2017 In First Lines

Now that I’ve finished the first book of the last month of the year, I can start with all of the usual end-of-year posting. These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it (not to be confused with the Best Of Year roundup!)

41fzw72b-lcl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

January: “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.”—Virgin And Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson. The surest sign that my reading has changed this year is that this sentence didn’t especially register back in January, but made me raise an eyebrow high when I reread it two minutes ago.

mirror

February: “Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along.”—Mirror Shoulder Signal, by Dorthe Nors. I remember reading this while walking to work at a restaurant in Pimlico, where I waited tables for a deeply un-fun month and a half. Sharp and fresh and kind of off-kilter; it was on the Man Booker International shortlist for a reason.

91hjwnwu4ul-_ac_ul320_sr200320_

March: “Atop the mud-brick wall stood a man stripped to the waist, with his arms stretched out to the sides as if crucified.”—Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. The pitch-blackest comedy I’ve ever read; a spy novel at once hopelessly enigmatic, deeply pessimistic, and posing the most serious moral questions. It’ll be in my Books of the Year for sure.

41cp6wr0vdl-_sy346_

April: “On Friday, January 4, 2013, Aaron Swartz awoke in an excellent mood.”—The Idealist, by Justin Peters. A biography of Swartz, a programming prodigy (he helped develop Creative Commons at the age of fifteen) and advocate of open source software and the free exchange of ideas. Absolutely essential reading for anyone who reads or uses a computer (so, you.)

china-mieville-the-city-the-city

May: “I could not see the street or much of the estate.”—The City and the City, by China Miéville. A phenomenal mindfuck of a book; a riff on urban isolation and solipsism, I think, and maybe also on willful political blindness, plus there’s a great noir plot.

41o52jkmzpl

June: “Like most forms of corruption, it began with men in suits.”—Real Tigers, by Mick Herron. We love Mick Herron at the bookshop; this is the third of his Slough House series, about a department of disgraced MI5 agents. One could wish for slightly fewer wisecracks in this volume, but it’s solid and tons of fun.

cover

July: “The teenagers would fuck it up.”—The Awkward Age, by Francesca Segal. Does anyone write about parenthood and intergenerational conflict (and surprising alliances) with more sly, sympathetic wit than Francesca Segal? I doubt it.

613hd74gvwl-_sx316_bo1204203200_

August: “It had been a bad night for nervous dogs.”—Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose. A deeply thought-provoking remix of Mrs. Dalloway, set on the day of the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death.

roughing it

September: “This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation.”—Roughing It, by Mark Twain. My dad bought me this when I was home for the summer; Twain is one of his favourite writers, and it was lovely to read it back in London and think of him.

51alrzpefsl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

October: “The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, ‘Why don’t you go back and sleep?'”—The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John Le Carré. What a first line. Even if you don’t know where you are, you know where you are: somewhere cold, somewhere dark, somewhere not entirely safe.

414bmg28m1l-_sx327_bo1204203200_

November: “At the end, he sat in the hotel room and counted out the pills.”—The End of the Day, by Claire North. Read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel; I wasn’t entirely impressed with the occasional melodrama of the book, but the idea is very good indeed (our protagonist, Charlie, is the Harbinger of Death) and it’s often a lot of fun.

915lbb148ol

December: “At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.”—A Gentleman In Moscow, Amor Towles. What a gorgeous book: tender, tough, and endlessly empathetic. It too will make my Books of the Year without question.

Is this representative of this year’s reading? Not enormously; I read a lot more speculative fiction than this slice suggests, although I think the male-to-female author ratio is about right (pretty close to 50:50). It’s an all-white line-up, which isn’t quite right either; I read some brilliant works by authors of colour this year: David Olusoga, Zadie Smith, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Yaa Gyasi, Colson Whitehead, Patrice Lawrence, Kei Miller, Yukio Mishima, Omar El Akkad, Nnedi Okorafor, Kamila Shamsie… (More on some of these in the Books of the Year post.)

What this fragment of my reading does accurately reflect, however, is that I read a hell of a lot of spy novels this year, statistically speaking. Clearly, espionage was this year’s escapism flavour of choice.

What seems to have improved in 2017 is either my ability to choose books for myself more cannily, or my ability to get more out of more varied titles—or, possibly, both. I don’t do star ratings on this blog because I find them at best a crude tool for describing complex things, but Goodreads pretty much makes you use them, and there were a lot of four- or five-star books this year. Long may it be so.

February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

cover
THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

51ypoypujjl

most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

the-birdwatcher

most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

img_7050

most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

Two New Books From Pushkin Press

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors

the place you come from is a place you can never return to

mirror

Sonja is forty and has never learned to drive. Now, living in Copenhagen and working as a translator of Swedish crime fiction into Danish, she’s going to learn. But the project doesn’t start out well—her instructor, Jytte, barks instructions and makes her anxious—and when she asks to switch instructors, she’s landed with the driving school owner himself, Folke, a man of disconcertingly present sexuality. Nor is all going well in other parts of Sonja’s life: her sister, Kate, won’t return her phone calls; her parents are rapidly aging in a rural part of Denmark that seems to be dying along with its old farming inhabitants; and her oldest friend, Molly, is drifting further and further away from her.

If that makes this sound like a romantic comedy or a fluffy piece of relationships fiction, it’s not. It isn’t full of gloom, either, though: the prevailing mood of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a kind of gentle melancholy. Sonja constantly drifts back in her thoughts to the safe place at the centre of her parents’ rye field, where she loved to hide. She fantasises about the huge skies of the countryside, the whooper swans. She tries to find green spaces in Copenhagen that will satisfy her need for landscape: “it looks like a piece of wilderness, but it isn’t, it’s Valby Park.” What the book seems to be trying to explore is how a woman—a person, really, but Sonja’s womanhood is important, I think—can come adrift. It’s not dramatic; she isn’t drinking too much or spending too much money or wandering around talking to herself. But she is very, very lonely nonetheless.

Nors works at showing us that loneliness through clean, clear, present-tense sentences. She isn’t verbose, though we get no sense of superhuman restraint in the prose either; it doesn’t feel minimalist, although it sort of is. In a way this makes it difficult to write about: I can sense the details of the book slipping from my memory, though I read it less than a week ago. The ending, though, is perfect: hopeful without sentimentality, allowing for love but not equating love with magic. And the love comes from a most unexpected place, one that made me smile with surprised delight. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean.

For A Little While, by Rick Bass

as much grace in the laying down as in the building up

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f590756a6-e94e-11e6-a93a-4fa396e7e4ed

Rick Bass is all but unheard of in this country. In America, when I worked as a bookseller in high school, we would sell a couple of his books every month or so, but it has taken his name a long time to reach these shores. Pushkin Press’s collection of selected and new short stories from his pen is one of the best books I have read for a very long time; I’m hoping that it helps him make his name here, and I’m also going to be tracking down more of Bass’s work, for the beauty of his writing on the sentence level as well as the beauty of his ideas.

He writes mostly about people in the South and West and Southwest: the deserts of New Mexico and Texas, mountainous or forested regions where hunting and logging are part of daily life, Alabama during the oil boom. These are places where people live near to the earth. Bass stands out, as a writer of such places, because he does not allow for despair or tragedy to intrude into a story where it has no right to be. Again and again, he creates situations where people are vulnerable—lonely, desiring love, reaching out for something, asking. Many of them reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s setups, but whereas O’Connor will inevitably tip the story into scorn at grotesquerie and what seems like a kind of mean-minded divine punishment for presumption, Bass’s touch is gentle, generous, loving.

In “Field Events”, one of my favourite of the stories, two brothers who excel at the shot put adopt an enormous young man called A.C., intending to train him to greatness. Their sister, Lory, is a miserable schoolteacher: her students are disinterested and often cruel to her, and she is chronically depressed. She falls in love with A.C., and he with her: his hugely muscled body cradling her tiny frame in a sitting room armchair when she can’t sleep. If this were O’Connor, you would be bracing yourself hard, waiting for the point at which A.C. mugs Lory and abandons her, crushing her heart. But that point doesn’t come. Bass is more interested, I think, in observing the strangeness of reality than in creating a philosophical structure, and that makes his stories more beautifully, lopsidedly convincing.

And he can imbue his prose with a weightiness that, somehow, does not embarrass. He describes the natural world—trees and game and snow—in vivid, serious detail. “Her First Elk” is a story about a young woman named Jyl whose first solo hunt kill is an elk stag. Hunting, for her, is tied up with the memory of her beloved father, now dead. She is helped to skin and cure the elk by two elderly brothers, Ralph and Bruce. There is a mythic element to this story that would not feel out of place in a Cormac McCarthy novel, but look how much less irritating Bass is than McCarthy:

Bruce poured a gallon jug of clean water over Ralph’s hands and wrists to rinse the soap away, and Ralph dried his hands and arms with a clean towel and emptied out the old bloody wash water, then filled it anew, and it was time for Bruce to do the same. Jyl marveled at, and was troubled by, this privileged glimpse at a life, or two lives, beyond her own—a life, two lives, of cautious compentence, fitted to the world; and she was grateful to the elk, and its gone-away life, beyond the sheer bounty of the meat it was providing her, grateful to it for having led her into this place, the small and obscure if not hidden window of these two men’s lives.

The prose uses some of the same tricks as McCarthy’s, but uses them sensibly (the mild archaism of “anew”; the faint ecclesiasticism of “into this place”), and we feel not daunted or halted but let in, like Jyl, to a small and obscure window. I am so grateful to Rick Bass for writing these stories, I cannot tell you. He has written novels, too; I will be seeking them out.


For A Little While was released in the UK on 2 February; Mirror, Shoulder, Signal will be released in the UK on 23 February. Many thanks to the publicity folks at Pushkin Press for the review copies!