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…

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.

68903145_10214233736333319_7914502232530223104_n

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!

Books of the Year 2018: nonfiction

I didn’t manage to finish this before midnight, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we? (Except perhaps, just briefly, to note that I read WAY more nonfiction this year than ever before. This is definitely to do with getting proofs from the shop, so that I could experiment with genres that were relatively new to me, and find out what I liked, without having to spend a lot of money on a potentially disappointing experience.)

cover2Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch. A thoughtful, intelligent and nuanced exploration of what it’s like to be a non-white person in Britain. Hirsch is mixed race, but she grew up in a middle class London neighbourhood, with ballet lessons and books. Her husband is descended from Ghanaian immigrants and grew up in a much less privileged part of town. Both of them experience daily racism, but in very different ways. Without a doubt the most eye-opening memoir I read all year. Especially relevant given that the current trajectory of Britain’s population is heading towards the country being primarily mixed-race.

cover1Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, by Lucy Mangan. Mangan’s memoir of the books she loved as a child is funny, self-deprecating, nostalgic, and super-informative, blending memory with interesting snippets about the history of children’s literature (a genre that barely existed until the Edwardians came along). It reminds the reader, of course, of the books they loved as a child—E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Chalet School, The Worst Witch—but also introduces them to new authors: Antonia Forrest, for instance, was completely unknown to me, but Mangan rates her school novels for pre-teen girls so highly that I’m keen to track them down.

814ysf3sdjlThe Secret Barrister, by The Secret Barrister. When I first read this, I said it was probably going to be the best nonfiction I read in 2018, and although it’s encountered some stiff competition (specifically the two books immediately below), it’s still a strong contender. The Secret Barrister is an anonymous lawyer/blogger who has written a passionate, articulate, knowledgeable screed about the state of Britain’s criminal justice system, and how important it is to preserve the right to a fair trial. What’s revealed is scary, but even scarier is the reminder that courts aren’t just for petty thieves: anyone could get dragged into a legal case, so it’s imperative for us all that justice function properly. (Spoilers: it doesn’t.)

coverThe Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Containing elements of true crime, natural history, psychological study, and memoir, this reads like an extended New Yorker essay in the best possible way. Johnson takes on the weird case of Edwin Rist, a music student who in 2009 stole hundreds of priceless bird skins from the Natural History Museum’s storage facility in Tring, Hertfordshire. Why Rist did it, and the people he targeted as buyers for the skins—men heavily involved in the obscure world of Victorian fly-tying, which often requires rare bird feathers—are the focus of Johnson’s investigation. Fascinating, disturbing, and incredibly well written.

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel. A beautiful book about beautiful books. De Hamel takes twelve medieval manuscripts, and guides us through them: not only the pages themselves, their historical context and a rough summary of the manuscripts’ journeys over time to wherever they’re now housed, but also the experience of viewing each of them, whether that’s in the Royal Library at Copenhagen (bright, open, cheery) or the Pierpont Morgan library in New York (officious, fussy, mistrustful). In many ways it’s like The Feather Thief; a skilled writer takes an obscure subject and makes it mesmerising.

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979Amateur, by Thomas Page McBee. McBee’s first memoir, Man Alive, was about his FTM (female-to-male) transition; Amateur takes one experience—training for a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden—and builds around it a web of thoughts and ideas on manliness, violence, and how those two things are connected in contemporary Western society. It’s neither dry nor academic, in either sense of the word; if anything, it’s a case study, a deep dive into the tension McBee feels as he becomes part of a community of men who care deeply for each other whilst also learning how to hurt each other. Complicated, nuanced, very thought-provoking.

original_400_600Handel In London, by Jane Glover. More than anything, this biography of Handel, which focuses on his working life in the theatres of London, is fun. It conveys the sense of constant movement, of liveliness, that characterises both Hanoverian England and the music that Handel himself wrote. Glover doesn’t shy away from musical analysis—she’s very good at showing us just how brilliant a composer Handel was—but she understands the appeal of backstage secrets, and there are plenty of tidbits on the challenges and joys of running an eighteenth-century opera company, complete with unreliable singers. Sheer brainy delight.

9780701188757Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard. Hubbard’s biography of Bess of Hardwick is also a brainy delight, though instead of “fun”, I might use the word “awe-inspiring”. Bess, four times married and acquiring new wealth, particularly in the form of property, with each marriage, was Tudor England’s grand matriarch. Her political instincts were sometimes ropey (though, amazingly, she never fell out of favour with Elizabeth I), but she’s best known as a builder: some of the houses she commissioned still stand. Hubbard tells her story—that of a woman in a man’s world—with skill and flair.

imageThe Penguin Classics Book, ed. Henry Eliot. An ideal sofa companion for a dreary day, and you’ll want to store it on a low shelf for frequent reference in any case. It contains entries on every single book currently published by the Penguin Classics imprint, as well as an index of former PCs that have been allowed to fall out of print. I’d have liked a bit more analysis on that decision-making process, and a bit more musing on what makes a classic at all, but this is full of information and beautifully produced. It deserves to become a classic in its own right.

9780241951439_43Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen. For sheer brilliance of prose, Karen Blixen would top this list by a country mile. Out of Africa is a memoir of Blixen’s years running a coffee farm in Kenya, and it is written in the most balanced, elegant, often quietly amusing sentences I have read for some time. There is something old-fashioned and hospitable about the book; it wants you to sit down and listen, not so that Blixen can talk at you, but so that she can share something precious to her. She describes a world now long gone—and ultimately, I think, rightly so—but there is love shining from every word of this gorgeous book.

Extremely honourable mentions: Quiet, by Susan Cain; The Language of Kindness, by Christie Watson; A Spy Named Orphan, by Roland Phillips; Kings of the Yukon, by Adam Weymouth; Wilding, by Isabella Tree; The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee; The Ravenmaster, by Chris Skaife; A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie.

Books of the year, 2018: paperback fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of the Year 2018: hardback fiction

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

36441056The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch. In an ecologically ravaged future, what remains of humanity is a race of alabaster-skinned elites floating above the Earth on a platform ship called CIEL, run by the charismatic cult leader Jean de Men. Yuknavitch’s novel centers bodies, the female body especially, and the reproductive capacities of the female body: how bodies can literally tell stories, carry history, and be sites of political resistance. It is resonant with where we are now, as a world, in ways that are both subtle and in-your-face. I was surprised and saddened not to see it on the Women’s Prize or Man Booker Prize lists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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