20 Books of Summer, 2018: the final score

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Technically, it ain’t over til Monday (the 3rd), and I’m still reading my 20th book. But I’m only a few dozen pages in, and I’m out all day Sunday, so we might as well call it now: I read (and reviewed!) 19 of my 20 Books of Summer this year. Actually, that’s better than it looks, because I only properly chose 19; my 20th was always going to be a wild card, decided upon once all the others were finished. (It’s The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.)

I also read 35 other books that weren’t for 20BoS, so, you know, I’d say this has been a pretty good reading summer by any count.

Here’s my full list:

  1. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan: review
  2. Neuromancer, by William Gibson: review
  3. The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida: review
  4. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison: review
  5. The Stopping Places, by Damian Le Bas: review
  6. A Station On the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood: review
  7. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller: review
  8. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan: review
  9. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson: review
  10. Wilding, by Isabella Tree: review
  11. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea: review
  12. May, by Naomi Kruger: review
  13. A Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence: review
  14. Goblin, by Ever Dundas: review
  15. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell: review
  16. This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart: review
  17. Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann: review
  18. Collected Stories, by John Cheever: review
  19. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley: review
  20. Wild card! EDIT: The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Time for prizes, as Kimbofo calls them:

The worst of these 20, or at least the less enjoyable, were The Waters and the Wild, A Station On the Path To Somewhere Better, and Chopin’s Piano. I might also throw Empire of Things to the wolves simply for its deadening length; if a non-fiction writer doesn’t construct a compelling through-line, either narratively or argumentatively, it’s a lot harder to justify 880 pages.

The best of these 20 were, without a doubt, Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, Ever Dundas’s Goblin, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks. I refuse to choose between them.

Closely following the top tier of excellence: Mary Stewart’s novel This Rough Magic and John Cheever’s Collected Stories. They’re both fantastic works, and I would say top-tier material themselves; they just had a fraction less emotional resonance.

Then we come to an interesting category that I like to think of as the Not-For-Me: they’re not dreadful books, but they struck me somewhat obliquely, not full-on as they seemed to be intending. In some cases, that was down to weaknesses in structure, tone or editing (or all three): in others, I suspect they were simply Not My Cup Of Tea. In this category I’d include Neuromancer, The Stopping Places, A Station On the Path To Somewhere Better, May, and A Jest of God.

And the rest are simply good, solid books. They achieve what they set out to do, and I will be/have been selling and promoting them most assiduously: Washington Black, Transcription, Wilding, and Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms.


Have you been attempting, or following along with, 20 Books of Summer? How far did you get? Have you read anything from my list?

20 Books of Summer, 2018 edition

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Okay, I’m in, I’m in. With one day to go til the start of the 20 Books of Summer challenge, I have decided to go for it. My current outstanding TBR consists of 19 books; it seemed serendipitous. The challenge is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, and is quite simple: choose a list of twenty books (or fifteen, or ten), then read and review them between 1 June and 3 September. (I’m expecting to be able to supplement this list with other titles, obviously.)

Herewith, my choices, in absolutely no order at all:

  1. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan. Because its recent presence on Netflix made me read a review of the book, which prompted me to buy it. (review)
  2. Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Bought this in York four months ago because !cyberpunk! and have yet to read it. (review)
  3. The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida. Life for Italian women in the 1920s seems to have been another world, honestly. (review)
  4. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison. I’m really here for creepy thrillers about vengeful(?) women this summer, plus that Yeats allusion is a winner. (review)
  5. The Stopping Places, by Damian Le Bas (out 7 June). History/memoir about the life and journeys of the Roma in Britain. Le Bas grew up where my grandparents live. (review)
  6. A Station On the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood (out 28 June). Wood’s first two books were outstanding, and this seems like a darker version of Let Go My Hand. (review)
  7. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller (out 23 August). An English officer suffering from battle trauma flees the Napoleonic Wars and is pursued by relentless authorities. This kind of thing is my jam. (review)
  8. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan (out 30 August): A young slave’s master disappears on a natural history expedition…then reappears again. Again, my jam. (review)
  9. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson (out 6 September): Women in MI5 during the war, the claims of the past, whatever, it’s by Kate Atkinson, on the list it goes, next. (review)
  10. Wilding, by Isabella Tree: Memoir about re-wilding Knepp Castle’s estate. Ecology, agriculture, and, I imagine, a little bit of heritage nostalgia. (review)
  11. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea: The story of a pianino made for Chopin in Majorca, and what happened to it, interwoven with the story of Chopin’s 24 Preludes. (review)
  12. May, by Naomi Kruger: A dementia novel, but one that looks more thoughtful than previous entries in the genre. From Seren, a small Welsh publisher. (review)
  13. A Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence: Canadian schoolteacher resigned to spinsterhood falls in love for the first time. This is the sort of quiet mid-century fiction I often avoid, and then, after reading it, regret having avoided. (review)
  14. Goblin, by Ever Dundas: This came out of nowhere to end up on quite a few “best-of” lists at the end of last year. Blitz London, eccentric girl, animals, dual timelines. Sure. (review)
  15. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell: The subtitle is “vanishing religions of the Middle East”, which both sounds fascinating and tells you all  you need to know. (review)
  16. This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart: I have somehow never read any Stewart, and this is a sort of Tempest re-telling set on Corfu. It screams “summer!!!!” (review)
  17. Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann: The history of modern consumerism, from the fifteenth century to now. I’ve been interested in material culture for ages. (review)
  18. Collected Stories, by John Cheever: Again, have somehow escaped reading Cheever. Another thing that screams “summer!!!” is dysfunctional American suburban families. (review)
  19. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley: My colleague Camille raves about this; steampunk magical-realism-esque with an adventurous edge. (review)
  20. Wild card! (I have no doubt at all that I will unearth at least one other book in my house that I ought to have read by now.) EDIT: I’ve chosen to make my 20th book Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Interestings, which I borrowed from a colleague some time ago and have thus far failed to read.

These are mostly either advance/proof copies, or damaged copies of titles from work that would otherwise be recycled. The only two that I’ve purchased are Altered Carbon and Neuromancer. As above, I’m expecting to get through more than this in three months, but these are the must-read titles of this summer. Wish me luck! (You can find Cathy’s home post about the challenge here; my reviews will go in their own category, which you can find in the nav bar at the top of my home page, and this master post will contain links to all my reviews, too.)

January Superlatives

For the first time ever, I have signed up to a year-long Goodreads Reading Challenge. Don’t ask me why. My target is 150 books, which should be achievable since I read 141 last year (possibly my highest total since records began back in 2007). This month I read 17, which, Goodreads informs me, puts me 5 books ahead of schedule. Thank goodness their algorithms are keeping track of the maths for that, because I wouldn’t know how.

best short story collection: Virgin by April Ayers Lawson is an extremely technically impressive collection; she’s one of those young American writers whose prose is planed smooth and wouldn’t look out of place in The New Yorker. I can’t say that this collection moved me very deeply, but that’s not always a bad thing. Her take on fundamentalism and sexual awakening is interesting and well worth the read.

best comfort rereads: Split, this one, between Tana French’s Broken Harbour and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I’m now leaning on French’s murder mysteries for mental distraction in busy times; Broken Harbour focuses on the murder of almost an entire family in an Irish ghost estate, one of those places that was half-built during the Celtic Tiger boom and then abandoned by the contractors during the recession. It’s terrific, and terrifying, on the psychology of being broke and jobless. I Capture the Castle probably needs no introduction; I read it after a week of consuming media mostly about death and torment, longing for comfort and uplift. It delivered, as it always does.

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best tragedy: His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It’s full of horrible petty officials oppressing hardworking Scottish crofters, and unreliable narration, and raped sisters, and dead sheep, in a way that recalls Britain’s seemingly unshakable love of the historical costume drama. However, it’s all done with an extremely skillful voice. I can entirely see how this swayed the Booker Prize jury, and why it’s been the best-selling of last year’s shortlist.

best state-of-the-nation novel: Laura Kaye’s terrific debut, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman whose experience working for a rich but struggling English couple reveals the prejudices of this country with wondrous slyness. Appropriate post-Brexit, but full of truths that apply not just to this immediate moment, but to English culture throughout the ages.

party I was late to: How had I not read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration, Good Omens, until now? It’s a wonderful, hilarious, generous novel about the Antichrist (as you would expect), featuring a no-nonsense witch named Anathema Device, a Satanic Nun of the Chattering Order of St Beryl (who later becomes a businesswoman running corporate management courses), a Witchfinder named Newton Pulsifer, and a demon/angel duo who don’t actually want the world to end at all. Its cult status is fully deserved, and I loved it.

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best escapism: You’d think this would be one of my comfort rereads, but no! This month I read volume 1 of Brian Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’s graphic novel Saga. It starts with a childbirth scene. The cover features a breastfeeding woman. There is an interracial couple from opposite sides of a galactic war. There is a sarcastic teenage ghost and a spider-lady assassin and an animal called Lying Cat (which I particularly like; it’s blue and has pointy ears and croaks the word “LYING” whenever anyone tries to fib in its vicinity.) I can’t wait to order volume 2.

best city novel: Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel, Welcome to Lagos. It follows a group of unlikely comrades—from two soldiers who reject their colonel’s acts of cruelty in the Nigerian Delta, to a runaway middle-class wife, to a chancing teenager with radio dreams named Fineboy—as they try to live without money, papers or qualifications in a city that chews people up and spits them out. There’s a political plot, too, but I thought it was most effective in its portrait of how ordinary people build trust between themselves.

Annual Winter Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, which I somehow managed to escape secondary school without ever having read. More interesting, I think, for its dissection of how revolutionary fervour can turn into a massacre of the innocent than for its nominal plot (noble self-sacrifice tugs my heartstrings well enough, but I resent it).

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best intellectual romp: Joanna Kavenna’s bizarre, inventive, beautiful novel A Field Guide to Reality. Set in a sort of otherworldly Oxford (where there are still waitresses and the Cowley Road, but the colleges are named things like Pie Hall and Nightingale Hall and there’s a Unicorn Street), it shifts between the thirteenth century and the present day, and deals with ideas about light and optics, perception, grief, and the nature of reality. It handles huge questions with a kind of boundless, sarcastic creativity that I really enjoyed. It also contains gorgeous illustrations by Olly Ralfe. Highly recommended, especially if you like slightly weird shit.

best anti-Tr*mp reading: The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded collection of essays about the experience of being an ethnic minority in Britain. This is one of those books that makes you more aware of things: the way you look at people in public, the way you hold your body on the train or the words you use to friends and coworkers, and the consequences those actions might have. Some of the essays are more creative and interesting than others, and there are a few that felt theoretical in a way detrimental to engaging with them, but I’m happy to admit that this may be my problem.

best “commercial” read: Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars, which doesn’t do much with its sci-fi window dressing but which does tell a touching love story, and might very well get readers who wouldn’t normally be keen on genre more interested.

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induced worst case of location envy: The Enchanted April, obviously. I’d seen the film (it’s one of my mum’s favourites) but not read the Elizabeth von Arnim novel it’s based on until now. It follows four Edwardian women, each unhappy in their own way, who together rent an Italian castle for a month, and the ways in which sunshine and liberty change their lives. You might be thinking of it as an early Eat Pray Love, but it’s much less solipsistic, and much more charming. The garden descriptions are sublime.

most nightmarish: Julia Scheeres’s memoir of child religious, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, Jesus Land. It is unrelenting. I had several problems with it, one of which was the way she recounts experience at the expense of analysis (ask me about this if you’re not sure what I mean; explaining would take a while) and another of which was the way that she keeps foregrounding her own experience while maintaining that this is really a book about her adopted black brother David. Still. Oof.

categorically, not-a-shadow-of-a-doubt, best fucking book this month: The Underground Railroad. Y’all will know about this by now: Oprah loves it, Obama loves it, it won the National Book Award. If I know some of you, you’ll be avoiding it purely because of the attention it’s been getting. Don’t do that with this book. Do it with all the others, but not with this one. It’s too good, too heartbreaking, too well constructed, too evocative and simultaneously subtle and clear, too much of a body slam, too likely to make you think deeply and for long about why America’s present looks as it does, for you to put it off. It’s that rare thing, a novel that both invests you in its characters and story and effortlessly incorporates wider thematic concerns. I can barely talk about it without worrying that I’m not doing it justice. Just read it, for heaven’s sake.

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most disproportionately affecting: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Telling the story of a walking-on-eggshells marriage and glancing back at wife Neve’s childhood and early adult life, it’s one of those books that doesn’t have a clear-cut moral, but which simply provides a kind of snapshot. I ended up mentally turning it over and over, finding each time that I understood more about the characters and their decisions. It’s an extremely insightful novel.

best murder mystery: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel The Pledge is being republished by Pushkin Vertigo next month. I’m also reviewing it for Shiny, so I won’t say too much here – just that the story of Inspector Matthäi’s doomed obsession with the murderer of schoolchild Gritli Moser is exactly as calculated an affront to the conventions of the detective novel as the publicity material says.

up next: A couple of proof copies for February remain to be read: Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, about a middle-aged woman learning to drive, and Rick Bass’s collected stories, For A Little While. I also REALLY want to read some of the books longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize (for best book by a BAME author in the UK), and am looking forward to picking my first!

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

 

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  1. Turnips came in our veg box last week. In, I guess, an effort to get them out of the way, we ate them first, roasted with cumin and chilli seeds flicked onto them halfway through the cooking process. They were, impossibly, horrid. How can something still taste bitter and thick after you’ve roasted it for forty minutes with cumin and chilli seeds? They were just not nice. We had them with lovely pork and apple sausages, which eased the sting a little, but only a little.
  2. Follow Nigel Slater on Instagram. Mostly for the recipes, but also for the crockery.
  3. I would like a holiday. I have almost certainly left it too late to book a holiday. I really thought this year would be the year. The cycle continues.
  4. The Chaos’s ma introduced me to 90% dark chocolate over the bank holiday weekend. It feels like the confectionery version of absinthe: too good to be true. Alternate bites of the chocolate with bites of crystallised stem ginger; feel like a Byzantine empress.
  5. Much of this post seems to be food-related. Make of it what you will.
  6. Is television worth watching anymore? We don’t have an actual TV; nor do we possess a Netflix, Amazon Prime, LoveFilm, or Hulu subscription. I don’t really miss it, but now I find out that iPlayer is about to cost money, too, and I do like watching Have I Got News For You on Wednesday nights when the Chaos is out. Should I be arsed to pay a £10/monthly Netflix charge, or whatever it is?
  7. Last week my singing teacher stopped me in the middle of a lesson and told me to go home. He was incredibly nice about it–it wasn’t like “You’re shit, go away”–it was more like “Hey, you seem to have had a pretty rough time recently and I can hear it in your voice, so why don’t you go recuperate?” He actually told me to get a hug from the Chaos and have a few beers, which was sweet. But it was alarming to realize that being upset can manifest itself so physically. Like, I think that’s something we all think we know, but this really brought it home. He had no idea what had happened this month re: family and work until I told him, but he could hear it.
  8. 20 Books of Summer, I’m comin’ for you.