In case there was any confusion

Black lives matter.

Trans women are women.

History is constantly being made, not permanently enshrined in statuary.

Everyone has the right to protest injustice.

The canon of literature in English is characterized by the privileging of white, wealthy, cis, usually male, usually straight voices over those of people from historically oppressed or marginalized groups. Everyone working in publishing, bookselling and academia has a moral obligation to decolonize the canon, the curriculum, and their own industries.

I’m not allowed to say this stuff out loud at work, or through professional social media channels, because reasons (involving capitalism and the nature of marketing to our world’s elite). I’m allowed to say it here because it’s my space. These are the politics of Elle Thinks. They are entirely non-negotiable.

holding pattern

I have been intending to write a full-length post on Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder for at least a week. I have also been intending to write up my books of the year, and mulling over the idea of writing up my books of the decade. However, the best-laid plans, etc.: work has gone completely, utterly, resplendently batshit, not only because it is Christmas and Christmas in a bookshop is always mad, but because our bespoke book subscription service got a (small!) write-up in The New Yorker, and it has been huge for us. No one expected it to be quite so huge. Our little three-person team has been working flat out for over a week, needing help from incredibly kind colleagues on other teams, and with no signs of significant slowing anytime soon. Today was the first day since last Monday that I’ve felt I have enough time on my hands during work hours to make myself a coffee and go to the bathroom. (And, obviously, write this.)

I’m really enjoying reading all of your end-of-year posts, when I can, and would like to be commenting on them more – at the moment, clicking “like” must suffice. I’ll do my very best to find some time for my own: I really like the feeling of rounding off each year with a look back at the reading that’s shaped it, and would hate to not do it. I hope you all have lovely, lovely holidays.


me on the radio!


On Monday, I had the opportunity to join Antonia Honeywell—my dear friend, and author of The Ship, a haunting novel about a young girl whose flight from a politically unstable England once felt dystopian and now feels, quite frankly, like today’s headline—on Booktime Brunch, her Monday morning radio show. We talked about the surprise Booker Prize result, bookselling as a vocation, the power of narrative to sway lives (not always in a good way), and—yes—my own book! Interspersed with our chat were twelve tracks that I chose and (mostly) explained. Honestly, it’s a really, really good show: we sound like we’re having a great time and we are. Think Desert Island Discs but with more books. You can listen to it here:

I’m taking a break

You’ve probably already worked that out, but just in case: I went to Michigan for a week, didn’t think about book recommendations or blogging once, and felt so refreshed that I’m extending it. Check my Twitter feed (or indeed Instagram) for very short posts about books that I physically can’t stop myself from shouting about. Other than that, I’ll be commenting sporadically on all of your brilliant work, and I’ll be back when I feel less knackered.

Reading Diary round-up

More for me than for you; short impressions of what I’ve read in the last fortnight that isn’t 20 Books of Summer.

Lit, by Mary Karr: A devastating memoir of trying to be a poet, keep a failing marriage together, and kick alcoholism. (Two of these things, Karr achieves. The marriage isn’t one.) A little too long given that it doesn’t really acquire a sense of propulsion until the second half, which is when Karr also finds Catholicism–but her writing about faith, particularly faith as an intellectual and inveterate doubter, is electric. One for fans of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald’s writing is very clear and clean and capable, and also entirely of its time; one wonders whether she’d get published in today’s marketing- and sales-driven environment. The Blue Flower is the love story of the German Romantic poet Novalis and the pre-teen daughter of a business acquaintance, which makes it somewhat tricky to read in 2019, although the narration is never prurient or indeed particularly sexual. Her atmospheric abilities are incredible, though; you do feel you’re in a nineteenth-century German market town on wash day. And Novalis’s odd, ethereal little brother makes the novel memorable all on his own.

The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon: Tremendously fun contemporary urban fantasy, set in an England beset by a plague of clairvoyance and suffering under a repressive regime. Shannon makes Oxford a ghost town controlled by powerful, supernatural beings who are also utter arseholes. (One imagines there’s some not entirely sublimated irony there.) A bit race-y in its plotting, but then that’s why you read a book like this: to be swept away.

Shadowplay, 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 Things In Jars.

Joe Country, by Mick Herron: I go back and forth on Herron’s work in the Slough House series; it’s sometimes wickedly funny, with a strong element of self-aware bathos, and sometimes tries too hard for its own good, falling over its own political incorrectness. Joe Country lies on the right side of the line, generally, though I’m starting to wonder if the series is now long enough that new readers will have a hard time starting in the middle.

Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin: Outstanding. It’s a very 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.

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

Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Winner

Last Friday, the shadow panel had a Top Secret Meeting in central London to talk over the shortlisted books and decide on our winner. Since we’d all been discussing each book over email, it didn’t take especially long to decide, but it was still lovely to meet all the other shadow panelists in person, most of whom I’ve known virtually for years but never yet met in real life.


L to R: Clare Rowlandson, me, Rebecca Foster, Annabel Gaskell, Dane Cobain

We were also, briefly, joined by a baby and a dog, which raised the level of sheer delight by a large margin.



Anyway, it is with great delight and total unanimity that we can now announce the shadow panel’s winner: The Lucky Ones, by Julianne Pachico.


This book, man. It knocked us all for six—there was general agreement that for an author of any age, let alone a young one, this would be an incredibly accomplished debut. Pachico’s fearlessness in tackling complex, difficult subject matter; the emotional honesty of her characters; and the sheer sentence-level excellence of the writing made this an easy decision. Do pick up a copy. You won’t regret it.

Speaking of which: we have a delightful wee Rafflecopter giveaway for you, if you fancy it! You can enter here using the link above, or on any of the others’ blogs; it’ll run until the official winner announcement on 7 December. If you win, you can choose whichever one of the shortlisted books you would like to be sent to you for free! (UK only, because postage. Sorry, international chums!)

Words and Phrases That Suck


“the modern day”—Impossible to use in a sentence without sounding like a pompous ass.

“delved into”—Ew.

“dip into”—Also ew.

“sample”—Do you ever sometimes get mental pictures associated with a word? Not, like, sensible word-association, but an image that corresponds with the shape or sound of the letters? “Sample” looks like Uriah Heep to me. That same open-handed cringe.

“well written”—This is meaningless. It’s literally just code for “something I like”.

“plumping for”—Stop. Plumping is for pillows and partridges and bosoms. That’s it.

“truly believe”—Any verb or adjective preceded by “truly”, actually. It is the most craven of modifiers.

“snippet”—Too twee by half.

“chunkster”—Sounds like frat lingo for “hurricane of vomit”. Not even remotely cute.

“brilliant”—See “well written”, above. If it doesn’t actually shine with the light of the sun, or like the facets of a diamond, I don’t wish to hear it described thus.

“thusly”—Apropos of using the word “thus”, above. “Thusly” isn’t a fucking word, cut it out.

“sneak peek”—Yet more ew. This is the verbal equivalent of the weird old-fashioned drawing on the Coppertone bottle where the dog is pulling the little girl’s underwear down and you’re like…the Broadcasting Standards Agency is okay with this?

“sneak peak”—Peaks can’t sneak. That is kind of the point of them. Next.

“peeved”—Goes into the same box as “gosh darnit” and “Land O’Goshen”. The one labeled SWEARWORDS FOR PEOPLE WHO WEAR WHITE TRAINERS WITH JEANS.

“gal”—Inexplicably sinister, like a Dolly Parton bobblehead.

Contributions welcomed.

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.


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)


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.


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 ( 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…

Virgin and Other Stories, by April Ayers Lawson

not being comfortable at church but always pursuing a belief in something


Things I really like about Virgin:

  • The way it nails fundamentalist Christianity, but from the inside out, so that you see all the seams and the inconsistencies. A lot of writers who skewer this kind of religious atmosphere in their work seem to be setting out to do just that—skewer it—and Lawson’s take is so much more complex. Many of her narrators are raised in fundamentalism, but aren’t necessarily of it, so that you get kids like Conner in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” trying clumsily to woo Ally Kapawski in the half-hour after church when the kids are running around and the adults are being sociable. Ally, meanwhile, is not unaware of Conner’s advances, but instead of being either a “slutty hypocrite” stereotype or a bible-thumper, she’s just massively, entirely disinterested:

So I pressed my mouth against hers. She didn’t kiss back but she didn’t move away, either. I just pressed my lips to hers until I got embarrassed for not knowing what to do next… and then I got out of the car. She followed.

  • The way Lawson can take a narrative concept that seem predictable—older man preys on younger girl—and make it special to our eyes by particularising it. Take, for instance, “The Way You Must Play Always”, one of my favourites of the five stories. Here, the “older man” is dying of a brain tumour, and he is not that old, maybe in his late twenties. The young girl is Gretchen, who narrates the story; she is thirteen and the piano student of the older man’s sister. Gretchen is falling in love with the older man, or at the very least obsessed. She finds him a source of endless fascination—not explicitly sexual but not quite not sexual, either—and spends the week in between lessons planning how best to be alone with him for a few seconds. The fact that he makes her touch him is, undeniably, wrong, but Lawson makes us see how wrongness is not incompatible with a huge and shifty complexity. Gretchen does not invite her molestation, but there is something about the whole act that interests her, and that changes the way the reader sees it. It’s uncomfortable to catch yourself reading this way, but also highly unusual for a writer to actually make you do it, as Lawson does.
  • The first story, “Virgin”, does this same particularising work with a seemingly predictable narrative: a man cheats on his wife at a party. But it’s not just any man, and not just any wife: it’s Jake and Sheila, they’ve been married a few years, and Sheila won’t let Jake have sex with her. They’ve managed it once; afterwards,

she sighed with what he at first mistook for contentment and said, “I guess that’s it, then.”

…He felt as if she’d struck him again; his whole body rather than just his head. “You mean you don’t feel anything for me.”

“No. No. I love you… I just… It’s me. I try to look in your eyes and I can’t, and I know I’m supposed to, but I can’t. It’s fun, though. It’s great. It’s just me, is all. I shouldn’t have said anything. I talk too much.”

Sheila is also from a fundamentalist family, is a virgin when she marries, is working through the trauma of childhood sexual grooming by an uncle. The sad bewildered blundering of their marriage is given a counterweight in the mother and child Jake meets in his work as a press officer for the local hospital. The woman has given a lot of money for a mobile mammography unit; she wasn’t born rich, and she has an open, straightforward way of speaking and of being. So does her three- or four-year-old daughter, who, on a visit to Jake’s office,

began to pick up and examine objects on his desk: his brass paperweight, his Post-it notes, his pens. She looked at these things as if they were fantastic, turning them in her small white hands while the water-coloured eyes contemplated their sides from multiple angles. …He quickly began to sift through the contents of his desk for something that might interest the child. Found himself handing over pens, an old Rolodex, a small green clipboard bearing the logo of a pharmaceutical company. The child accepted these things with the air of one accepting precious gifts. Suddenly he had the feeling that all things in his office were sacred, were less and also more than what they were.

There’s something so gravely farcical about it, I can’t help smiling every time I read it back. The solemn little girl, the slightly flailing professional man paying her homage, the faintly amused mother watching the scene. The way it could be a parody of the shepherds and wise men visiting the infant Christ, or it could just be an awkward guy and a self-possessed kid, or—best of all—it could be both at once. It all just works so nicely.

Things in Virgin that don’t work quite as nicely:

  • Most of the final story, “Vulnerability”, which is long, is set in New York City as an artist falls for her art dealer. The artist isn’t from New York; she’s settled long ago into a life where her husband supports them and she paints and faintly despises or resents him while also loving him while also being exhausted by the whole situation for reasons she doesn’t really understand. She is the sort of character who continually tests the reader’s patience because, Jesus, what does she have to complain about? And yet there’s something about her that’s a little socially weird and deeply observant and, we sense, she’s not just complaining for the sake of it but because something about her life really does feel wrong to her, and it’s easy to understand that. Maybe the story goes on for a bit too long, but it is painfully precise: Lawson draws the lines of a burgeoning affair that’s happening only partly for reasons of attraction or mutual affection or interest with such clarity, such attention to detail.

What I really like about Virgin, though, is something it doesn’t often occur to me to like, because the whole point is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself: her prose is like glass. Totally clear, totally unobtrusive; perfectly capable of style, but generally more elegant than in-your-face. It’s a hard, hard effect to achieve, but it’s what makes these stories both emotionally incisive and gloriously readable.

Many thanks to Natalie Shaw at Granta for the review copy! Virgin and Other Stories is published in the UK on 5 January.

A Year In Reading: 2016


I started a new job six weeks before Christmas 2015, so the beginning of 2016 was mostly a haze of attempting to reorient myself professionally. I had requested a truly enormous pile of review copies, and spent most of January bashing through them, alternating them with 978-0-385-53807-7TBR books. Some of the year’s best books were found this way, including Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, which should have received more attention: the story of a young single mother and waitress in Dallas, Texas whose experiments with drugs and no-strings sex are really elaborate forms of self-harm. Beautifully written and devastating. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, my Christmas presents from the Chaos, paved the way for more contemporary sci-fi this year. I especially loved Leckie’s use of the universal female pronoun, and the way she casually inverts standard tropes (a sexy bombshell character, who’s also a shrewd politician, is repeatedly described as being large, plump, etc., and the ruler of the known universe is, one realises late in the day, a black woman.)

Visiting a friend of the Chaos’s in rural France in February, we retrieved a couple of books he’d borrowed: the first two volumes of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. I read all three volumes this year, but the first, Quicksilver, is my favourite because it requires marginally less intimate knowledge of early modern international finance than the other two. They are all excellent books, witty like Terry Pratchett, smart like no other writer I know, circumscribing the globe and many decades. Characters like Gottfried Leibniz and Sophie, electress of Hanover, cross paths with Eliza, formerly a harem slave in Constantinople who rises to become Duchess of Arcachon and major stockbroker for the French crown; Jack, a vagabond and anti-hero par excellence; and Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher and a Puritan malgré lui.

In a totally different way, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life was an equally 28238711wonderful reading experience; it is, I think, the best “9/11” novel I’ve ever read, engaging with the aftermath of deployment in Afghanistan and the diversity of New York City and the fact that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t win. It’s disturbing and  heart-breaking and every word, every detail, tastes real. I’m still thinking about it all these months later. I also loved Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt, a memoir of her daughter’s cystic fibrosis that also encompasses expatriation, marriage, music, and bereavement after her mother’s death. It was one of those rare books that seems to strike a chord because the author’s experiences and interests are so like my own.


Four of the best books I read this year, I read in April. What was going on in that month?! I can barely remember, but I do know I started singing again the month before that. Good spring all around, really.

Those great books were: Daughters of the North (or, in the UK, The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall, whose novel The Wolf Border was my book of the year in 2015. In this novel she posits a UK where the population is controlled by forcibly implanting contraceptive devices into women; her heroine runs away from the Cumbrian border town of Penrith to join a militant women’s collective in the hills. In its exploration of the limits of what we’re willing to subject ourselves, or others, to, it’s positively incendiary. Foreign Soil is the debut story collection from Australian writer Maxine Beneba Clarke, and I just bloody 9780733632426loved it. Every story is like a tiny novel, an ivory miniature to rival the perfect miniaturism of Austen. She writes about refugees and immigrants and minorities and foreigners and makes you feel that her characters are your aunts and uncles, brothers and cousins, sisters and friends. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers was longlisted for the Baileys Prize and should have been on the shortlist (I can think of at least two worse books that did make it to the shortlist). Like Leckie’s trilogy, it’s part of a new breed of sci fi that celebrates diversity, tolerance, respect, and friendship, and I really like it for that. It doesn’t avoid big issues—the possibility of enfranchisement, or rather embodiment, for artificial intelligence is one of the novel’s major foci—and it isn’t preachy but 61oilfbarml-_sy344_bo1204203200_simply, boundingly joyful. Kizzy and Jenks, spaceship mechanics, have a particularly great relationship. Finally, Lisa McInerney won the prize itself with her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, and oh my was it ever deserved. Heresies is a great book, outlining in detail a whole swathe of Cork City’s underbelly with the blackest of humour, an ear for dialogue that never fails, and just the right touch of poignancy. I wanted a sequel.


Every year has a crazy season, doesn’t it. This year it was the summer. I left my job. I decided to actually write the novel I had been trying to pretend wasn’t in my head for the past two years. I discovered that actually, I would really really like to write novels for a living. We went on holiday to Cornwall, where it was very windy and I complained about walking up hills and the Chaos tried to stop me from buying a pasty for every meal. Lots of books were read.

Of these, not many actually stick in the memory. I was trying to complete Cathy‘s #20booksofsummer challenge and, although it’s a great idea, I fear my picks were basically good books but not, you know, outrageously awesome. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee was a huge beast of a book about Belle Epoque France and nineteenth-the-north-watercentury opera that I absolutely adored; it has its flaws, but I was definitely the right reader for this. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, which I got to a year late, was as amazing as everyone said: her stories about laundromats and alcoholics and runaways and emergency rooms are never pessimistic or downbeat, though often bittersweet. Ian McGuire’s novel of whaling and pure human evil, The North Water, sticks in my head, though its level of violence made me feel sick at least once. It is, nevertheless, not a book that will leave you easily.

In Cornwall, I finished Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which are wonderful. My favourite, I think, is probably Marking Time or Confusion, but to be honest with you,51fme2b2br0rl-_sx323_bo1204203200_ they do all run together. That’s sort of the point; they are a literary box set. For all that they’re thinly veiled autobiography, they are also astonishingly delicate and ahead of their time, for the ways in which they handle child sexual abuse, emotional manipulation, post-partum depression, and the realities of a bad marriage. The way the story flips back and forth between the cousins, the way they develop and grow as characters, is utterly charming and addictive: pretty, vain Louise; sensitive Polly; passionate Clary; dashing Teddy; increasingly horrible little Neville. They feel like family.


Writing novels is not necessarily lucrative. I’ve been financing the writing of mine by working as a waitress since late September, and that work has framed my season. While in 51vbtiu7keltraining, I discovered the novels of Tana French going for 99p each on Kindle, and snapped them up. (They were easy to read on my phone, during breaks in training. I maaayyy, in a minor way, be less violently opposed to the Kindle app now.) In the Woods and The Likeness, the first two, are perhaps the best: in the former, Detective Rob Ryan must catch a murderer in his hometown of Knocknaree, where two of his childhood friends went missing, presumed dead, in the woods. In the latter, Detective Cassie Maddox goes undercover to find out who stabbed a University College Dublin postgraduate. They’re not your run-of-the-mill thrillers: French writes detailed, precise, electric prose, and her understanding of human psychology is second to none. I’m a true convert to her work now.

I also adored Lisa Owens’s Not Working, a sweetly sad novel about graduate unemployment 9781509806546not20workingwhich, let’s not dissemble, struck pretty close to home. It should go on the same shelf as Alice Furse’s Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, for consultation in the year 2216 by academics interested in artistic representations of the repercussions of global fuckuppery and malaise in the early twenty-first century. Treasure Palaces, edited by Maggie Fergusson, is a glorious compendium of essays by well-known authors on their favourite museums. Don Paterson’s piece on the Frick Collection is simultaneously reverent and ripe with detail; it makes me want to go straight there. So does Frank Cottrell Boyce’s on the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, and Aminatta Forna’s on the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. C.E. Morgan’s magisterial The Sport of Kings is, like The Queen of the Night, an enormous and flawed beast: for some, Morgan’s use of four words where one would do isn’t worth it. For me, it absolutely is; her exuberance is tempered by the fact that she does know how to write, and by her huge ambition in taking on subjects like race, racism and heredity in a Southern American setting. It feels a bit like a Faulkner novel had a threesome with Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule and Dickens’s Bleak House.

Finally, coming up to Christmas I’ve had some absolutely cracking reads, as I try to push 97818470891371through the books outstanding on my TBR before the New Year. Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children is a hell of a book, dealing with trust, responsibility, emotional abuse, mental health and cultural disorientation, all in a nineteenth-century Cornish and Japanese setting. I’m now planning to read Moss’s entire back catalogue. And the two books most recently reviewed here—Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich and Golden Hill by Francis Spufford—couldn’t be more different, but couldn’t be more brilliant in their own ways: one a painfully beautiful literary documentary of life for the citizens of rural Ukraine and Belarus in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the other a glorious, voluptuous romp in eighteenth-century New York with writing that rings true as a bell. Both are unforgettable.

These books are my personal best-of 2016 list. I can’t rank them—the good ones this year were so good, and so diverse, that it feels like comparing apples with oysters—but I feel I’ve raved more about The Queen of the Night this year than any other book. Though I’ve also shouted a lot about Love Me Back. And In the Woods. And Love Like Salt. And the Baroque Trilogy. And, now, Golden Hill. …No, ranking is impossible.

Coming soon: 2016’s few (but spectacular!) bookish misfires…