December Superlatives

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


#6Degrees of Separation: Shopgirl

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.


First up: Shopgirl, a novella by Steve Martin about Mirabelle, a girl who works at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and tries to navigate a love triangle. It was made into a film, which just happened to star Steve Martin as the wealthy, debonair older man.

Another monological Martin vehicle, “Roxanne”, is based on the French play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, about a charming and brilliant swashbuckler whose romantic prospects are scuppered only by the fact that he’s got an enormous, almost disfiguring, nose.

Facial disfigurement is a bit of a phobia of mine; in Tamora Pierce’s young adult novel Trickster’s Choice, the young protagonist Ally deliberately allows her nose to be broken in a fight when she’s captured as a slave, knowing that the uglier she is, the less likely it is that she’ll be bought for sex.

Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet constitute the only books I’ve read so much they’ve fallen apart, save for my copy of Little House on the Prairie, which was held together by packing tape by the time I was six.

A grown-up version of the Little House world is that conjured by Willa Cather, particularly in her gorgeous novel O Pioneers!, about a woman who inherits her immigrant family’s farm on the plains of Nebraska.

My favourite female farmer in literary history (except, perhaps, for Dick King-Smith’s Sophie) is, of course, Far From the Madding Crowd‘s Bathsheba Everdene (who doesn’t look like Carey Mulligan, jfc, this should be obvious to everyone. In my mind she actually looks a little bit like Mayim Bialik.)

So—from urban ennui to rural angst, from Beverly Hills to fictionalised Dorset via Gascony, the imaginary country of Tortall, and the Midwest! Where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month the chain starts with Picnic At Hanging Rock, which I’ve never read…

Flash Book Sale!

As I mentioned earlier in the summer, I now have a secondhand bookshop on Amazon, where I sell books—many of them never-opened hardbacks—for cheapsies. I’m currently trying to free up some storage space, and have selected some of the books I’ve had around for a few months to be sacrificed to the Great Gods of Oxfam. They’ll be heading there on Monday… unless one of you wants one or more of them.

These will be on offer from now until Monday (12 September) at 12:00 pm (that’s noon) GMT. Here’s a link to my Amazon bookshop, where you can buy one of them* (or you can buy something else if it takes your fancy. I ain’t fussy.)

*I can’t sell or ship outside of the UK, I’m afraid (taxes make it not worthwhile).


Highly attractive stripey vase not included

Making Nice, by Matt Sumell – Meet Alby. Natural habitat: a bar; a boat; his bedroom; a broad’s bedroom. Favourite hobbies: starting fights (then losing them); hooking up with broads (then losing them); hating cats (it’s a skill); training Gary the baby bird to be a killer (sort of). Best kept secret: when his mum died it broke his heart and he doesn’t really know what to do about it.

Daredevils, by Shawn Vestal – Fundamentalist Mormonism meets Evel Knievel in a 1970s coming-of-age tale that is all the better for subtly flicking the Vs at gender expectations, and for making religious extremism comprehensible. I really, really enjoyed this and would recommend it highly.

Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas – Thomas is a beautiful poet. He’s gnarly and alliterative, but he is beautiful. “Poem in October”, “Fern Hill”, and “In the White Giant’s Thigh” are probably my favorites for their sensuality and expressiveness.

Summerlong, by Dean Bakropoulos – A story about a marriage falling apart, this one foregrounding problems like debt, boredom, loneliness, and lying to someone you love out of a desire to protect them, and also maybe out of inertia. If you start to miss the warm months as the fall progresses, this will be the book to remind you of them again.

Birth of a Bridge, by Maylis de Kerangal – The mayor of a small Southern California town decides to make his mark by building an enormous bridge, but as workers flood into the area from all over the globe, the legacy of the area’s Native Americans is threatened. De Kerangal is most famous for Mend the Living, her recent novel about the transplant of a heart, and Birth of a Bridge is another almost mythic exploration of human passions and weaknesses.

Books to Review in 2016

This Christmas, I had imagined, was going to be a relatively bookless one, and on Christmas Day my suspicions were confirmed by the fact that I only received one book (the D.E. Stevenson volume that my mother traditionally gets me as “safe reading”, in this case a sweet story about a grande dame and the property she leaves to her nephew, Celia’s House). Oh well, thought I; I’ve already sent loads of request emails to publishers and there’ll be plenty of pre-pub copies when I get back, plus the spreadsheet of releases throughout the year, and the Women’s Prize project. I’m sure I’ll stay busy.

Then, on Boxing Day, my father said, rather shrewdly, “You only got one book this year, yes?” I confirmed this. “Are you sad about that?” he inquired. I confirmed that I was, a bit. And my dad said, “Well, why don’t you write me a list.”

So I did, and he bought me three more. Then, when I returned to England, the Chaos presented me with my Christmas present: Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy in its entirety. Then we went to his parents’ place for the weekend and I bought more books. Not to mention that I already had seven pre-pubs piled up on the shelf.

2016 is going to be a great year, you guys.

The next few months:

American Housewife, a sharp, dark collection of short stories by Helen Ellis, is first up to be reviewed, shortly to be followed by Merritt Tierce’s story of small-town single mother and drug addict Marie, Love Me Back, and Shirley Barrett’s whaling love story Rush Oh! I’m also hoping to snag copies of The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, Dinosaurs On Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin, and The Heart Is A Muscle the Size of a Fist, by Sunil Yapa. That gets me into at least February in new releases. *pauses to wipe sweat from brow*

The Women’s Prize for Fiction project:


At the moment, I’ve got copies of Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, A Crime In the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne, The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville, When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Most of these are from the ’90s and I’m excited to discover early work by writers who, like Shields and Grenville, are now very well known, but whom I didn’t come of age reading.

Aaaaall the rest:

*deep breath*


Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie (reading the first one now). Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes. Faber Selected Poems by Sylvia Plath. Collected Poems 1934-1953, Dylan Thomas. The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke (I read Black Water Rising on the plane back to the UK, on New Year’s Eve. I read the whole damn book in under six hours. It was that good.) Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta (“Nigerian lesbian coming-of-age story” on a blurb kind of does it for me). Celia’s House, by D.E. Stevenson (of course). A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (at last). A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin (awkwardly behind-the-times). And I still want to attack A Notable Woman, the Mass Observation diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, despite having the volume in hardcover and it being about 900 pages long and weighing as much as a good-sized cat.


I am in love with Larousse editions. In LOVE with them, do you hear.

I also brought back two of my AP French lit texts (Candide and Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean), and bought Manon Lescaut and Lettres persanes while visiting the Progenitors Chaotic. (They aren’t chaotic, you understand…oh never mind.) I am hoping against hope that 2016 is the year I start reading in French again. It’s about time.


Recently someone asked me for a book recommendation after finishing Anna Karenina…

…and I can’t remember who it was! I think the request came via WordPress, but I’ve gone back through my comments and I can’t find it.

In any case, mystery person, if you liked Anna Karenina, here’s where you can go from there:

To other European adultery novels

The two most famous are Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, and the slightly less well-known Effi Briest, by Thedor Fontane. Madame Bovary is, as I recall, mildly infuriating because Emma Bovary is so bloody difficult; Effi Briest, on the other hand, is short and totally fascinating because it has so much to say about the idea of “Prussian rectitude” and how silly and destructive it is to live your life by an overarching patriotic standard that has no room to accommodate the needs and wishes of the individual. Also, Effi is a terrific heroine. She’s calm and composed throughout, even in her final illness, and although she dies (of course), her husband actually dies first, which, in the context of an adultery novel, basically means she wins.

To other novels about the Russian aristocracy

I’ve not read very much Russian literature, but try Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for further depictions of young men trying to implement political and agricultural reforms against the prejudices of their elders (like Levin in Anna Karenina). There’s also Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which will deliver a similar sort of sweeping love story. (Bonus: you can watch Keira Knightley starring in the films of both Doctor Z. and Anna Karenina, and decide whether you’re more convinced by her Lara or her Anna. Or neither.)

To more Tolstoy

You can read War and Peace, obviously, if you like. I’d recommend making some sort of chart for the characters, though. He also wrote a novella called The Kreutzer Sonata, which I bought for $3 from a secondhand bookshop in Maine when I was fifteen because I’d heard it referred to as a “disturbing psychosexual drama”. It was less dirty than I had been hoping, but it’s got the whole passion/death complex that Anna Karenina has in spades.

I hope this finds whoever asked me about it…terribly sorry for forgetting the circumstances/identity of the questioner!


This is my absolute favourite Anna Karenina cover. Look at how that face combines beauty, wealth, and haughtiness, without seeming actually unpleasant. It’s brilliant.