2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) 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. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

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There ain’t no party like a book launch party

(Title quote stolen shamelessly from the deathless anthem “S Club Party”, which had the distinction of being my favourite song for about two weeks when I was eight or so.)

I haven’t been around here much recently. Sorry. Easter holidays came and went, and I was in Hampshire/West Sussex with the Revered Ancestors, dealing with their ridiculous parish organ and seeing the gorgeous, elegant flower arrangements in the church and eating roast chicken. Then I was in London, seeing friends and going on a houseboat and drinking outrageously priced cocktails. Sometimes when you’re happy you don’t want to spend any time in front of a screen. Who knew, eh?

Last week, though, as a result of Quadrapheme’s growing profile and some fabulously nice publicists, I was at two book launch events—two! My first two, so I was both wickedly nervous and wasn’t quite sure what to wear. The first was in the top room of a pub in Farringdon. I was meant to be meeting one of Quadrapheme’s ace reviewers, the erudite and charming Martin Cornwell, outside the venue, so that we could go in together (there’s nothing less fun than entering, alone, a party where you only know one other person). That night I was staying at the Duchess’s house in North London, but she was tired out from our boating exertions earlier that day (can’t say I blame her; locks are hard work.) After some deliberation, I put on a black sleeveless dress, black flats, and lipstick, and wended my way to Farringdon.  (Though not before having the following conversation: “Okay, does it look like I have my shit together?” “Yeah. It’s kind of scary, actually.” “Good.”) Brilliantly, I turned the wrong way out of the station and walked for ten minutes in the opposite direction to the pub; by the time I worked out my mistake, the event was about to start. I hailed a cab from the street—something I’ve never done before in my life; it was rather exciting and professional-feeling—and texted Martin with apologies. He was waiting outside for his friend in any case, so we had ten minutes to kill before going in. His friend turned out to also be about six feet tall, so I spent most of the evening craning upwards.

The event itself was for a literary thriller called Orient, by the American arts journalist Christopher Bollen. Martin had read it, and will be reviewing it in Quadrapheme, but I hadn’t, so swiped a free copy from the mantelpiece as I was leaving. It really is good. Set in a tiny village on the tip of Long Island, it explores gentrification, small-town resentment and pettiness, and the New York art world, in a way that makes you both fascinated and repulsed. You wouldn’t want to meet any of the characters, really, with the possible exception of young Mills, the nineteen-year-old foster kid on whom the murders (there are lots of those) are pinned. It might give you an idea of how compelling I found it to say that it’s about six hundred pages long, and I finished it in two days. Stay tuned for Martin’s review! Also, although these things shouldn’t matter, the author is lovely. I was introduced to Christopher Bollen near the end of the event, and he immediately corralled me by the elbow, took me over to the wine table, and began to talk with great enthusiasm about his online Scrabble habit, which has, apparently, turned into an online chess habit. When I told him I played chess (I do, but I lose most of the time), he cried, “Well, you should play me!” Despite suspecting that he wouldn’t remember the conversation the next morning—there really was a lot of wine floating around—it was thoroughly charming.

The second event wasn’t a launch per se, but it was the only event that Sarah Hall is doing in London to promote her new novel, The Wolf Border. I absolutely loved the book, and her publicist at Faber was kind enough to send me two comps tickets to an “in conversation with” that she was doing at Foyles on Tuesday night. Since Darcy is from Cumbria, and the novel is set there (plus it’s Hall’s home county), he was my plus-one. Transport woes also stymied my arrival to this one: the coach from Oxford was badly delayed leaving, and when I finally got to the Central line, it was to discover that trains aren’t stopping at Tottenham Court Road all the way through 2015. Trying to get a taxi from Oxford Circus was a bust, too, since half of Oxford Street is shut to taxis due to Crossrail construction. My taxi driver only told me this after I’d gotten in. I swore a lot, and commiserated with him on all the fares he was losing as a result. He dropped me about two blocks from Tottenham Court Road and refused to let me pay him, which was rather kind. I practically sprinted to Foyles, and, panting, presented myself twenty minutes late to the front desk bookseller, who informed me that the event was on the sixth floor. I’m not proud of the fact that I then sighed, “Oh, fuuuuuck me”, although discovering the lifts improved my mood a bit.

After some rather embarrassing peering-about for Darcy, who had saved a seat for me but had then sat directly behind a large bank of A/V equipment, making him difficult to find, I slid into the seat next to him, grinned in what I hoped was an apologetic yet rakish manner, and paid attention to what was happening on stage.

Sarah Hall’s a very interesting human being. She doesn’t do tropes, really, or seem to subscribe to any of the things that people tell you about life experiences. This comes across most profoundly, for me, in the way that she writes sex and relationships. Sex in her books has this inconclusiveness that rings truer than all the myths we’ve ever been told about how “love actually” works. She also has a self-confessed obsession with realism and detail: the research for The Wolf Border involved her acquisition of an enormous encyclopaedia on lupine behaviour, from which, she says, she dropped far too many details into the first draft. (She insisted, however, on keeping the fact that wolves can swim eight miles. It is, admittedly, a pretty great fact.) She’s also wary of giving potted answers, which is absolutely wonderful in an author; there’s no glibness at all, no insincerity, no pomposity. A successful author without pomposity is a magical thing.

She also signed my copies of The Wolf Border and The Beautiful Indifference, a collection of her short stories published in 2011. I barely have any signed books, but the ones I do have—hers, and the entirety of A.S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet plus Possession—are among my most treasured.

So, there we have it. Networking, wine drinking, question asking, book signing. More fun than an S Club Party any day, methinks.

March Superlatives

I read six books in March–only half as many as last month–but this was partly because of a heavy work schedule, and partly because I read several long books that took a lot of time but will stay in my head for even longer. Here are this month’s Superlatives: as previously advertised, like your high school “most likely to succeed” categories, but less shit.

all around best: Joint honors go to The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Hall’s novel is a thoughtful, beautiful, fiercely intelligent exploration of generation, family ties and the connections between humans and the environment we live in. She is the sophisticated, sexy writer I wish I could be. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel is a peerless evocation of pre-WWII England, told through the life stories of a large and typically idiosyncratic upper-middle-class family. Links above are to my reviews of both.

creepiest: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer, the conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy. Better than the second if not quite as good as the first, Acceptance is about learning to die, or learning to change (isn’t it much the same?), as the biologist and Control unravel the secrets of Area X. The three need to be read together, but I thought Acceptance a satisfying ending, despite the many coyly unanswered questions.

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most oddly anticlimactic: I like this category so much that I’m resurrecting it from February’s Superlatives post. This month, it was Laline Paull’s The Bees which left me cold and bewildered. Why are people so keen on this book? The writing is no more than competent, the structure is chaotic, the plot is guessable from the early pages. It’s not terrible, but why it’s on the Baileys long list and The Wolf Border isn’t is one of those things I’ll never, ever understand, like people who vote Republican.

most due a renaissance a la John Williams’s StonerWithout a doubt, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond. Since it’s published by NYRB, the original publishers of Stoner, it seems possible that such a renaissance could happen again. Schwarz-Bart’s dreamy prose swaddles the story of a Guadeloupean woman and her struggles in life and love. It’s a gorgeous book, and offers no easy platitudes.

most intense: In every way, David van Reybrouck’s doorstop volume Congo: the Epic History of a People. The story he tells, from remote beginnings to Leopold’s annexation of the territory as his personal property to formal colonization by the state of Belgium, through to the granting of independence, the assassinations and incompetence that followed as a consequence of being woefully underprepared, and the culpable negligence of the US, EU and UN in coping with Congolese problems, are all covered in novelistic prose. Some of van Reybrouck’s assertions are, according to my uncle, who works in the now-DRC, “tendentious”, and he glosses over many of the European interventions or lack thereof, clearly uncomfortable apportioning blame. For an overview, though, it’s very informative. I plan to read Blood River and King Leopold’s Ghost as soon as I can, to get a more nuanced (and hopefully less “official”) picture.

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up next: The Moon and Sixpence (I’ve been saying this for months) for the Classics Club, and Deep Lane, a new poetry collection by Mark Doty, to review in Quadrapheme. It has the most elegant cover I’ve seen for a long time, even with fuzzy resolution:

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews. Here’s a taster for my latest, of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border:

In The Wolf Border (Faber, March 2015) Hall returns to the Cumbrian setting that has served her writing so well in the past. The fictional Earl of Annerdale (a title modeled, clearly, on the real-life Earls of Lonsdale) has pledged his money and substantial private land to be the testing ground for reintroducing grey wolves to the English wilderness. He wants to hire Rachel Caine–a wildlife biologist, Cumbrian by birth, who fled Britain at the earliest opportunity for the vast anonymity of the Chief Joseph Reservation in Idaho–to manage the project. Rachel is, at first, reluctant: she interviews, but rejects the Earl’s offer. Several months later, with the death of her demanding and unconventional mother, she reconsiders and accepts, and the rest of the novel covers her attempts to manage the wolves’ best interests while also navigating the Earl’s personal agenda and her relationship with her own estranged brother.

I absolutely loved it: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and its exclusion from the Baileys Prize long list is incomprehensible to me. For the rest of the review, click here.