a poet, but I would read more of his prose.

Playing Nice, by J.P. Delaney: Delaney is one of our foremost writers of domestic, or psychological, noir, and all his work (I was convinced he was a she for ages, but apparently Delaney is the pseudonym of a male author) is both utterly addictive and really quite good, despite the melodramatic plots. Playing Nice deals with the scary implications of an accidental child swap, and, like many contemporary domestic thrillers, invests in the notion of the common or garden psychopath. The scenes where one character forces/manipulates his way over the boundaries of the others are nauseatingly believable, even if the actual story might not be.

Rainbow Milk, by Paul Mendez: Mendez’s debut, dealing with the trajectory of Jesse from Black Country Jamaican Jehovah’s Witness and closeted homosexual, to rent boy in early ’90s London, to professional waiter—and unexpectedly beloved—in the 2000s, is lush with accent, detail, and a LOT of meticulously described sex between men. Critics have said it’s too autobiographical and doesn’t give its characters enough space, but I loved the authority with which Mendez writes Jesse’s experience (and the restaurant scenes are really, really spot-on).

Conjure Women, by Afia Atakora: Set in a community of former slaves after the American Civil War, Conjure Women deals with the clash between folk medicine/obeah and Christian teaching, as midwife Rue falls under suspicion when the children of the area begin dying. Flashbacks to the era of slavery illuminate goings-on in the narrative’s present day, and Atakora’s depiction of characters forced to make terrible choices is empathetic and moving. Lots about mother-daughter relationships, love and the vulnerability it brings, too.

Lady Sings the Blues, by Billie Holiday: Actually not written by Holiday, but composed by journalist William Dufty from transcripts of interviews he conducted with her. This brings its own set of interpretative and moral difficulties, but the voice that shines through these pages is strong and clear, and it belongs to someone: it’s easy to imagine Holiday holding forth in a hotel room, Dufty recording and scribbling. Much of the autobiographical material is invented or embellished, but on singing in Jim Crow-era America and as a general set of observations on craft, plus for its glimpse into a lost world of glamour, drugs and celebrity, this is hard to beat.

That Reminds Me, by Derek Owusu: My problems with this book, again, are mine alone. That it feels unfocused and underpowered is a subjective assessment; that the periodic invocations of Anansi strike me as slightly mannered is also opinion and not fact. That it tells a story that needs telling—that of a black boy taken into care as a child, and his subsequent mental health issues as an adult—and does so in short, innovative prose-poetic sections, is also the case: and it won the Desmond Elliott Prize. I suspect it might click more upon rereading.

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah: I was told this was specifically excellent as an audiobook, so I listened to it, and it absolutely is. Mostly, and unsurprisingly, it’s just fucking funny: Noah tells stories well, and he has good ones to tell here. The section where his grandmother and aunts hold a wailing exorcism for the demon whom they believe has planted human shit in the wastebin (it was, in fact, young Trevor) had me giggling helplessly aloud. It stops before Noah’s comedy career takes off, which is probably a good thing; the final sections, detailing his late teens of DJ-ing/petty crime, are a little repetitive.

Empires in the Sun: the Struggle for the Mastery of Africa, by Lawrence James. I really, really struggled with this; I’d hoped for the balance and impartiality that the Literary Review blurb promised, but James instead writes with a kind of blasé Eurocentrism that seems to equate acknowledging atrocities with reparation for them. I can best describe it by saying that for James it’s as though African minds don’t really exist—he certainly doesn’t write about them, only African bodies. A decent overview of the historical events for the beginner, but otherwise, I think, best left.

Zami: a New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde: I’d somehow never actually read Lorde before now, and had developed the idea that she was a slightly scary/po-faced theorist along the lines of Sontag. Zami proves nothing could be further from the truth: a barely fictionalized autobiography, it’s warm, funny, and vivid about Lorde’s feelings of being left out (along multiple axes of race, gender, sexuality, and general oddness) as a child and young woman. A true joy and revelation to read, and a contender for the Best Books of 2020 list.

Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony: Congressman Alexander Paine Wilson awakes one morning to find a stuffed aardvark being delivered to him by FedEx. It’s from his male lover, who has (apparently) just committed suicide. Only, Wilson is in the closet—even to himself—and a rabidly conservative Republican. As the aardvark’s existence begins to unravel Wilson’s life with the relentless rapidity of a nightmare, a second strand focuses on the eighteenth-century taxidermist who stuffed it, and his hidden romantic relationship with the explorer who brought it back. There are some tonal/factual errors which I put down to the author’s American cultural background (the most egregious being that you would never refer to a man named Sir Richard Ostlet as “Sir Ostlet”; he would always be “Sir Richard”). But it’s an extremely funny, surprisingly poignant book, and it basically stole my heart.

The Vanishing Trick, by Jenni Spangler: My first children’s book for many months was… all right? There’s certainly a very cod-Aiken vibe to its supposedly Victorian but much more generic-fantasy-feeling setting, and the horrid Madame Pinchbeck, who traps children’s souls in household objects, is a clear descendant of Miss Slighcarp. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that three child narrators (all in an undifferentiated third person) was at least one too many, and Spangler compounds the issue by spelling out emotion and motive instead of building up character through behaviour and letting us deduce it. The Vanishing Trick is definitely fun, but you can’t compare it to Reeve or Hardinge or Robin Stevens.

A Place of Execution, by Val McDermid. Oh, my days. I’m definitely a scaredycat, but this (randomly picked up as 99p on Kindle and I’d never read McDermid before; I know, I’m sorry) is a really creepy book: not just about the abominable things men do to vulnerable girls, but also about the Wicker Man-esque community of Scardale, which demonstrates a mute solidarity in the face of outside interference (aka a police investigation) that is at least as frightening, in its own way. It’s the sort of book that would never work in these days of wifi and well-maintained roads (though actually, in some parts of the Peaks, mobile reception is still rubbish enough to make this a reasonable plot in 2020).

You People, by Nikita Lalwani: This has definite ambitions to be a state-of-the-nation novel, although its focus is narrow enough (one pizzeria in South London; two point of view characters, Welsh waitress Nia and Sri Lankan pizza chef Shan) that it might be more productive to read it as a London novel. Shan has left behind his wife and child, and is both horribly ashamed and desperate to get them to England; Nia, who’s fled an alcoholic mother, is determined to get to the bottom of restauranteur Tuli’s not-so-legal extracurricular activities (he operates the pizzeria like a safe house for undocumented asylum-seekers). The ending is a touch sentimental, but it provides satisfying narrative closure, and Lalwani’s depiction of the “hostile environment” is thoroughly terrifying.


So that was July; August is shaping up well (though I genuinely cannot believe it’s been four and a half months since I’ve been into the office. We’re going back in, on a rotating once-weekly basis, this week; my first day back is Wednesday. I’ll be lonely, as it’ll only be me from my team, but maybe I’ll get things done.) In the meantime—I’ve got plenty of proofs, having finally been brought my office stash a few weeks ago, plus several remaining new and old purchases, AND I went on a Netgalley spree, like a lunatic. What’ve you been enjoying this past month?

June Superlatives

Hard copies read in June 2020

June has been the month of the most conscious reading I’ve done for a very long time. This probably doesn’t require a lot of explanation. It’s become very clear to me that, although I attempted to recommend diverse books in my professional life before now, I must make the decentralisation of whiteness a central tenet of my bookselling practice. To do that, I must also make it a central tenet of my reading practice—not to mention which, stories by Black authors (and authors of colour more generally) must be read for their own sake. And we—bloggers, booksellers and readers—need to encourage the industry to publish more of them, making sure they’re not all centered on racism (because… you know… everyone’s life and narrative is bigger than that). The more representation there is in the book world, the healthier and more creative it is.

best coming-of-age story: Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall. This reminded me so strongly of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, centering as it does on young Selina Boyce, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants in New York, and her attempts to break free of the familial and societal expectations that bind and devalue her. It’s a huge shame that it’s now out of print; my copy is an old Virago edition. Bring it back, Virago!

loudest wakeup call: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Hardly the most fun read, but without a doubt, this has laid the foundation for much of my self-education this month. Alexander’s thesis is that mass incarceration has created a tacit racial caste system that functions much as Jim Crow laws used to, but without public acknowledgment. Drawing examples from recent political and legislative history, Alexander’s argument is convincing, thorough, and extremely alarming.

best random acquisition: The Torture Letters: Reckoning With Police Violence, by Laurence Ralph. The U Chicago Press offers a free ebook every month, which I’m signed up to; usually I don’t read them, but this one seemed extremely apt. Ralph conducted an oral history/anthropological survey of people—mostly African-American men—who have experienced torture at the hands of the Chicago PD over the course of forty years. It’s a tough read, and sometimes repetitive (he structures most of the book as a series of open letters), but it’s illuminating about the struggles that people in a particular region have been engaging in for years, without any national media coverage. (And it’s made quite clear that Chicago can’t be the only place in the Union where this occurs.)

most outside my reading habits: Managing Up, by Mary Abbajay. A weird one: this is essentially a business/self-help tome about how to work with different types of managers. I’m interested in career development, but I tend to be quite resistant to books of this nature, especially ones that demand behavioural adaptation from the person already in a position of less (or no) power. Still, it certainly provided food for thought. Abbajay does distinguish between a manager who just doesn’t communicate the same way you do, and a manager who’s actively abusive or dangerous (she has no time for the latter and encourages people whose bosses are abusive to leave asap, thank goodness).

greatest potential (not bad as it is, but…) : Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract: the Story of a Tangled Inheritance, by Richard Atkinson. Atkinson’s attempt to trace his family back through several centuries of British history is fascinating, if overlong and occasionally bogged down in details of eighteenth-century scams. Still, the thing that’s most interesting about it is the fact that many of his ancestors were slaveowners, holding significant estates in Jamaica. The timing of this book intrigues; had it been published even a month later, I wonder if Atkinson’s publishers would have asked him to address this shameful legacy more directly. Instead, though he does engage with it, it’s on a fairly superficial level, the general attitude being that this was not a great thing, but without dwelling much on the details. Still, what it does do is drive home how many perfectly average middle-class families in Britain today have benefited from the slave trade. It’s not just peers and merchant princes who need to take a good hard look at their own houses.

most illuminating: Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala. There’s been a surge in purchases of nonfiction by Black authors about contemporary racism, and it can be a little tricky, I think, to navigate the options. If you pick just one of these books to read, make it Natives. Akala is a poet, singer and lecturer; his guide through British racist history, especially the legacy of empire, is both accessible and revelatory. I truly didn’t expect to learn much I didn’t already know, and found myself humbled instead. There’s a reason Natives is already a contemporary classic.

best London novel: The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon. A brilliant, funny, poignant novel chronicling the experiences of the first wave of West Indian immigrants post-WWII, focalized mostly through the eyes of generous but world-weary Moses Aloetta. Other characters include the romantic Sir Galahad and the roguish Nigerian survivor, Cap. The writing is beautiful, a melange of dialect and so-called Standard English that captures the rhythms of thought and time passing. There’s a particular ten-page section describing summer in London that made me miss the freedom of hanging out in parks more than anything else in this shitty pandemic season yet.

most darkly comedic: A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes. Himes’s first detective novel is so funny and so dark that it reminds me of the Coen Brothers (he’s also often compared to Chandler). Featuring a mendicant cross-dressing nun, the theft of some gold ore that may or may not exist, and the detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger (who appear in smaller parts here than in subsequent entries in the series), A Rage in Harlem invites us both to mock and to celebrate the innocence of its protagonist, clumsy Jackson, who can’t believe his woman Imabelle could do him wrong even when presented with the most suggestive evidence otherwise. It was made into a movie with Forest Whitaker, Robin Givens and Danny Glover, which I’d love to see—particularly the hearse chase scene. (You heard me.)

best reimagining: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Rhys’s famed “prequel” to Jane Eyre retells the story of Bertha Rochester in her own words (including the fact that “Bertha” is a name assigned to her by her husband; she is born Antoinette). Dealing persuasively and furiously with inequities of skin colour, gender, sexual expression and money, Wide Sargasso Sea is a short but very deep text; the fact that I never studied it in an educational institution is extraordinary to me, given the challenge it poses to concepts like elite storytelling, narrative closure, and teleology. It’s also incredibly beautifully written, its register slipping between a kind of Joycean tracing of the movements of consciousness and a more constructed, linear storytelling mode. (This slippage occurs not only when Antoinette narrates, but also in Rochester’s sections—the effect of the Caribbean on his soul is not itself corrosive, though his reactions of fear, rejection, and adherence to known hierarchies certainly are.) It’s a gem of a book, one to reread.

least-known (to me) history: The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, by Yasmin Khan. The Great Partition served as my entry point into the history of British colonialism in South-east Asia, for which I’m glad, though I’d like to see (or be made aware of—if you know any, recommend me some!) more books about the experience of first-generation Indian and Pakistani immigrants to the UK. My primary takeaway from Khan’s book is that the Hindu/Muslim divide and subsequent violent religious nationalism was not a natural one; it was identified and stoked by British colonial officials, who could not conceive of the rivalries that did exist but were divided along different lines. Instead, by imposing their own expectations of faith-based conflict upon residents of the subcontinent, colonial officials created a self-fulfilling prophecy: fear and tensions between religious communities contributed to, essentially, an arms race, which exploded bloodily in the summer of 1947. I also learned that the Radcliffe line, which created both West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), was drawn by a Briton who had never been to the regions in question, was not a cartographer or politically aware, and had spent about ten days in India, in total. The staggering arrogance of the project needs no further elaboration.

most likely to be a modern classic: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This book made history by becoming the first number 1 nonfiction book in the UK by a Black author. I listened to it on Audible and thought it was an excellent addition to the canon of nonfiction on contemporary racial issues, but although there’s huge value in Eddo-Lodge’s explicit focus on raising the consciousness of white people (racism, after all, is so often viewed as a “BAME problem” whereas it is in fact quite clearly a white-person problem), I found myself preferring Natives on the basis of its depth of historical research. Both, I think, clearly have broad commercial appeal, which is an important thing, and if Eddo-Lodge’s book gets more white people (especially in the publishing industry) to evaluate their own racism and complicity in racist structures, it’ll have done what it set out to do.

most terrifyingly prescient: Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Butler was a prophet; of this I am quite convinced. The first book in her Earthseed series, Parable of the Sower, was out of print earlier this month, so I ordered the second, which is comprehensible on its own. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. For anyone who loved The Handmaid’s Tale, this is the too-close-to-reality dystopia you should be reading; written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a way that Atwood’s novel tended to elide. Profoundly disturbing—I’ve been thinking about it for a fortnight—and incredibly moving.

best psychological profile: The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper. I love literary true crime, and manage to find about one book a year that really answers to that description. The Arsonist is about the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia in 2009, which killed 173 people and left many more homeless. A suspect was quickly arrested on suspicion of lighting the fires: Brendan Sokaluk, whose defense team struggled to represent him because he is both autistic and intellectually disabled, and frequently seemed not to understand what was happening to him. Hooper examines what happened the day the fires started, the major players in the arson investigation, and Sokaluk’s already difficult life (he’d had trouble at work, and lived in a house his parents had bought for him, where he could be regularly checked in on), as well as what happened after he was arrested. The result is an in-depth piece of investigative journalism, dealing with mental health stigma and the evisceration of industry in Victoria as well as the social and environmental consequences of the fires. It’s perfect for fans of Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief or Susan Orleans’s The Library Book.

most entirely unexpected: Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin. It seems to me as though a lot of narratives around queer self-acceptance and religion establish those two things as being completely incompatible. And I can see why: religious fundamentalism is frequently characterized by its cruelty towards, and rejection of, queerness. Yet Baldwin’s typically gorgeous novel embraces both things: his young protagonist, John, fears his stepfather’s harsh and disapproving (and heteronormative) God, but the penultimate scene in the book is the beautiful, transcendent vision of the divine that John finally receives, and in his dialogue with an older boy at the very end, we are given to understand that although John may appear to turn his back on the church by embracing his queerness, the truth of that revelation—that he is a child of God and much loved—will never cease to be. In addition to John’s perspective, we hear from his mother, stepfather, and aunt in a central section that completely opens up the reader’s perspective on these characters. I’d read one Baldwin before (Giovanni’s Room) and, as previously, was utterly blown away by the quality of his thought and writing. Which one next?!

most political use of humour: Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which reminds me strongly of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the way it mobilizes magical realism and dark comedy to criticize political actors. It tells the story of Aburiria, governed by a corrupt and self-aggrandizing dictator known only as the Ruler, who decides to build a new Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. A large cast of devout Christians, government ministers, police officers and businessmen is anchored by Kamiti, a beggar who initially adopts the role of a witch doctor as a joke but finds himself inextricably entwined with the fate of the nation, and Nyawira, the political radical with whom he falls in love. Hilarious, compelling, and a clear argument for Thiong’o as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

June 2020’s e- and audiobook intake

May Superlatives

This is the first post I’ve created with WordPress’s newly structured Editor, so bear with me if it’s weirdly formatted. It all seems mostly, roughly intuitive, but who can say? Anyway, May 2020: a pretty good reading month. Fewer books, but quite possibly many more pages—I read some chunksters, not all of which flew by, but all of which were incredibly rewarding. One of them, actually, is on my list of candidates for Books of the Year (I’m creating that as I go this year, in the hope of having an easier time choosing when December rolls around). Thirteen in total, only seven of which were physical books; photo of them below, collage of ebooks and audiobooks in middle and at end of post. Let’s get into it!

best classic: One of the few remaining Charlotte Brontë novels I hadn’t yet read, her historical novel Shirley. I think it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that nineteenth-century novelists wrote historical novels that were also set in the nineteenth century; Shirley is about industrial labor and romantic pragmatism in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic wars, as new laws devastate the area’s woollen mills. It feels surprisingly hard-nosed even for C.B., who, for my money, is the most ruthless Brontë by a long way. But, as I think I mentioned before, it features a female friendship that doesn’t collapse over a man or even revolve around him most of the time, and that’s refreshing.

slowest burn: This, by the way, is a good thing. The one thing everyone knows about Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is that it’s long. Having read it, the reason for the length is obvious: it’s a stylistic choice that reveals character, a buildup of childhood memories, musical earworms, film and literature references, a constant circling around specific but initially, apparently, random events that reveals this woman’s inner self to us, a building up of layers like the lamination of dough for croissants (she’s a baker). And despite the fact that it’s nearly 1000 pages long, the final 100 pages are nail-biting. Literally, genuinely, edge of your seat stuff. They never say that in the reviews.

most reflective of my own obsessive brain: Okay, this is a weird category, but it’s no weirder than me finishing The Only Plane in the Sky last month and immediately using my free Audible credit to download Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, a history of al-Qaeda. It won the Pulitzer, and I can see why, as it’s very thorough, but listening to it also clarified how much easier this kind of nonfiction is for me to read than to listen to. It’s a complicated story, there are a lot of names, dates and places, and the chronologies are decades-long. Once we got to the ’90s, it was easier to keep track (presumably because a lot of those names are more familiar to me: bin Laden, Mohamed Atta, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and so on), but the cumulative effect of listening to this was probably more atmospheric than concretely educational.

most overdue recommendation: Pretty sure my friend Jon recommended The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, to me over a decade ago. I’ve had an ebook version for a while—it’s on the Guardian Top 1000 novels list as well—and turned to it in a sf-y mood. It’s a rather brilliant metaphor for America’s involvement in Vietnam: Earth soldiers are engaged in an interstellar war with aliens called Taurans, but the effects of relativity mean centuries pass for every month or so they spend on campaign. I wanted more about the general social implications of this (how do you continue to fund and wage a war when most of the civilian population have never even seen a veteran?), but it’s a novel about soldiering, not politics, and as far as I can tell without having ever been a soldier, from that perspective Haldeman nails it. Fair warning: it has that kind of whiplash fake-future-feminism you get from a lot of older sci-fi (women serve as soldiers and are supposedly treated as equals, but it’s also illegal for them to refuse to have sex with anyone. Cool!)

most eclectic: Lots of my customers like to describe their tastes as “eclectic”. They virtually never really are. If they were, they might be more open to books like Ken Hollings’s The Space Oracle, which I find myself utterly unable to describe in any genre terms whatsoever. It’s nonfiction, but that’s where my certainties end. It’s definitely mostly astronomy, but sometimes it’s history and sometimes it’s mythology and sometimes it’s kind of, maybe, alchemy? It’s more or less an exploration of how different world cultures have used the ordering principles of the night sky to impose order on life, but Hollings uses unfamiliar names for the members of the zodiac, which immediately throws off all the things you think you know. Really interesting, really weird.

best emotional break: I suppose this is an odd takeaway from a memoir about the incredibly difficult life of cattle farmers in Ireland, particularly given that the author of The Cow Book, John Connell, is perpetually at loggerheads with his father. But it did feel like an emotional break. The concerns of farming are concrete and visible, unlike many of our current anxieties: will the calf die? Will the weather break? Will the cow conceive? There’s a slightly sadboi energy to Connell’s writing that occasionally irritates (he uses “for” instead of “because” a lot, which I’m only really willing to accommodate in writing from at least fifty years ago or in poetry), but it’s a thoughtful, melancholy read, which I appreciated.

most obvious influence: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is… well… the first time machine in literature! Certainly the first to use the phrase, and without doubt a foundational text of the time travel canon. I was surprised by its brevity, and by how basically flimsy the story is (and that the Time Traveller’s tale, which makes up the bulk of the novella, never loses its quotation marks at the start of each paragraph), but Wells’s theorized split in the future of humanity, where the effete, beautiful and useless Eloi are the prey of the bestial, subterranean-dwelling Morlocks, and both are descendants of homo sapiens as we currently know the species, says some dark, dark things about the direction of late Victorian/early Edwardian thought about class division. (To be clear: I’m not saying Wells thought the poor were Morlocks. I’m just saying, he doesn’t seem to have had much optimism about upward mobility.) A fascinating, if brief, book.

most annoyingly good: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, which I would much prefer not to have enjoyed, but which instead I have to admit is extremely compelling in its account of how languge both reveals a person and constrains them. And not just in the generic literary-fiction sense, either; Dolan’s protagonist, Ava, is an Irish ESL teacher in Hong Kong, and her detailing of which words are used in what contexts and with what implications are so precise, they feel like evidence for use in an essay. She skewers class, gender, nationality and sexuality with this level of attention. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to Sally Rooney, and I can see why, but I prefer Dolan: she acknowledges the peculiarities, the oddness, of her characters in a way that Rooney never does, and it makes their odd behaviour feel, perversely, more realistic.

best premise: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. In an alt-Johannesburg, there’s a condition called Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism. No one can explain it, but if you do something bad (not necessarily criminal, but definitely morally wrong), you get an animal sidekick – silent, ever-present, inseparable from you. Think kind of noir Pullman. Our heroine Zinzi has a Sloth. You also get a gift: hers is finding lost things. When she takes the kind of case she never takes—missing persons—she’s in at the deep end of a story involving the South African music scene, traditional medicine, and very unscrupulous people. This won the Clarke Award; my last Clarke winner was Air, by Geoff Ryman, which was a more ambitious and more moving novel than Zoo City, but this is a seriously fun noir/sf mashup, the pace never lets up, and Beukes’s prose—while occasionally overegged—usually hits just the right tangy/salty notes. Grand stuff.

closest to stealing Tana French’s crown: No one will ever actually do that. But We Know You Know (formally published under the much more evocative and relevant-to-the-actual-plot title Stone Mothers), by Erin Kelly, comes near. Dealing with the aftermath of a terrible event that occurred in a now-closed hospital, and the effect it has on three lives when it’s brought up many decades later, the book is not just a crime thriller, but a merciless filleting of the systems and prejudices that conspired (and still do) to imprison and punish the vulnerable—particularly women—and how the repercussions of traumas incurred in those systems are generations-deep.

best historical escapism: The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak’s novel of sixteenth-century Istanbul, master builder Sinan, and one of his apprentices, Jahan, who appears in the Ottoman court as the keeper of a white elephant, Chota, sent as a gift to the Sultan. I’ve said before that I want to like Shafak’s work more than I do; there’s a stylistic inelegance and tendency to rely on cliché that often deflates her writing for me. The Architect’s Apprentice suffers from these flaws, but somehow the historical setting seems to absorb them more easily, making it feel more naturally like a long fable or picaresque. Highly enjoyable, though, for its energy and charm, and the way it explains gaps in the record (Sinan and his chief western rival Michelangelo having never met or even corresponded, for instance).

best audio choice: In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, a memoir exploring Stott’s childhood in the Exclusive Brethren, a very strict Christian sect that became a cult in the ’60s and was rocked by a sex scandal in the ’70s. Stott’s father, who had been a pillar of their EB community in Brighton, pulled the family out then, and the book is something of an attempt to lay his ghost (Stott uses this metaphor herself) after he dies several decades later. It’s beautifully written, a thoughtful, curious, compassionate and fascinating account of religious mania but also of her family history and her father’s character. She has, apparently, written at least two novels as well, though this is what won her the Costa biography prize in 2017; her fiction must be well worth seeking out.

best sunshine thriller: Conviction by Denise Mina, although that makes the book sound popcorn-y and it’s not. Focusing on a woman who decides to do some investigating of her own when a true crime podcast mentions a man she was once friends with, there are a few melodramatic moments that stretch credulity, but they’re swallowable because Mina writes really capably, and because of the voice of the protagonist she’s created. Overt polemics are few and far between, but make no mistake, this is an intensely political novel disguised as a Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick. That just screams summer to me.

currently reading: On audio, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander; and just about to start an old Virago paperback of Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall.

April Superlatives

Book posts are back! Just as Superlatives for now, but who knows what the future holds?

In April I read 10 print books (pictured above) and 4 ebooks, plus listened to 2 full audiobooks (most of which pictured below), which makes 16 in total. The anxieties and slow progress of March have been replaced by a rejuvenation of reading mojo, albeit not a noticeable diminishment of more generalized worry. But I don’t think I’m alone in that.

gateway drug: Michael Christie’s family-saga eco-drama Greenwood started slowly, but quickly compelled me to read on, as it leapfrogs backward into the tangled and hidden histories of a family whose destiny is irrevocably entwined with trees: whether tapping them for sap to sell, cutting them down for timber that fuels the growth of a business empire, or protecting the last stand of virgin growth-forest in the world, only a few decades into the future. A tad melodramatic for my taste, but definitely did the trick.

biggest time-warp: Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays started out as columns in The Times, but lovely Persephone Books collected them and put them between beautiful dove-grey covers. Reading them is like experiencing a mad, but not unpleasant, dream, where the correct preparation of Lobster Newburg (eh?) is discussed alongside deeper moral questions (“choosing well is one of the most difficult things in a difficult world”).

most delightful surprise: Briarley, by Aster Glenn Gray, which was my very first ever romance novel and which shocked me by being absolutely excellent. It is a m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in an English village during WWII, featuring a bisexual vicar whose daughter is volunteering for the war effort, and an arrogant landowner who’s been turned into a dragon for his heartlessness. Gray incorporates the classical references you’d expect educated men in the ’40s to have at their fingertips, along with Biblical and literary ones, and the whole tone of the novella is both wistfully fable-like and muscular. Gorgeous, and funny.

best disguise: I’m awarding this to Mistresses by Linda Porter for being, basically, quite enjoyable fluffy chapters on the lives of the major mistresses of Charles II, cunningly hiding in the form of a group historical biography. She does provide political and historical context, and of course the fates of mistresses often parallel the fates of administrations, factions, and fashions, but it’s not highly academic by any means.

steamiest surprise: My second foray into romance was the equally delightful, well-written and tender, but also waaayyy hotter, The Duke I Tempted by Scarlett Peckham. I implore you, look past its cover and the title and what is surely a pseudonym, and consider: an ambitious, proud woman trying to make a career as a botanical gardener in a world that despises working women; an emotionally damaged nobleman who can only find the emotional release he needs at the hands of a professional domme; a marriage of convenience; profound misunderstanding; and the beauty of what is possible when people really try with each other. It’s so good on BDSM dynamics without being anachronistic (at least not in any ways that stuck out to me), and I’m so glad I read it.

most fun reread: Two rereads this month, the jolliest of which was Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I still find her pacing, especially in the latter third of the book, a little confusing; things seem to happen very quickly but without much consequence, and in the whole chapter where Sophie goes to visit the king, nothing advances. It’s still really fun, though, and the movie is now on Netflix (though I know it’s quite different!)

most anticipated: Sarah Moss’s new novel, Summerwater (not out til August). It’s good, of course—she literally can’t write a bad one at this point—though it doesn’t maintain its sticky tension the way Ghost Wall does. I’m not sure it’s trying to; the reason it loses that claustrophobia despite being set in a small place over one day is that the point of view bounces from character to character each chapter, and what it doesn’t have in dread it makes up for in its miniaturized characterization, each new voice convincing.

best proof that “old” =/= “classic”: The 1830s bestseller Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which takes 600 pages to tell a pretty straightforward story of a young boy who grows up to be a highwayman, his life of crime, the woman he falls for, and their eventual happy ending. It’s not terrible, and there’s value in being able to see that Bulwer-Lytton is aiming for effects that Dickens manages not long after with infinitely more panache and individuality (poor and elderly grotesques with funny accents! Parentage shrouded in mystery!) But the fact that it’s now out of print (after a brint stint as one of a short-lived Penguin series of Victorian Bestsellers) is really a mercy.

second-best surprise: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, which I started listening to basically on a whim and found myself really sucked into. She’s such an appealing narrator/protagonist: she’s not into politics at all, her self-presentation as a driven, conscientious rule-follower is rueful and funny, and to start with she’s not all that into Barack either. Her dedication to her kids and family life also goes down very well: she’s smart and educated, and has no intention of being a smiling doll-wife, but she also unashamedly loves being a mom. I liked her a lot just from listening to this. The hype is real.

most frustrating: I really wanted to like Holly Watt’s follow-up novel, The Dead Line, which sees her investigative journalist protag Casey Benedict chasing a story about illegal surrogacy in Bangladesh. And for much of it, I did; it’s a page-flipper, even though it’s too long. But there’s a certain authorial sympathy extended to the white British women who constitute the market for this illegal surrogacy and who don’t care how many vulnerable people are hurt as long as they get their baby at the end of it. I think it was meant to be even-handedness, which is admirable in theory—there’s a lot of emotional territory to be explored—but instead it felt like an attempt to equate their sufferings with those of the women forced to carry their babies, and that sits very, very badly with me indeed.

best popcorn books: Two thoroughly trashy YA novels from a series that I was obsessed with as a pre-teen, Fearless FBI: Kill Game and Fearless FBI: Agent Out, by Francine Pascal. Fearless FBI is a follow-up series to Fearless, which is about a teenage girl “born without the fear gene” (teh sciencez!) living in New York who just kicks everyone’s ass vigilante-style because she can. Very ’90s, very girl-power, lots of violence and sexual tension. I was not allowed to read them and therefore had to borrow them in secret from my best friend. In Fearless FBI, our protag Gaia has just graduated from Stanford and joined the FBI (in the first book’s first scene, she saves everyone from a suicide bomber at her college graduation because of course that’s a natural venue for a domestic terrorist). These were written around 2005, and there are definite efforts to integrate some more sophisticated gender politics, but they flounder because Pascal is clearly a lot more comfortable in the “RESPECT WOMEN, YOU DOUCHE [round-house kick] THAT’S RIGHT, GIRLS CAN BE CUTE AND DANGEROUS” zone. They’re quite bad and joyfully these two of the series (vols 1 and 3) are available in ebook form. (Vols 2 and 4 are not, which is a huge disappointment; please get on that, Simon & Schuster, kthanks.)

biggest splash of cold water: After chewing through two of those in one weekend afternoon, I elected to read something more sensible and settled down with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian satire on Taylorian management principles and totalitarian (Soviet) society, We. It’s not masses of fun, and it’s pretty misogynistic, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise with things written in the mid-20th century but somehow always is. Not dissimilar to Brave New World (though We came first and Huxley denied the influence), with its classes of citizens, strictly regimented timetables and regulated sexuality, and brutal repression of dissidents. Worth reading if you’ve exhausted Huxley and Orwell, though. It wasn’t published at all until three years after it was written, and then only in English; its first publication in Russian took three more decades.

wait, no, this was the biggest splash of cold water: The audiobook of Garrett M Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: an Oral History of 9/11. It is, as the title would suggest, sombre. But it’s also incredibly well done; a full cast reads the interviews, which are interleaved with each other and arranged in roughly chronological order, so we get a section called Tuesday Begins followed by Checking In, The First Plane, First Reactions in DC, American Airlines Flight 77, The Military Responds, and so on. It feels like nothing so much as being physically inside a multi-part documentary. The amount of work that went into the writing of the book—fifteen years—let alone the recording, is phenomenal. Did it make me tear up several times? Absolutely, yes. Did it leave me with a profound sense of hope? Also, absolutely, yes. Good to read about acute disasters during a chronic one, in a way.

best reminder to reread more: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, which I read at about thirteen and hadn’t revisited since. Liz Dexter (on Instagram I accidentally said it was Clare from Years of Reading Selfishly, I’m so sorry!) prompted me to read this again along with her, and it’s so good. Cather was one of my authors of the year in 2019; in My Ántonia, the story of a Bohemian (Czech) immigrant girl and her family in the American West, her landscape descriptions and her gifts of empathy and grace are on full display.

most alarmingly topical: Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig, an 800-page novel about… a global pandemic. (There’ll be no spoilers here, but let’s just say the ultimate revelation about the pandemic’s source is fairly chilling.) Good, clean, page-turning fun; not as profound as it thinks it’s being, and Wendig has one of my least favourite writing tics (“And with that, [character’s name] [some kind of synonym for “moved out of shot”: “walked away”, “left”, “departed”, “closed the door”, you name it]). It’s kind of sub-The Stand (mind you, I like Stephen King). But absolutely great for this moment in time, if what you want to do with this moment in time is stare into the abyss of it.


currently reading: Shirley, the major Charlotte Brontë novel I hadn’t yet gotten to. (I don’t count The Professor.) For nineteenth-century depictions of industrial unrest, I have to say, I find Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South both more sympathetic and less preachy, but Shirley is very readable and moreover is primarily about a close female friendship that doesn’t sour (or hasn’t yet) over a man, which is great.

April 2020 e-and audiobook collage

Books of the year, 2019

This year I revised my reading goals downwards, quite radically, from 200 books to 120. As of this writing, I’ve read 185 books in 2019, which is pretty gratifying. It does present something of a problem, which is that narrowing down the top ten (or whatever) books of the year gets exponentially harder. I’ve done my best anyway. There are more than ten, because it was a good year and I make the rules.

41c8al52l8l._sx331_bo1204203200_Selected Poems of Adrienne Rich. One of the very earliest reads of the year and still one of the best. At the time of reading, I wrote, “On every page, practically, there is a line that reaches into my chest. I choose to love this time for once/With all my intelligence: that one I knew already, but what about this: What happens between us/has happened for centuries/we know it from literature//still it happens […] there are books that describe all this/and they are useless. Or this: The woman who cherished/her suffering is dead […] I want to go on from here with you/fighting the temptation to make a career of pain.” Unbeatable.

9781473639058What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt. Read in a day, on a sofa in a nice flat in Paris while wind howled outside. A totally brilliant book, following the friendship between two men–painter Bill and art historian Leo–and the intertwining of the lives of their families, including Leo’s wife, Bill’s first and second wives, and their two sons: Leo’s Matthew, and Bill’s Mark. Both intellectual and terrifying; I found it hard to sleep after finishing it and it’s continued to haunt me.

 

cover159135-mediumThe Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan. Based on a true story: in 1793, a Mr. Powyss offered £50 a year for life to any man who would undertake to live in solitary confinement underground for seven years, without cutting his nails, hair, or beard, keeping a journal of his thoughts. The advertisement was answered by one man, a labourer with a wife and a large number of children. Nathan skillfully integrates the class upheaval occurring in England at the time, and the voice of John Warlow, the semi-literate ploughman who takes up the offer, is poignantly and viscerally rendered. Not one to miss for lovers of historical fiction.

9780857524485The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold. This group biography of the “canonical five” women presumed to have been killed by the same person–known to history as Jack the Ripper–in 1888 is long overdue. Rubenhold gives each woman her own section, exploding sensationalist myths and prejudices with every word. Only one of the five, for instance, was employed as a sex worker; only one (the same one) was under twenty-five. More significant  are the facts that the majority were alcoholics, and separated from a husband. Compassionate and unsentimental, Rubenhold’s description of the trajectories of their lives makes the similarities between these women and the homeless population of modern London painfully clear.

9781786331519Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A magnificent novel about the rise and fall of a rock band in ’70s California, told through the transcripts of interviews for a documentary. Reid nails atmosphere: the drugs, the sex, but also the strangely untouchable, self-centered innocence that permeates this milieu. Daisy Jones could have been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with added smack problem), but her emotional vulnerability is leavened with grit; Camila Dunne, wife of the lead guitarist, could have been a caricature of a stay-at-home mother, but her integrity is the moral backbone of the book. Reid also has some beautiful, scary things to say about creative collaboration, the hard work of making music, and the ease with which we can fuck up our own hearts.

9781786894373The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch. This, mes enfants, this is how you write a book. More specifically, it is how you write a book about your life, your life that is so fucked up from start to finish, your father who abused you and your mother who drank her way to blankness and your gift for swimming and the way you wrecked yourself  for years and found writing and found sex with women and found pain as expiation and found men and lost men and lost a baby and eventually made a home. Yuknavitch is certainly not “likeable” throughout, and occasionally her self-destruction becomes frustratingly repetitive, but she writes like a demon and there is one chapter – the one where she and her first husband try to scatter their stillborn daughter’s ashes – that made me cry on the bus, that ought to become a staple of auditions as a dramatic monologue. If you love Cheryl Strayed, don’t miss.

imageNorth and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. Some amusing soul on Goodreads has described this as “Pride and Prejudice for socialists”, which isn’t too far off base. The story of Margaret Hale, daughter of a Devonshire vicar whose crisis of faith makes him move his small family to Milton, a Northern manufacturing town, and John Thornton, one of the mill owners there, is all about misconceptions, preconceptions, and class snobbery. Unlike Austen’s novels, though–and understand that I love them, so this isn’t a dig at the divine Jane–Gaskell’s writing feels distinctly modern and political in its sensibilities, from the unusual directness of her characters’ dialogue to the frank acknowledgment of class struggle.

43206809Things In Jars, by Jess Kidd. Kidd’s third book is set in a familiar Victorian Gothic London, but her elegant, witty prose invigorates the setting. (She is particularly good at the literally birds-eye view; several chapters open from the perspective of a raven, allowing some lovely atmospheric scene-setting.) Our protagonist, red-haired Irish investigator Bridie Devine, is a magnificent addition to the ranks of spiky Victorian ladies in fiction, and her tentative love affair with the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer is conveyed delicately. The is-it-or-isn’t-it supernatural flavour of the central mystery makes this book perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent–and, as a bonus, Things in Jars has an excellently dry sense of humour.

x298Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli. Reading this after the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement, my frustration at the composition of that list was refreshed. Luiselli takes a Sebaldian approach to her two-pronged story. One strand follows the journey of a group of migrant children from Mexico as they ride the border freight trains, sleep rough, and–sometimes–die, trying to get to a better life. The second follows the road trip of a married couple who are both audio journalists, and their two children, ostensibly traveling towards the American Southwest in order to produce a story about the migrant children. Luiselli’s philosophical, detailed style occasionally outstays its welcome, but mostly Lost Children Archive is a heartbreaking, fiercely intelligent wonder.

41081373Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo. Almost, but not quite, an interlinked collection of short stories: each of the twelve chapters here follows a different woman (mostly black and British), and one of the book’s pleasures is discovering how they’re all connected to and through one another. Evaristo has always had great skill with potentially controversial topics: the generosity she extends to her characters nullifies any charges of bandwagoning when it comes to stories about gender, race, and class. This book in particular demonstrates that black women were fighting and winning these battles many decades before “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts and social media accounts became a thing. In her application of the tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner principle, Evaristo reminds me of no one so much as George Eliot.

91at5ojnm-lThe Porpoise, by Mark Haddon. This is the sort of book that the Hogarth Shakespeare project should be trying to produce (interestingly, he was apparently asked to write it for them, and ended up pulling out of the project due to creative differences). Haddon moves from present-day privilege (globally connected aristocratic businessmen certainly have power equivalent to autocratic monarchs) to the ancient Mediterranean to a Tudor London where George Wilkins–Shakespeare’s co-writer on Pericles, the obscure play that this novel engages with–is punished after death for his sins against women. It’s excellent, the prose crisp, the pace thrilling, the connections between different parts of the novel resonant and moving.

91lkpci3gnl-1Shadowplay, by Joseph O’Connor. Set in the Lyceum Theatre in 1878, and with a cast of characters including Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker, and (briefly) Oscar Wilde. Fantastically evocative historical fiction with a wide streak of poignancy and an even wider streak of queer desire and anxiety. One for fans of The Wardrobe MistressThe Phantom of the Opera, and indeed Things In Jars.

 

38462._sy475_Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin: An outstanding short novel about a closeted gay American man in Paris, who falls in love with an Italian bartender but abandons him for (he thinks) a respectable life married to a woman. This abandonment has…consequences. Baldwin’s a beautiful writer of sentences–quotable but never sententious–and quite how he lays claim to a reader’s emotions in such a short space and with pretty limited use of interiority is something I’ll only be able to work out upon rereading, if then.

hbg-title-9780349012131-5Corregidora, by Gayl Jones. I read this twice in three months and it revealed more each time. The story of a blues singer and her maternal line’s traumatic intergenerational relationship with the Portuguese slaveholder who owned her ancestors, it’s also about sexuality, femininity, how to make good art, and whether it’s even possible to redeem pain in that way. If you like Toni Morrison, if you aspire to produce any kind of art (but particularly music), if you want to know how other times and places have navigated the path between desire and trauma, read it.

67483723_10214047205910175_1158198541944881152_nOhio, by Stephen Markley. The best post-9/11 novel I’ve ever read: detailed, lyrical, raw, all those book review words. Four high school friends reconverge in their hometown, one night in the early 2010s. They don’t all meet, but that night illuminates the history they share and the path their country has taken since. The Iraq war, Alanis Morrisette, OxyContin, summers at the lake, your boyfriend’s truck, baby lesbians, post-industrial hellscapes, Obama’s election, white supremacists, memorial tattoos, homecoming dances, football games, small-town rumors, the mystery at the centre of existence – Ohio has them all, and all wrapped up in beautiful, headstrong, confident prose. Maybe a little too headstrong at times, but if I have a weakness it’s for stylistic overkill. It worked for me.

to-calais-in-ordinary-time-hardback-cover-9781786896742To Calais, In Ordinary Time, by James Meek. A conceptually brilliant novel set in the 1400s, as a company of bowmen head towards the southern coast of England to join the war against France, and the Black Plague comes up the country in the opposite direction. Told in three different registers that evoke the distinctions in speech between noble, peasant, and clerical characters, it’s never a particularly easy read but never a dull one either, and it deals with sexual and gender expression in a way that feels both extremely contemporary and remarkably sensitive to the time.

eevsk_8xuau0fjzThe Jewel, by Neil Hegarty. Hegarty’s second novel centers around the theft of an almost miraculous artwork: a painting buried with its artist as a shroud, but later exhumed and hung on the walls of a Dublin gallery. When it is stolen, the chapters shift between the perspectives of the thief, the specialist tasked with recovering it, and the curator in charge of the robbed gallery. Hegarty’s character sketches are precise and painful: the corrosive effect of cynicism on a man’s soul, the revelation of the cancerous depth of abuse in a supposedly loving relationship, the searing trauma of a sister’s death in silent, repressive late-twentieth-century Ireland.

71851293_10214584094972066_9126527404867584000_nOlive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. Here Strout brings together characters from books spanning her entire career, but mostly the book is about Olive Kitteredge as she ages, including her second marriage, in her seventies, to the gentle and persistent Jack Kennison. Strout has been working, hard, for a long time now, and it shows in the writing, which has that particular level of finesse that is only possible from someone who has wrestled daily with language and finally come to a deep understanding with it. She uses a smooth, almost placid linguistic register as a container for explosive feelings and behaviour.  Olive, Again is a magnificent piece of work, and yet, perhaps because of its subject matter—old age and death—it has the feeling of a swan song. I desperately hope it isn’t.

This is also the place to mention two authors of whose work I’ve read three instances each this year, and been totally seduced and bowled over by both.

isbn9781473694439Siri Hustvedt. I read the aforementioned What I Loved (probably her most famous), Memories of the Future (her most recent), and A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind (self-explanatory, I should think). All are excellent, if tough and rigorous. Encountering her mind is bracing to one’s own.

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Willa Cather. Astonishingly modern in her lack of sentimentality, yet with the courtly lucidity of a much older era, Cather is long overdue serious attention in the UK, although American readers still know her pretty well. I read three of her novels this year that were new to me: A Lost Lady, Death Comes For the Archbishop, and The Song of the Lark. I still have a copy of My Ántonia, which I first read in middle school and intend to revisit in 2020. All of these copies were old green Virago paperbacks and came from The Second Shelf, which sells rare books and first editions exclusively by women (including, you’ll be pleased but hopefully not surprised to hear, trans women), and which has a shelf full of more affordable things specifically for those who, like me, are slender of purse.

Highly honourable mentions: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, The Snakes by Sadie Jones, Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt, The Terror by Dan Simmons, The Pisces by Melissa Broder, Arabs by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, This Is Shakespeare by Emma Smith, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton, Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, The Body Lies by Jo Baker, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, The Horseman by Tim Pears, Collected Ghost Stories by MR James, The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

Forthcoming (I hope): best children’s books I read in 2019, and January 2020’s most exciting new releases!

December Superlatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October Superlatives

Thirteen books this month; an appropriate number for the month of Halloween, although I don’t really keep the feast anymore. Certainly not when it falls on a Tuesday. It’s been a busy old month and the near future won’t slow down much; maybe by the middle of November I’ll have a Saturday or an evening where I have time to cook a meal, stay up late reading, lie in bed doing nothing in particular. (Write a few book reviews?)

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party to which I was late: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the novel that made John Le Carré’s name. The most astonishing thing about it is its absolute, even-handed refusal to permit heroism to any of its characters. Everyone—the British, the East Germans, our protagonist, his boss—is weak, petty, self-serving, or cold. Sometimes all at once. It’s a devastating book, with a devastating ending: no one wins.

for Wodehouse fans: Max Beerbohm’s frothy Edwardian novel Zuleika Dobson, whose titular heroine visits her grandfather’s Oxford college and wreaks havoc amongst the undergraduates, who all end up committing suicide en masse in her honour. To be perfectly honest, it’s a slightly weird read, because Beerbohm never seems totally sure of how serious he wants to be; there are some moments between Zuleika and her most devoted lover, the Duke of Dorset, which I found quite moving, and yet the whole point of the book is this moment of comically extreme violence, which we’re apparently not meant to take more seriously than your average Tom and Jerry maiming. Still bloody funny, though.

most thought-provoking: American War by Omar El Akkad, a new novel set in the 2070s, after a ban on fossil fuel usage has provoked a Second American Civil War. Our protagonist, Sarat, is a young displaced girl from the South, and the novel charts the course of her radicalisation and eventual deployment as a terrorist. A lot of El Akkad’s extrapolations about the future are surprising: he totally ignores issues of race, for example, which I can’t see completely disappearing in fifty years unless something socioculturally cataclysmic happens before the start of the book, and none of his characters make any reference to such an event. And his Southerners don’t feel like Southerners to me: first of all, race is always a major if unspoken factor in the South, and secondly, there is a semi-feral attachment to land and land’s history there that I don’t see in his characters. But what American War did was force me to reevaluate how children are radicalised, simply by making me watch it happen in a landscape I was familiar with and to people whose cultural referents are roughly my own, and that’s a hell of an important thing.

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most a victim of its time: I actually quite enjoyed most of The Black Cloud, a hard sf novel from 1957. It’s a fascinating insight into the status of science fiction at the time—one of its major selling points is that it’s written “by a scientist”, and Hoyle clearly cares a thousand times less about characterisation and the social implications of global natural disaster than he does about explaining to us exactly what kind of natural disaster we’ll get, and why. (There are equations.) But his protagonist (who, intriguingly, holds the same post at Cambridge University that Hoyle did) is not to be borne: he’s a patronising, info-dumping egotist with a Messiah complex who doesn’t understand a) why it’s not okay to kidnap a beautiful young pianist and hold her hostage in your Science Lair so that you can have some culture and eye candy whilst saving the world, and b) why your government might be completely justified in thinking you’re a megalomaniacal world-dictator-in-waiting, given that YOU HAVE A FUCKING SCIENCE LAIR. And the less said about attitudes towards women, the better. (They literally make the tea, I cannot.) File under enjoyable but deeply flawed.

most jaw-droppingly transcendent of its genre: Dodgers, a crime novel by Bill Beverly that won the CWA’s Debut Dagger Award. My God, this book. It’s a crime novel in the sense that Crime and Punishment is. East is fifteen years old. He used to supervise lookouts at a crack house in LA, running a yard full of boys ready to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice, but his house gets busted. He’s given a last chance to prove himself, a drive with three other boys from California to Wisconsin to assassinate a judge. Things get complicated. Beverly nails interpersonal dynamics, the Morse code of young men communicating with few words, and the sense of responsibility and despair that East feels for his younger brother Ty, who’s already much better at this life than he is. And he nails atmosphere, most particularly the atmosphere of the road trip: the jittery smeared-neon eye-gritting blur of America, the cold blue light in the front of a gas station just before sunup. It’s an astonishing book; it left me with a hole inside.

most humane: Autumn, by Ali Smith, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and might easily have won it. It’s rather difficult to summarise this book, which is presumably why most of the writing I’ve seen about it online hasn’t tried. Effectively, there are two main characters: Daniel Gluck, now an old man, and Elisabeth Demand, once a precocious schoolchild who was his neighbour, now teaching art history. Woven in between their stories are the stories of Pauline Boty, one of Britain’s few female Pop Artists (in fact, identifying her as such is the source of an argument between Elisabeth and her initial postgraduate supervisor), and of Christine Keeling, the model involved in the Profumo Affair of the 1960s (Britain’s Watergate, in that you can argue for its being the modern moment when the public stopped trusting politicians). Smith is, I am convinced, a genius; she thinks on the very highest level, then tells her stories as though she is sitting cross-legged on a sofa.

most utterly predictable reread: The Likeness, by Tana French. It makes me weep every time, that last page. You know how much I like Tana French. Moving on.

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most disorienting: The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis. Unusually, this was a book someone recommended to me (it doesn’t happen often); my childhood best friend’s partner heard about the book I’m writing and told me I should read this. There’s a rough similarity—college students, a love triangle, people who refuse to deal with their sexualities—but the odd thing about Ellis’s book was that I couldn’t find the heart of it, I couldn’t sense where my attention and investment was meant to be directed. It’s written in a lot of short, choppy sections, from the perspectives of about half a dozen different people; you often get wildly varying versions of the same situation. The experience of reading it is a lot like wandering through a party in a darkened flat that you’ve never been to before, six glasses of wine down, looking for your friends, your shoes, your coat, and/or somewhere to throw up: everything goes past at the wrong speed, seems to be in the wrong place, keeps happening for too long, and you really want to just lie down. Not that drugs and sex aren’t valid subjects for fiction, it’s just…awfully hard to know what Ellis was getting at with this one. (Patrick Bateman makes an appearance, though; Sean, one of the main characters here, is his younger brother.)

most intriguing opening: I read a graphic novel this month, volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan of Saga fame and drawn by Pia Guerra. The premise is that a virus has killed all men and male animals – everything with a Y chromosome – simultaneously, except for one man (Yorick) and his pet monkey Ampersand. Various groups want them, for experiments or vengeance or other things, and all Yorick wants is to find his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australia when global communications broke down. Yorick’s an infuriating character, full of a young man’s arrogance, and I’m not sure that Vaughan always does a totally convincing job of standing outside of that character inviting us to assess it, as opposed to appearing to endorse it. Still, there are some great scenes, including one where the wives of now-dead Republican congressmen storm Capitol Hill, armed, demanding their husbands’ seats.

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most balls-to-the-wall bonkers: This, mind you, is a good thing. The honour goes to China Miéville’s novel Kraken, which is universally considered to be not one of his best, and I can kind of see why, since it tastes very similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and indeed to Miéville’s own early works like UnLun Dun and King Rat. However, it has still got the theft of a giant squid, a section of the Metropolitan Police that deals entirely with cult activity, a mysterious society of Londonmancers, a strike by the Union of Familiars, and just in general quite a lot of good mad stuff. I love the idea that the places of great inherent power in this city aren’t always where you think they might be (though of course there’s plenty of it round the London Stone); that you could also find it round back of a chippy on the Edgware Road, or in a lock-up in Hoxton.

most unnerving to my boss: E. Gabriella Coleman’s seminal book, Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. I picked it up because of my interest in the intellectual struggles around copyright and freedom of information, and because in the spring I read an incredible biography of Aaron Swartz, who helped to develop Reddit and Creative Commons before being arraigned by the FBI for mass-downloading a bunch of JSTOR articles. Coleman’s focus is actually much less on the law and much more on the anthropological structures of hacker culture, but as these have a lot to do with shared, deeply internalised ethics, there’s enough overlap for it to be fascinating too.

most moving: Another road trip novel, this one by Sara Taylor, who wrote The Shore. Her second novel, The Lauras, follows a mother and child (we never know what sex Alex is, or what gender, and Alex themself is pretty clear: they don’t feel they fit into either box) as they drive across America. It’s sort of an escape from Alex’s father, but he’s not exactly a villain, just a mediocre guy; it’s more to do with Ma’s need to visit pieces of her past. Taylor evokes rootlessness well, and she’s tenderly open-minded on the complexities of maternal love, and the myriad ways in which it’s possible to make or have a family. Beautiful writing, too. (review)

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most gonzo: Is that actually the right word? I don’t know. It feels like it, for Julianne Pachico’s short story collection The Lucky Ones. They’re interlinked, so that characters who appear peripherally in one story become the centre of another. Set in Colombia, mostly during the drug wars of the early 1990s, they circle around a group of schoolgirl friends and frenemies – Stephanie, Betsy, La Flaca, Mariela – with other stories from the point of view of a kidnapped teacher, a teenage soon-to-be-paramilitary recruit, and (really) a bunch of pet rabbits hooked on coca leaves. It’s an absolute knockout.

up next: The last two books in October were read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Shadow Panel, which I’m delighted to be on this year. I’m now reading The End of the Day by Claire North, a novel about the Harbinger of Death, who turns out to be a nice, kind of schlubby guy called Charlie. It’s an odd mix, the witty apocalypticism of Good Omens mingled with a more serious humanitarian flavour. I think I like it.

September Superlatives

Quite a lot going on in September, all of it good—more writing, more walking, more singing, more seeing dear friends whom I don’t see often enough. Work is very busy, and I have two new colleagues to help me in the bookshop, and I have just started working on our bespoke subscription service, with new clients of my own. Not many reviews this month, but 17 books read, and a sense that, going into winter, I may just preserve my sanity. An unexpected gift, that: I don’t fare well in the dark season.

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most uneven: Mark Twain’s travelogue Roughing It, which is partly set in Nevada, Utah and California Territories (where he originally went to accompany his brother, who was appointed to a government position in Nevada), and partly in Hawaii. Twain is amusing as ever (if a little distressingly casual) on Mormon society and the surreal bubble of Western gold prospecting, but he’s also breathtakingly racist about Chinese labourers in California Territory, and things don’t improve when he meets native Hawaiians. Worth reading, but hardly essential.

most incendiary: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, longlisted for the Booker Prize, which retells Sophocles’s Antigone with a British Muslim family front and center. Dutiful daughter Isma, bold and beautiful Aneeka, and radicalised, immature Parvaiz play out a story that feels inevitable, but ought to be read by everyone interested in current debates about the West’s role in creating a new generation of terrorists. (review)

best fun: K.J. Whittaker’s False Lights, the tagline of which is the intriguing “What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo?” Featuring Cornish separatist rebels, Napoleon’s brother Jerome on the English throne, and a mixed-race heroine (not to mention another particularly wonderful depiction of a working-class woman whose capacity for military strategy wins her the Duke of Wellington’s respect), it’s like a glorious mashup of Frenchman’s Creek and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (but without the magic.)

most stylish: My Cat Yugoslavia, the debut novel from Pajtim Statovci. Examining the psychic fallout from the war in Kosovo through the eyes of Bekim, a Kosovan Muslim resettled in Finland as a child, it’s an elegant, if sometimes slightly self-conscious, treatment of the lingering traumas of conflict. (review)

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best atmosphere: That of immediately post-war London in Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress. It’s set in the notoriously cold winter of 1947, and follows Joan Grice, who runs the wardrobe department at the Beaumont Theatre, as she mourns the death of her famous actor husband, known to all as Gricey. The revelation that Gricey had a secret life—one that was almost diametrically opposed to his domestic life with her—drives Joan to the brink of madness. McGrath writes with beautiful restraint and finely calculated tension; it’s a masterpiece.

sheerest delight (and most inspirational protagonist): Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. This is not exactly news to anyone who reads Naomi’s blog, but good Lord is this novella ever charming, cheering, and a bit of a kick up the ass. Dr. Morayo da Silva, Manyika’s protagonist, is in her eighties and still lively, sharp, and sexy. (A young chef, seeing her dancing, gets a little hot under the collar, despite knowing she’s his grandmother’s age.) Manyika doesn’t ignore the painful elements of aging, but she has also written the only elderly female protagonist I’ve ever read whom I wouldn’t actually mind becoming. What a gem.

most addictive: Munich, Robert Harris’s new book. I had never read a single Harris book until July, when I finally bought the paperback of Conclave because I was going to be on a train and what if I happened to finish the book I already had in my bag OH NOES. It turned out to be great, and Munich is even better. While sticking to the historical record of what happened in 1938 when Chamberlain and Hitler met and signed the Munich Agreement, Harris also gives us the perspective of two men—one in the British government, one in the German—who try to persuade Chamberlain of the real danger. Harris succeeds as no other novelist has in conveying Britain’s desperation not to start another war, and somehow, knowing from the start how it will end doesn’t diminish the tension.

best surprise: This year’s Booker Prize dark horse, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. Initially this seemed rather Cormac McCarthy Does Yorkshire, but in the end it’s much more than that: a siren song of violence and independence and rage. There are shades of Winter’s Bone and My Absolute Darling and the queasy individualism of Paul Kingsnorth’s novels in the story of bare-knuckle fighter John and his children, gentle Daniel and hard-as-nails Cathy. It’ll be interesting to see what Mozley does next.

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biggest disappointment: Dunbar, Edward St. Aubyn’s reimagining of King Lear for Hogarth’s Shakespeare project. In this case, the failing is partly that of the utterly mediocre prose, but mostly due to a lack of moral scope: Dunbar isn’t a tragic figure because he isn’t an Everyman. (Neither is a king, you might say, to which I would reply that Lear is humanised through his madness, and also—crucially—through subtle choices made by every actor who plays him. Dunbar, meanwhile, is simply an aggressive and deeply unpleasant media mogul who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break: a bizarre choice on St Aubyn’s part that utterly removes his protagonist from our sympathy.) I may write a full review of this, if my brain ever stops feeling like a wrung-out dishtowel every evening after work.

best short story collection: And only short story collection, but it’s difficult to phrase what I want to say about 2084, edited by George Sandison, which is that it’s an almost flawless assembly of stories, all explicitly set in the eponymous year as part of a project conceived as a response to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. From the ultimate assimilationist technique among refugees to haute couture-induced lunacy, from drowning cities to a bonkers future youth dialect that draws on Doge memes (“Such approach! Very arriving!”), these stories are never less than fully committed to their visions of the future, and the writing is never less than sterling. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

most thought-provoking: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, an Afrofuturist novel(-la?) about genetically modified speciMen (the book’s word). I liked it okay, but not more than that, and the reason that’s thought-provoking is because my lukewarm response had a lot to do with the rhythms of the prose. Okorafor’s sentences are shaped in a way that clearly owes much to African and oral storytelling beats, and I find that hard to deal with in written work. The fact that The Book of Phoenix has revealed this prejudice means, of course, that it’s done its job.

most LUSH: John Banville’s new novel and sort-of sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, Mrs. Osmond. It follows Isabel Osmond, née Archer, as she tries to free herself from the horrendous, controlling marriage to which Henry James condemns her. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style (albeit a slightly less thicket-y one). I’ve never seen anything like it.

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most quietly devastating: The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s fictionalisation of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. It would read well in conjunction with Do Not Say We Have Nothing; Barnes is more interested in his ideas than his plot, whereas Madeleine Thien manages to integrate the two, but Barnes has equally interesting things to say about how artists (specifically musicians) survive under tyranny, and the intellectual compromises that survival requires.

most surreal: I’ll Sell You a Dog, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Set in Mexico City and narrated by foul-mouthed, cheekily lecherous pensioner Teo, it covers mid-century Mexican art, Marxism, young love, disappointment, intellectual pretension (embodied by his apartment complex’s reading group, who pay a young boy to ferry their copies of Proust around in wheelbarrows), and tacos. I read it in a day and walked around feeling a bit cross-eyed for a while afterwards.

warm bath book: Every month must have one, apparently. It’s often a reread. This month there were two: one was Lirael by Garth Nix, which was about 99p on the Kindle store, so I bought it and read it on my phone. I’ve loved Nix’s Old Kingdom series from childhood, and I especially love Lirael because, for the book’s first half, its painfully shy heroine works in an enormous magical library. Swoon.

The other was Alanna: the Song of the Lioness, which is part of the new Puffin Originals series of “classic” YA. It’s actually the first two books in Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet, bundled together. The story of a girl who wants to be a knight in the fantasy realm of Tortall, and disguises herself as a boy for eight years to do it, is also a childhood favourite. As an adult, it’s easier to see where Pierce relies on heroic exceptionalism and a wide-eyed “who, me?” attitude in her heroine, but they’re still great stories.

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most defiant of genre convention: Jane Harris’s third book, Sugar Money, which is out this week, tells the story of two Martiniquais brothers, slaves to the French priests who run the island’s hospital. They are charged with returning to Grenada and “stealing back” the forty-two slaves left there when the French were defeated by the English several years ago. Harris doesn’t saturate readers with baroque depictions of violence, as, say, Marlon James or Colson Whitehead do (though there is some); her time period is about a hundred years earlier, and what she conveys best is the way that coming to adulthood, as a slave, means a psychological reckoning with your own powerlessness.

up next: In general life, October holds a trip to Liverpool to sing at the cathedral there, a trip to Canterbury for my cousin’s hen weekend, and my housemate’s book launch. (He’s an academic and has just done a book on Bloomsbury’s cultural effect on the rest of London. Buy it!) In reading, I’m about to finish The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and I’ve got a million proofs from work, and I went book shopping over the weekend because I guess I’m some kind of masochist, and…you know, I’m definitely set.

August Superlatives

Plainly, another terrible month for reviewing. I’m sure I will get back on the horse eventually. Writing reviews seems to take so much mental energy, though, and so much of my stock of that is being expended on other things right now. I didn’t read a whole lot of books, either—at least, not a whole lot for me—August’s total being eleven. Still, I had a holiday and I saw my folks and some dear friends, and that’s a pretty good trade.

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easiest to analyse: Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, which I did actually manage to review. A reassessment of Mrs. Dalloway set in contemporary South Africa, it neatly captures the feeling of Woolf’s original while also intelligently updating several key aspects. A couple of unnecessary elements weren’t enough to mar the thing. (review)

weirdest: Bogmail, by Patrick McGinley, an Irish Gothic novel about murder and blackmail and mushrooms that came out in the early ’90s and is being reprinted. This was probably a wrong-book-wrong-reader problem; it just didn’t land with me, the blackness of the humour seemed jarring instead of cheeky, and I had a hard time differentiating, or indeed giving a damn about, any of the characters.

best romp: Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of forbidden pirate love in seventeenth-century Cornwall. It’s romantic and silly, somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but quite charming in its own way. Dona St Columb is a marvelous heroine, and her goofy idiot husband Harry a well-drawn aristocrat, benign but totally entitled.

most nearly: Sarah Franklin’s WWII saga, Shelter, which follows a member of the Women’s Timber Corps and her growing friendship with an Italian prisoner of war. On a thematic level, Shelter is brave and bold, dealing with pre-marital sex, toxic masculinity, and a woman who isn’t a natural mother; on the more basic level of sentence and character, it’s a little overblown and relies too heavily on cliché. Fun, though. (review)

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most HELL YEAH: This year’s airplane reading, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas. A 500+-page tome exploring the life of a promising young writer who has children and is thwarted from writing for about the next twenty-five years, it is all about ambition, expectations, art, family, and how these things interact and compete with each other. It’s brutally honest and also incredibly well written. The final hundred-odd pages, set in Dharamshala, didn’t quite convince me (can we stop sending Western women East to find their True Purpose, plz?), but they too were faultlessly composed. This is out in September and I highly recommend it.

most good clean fun: John Grisham’s new novel, Camino Island. It opens with the theft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts of Gatsby and others from the Princeton University library, and a lot of it is set in the world of rare books and antiques dealers. It’s the first Grisham I’ve ever read; I conclude that he can’t write a three-dimensional character to save his life, but he can show you a good time. Worth it.

most nostalgic: Guess what I reached for when I was at home? That is correct: Tolkien. He soothes me; he’s what I read when I was ten or eleven and hungry for something meaningful and more important than real life seemed. The Two Towers will always be my favourite of the books, and of the films: the battle of Helm’s Deep is simply superb, though when you read it you realise how much Jackson compressed and altered in the film version. (Whisper it: his pacing is actually a lot better than Tolkien’s.) The Return of the King, meanwhile, is dramatically satisfying and proper scary, although again, the pacing is off. Still, I’m glad I went back to the books. They take themselves so seriously, and it feels like there’s a lesson in that somewhere.

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breeziest: The Case of the Team Spirit, a collection of the strips that comprise John Allison’s first Bad Machinery story. Mystery-solving teens! Implausibly witty dialogue! Hilarious Yorkshire accents! A wall-eyed Russian lady! A character named Mad Terry! You gotta love it.

most parent-shocking: Saga, vol. 3, a continuation of Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love story. This time, Marko and Alana are hiding out with their illegal baby daughter Hazel and Marko’s irascible, recently widowed mother, at the home of romance novelist D. Oswald Heist. Things get weirder from there: bounty hunters are still on their trail, not to mention Marko’s ex Gwendolyn, who is severely pissed off. There’s enough explicit sex and violence in this one that my dad, leaning over my shoulder to look at one particularly unfortunate spread, recoiled. That’ll learn ‘im.

best rediscovery: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, which I read years ago but had sort of forgotten about until my brother got me a signed and personalised copy (best.brother.ever.) and gave it to me on holiday. It is a bloody amazing book, so full of character and incident, knowing and mouthy but also quiet and wise. How does she ventriloquise all these characters, all their cultural baggage? How does she tie things in so neatly and also make it so clear that nothing can fully be tied in, or mopped up, that the past isn’t even past? And she was twenty-four. God.

up next: I’m about to finish Mark Twain’s Western travelogue, Roughing It, and have a couple of options for where to go next. Maybe Pajtim Statovci’s forthcoming book My Cat Yugoslavia, from Pushkin Press; maybe a book from my US purchases stack; or maybe something left over from a pre-holiday Waterstone’s binge—I’ll Sell You A Dog or China Mountain Zhang. Unless I get a lot of overwhelming feedback, I’ll probably leave it up to the random number generator…