Slightly late with this update as I’ve been a bit under the weather (though not with Covid according to my tests!). However, while April hasn’t been all it might have been March was pretty good. Mostly it was a return to authors who’re now old favourites, but there were some new discoveries too.
Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart, Irmgard Keun (translated by Michael Hofmann)
I started with what was sadly my last unread Irmgard Keun. Unusually for Keun this features a male protagonist, Ferdinand, a chancer in a world of chancers. Here we’re in post-war Germany, where everyone’s broke, everyone’s hustling and anyone who was provably a Nazi is doing their best to downplay the fact.
Ferdinand is a sympathetic character, but then this is a sympathetic book. Keun as ever cares about the struggles of ordinary people. She’s a tremendously humane writer, blackly funny but with a sense that she understands what it’s like to be desperate and yet to be hopeful. A tremendous writer and one I’ll revisit.
You can find a bit more about this one at Grant’s, here.
Tell them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, Matthias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell)
While I’m linking to Grant, here‘s another he’s reviewed. This is a short novel about Michelangelo, who has travelled to Istanbul to design a bridge. As ever with Enard it’s an exploration of the collision of East and West, or more accurately of the West with the West’s idea of the East. However, unlike his (for me) rather overlong Compass it’s tight and fun and a very enjoyable read.
Here Michelangelo is an undoubted artistic genius, but he’s perhaps less adept at politics, friendship and love. There’s enough incident in its brief 144 pages to fill a miniseries and yet it’s still fizzing with ideas. This is one that might make my end of year list, though competition is already looking fierce…
The Second Body, Daisy Hildyard
This is from Fitzcarraldo’s essays rather than fiction collection. The thesis is essentially that each of us has two bodies – our immediate, physical one and our global one in the sense of the impact we have upon the world. Hildyard explores our relationship with animals before broadening out her thesis to take on wider connections.
I liked the first part of this a lot, where Hildyard works through our ambivalent relationships with the lives around us, but while for me there was consistent interest the theme didn’t quite hold together. That said, the investigation of how we are part of the world, not separate to it as we often imagine, is interesting.
The Laughing Policeman, Sjöwall and Wahlöö (translated by Alan Blair)
My fourth Beck! This one comes with a slightly patronising introduction by Jonathan Franzen which I’d recommend skipping since it rather bizarrely includes a spoiler for later in the series.
Here an unknown killer has machine-gunned a whole busload of people, one of them an off-duty policeman who had no obvious reason to be on the bus in the first place. Cue the usual painstaking police investigation which Sjöwall and Wahlöö are so good at portraying. Nobody makes police work seem like work more than they do. As ever, when Martin Beck and the team reach the end they’ve thoroughly earned it, not by brilliance but by sheer persistence.
At this point I’m committed to the series, but it’s a happy commitment. I plan to start number five shortly.
Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, Lina Rather
I don’t seem to have written up Rather’s first novel, which this is a sequel to. It’s set in a distant spacefaring future in which a convent contained in a living spaceship make their way among the outer colonies who’re in conflict with an overbearing central Earth authority. If you’ve seen Firefly you have the basic concept, but with nuns and a living spaceship which obviously makes it better.
For me this wasn’t quite as strong as the first novel, mostly as the concepts were now familiar, but Rather is good on characterisation and she’s written a great setting. I suspect there’ll be a third in the series and if there is I’ll read it. Fun if you’re an SF fan but not one for those of you who aren’t.
The Hotel, Elizabeth Bowen
One of the fascinating things about middle class holidays in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is how often people seemed to gather in hotels or resorts for lengthy periods, pushed together but with nothing save their class in common. It must have been tremendous for writers.
The eponymous hotel here is in Northern Italy. It’s peopled with English holidaymakers of a certain sort, well-off and leisured but not necessarily best suited to living together harmoniously.
Conflicts here are low key but no less intense for that. Much is unspoken, either between the characters or even by Bowen herself. There’s two implicit lesbian relationships in this book but neither is ever clearly stated and there are many other emotional undercurrents. You have to read between the lines, and slowly too as Bowen’s prose is often a bit opaque, but it definitely repays the effort. This was my first Bowen, but I don’t think it will be my last. Jacqui wrote a typically perceptive review of this one here.
Border, Kapka Kassabova
Finally, a rare trip into nonfiction for me. Kassabova here explores the borders between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. She draws on childhood memory, local encounters, myth and (often ugly) history and the result is rich and rewarding.
I had this on Kindle and Audible and mixed reading it with listening to it (I only tend to listen to non-fiction or audiodramas on Audible, with fiction I prefer not to have someone else’s voice determining my reading). It worked well.
Dorian wrote a strong review of this which you can find from here, and Andrew Blackman interestingly wrote a much more critical one here. I’m more with Dorian than Andrew on this one, but Andrew’s arguments do have merit so it’s worth reading both pieces.
And that’s it! Next up April, which I’m still in so you’ll have to wait a little for that.
February was a month of two halves, with a strong start and then an unfortunate bout of insomnia which rather slowed things down. Still, there were some good books in the mix at least one of which is sure to be on my end of year list.
The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald
I’d had a couple of disappointments in January so started February with an absolutely sure thing. Fitzgerald always seems to be on form and this was no exception. It’s the delightful tale of a 1912 romance between a young don living in a college that bans all females (even kittens!) and a working class nurse that he has an accidental bicycle collision with.
Angels becomes an exploration of the tensions and reconciliations between faith and reason, chance and determination. It has a wonderful MR James spoof in the form of an elderly don who loves to read his ghost stories out loud (one, a hilarious pastiche, is included) and as ever the characters are lightly but superbly well drawn.
Highly, highly recommended.
At Mrs Lippincote’s, Elizabeth Taylor
From Fitzgerald to Taylor! Actually, this was an unintended reread. In what perhaps isn’t the greatest compliment to a book I forgot I’d already read this, thinking I’d previously just started it. At about 50 pages in it became apparent that couldn’t be right.
To be fair to Taylor this was her debut and it is a well written and enjoyable read. It’s a novel of a marriage – the spirited but rather thoughtless Julia finds herself increasingly estranged from her much more traditional RAF husband and his cousin who lives with them and has an unrequited crush on him. None of the characters are terribly likeable, but all are credible and interesting including the wider supporting cast.
If it weren’t for the fact that I forgot I’d previously read this I’d recommend it more highly. It is a good book and a very solid debut, but Taylor went on to write better. I may try her A View from the Harbour next, but suggestions gratefully accepted (I have read her Mrs Palfrey which is brilliant). In the meantime, there’s a great review of this by Jacqui here.
Small Things Like These, Claire Keegan
I imagine everyone’s pretty familiar with this one. If not, stop reading this and go get yourself a copy now. It’s brilliant and it’s hard to imagine it not being on my end of year list.
It’s a short novel/novella, but densely packed. It’s a story of rural Ireland in 1985 and a successful local businessman who becomes aware that the young women being looked after at the local convent may be effectively slaves.
Horrifyingly, this is based on real Irish history. Here it’s used in an exploration of moral courage and compromise. It sounds dark, and to be fair it is, but it’s so well written that it’s never a struggle to read despite the subject matter.
Jacqui wrote eloquently about this one, far more so than I could, here. It’s an extraordinary book and I really couldn’t recommend it any more highly.
The Feast, Margaret Kennedy
For a long time I thought this was a contemporary novel set in the post-war period. I’d completely missed that it was actually written and published around the time it’s set.
It’s been widely reviewed elsewhere, not least by Kaggsy in an excellent piece here, and it’s the story of the owners, staff and guests at a rundown seaside hotel. The opening tells us that some of them will die in a landslip which destroys the hotel, but it only gives the identity of one of the dead.
What follows is a mix of whodunnit with no killer (more of a whosurvivesit) and morality play, XXX. Plus, which of us doesn’t love a novel set in a crumbling hotel or boarding house?
It’s an easy and entertaining read, if not hugely demanding, and there’s some allegorical depth too. It would make a great read for a holiday or long train journey.
A Girl’s Story, Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer
Ernaux’s story of how as a young woman she became obsessed with a slightly older leader at a summer camp she volunteered at, subjugating everything about herself in the hope of pleasing him. As with her The Years she somehow uses the personal to tell a story with much wider resonance.
This isn’t always comfortable reading. It’s very honest about a very awkward time in one’s life, but that unsparing quality is partly why Ernaux is so good (though mostly it’s simply that she can write – Grant talks about the honesty of her craft here, which is well put). I plan to read her The Happening next.
Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
A misfire for me. This is a historical fantasy novel set in 1920s Mexico where a young woman living in poverty at the mercy of her much richer relatives unwittingly releases an Aztec god of death and goes on a quest with him.
The problem is, it’s basically young adult and our heroine turns out to be not just intelligent, strong willed and independent but also of course beautiful. Her only flaw is her family, which isn’t actually her flaw at all.
It’s a solid premise and would make a great read for an older teen. It wasn’t for me though and I bailed around page 100.
The Little Men, Megan Abbott
More of a long short story than a novella, this is a twisted little tale of golden age Hollywood obsession and madness. In that world, then and perhaps still now, it’s terrifyingly easy to waste your life pressing your nose against a window with fame just in view but ever out of reach
It wasn’t my favourite Abbot, but it’s still fun and who doesn’t love a bit of golden age Hollywood noir?
January was a slightly disappointing reading month, though looking at my list of books read it’s hard to say precisely why. It’s a good mix of writers I already know and ones new to me, of genre and literary fiction, but somehow it didn’t hit the spot. That’s why I’ve started February with a Penelope Fitzgerald – you just can’t go wrong with her.
Any oddities in this post are likely due to one of my cats repeatedly walking over the keyboard as I try to write it, occasionally deleting chunks of text.
The Singapore Grip, JG Farrell
This is the third of JG Farrell’s thematic Empire trilogy, but for me the weakest. The setting is Singapore on the eve of World War II and Farrell draws a portrait of an out of touch English colonial establishment who can’t see that their time is distinctly drawing to a close. Absurd preparations for a centennial celebration for a local trading house go on as the threat of war grows nearer. The family patriarch who heads the company worries about marrying off his clever daughter and managing his useless son, while ignoring how his and his peers’ fortune is built on brutal exploitation of the local population.
Farrell’s Troubles and his The Siege of Krishnapur are both marvellous, bitingly funny while somehow still entirely serious. This though is almost twice the length of either, and it felt to me like Farrell had left none of his research off the page. The good stuff from previous books was all there – the writing, the keen sense of human folly – but I learned more about troop movements in 1940s Singapore than I suspect I needed to. If you’ve read the others you’ll likely want to read this too, but otherwise it’s not essential.
Weather, Jenny Offill
I called Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation ‘perhaps the best written unmemorable book I’ve ever read.’ On reflection that may have been a sign that I’m not Offill’s reader. Her Weather however was widely and well reviewed and is an interesting example of the recent rise of climate-change influenced fiction.
Weather captures the sense of slow impending apocalypse that is part of the background now of everyday life for many. The narrator, a librarian, is living her life against a backdrop of news reports of political crisis and looming environmental collapse. It’s well written, often funny, and definitely captures something of our moment.
It reminds me of someone I used to work with back when I was a lawyer who started survival prepping for her kid for after the apocalypse (which in the UK is pretty unusual). She was otherwise a normal middle class professional woman, but she just didn’t trust in the future any more. Offill captures that sense of unease – the need to continue buying groceries while wondering if there’ll be a world for your kid to grow up into. At the same time, she remains a writer I struggle to personally connect to so I’ll likely leave her to other readers in future.
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, Saad Z. Hossein
This is a fun SF/fantasy novella. An ancient and powerful djinn wakes up after millennia of imprisonment to find himself in an advanced future world he of course doesn’t comprehend. Fortunately, it seems, he meets an elderly Gurkha who is willing to explain to him how this future works and who takes him to a nearby city run by an all-powerful AI. However, the Gurkha has his own agenda and the djinn for all his power might not be the one people should be afraid of.
If you don’t enjoy SF or fantasy this likely won’t convert you, but if you do this is a fun and not too serious tale that doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’ll read more by Hossein – there’s always a place for well written light entertainment. Also, great title.
Echopraxia, Peter Watts
This is the hardest of hard SF by a famously bleak writer. It’s the sequel to his widely acclaimed Blindspot, a first contact novel which among other things posits that consciousness may be an evolutionary dead end and one that other intelligent species aren’t troubled by. It’s not a cheery read.
Echopraxia returns to the same world and concerns, but for me less successfully. The main character is something of a passenger as various transhuman and alien entities battle it out at levels of intelligence he simply can’t understand let alone compete with, which is a bit of a problem for this merely human reader. Also, like the Farrell, I had a feeling that too much of the research had made it on to the page.
Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez and translated by Megan McDowell
I tend to read short stories on my kindle, often in bed to help me sleep. Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez uses horror as a tool to explore Argentina’s traumas and some of the imagery makes this perhaps not a wholly ideal bedtime companion.
The stories are excellent, well written and with a sense of unease sometimes overspilling into out-and-out horror. In some ways though the horror is a relief – a ghostly visitation may remind us of Argentina’s history of disappearances but a missing street kid is a far more real and present nightmare.
One of the stories is available for free on Granta’s website, here, and there’s a nice review at Tony’s Reading List here. The title story, as he rightly calls out, is a devastating critique of women’s often limited choices. If I had to choose a book of the month this would probably be it. Recommended, but not for the faint hearted.
Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson
I loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion both (less so Winterson’s The Daylight Gate). I expected this then to be an early reading highlight of the year for me. There’s definitely a lot here to like: exceptional writing; Winterson’s sharp and slightly puckish sense of fun; and a lovely exploration of how a parent and child can love each other yet still somehow fail to communicate. Despite all that it just didn’t resonate for me on this occasion. I suspect this was me rather than Winterson. John Self, who knows Winterson’s work better than most, has argued here that this is her best novel so I’ve marked it for rereading. (He’s right on Heller by the way – Something Happened is Heller’s best novel.)
Shane, Jack Schaefer
I don’t generally read westerns so this was a departure for me, particularly as I haven’t seen the famous film based on it. It’s the story of a mysterious stranger who comes to a frontier farming community that’s under threat from a big local landowner. Classic stuff, and all narrated by a child old enough to follow events but not always their emotional undercurrents.
The trouble here isn’t the book’s fault, though it is perhaps the fault of the marketing. This is basically young adult fiction, juvenile as it would once have been called. I’d say maybe for a 12-14 year old? It was just too slight and too straightforward to keep my attention and not quite rip-roaring enough to work for me as pulp.
Goodnight Rose, Chi Zijian and translated by Poppy Toland
I chose to end the month with something of a departure, an unknown writer to me (though I think quite an important one in China) and a very different kind of story about a young woman in Northern China who moves to the spare room of an elderly Jewish woman. It becomes an exploration of the treatment and status of women, going to some fairly dark places as it does so but because it stays rooted in sympathetic and interesting characters it’s actually a fairly easy read. It’s cleverly done.
If you’ve any interest in contemporary China I would recommend this, and the angle of (admittedly lightly) exploring the Jewish diaspora in China adds to the interest. It gets perhaps a little unlikely in bringing things to a head, but a little melodrama later on gives the characters something to do and plays into the books themes so it’s not a serious issue.
And that’s it! Onwards and hopefully upwards in February.
I read more in 2021 than at any time I suspect since I was a teenager. Oddly that’s not because I had more free time, I didn’t. However, what did happen is that I mostly stopped commuting, which was my main reading time, so had to find other time in the day instead.
That’s made coming up with an end of year list harder than usual – there’s more books to choose from and a lot of them were genuinely great. Not the worst problem to have I admit. Whether I can continue to read at these levels we’ll see – I do expect to be going back to the office more in 2022 though I suspect we’re never going fully back to how it was pre-Covid.
Unusually for me I took part in 2021 in one of those reading events/challenges that are all over blogs and the internet (I hate calling them challenges, how is reading some books a challenge?), #WITMonth (i.e. Women in Translation Month). In August I only read books in translation originally written by women. It worked surprisingly well for me, pushing me to revisit some existing favourite writers and try some new ones. About a third of this end of year list dates to that August reading.
And with that, on to the end of year list! I read 103 books in 2021 (I know, I should get out more but it’s not really been an option…) of which I whittled down pretty hard to a shortlist of 18, then harder yet to 14. I wanted to get to 12 but I think each of these does merit its place.
Best non-fiction: This could easily have been Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury, but I’ve another Herrera in my end of year list so (I know, spoilers) and actually Selva Almada’s Dead Girls really is exceptional. An extraordinary and powerful examination of anti-female violence by a superb writer. I know it sounds dark, it is dark, but it’s eloquent and powerful and I highly recommend it.
Best novel about a relationship that really should never even have started: Otherwise known as the Alfred Hayes award, and unsurprisingly he wins it. I read two of his this year, In Love which was good but perhaps a little too bitter, and The Girl on the Via Flaminia which for me is subtler and more complex. Girl explores, among many other things, the price of war for soldiers and civilians both and the many ways people can completely fail to understand each other. Jacqui of JacquiWine’s journal talks of a sense of desolation here, and I can’t better that. One also for anyone who loves Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (which if you haven’t seen you really should).
Best cuban shaggy dog tale: This has to be Karla Suárez‘ hugely fun Havana Year Zero. A 1990s-set Hitchcockian web of intrigue and deceit where the McGuffin is evidence that the telephone was in fact invented by an Italian while he was resident in Cuba, rather than by Bell. It’s incredibly and wonderfully convoluted, yet none of it really matters and nobody’s really at risk (other than perhaps some academic embarrassment). It manages too to be a love story of sorts and an examination of a changing post-Communist Cuba. I loved it.
Best indirect novel: Novella really actually, since it’s under 100 pages. Anyway, this is Adam Mars-Jones’ Batlava Lake. It’s a story of the Kosovan conflict, but told by a narrator who lacks the emotional intelligence and insight to really address what he’s seen. Instead it focuses on anecdotes and irrelevancies, leaving it to the reader to really understand what the narrator wants to say but doesn’t know how to. It’s clever, sometimes funny, and beautifully written. Mars-Jones’ Box Hill is also very, very good but if you haven’t read him this is probably the more accessible entry point.
Best end to a trilogy: I loved Olivia Manning‘s marvellous Balkan Trilogy, and have now read her follow-up Levant trilogy. I think I slightly preferred the Balkan novels, but the whole is exceptional both as an examination of a marriage and of life during wartime. The Sum of Things is the final one of the sequence. The Levant novels feature not just Guy and Harriet and the usual cast but a new core character in the form of a young junior officer, Simon Boulderstone.
The addition of Simon in the second trilogy allows Manning to explore the experience of war directly as well as indirectly, and it gives additional depth to the whole thing. Radhika’s review of the second trilogy (linked to above) is spoiler free and worth reading – basically though if you liked Balkan you’ll like Levant. Manning should be up there with Powell and I’m delighted the blogosphere has helped expose her work to a wider audience.
Best use of fable: This has to be Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons (and I say that despite having recently read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection). Herrera shows the rise of a Mexican drug-ballad singer (actually a thing) who rises to prominence in the treacherous court of a powerful drug baron. It’s told as if a fairy tale – Herrera turns the characters into archetypes by using titles for them such as the King, the Heir, the Doctor, rather than names. However, just as in traditional fairy tales violence remain very much present. Herrera is one of my favourite novelists and this was up to his usual tremendous form. I also loved his A Silent Fury which is a non-fiction title recovering the forgotten history of a horrific mining accident.
Best short story collection about relationships that really never should have even started: Bit of a cheat as this is actually a novella packaged with short stories, but it’s my blog and I’ll award what I want to. This goes to one of the under-appreciated masters of the short story form, Eileen Chang and her Love in a Fallen City (and other stories). These are melancholic and often bitter tales of people trapped by society and circumstance, but full of atmosphere and longing. I also read Chang’s Half a Lifelong Romance which I enjoyed greatly, but I think overall I prefer Chang in short story form.
Best contemporary novel with a Greek chorus: This has to be Heidi James’ The Sound Mirror, my second Heidi James of the year after her impressive debut novel So the Doves. It explores the lives of three women each in different decades, alternating chapters between them and with an ancestor-chorus providing commentary. It reads almost like a thriller (a point I see the review I linked to makes as well) but it’s grounded in the mess of people’s lives. Heidi James is a novelist to watch.
Best novel about the Norwegian postal service: Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live the Post Horn!, which is one of my favourite reads of the year and had a strong claim to being my favourite. Hjorth and her characters find meaning in the most apparently unexciting of subjects, the Norwegian implementation of an EU postal directive. It’s funny, clever and just really well delivered. I’ve bought Hjorth’s Will and Testament too and am looking forward to it.
Best novel about a failing marriage: So much competition here, as this is such a very popular topic for novelists. However, the winner is Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave. A woman sees her daughter’s marriage failing due to her son-in-law’s infidelity, just as her own marriage failed years before. The daughter can’t, or perhaps won’t, see it. The three of them are sharing a connected pair of remote cottages during a summer heatwave. It’s a brilliant set-up and Lively delivers against it. One to save for the summer.
Best portrait of a country on the edge: This goes to Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight (I read her Gilgi, One of Us too which is also good but Midnight is the stronger for me). Keun captures the feverish madness of pre-war Nazi Germany but through the lens of a young woman who may have no interest in politics but has too much wit not to see what’s happening around her. Keun is another under-appreciated talent and one who amply deserves her recent attention from Penguin Classics.
Best did anything even happen novel: What else but A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, by Dominique Barbéris. A haunting novel consisting of a conversation between two sisters that tells of a sort-of relationship one of them had years previously outside her marriage. It’s a dream-like novel, superbly well-written and full of half-seen depths. I sincerely hope it leads to more Barbéris being translated.
Best use of genre structure to explore wider issues: Much of the best crime fiction uses the investigation of a crime as a vehicle to explore societal tensions. Claudia Piñeiro is particularly good at this, as she showed in her Thursday Night Widows where the crime (if there even is one) is offstage for almost the entire book which instead focuses on tensions within a rich gated community. In her newly translated Elena Knows a woman crippled by Parkinson’s Disease investigates her adult daughter’s alleged suicide, intent on proving it was actually murder. The depiction of Elena living with her illness is extraordinary, but Piñeiro goes further and explores wider issues of bodily autonomy. Possibly Piñeiro’s best so far, which given the quality of her output is saying something.
Drumroll please, my book of 2021: It’s another August #WITMonth read, Olga Tokarczuk‘s clever, funny and tremendously human Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. More accessible than Flights (which I also loved) this is a detective story featuring an ageing amateur astrologer investigating a series of mysterious animal-related deaths in her rural community. Except of course being Tokarczuk it’s much more than that. Kaggsy’s review is excellent and I can’t really add to it, except to say that if you’ve found other Tokarczuk’s daunting due to structure or size this is actually very readable and packed both with character and ideas. It’s an incredibly rewarding novel and the moment I read it I knew it would be my book of the year, and so it is.
Just space now for some honourable mentions. First up, Linda Grant’s A Stranger City which despite having been read literally a year ago holds up surprisingly well in memory. It’s a rich and well-written London novel. I also enjoyed Norah Lange’s Notes from Childhood; JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (though I prefer his short stories); and Sarah Moss’s punchy Summerwater, which rewards close attention near the end. On another day any of these might have been on the list above.
Finally, I’d like to mention a non-fiction book I’d never have bought but received due to a subscription, James Attlee’s Under the Rainbow. Between the second and third English lockdowns Attlee went to various households who’d put rainbows in their window and asked them why. It doesn’t sound like much, but it turns into a really thoughtful exploration of this strange time we’ve all been living through and how common narratives are constructed but fail to reflect a much more complex reality. I know it sounds too soon, but it’s good and deserves a wider audience.
This paragraph is a quick edit just to say I missed an honourable mention, which is Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day. It explores a middle class couple in post-War England coming to terms with a society visibly changing from the old pre-war certainties. On paper it’s not really my sort of thing, but six weeks or so on from reading it I realise I can still remember pretty much the whole thing in fairly good detail, which speaks to its quality. I discounted that a bit as it has only been six weeks, but I wonder if I’d read it earlier in the year if it would still be shining brightly in which case it might well have merited a place on the list.
For the curious, here’s the full list of my 2021 reading. Feel free to ask about any of them:
A Stranger City, Linda Grant
The Edge of Running Water, W Sloane
Expert Sys. Brother, A. Tchaikovsky
Fogtown, Gabrich & Rader
Ladies Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke
The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett
Best of all Possible Worlds, K Lord
A Crack in the Wall, Claudia Piñeiro
Rain, Melissa Harrison
Shapeless Unease, Samantha Harvey
Kingdom Cons, Yuri Herrera
So the Doves, Heidi James
Some Will Not Sleep, Adam Neville
Girl on the Via Flaminia, Alfred Hayes
The Black Corridoor, Micheal Moorcock
Reality, & Other Stories, John Lanchester
The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla
All the Fabulous Beasts, Priya Sharma
The Silence, Don DeLillo
The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie
Hasty for the Dark, Adam Neville
Havana Year Zero, Karla Suárez
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Theatre of War, Andrea Jeftanovic
Passages, Ann Quin
The Deepening Shade, Jake Hinkson
Austral, Paul McAuley
Train Dreams, Dennis Johnson
Nordic Fauna, Andrea Lundgren
Everything Under, Daisy Johnson
Murders in the Age of Enlightenment, Ryûnosuke Akutagawa
Notes from Childhood, Norah Lange
Tripticks, Ann Quin
Box Hill, Adam Mars-Jones
Love in a Fallen City, Eileen Chang
Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro
Dead Girls, Selva Almada
Cause for Alarm, Eric Ambler
Lolly Willowes, Sylvia T. Warner
A Silent Fury, Yuri Herrera
Firewalkers, Ardrian Tchaikovsky
The Expert System’s Champion, Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Sound Mirror, Heidi James
The Danger Tree, Olivia Manning
Long Live the Post Horn!, Vigdis Hjorth
The Battle Lost and Won, Olivia Manning
Multitudes, Lucy Caldwell
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
Watermark, Joseph Brodsky
The Sum of Things, Olivia Manning
Moses Migrating, Sam Selvon
Spiderlight, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Private Life of Elder Things, Various
Heat Wave, Penelope Lively
The Unmapped Country, Ann Quin
Summerwater, Sarah Moss
Fearsome Creatures, Aliya Whiteley
Batlava Lake, Adam Mars-Jones
In Love, Alfred Hayes
Night Flight, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Half a Lifelong Romance, E Chang
After Midnight, Irmgard Keun
Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk
The Years, Annie Ernaux
A Nail, A Rose, Madeleine Bourdoxhe
Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, Dominique Barbérique
Elena Knows, Claudia Pineiro
Slash and Burn, Claudia Hernandez
Witch, Damian Walford-Davies
The Siege of Krishnapur, JG Farrell
The Others, Sarah Blau
Gilgi, One of Us, Irmgard Keun
The Disaster Tourist, Yun Ko-eun
Compass, Mathias Enard
Foundation, Isaac Asimov
New Model Army, Adam Roberts
The Allure of Chanel, Paul Morand
Journey into Fear, Eric Ambler
Greensmith, Aliya Whiteley
Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov
Keeping the House, Tice Cin
The Wine-dark Sea, Leonardo Sciascia
Under the Rainbow, James Attlee
Infinite Detail, Tim Maugham
One Fine Day, Mollie Panter-Downes
The Man on the Balcony, Sjöwall & Wahlöö
The Singer’s Gun, Emily St. John Mandel
The Story of Stanley Brent, E. Berridge
Second Foundation, Isaac Asimov
Life and Death of Harriet Frean, May Sinclair
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
Skyward Inn, Aliya Whiteley
Weathering, Lucy Wood
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Elder Race, Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin, Éric Faye
Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock
Ghost Hardware, Tim Maugham
Doggerland, Ben Smith
Drowned Country, Emily Tesh
Little Eve, Catriona Ward
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories Angela Carter
I read on my commute. It’s a sentence that could be past or present tense, but of course it’s been past tense for nearly twelve months now. 2020 for me was a year without commutes; it was a year of disrupted reading and often of comfort reading. I read a lot of genre, a lot of lighter fiction and not so much of the serious stuff.
On the positive side of 2020, when I did get breaks I mostly read in them. I couldn’t travel after all. The result was that overall I actually read more than usual. 86 books compared to my usual 60 or 70. I also discovered some great new authors (Elizabeth von Arnim, Anne Charnock who didn’t quite make this list for her 2013 debut novel but who I’m a definite convert to, Eley Williams, Zoe Gilbert, Melissa Harrison, Sarah Perry, keepers all of them – interestingly I didn’t realise until I wrote that sentence that they were all women).
Anyway, enough preamble. Here’s my rather late best of 2020 list, in essentially random order.
Best novel that deserved the hype: this could be a few on this list, but it’s Sarah Perry’s marvellous The Essex Serpent. Everyone told me this was great. Everyone was right. It’s a meaty historical novel (a genre I normally ignore) full of life, love, friendship, the relationship between faith and reason and lots more. Plus, just as I was getting a bit tired of how everything seemed to revolve around the lead character so did all the other characters which I thought cleverly done.
This was actually my last read in 2020 and it was a great one to end on. It’s an absolute pleasure from beginning to end, packed with ideas and character and some really good evocation of place. It also has probably my favourite cover of any recent publication. Sarah of A Fiction Habit gave this a really good thorough write-up here.
Best I don’t even really know what genre this is novel: So it looks like I’m a Villalobos fan. I loved his Down the Rabbit Hole, which made my end of 2017 list, and now I love his Quesadillas too. It’s a wonderfully odd cross-genre tale of politics, gentrification and perhaps alien abduction. And Other Stories have a real knack for finding these gems that don’t fit in neat boxes (Rita Indiana’s extraordinary Tentacle is another one). I wrote a little more about Quesadillas here.
Best novel with a postcard cover: this has of course to be Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. It’s a haunting novel which combines an exploration of gender, body image, food, othering and more. I’ve risked making it sound a bit of a slog there, but it’s also highly enjoyable and extremely readable (take that Booker Panel 2011!). Grant wrote about it here and Jacqui here. Highly recommended. Also, fabulous cover. Daunt Books Publishing have done Dusapin proud.
Best short story collection that I should have read sooner: While I loved Eley Williams spritely and funny Attrib. (I really did), James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man had to win in this space. It’s an extraordinary collection, beautifully written and with real emotional range. I always had the impression of James Baldwin as a slightly worthy writer – I couldn’t have been more wrong. Emma at Bookaround wrote about it here and it was that review which persuaded me to try it. Thanks Emma!
Best end to a trilogy: has to be Olivia Manning’s Friends and Heroes (which is a bit harsh on William Gibson’s Zero History which I also read in 2020, but book blogs are brutal beasts). Manning picks up in Athens after Guy, Harriet, Poor Yaki and various other characters flee the fall of Bucharest. Manning continues to add depth to the characters, tests Guy and Harriet’s marriage and brilliantly shows the fatigue and uncertainty of life during wartime. I’m eager to read Manning’s Levant Trilogy which follows on from this. I wrote a little more about this one here, and Jacqui wrote a very good piece about it here.
Best novel that shows execution is everything: stories about a young working class person broadening their horizons through an unlikely friendship with someone older aren’t exactly new. Kudos then to Ben Myers for taking such a well-worn topic and making it as rich and fresh as he does in his The Offing. This is a novel with shades of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (and there’s no higher praise than that) and it was a strong contender for my book of the year. Myers writes beautifully and it’s a nice mix of the pastoral, personal and political. Jacqui did a good write-up of it here.
Best political novel that’s actually good despite being a political novel: I hate state of the nation novels as a rule, they tend to be a bit didactic. Brexit though has inspired some very good fiction. Anyway, this was a strong field not least as I actually really liked John Lanchester’s The Wall (not subtle, but I thought very good) and Luke Brown’s excellent Theft. For me though the winner was Melissa Harrison’s marvellous All Among the Barley. Barley is on its surface a pastoral novel set in rural 1930s England featuring an intelligent young woman struggling with growing up. From there though it goes into issues of incipient fascism, nationalism and gender and makes some telling points about now without overselling its parallels. It’s extremely well written and made me a definite Harrison convert. One to look out for if you’ve not heard of it.
Best climate change novel that still works as a novel: while I liked Amitav Ghosh’s The Gun Merchant more than I expected, this has to be Madeleine Watts’ simply brilliant The Inland Sea. Watts draws a clever (and not overworked) parallel between a young woman’s own self-destructive behaviour and our wilder self-destructive behaviour as a species. This is genuinely clever stuff and I highly recommend it. On reflection, Lanchester’s The Wall could have fit into this category too. I’ve robbed that man.
Best novel that would make a great play: well, it has to be The Wind that Lays Waste doesn’t it? Written by Selva Almada and translated by Chris Andrews. A searing short novel/novella that packs in family and faith and a serious amount of character and drama. Hugely impressive and came very close to being my book of the year. I wrote a bit more about it here.
Best sequel that possibly isn’t: is of course Rita Indiana’s Made in Saturn, translated by Sydney Hutchinson. Ostensibly a sequel to Tentacle (mentioned above), it’s left quite open as to whether this is actually a sequel or if most of Tentacle was just a drug-induced hallucination of the main character. This gets into meaty father-son dynamics as well as addiction and post-revolutionary politics. Rita Indiana is now on my list of authors that I’ll buy any new releases from without bothering about little things like reviews. There’s a bit more on this in my February round-up post here (same link as above for Wind).
Best monastic fiction: is Donald E. Westlake’s Brothers Keepers – unworldly monks battling unscrupulous property developers, with a little romance on the side. It’s a wonderful comic caper of the sort Westlake is so very, very good at. It’s light and fairly silly, but also well written and plotted. Classic Westlake.
Best continuation of a series: should probably be the Manning to be honest, but Giorgio Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is also very good. I read the Penguin edition, translated by Jamie McKenrick, and for me it was the strongest of the Ferrara series so far. It’s the tale of the ruin of a doctor, Jewish and gay, his life wrecked by restricted choices and rising prejudices. Stu did a nice write-up of it here. So far I’d liked the Ferrara stories but hadn’t been blown away. This changed that and now I’m definitely in for the long haul.
My best book of 2020: drumroll please! Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April has basically no conflict and very little plot. It is charming, well written and altogether lovely. I don’t know how von Arnim made something so slight also so effortlessly good. As I said back in July, it’s wonderful.
I also read von Arnim’s Elizabeth’s Enchanted Garden this year. It’s good, but it doesn’t hit the same heights for me as Enchanted. Even so it’s clear to me that von Arnim is a hugely talented writer and I plan to pick up her The Caravaners next. The Penguin edition below is the one I have, but I do rather like the Vintage cover that I’ve also attached.
And that’s it! Before I go, I would like to say that while I’ve not had time to post here or even comment on other people’s blogs, I am still reading a lot of other bloggers reviews. The book blogging community has been great for me, introducing me to a lot of writers I’d have missed (von Arnim!) and while I wish I could interact more I’m still enjoying the updates.
Finally, in case anyone wants to know, here’s the full list of what I read in 2020:
Despite still being very busy May was a reasonably solid reading month. I managed a bit of variation in terms of genre (SF, crime, literary, comic) and, while the books themselves were a mixed bag for me, the successes were very successful.
Household Gods and other narrative offences, by Tade Thompson
Tade Thomson is a highly regarded British-Nigerian SF/fantasy author.Back in March he published a short story collection for free, to give people something to read during lockdown.
One of the interesting things about Thompson’s work, beyond the simple fact that he can write, is that he draws in part on Yoruban tradition and folklore to inform his fiction. The title story involves a future Britain where the gods have returned, everyone’s gods. A young British-Nigerian woman appeals to a Yoruban deity for help in getting a job. Unfortunately, others going for the same role have prayed to their own gods…
Another story is written from the point of view of a ghost that doesn’t realise it’s dead, As Thompson says in an interview here
“In Yoruba culture, spirits are around us all the time, but there are three basic types: the people in the Afterlife. The people not yet born but aware and they can converse. And in the middle are the people who are alive but their spirit can be communicated with. “The character in ‘Slip Road’ doesn’t realize that he has slipped into a different category. He thinks he’s in the middle but he has passed into the Afterlife. This is a staple of ghost stories. His wife survived but he did not; the slip road is a slip road into death.”
Another story, Honourable Mention, involves a competition to stay awake (parallels with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) in which one competitor relies on a Faustian deal with a fetish-spirit to keep him going only to find it slowly replacing him. In the same interview Thompson explains:
“You cannot leave your context and stay the same person. The people who migrate always say, ‘We’ll go back to Nigeria’ but you change if you live in a different place, you become a hybrid, not accepted here or there. You become a new thing especially if you see success in a field in which you are not expected to succeed. There are a lot of compromises and the darker side might not be positive. Sometimes the choice may be between being a security guard or something illegal.
“The sport in the story, a staying-awake competition, is made up; but it is inspired by what happened to me when I came back to the UK. I took two jobs. One, I took blood samples at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. And at night I worked in a Securicor depot. No sleep, no respect.The Yoruba term for working like this is ‘Fa gburu’.
“I was made to take an English exam when I arrived, even though I was born here and went to grade school here. Also a Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board exam and a medical exam to show I was properly trained. I had no problem with that—I always do well on standard exams. But I needed to prep the exam and eat at the same time and I didn’t want to depend on my parents, so I did two jobs and spent the rest of the time studying. Basically, I never went to bed.”
Households Gods is a very strong short story collection. It’s original, well-written and the Yoruban elements and wider parallels with real experience are fascinating. He’s one of relatively few SF/fantasy writers I can see crossing over into mainstream literary circles, though whether that happens is as much chance as talent so we’ll see.
The Bishop’s Bedroom, by Piero Chiara and translated by Jill Foulston
This is by the same author as The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, which I liked but didn’t love. I liked but didn’t love Bishop’s Bedroom too so I suspect that’s the end of my journey with Chiara. Great cover though.
We’re on Lago Maggiore in late 1940s Italy. The narrator is whiling away his time boating on the lake, travelling from port to port. He finds himself unexpectedly drawn into the circle of Orimbelli, a slightly larger than life figure who served in the Africa campaign and now lives with his older wife and his very attractive widowed sister-in-law.
What follows is a hothouse of lust and deception. Orimbelli seems like a womanising fool, but is he something much darker? We’re in psychological suspense territory here, with a classically slow buildup and a big emphasis on atmosphere (the descriptions of the lake itself are excellent).
Unfortunately, this one got interrupted a lot by work which didn’t help it. The first half of the novel mostly follows the narrator and Orimbelli’s adventures travelling around on the boat and sleeping with women they pick up along the way. That would be fine if you read through that quickly, soaking in the darker undercurrents as you go. Spread that section over several days though and it becomes a bit tedious, and to be honest a bit creepy in ways that I don’t think were entirely intended.
Guy liked this (see here) and so have many others, but it wasn’t my book. I’m in a minority though so if it sounds like it might be your thing I’d still suggest you check it out.
The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore
I got this back in 2012 when it was nominated for the Booker (not sure why I did as I’ve never hugely rated the Booker as a prize). It’s the story of a man named Futh who goes on a walking holiday in Germany after the failure of his marriage. He’s British, but has part-German ancestry and the trip becomes an opportunity to meditate on his own past and his difficult relationships with his father and his soon-to-be-ex wife Angela.
So far, so literary (if litfic is a genre, meditations of this sort are a key genre trope). Interspersed with Futh’s travels are episodes back in the guesthouse he starts his holiday in and plans to return to at the end. There the wife of the couple who runs the place sleeps with the guests, drinks too much, and is intermittently battered by her increasingly violent husband. The husband wrongly suspects Futh slept with his wife during his stay, so although Futh doesn’t know it he’s returning to a powder-keg.
The Lighthouse reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan, which if you like his work you should take as an endorsement. However, I find McEwan’s books incredibly artificial with unbelievable characters twisted by evident author fiat to their neatly plotted and often rather cruel denouements. I didn’t really believe in Futh, who is so hapless that I simply didn’t believe anyone would ever marry him (Angela repeatedly says to him “I’m not your mother”, but it’s clear that in part Futh married her to fill just that role). I didn’t really believe in the supporting characters either – why Angela who is shown to have been an intelligent and independent young woman would ever have married him for example, or stayed with him so long.
There are other contrivances, not least the landlady’s obsession with perfume and Futh working in the scent trade, and some frankly unlikely incidents (as a rule of thumb, if I found a discarded pair of knickers in my hotel room I wouldn’t carry them about in my hand for a bit before handing them in at reception. Who would? The plot demands it though…). Not my book.
The Man who Went up in Smoke, by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall and translated by Joan tate
This is the second of the famous Martin Beck ten-novel sequence that pretty much launched scandinoir as a genre. I don’t seem to have written up the first, Roseanna. That was quite an unusual book mostly in that it had an incredibly strong procedural element – Beck patiently sifts evidence, carries out interviews, at times the case (a murder) lies dormant for months until a new lead emerges.
In Smoke, Beck is called back from holiday to investigate the disappearance of a Swedish journalist in Budapest. That means going behind the Iron Curtain and following up a case where there are basically no leads. Matters aren’t made easier by the local Hungarian police proving to be extremely efficient and picking up very quickly on Beck’s unofficial investigation.
Beck spends quite a large part of the novel almost randomly casting for clues since he has so little to work with. It’s a very different depiction of police work from most crime fiction, with an emphasis on it being work. There’s no sudden intuitions here or flashes of brilliance. Beck gets results partly because he’s clever, but also in large part because he puts the hours in.
I have the whole set of Beck novels and at this point I’m firmly committed to them. I actually enjoyed this more than Roseanna. At one point its got a rather dated encounter with a young woman diagnosed as being probably a nymphomaniac (is there any more 1970s diagnosis than that?) but apart from that slightly odd note it holds up very well. Rock solid crime fiction and it’s no surprise that it helped spark a new genre.
The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim
I mean, it’s simply wonderful. Very silly, but quite wonderful.
The cover above is the Penguin edition, which I had. I think it works very well. At Jacqui’s you can see the Vintage cover which is also excellent and directly references part of the novel. In any event, in case I’ve been unclear this is pretty much wonderful.
No doubt a trip to Italy would be extraordinarily delightful, but there were many delightful things one would like to do, and what was strength given to one for except to help one not to do them?
Jacqui gives this a slightly more detailed review here, but I’ve covered the essentials above. A shoo-in for my end of year list.
And that’s it! I’ll see if I can get my June round-up posted before we hit August.
April wasn’t the cruellest month, but it was the busiest for quite some time. As a result I read only two books. On the plus side, both were good.
No Tomorrow, by Jake Hinkson
I read this for Emma of bookaroundthecorner’s virtual Quais de Polar, but was so busy that I didn’t finish it until long after that had ended. That’s a shame as I’d have liked to have been part of QDP, but the book was everything Emma had described it as (Emma’s post on it is here).
This is an absolutely brutal noir full of lust, murder and bad choices. It’s 1947 and Billie Dixon is hawking third-rate B-movies round the American south to tiny cinemas too remote for regular distribution channels. It’s an unusual job for a woman, but Billie is hard-nosed and hardboiled.
We get our movies out to most of them through states’ rights distributors and exchanges, but some of these theaters are so small or so out of the way we have to dispatch someone out there to peddle the stuff by hand. That’s where the field man comes in. His job is to shovel the studio shit as far into the heartland as he can get it.
Billie’s job takes her to rural Arkansas, and a town ruled by a blind preacher who hates movies and the people who peddle them both. Billie tries to talk him round, and that’s how she meets his wife Amberley. Billie and Amberley fall for each other hard, but a woman running off with a preacher’s wife faces serious jailtime. The preacher is in the way of Billie’s business, and in the way of her having a future with Amberley. If only something might happen to him…
It’s noir so it’s no spoiler to say things don’t go smoothly. It’s a tightly written tale which manages to hit the familiar noir beats while still holding some surprises. Hinkson is great on the small town atmosphere and the period feel, and Billy is a great character (and not the only one). Highly recommended.
Gun Island, by Amitav Ghosh
At this point in April I was neck-deep in work and stuck at home. I wanted something that would take me as far from North London as I could get, but I wasn’t in the mood for SF.
I’d read a while back an article by Amitav Ghosh which criticised literary fiction as a form for not addressing climate change – the biggest issue of our age. He’s written a full non-fiction book on the topic, and Gun Island is his attempt to put his money where his mouth is by showing how fiction might address it.
This is my second Ghosh, and I had mixed views on the first. Still, I thought this sounded unusual and ambitious and with much of it set in the Sundarbans swamps of India and Bangladesh it certainly met the far from London criterion.
Deenanath, Deen for short, is a middle-aged rare book dealer splitting his time between Brooklyn and Kolkata. His life is comfortable but a little sterile. The possibility of romance leads him to briefly accompany an expedition to a rare temple in the Sundarbans where he discovers wall-carvings illustrating an ancient Bengali folk-tale. The tale is of a gun merchant who fled across the world rather than serve the goddess of snakes Manasa Devi. Deen grew up with the story, but the carvings contain details he’s never seen before.
Before Deen has even left the temple he starts to find the myth seeming to reach beyond story into reality. He becomes interested in the underlying historical truth, but as he investigates he finds himself having curious and unexpected encounters with snakes and other deadly creatures. Is it chance? Or is the myth repeating in the modern day?
I forced myself to say aloud ‘This is all chance and coincidence, nothing else’ – and the words had the effect of a prayer, breaking the spell that had descended on me.
Deen’s journey takes him through mangrove swamps increasingly devastated by flood and crop failure, to a Los Angeles threatened by immense firestorms, to a sinking Venice, to rivers where desperate dolphins beach themselves in ever increasing numbers. The goddess, if she’s real, is larger than the human but then so of course is climate change. Ghosh is using the supernatural here to personalise the impersonal but equally vast forces of a changing natural order.
Ghosh is particularly good on the use of technology to challenge borders and to help shrink and navigate the world’s complexities. He explores human trafficking, the Bengali diaspora, the hows and whys of global migrations with the poor fleeing shattered territories in search of better lives, forming new communities virtual and real in seemingly unlikely places.
However, Ghosh is not a subtle writer. The characters are fine, but not particularly nuanced and some are little more than devices. One, a glamorous Italian professor, drops little Italian phrases into her dialogue and uses lots of exclamation marks and is so Italian I didn’t believe she really was (few people live up so completely to their national stereotypes). Most of the other characters fit their story roles, but with little interiority.
Still, Gosh can write plot and he can write description and I did enjoy this. As this review in the Hindu Times says, if Ghosh is heavy handed so nowadays are the headlines. Ironically given Ghosh is slightly dismissive of science fiction his strengths and weaknesses are the ones common to that genre. He’s great at portraying the big, the epic, the sweep and sudden shifts of history and culture; he’s not so good on the small, the personal, the internal.
Ultimately, the question for Gun Island is does it succeed on its own terms? Has Ghosh written a literary novel worth reading as fiction that manages to address climate change as an issue? I think yes. The ending didn’t quite land with me, but I’ve no idea how you do end such a book and overall I think Ghosh pulls it off. Worth reading.
If you’re interested in this one there’s a good interview with Ghosh here. There’s also an excellent review in the FT here (likely paywall).
And that’s it! May is back up to five books read which is much more like it, and who knows for June but I’m reading again. I hope you are getting some decent reading in yourselves.
It’s May, I know. I’m part of the UK Government’s Covid-19 response which means I’m working crazy hours. Blogging, including reading blogs, reading anything really, isn’t happening much right now.
March’s reading was prelapsarian. We went on holiday to Bangkok and on to Angkor Wat. We were out there two weeks as the news grew worse back home. When we came back it was straight into lockdown.
My March reading was almost all SF because I tend to buy SF on kindle and for a two week holiday my kindle was what I took. I read one book before we left, five while travelling and one in the two weeks after getting back. My April roundup post will be much briefer (two books). By the way, if you’ve no interest in SF you should still scroll down to the Donald E. Westlake because it’s huge fun.
Anyway, I hope everyone’s keeping well. Here’s what I read in March, back in a very different world.
Friends and Heroes, by Olivia Manning
This is the third of Manning’s Balkan trilogy, followed by her Levant Trilogy featuring the same core characters. I expect it to be one of my books of the year.
Guy and Harriet are now in Athens, as is Prince Yakimov (poor Yaki…) and several of their old associates from Bucharest. Guy and Harriet’s existence is now more precarious than ever before – they’re now part of the mass diaspora of people scattered across Europe fleeing before the chaos of the war.
Guy continues to be too unworldly for his own good, failing to see that just because he helped someone when they needed it doesn’t mean they’ll help him now that he does. Harriet continues to be the more practical, but at times she’s perhaps too cautious, and she can sometimes be too casual with the impact she has on others. It’s a brilliantly nuanced portrait of a marriage, all the better because Guy isn’t always wrong and Harriet not always right.
Manning doesn’t quite have Anthony Powell’s gift for making every minor character instantly recognisable. There were some who recurred from previous books who I could barely recall. The core cast though remains rock solid and Manning captures time, place and the internal and external strains on Guy and Harriet’s marriage perfectly.
I wrote about Manning’s The Great Fortune here. I didn’t write up the second, This Spoilt City, but I did refer to it briefly in my 2019 end of year post commenting that it was a “welcome return to Manning’s Balkan trilogy with some very impressive moments and lovely characterisation”.
Final thought. One of the benefits of series is the depth of characterisation they can achieve. At this point in the sequence Manning is able to explore nuances of Guy and Harriet’s characters, including times when they behave out of character. It’s possible because we already know them so well and would be much harder to pull off in a single book without them seeming inconsistent.
A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock
Anne Charnock is a British science fiction writer. A Calculated Life is about a young woman genetically engineered for desirable traits in a near-future Britain.
Effectively a slave, Jayna lives in a dormitory with others of her cohort. The company which engineers them leases them out as super-bright, super-reliable workers. The difficulty is Jayna’s generation have been tweaked for greater creativity and empathy, but the closer they come to ordinary emotions the harder they are to control.
Jayna decides she needs more data to carry out her work, which leads her out of her corporate bubble into the wider world. Outside a controlled environment her own controls start to slip. As so often in these stories, sex becomes a trigger for wider disobedience.
The idea of created beings becoming too human is hardly original. In fact, it’s an SF staple. Charnock delivers it well here though capturing Jayna’s inner life, the slow awakening of her peers, and the seemingly benevolent and very 21st Century corporate interest in their wellbeing and productivity.
Charnock also paints a depressingly plausible picture of a recognisable future Britain. A cognitive arms race has led to smart drugs and other enhancements keeping the well-off competitive, while an increasing proportion of the population is effectively written off as irrelevant. Sadly it’s all too credible.
Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds
We’re now solidly into holiday reading. Big screen SF set in a distant future with little connection to our real world (though the science is, as ever with Reynolds, pretty much rock solid).
Elysium Fire is set in a solar system dominated by a vast array of asteroid habitats known as the glitterbelt. Each asteroid contains its own society and is governed by its own rules. The only system-wide law is that citizens are free to choose which habitat they wish to live in and the rules that govern it. Police known as Prefects protect that fundamental right.
Reynolds previously wrote about this setting in his Aurora Rising, which I rather liked. The setting is great, but I was slightly less taken by Elysium Fire which has a less interesting threat for its heroes to contend with. If you like Reynolds it’s solid but not great.
Provenance, Ann Leckie
Provenance is a stand-alone novel set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. Again it’s star spanning distant future stuff. While the Ancillary series was big on action and intrigue, Provenance is closer to an Austenesque comedy.
In one not particularly important planet in Leckie’s future universe great store is set by vestiges – historical artefacts evidencing a connection to great people and events of the past. The most important families evidence their prestige through the quality of their vestiges, many relating to their own ancestors’ exploits.
All of which makes it slightly awkward when a young woman intent on proving herself to her own family discovers that many of her society’s most treasured vestiges may be counterfeit. Worse, some of the greatest families on her planet may rest their prestige on entirely forged historical treasures.
What follows is in one sense big action and intrigue, but with stakes that are a bit ludicrous. On its face it’s entirely serious, there’s a murder, hostage-taking, all sorts of dramatic events, but it’s also quite silly. I really rather liked it.
Brothers Keepers, Donald E. Westlake
Donald E. Westlake must have written some bad books at some point, but this wasn’t one of them.
Brother Benedict is a cloistered monk living with his brother monks in a small and not particularly noticeable monastery. His sins are small – taking a biro without permission, looking perhaps a little too long at a woman in a tv ad. His chief weekly pleasure is a trip out of the monastery to pick up the New York Times weekend edition.
Why the New York Times? Well, because unusually Brother Benedict’s monastery is located in the heart of Manhattan. It’s absolutely prime real estate, which is a problem when Brother Benedict reads in the Times’ architectural section that they’re due to be evicted so the site can be redeveloped.
One immediate difficulty is that the order Brother Benedict belongs to is “a contemplative Order, concerning ourselves with thoughts of God and Travel.”
Our meditations on Travel have so far produced the one firm conclusion that Travel should never be undertaken lightly, and only when absolutely necessary to the furthering of the glory of God among men—which means we rarely go anywhere.
Someone has to go out into the world to set things right. Who better than Brother Benedict who at least already goes to the local newsstand?
What follows is brilliantly funny. The brothers soon discover that when Manhattan real estate is at stake theft, fraud and all manner of villainy is rarely far behind. Can an unworldly group of monks defeat big capital? And can Brother Benedict reject the worldly temptations lying outside the monastery’s door?
I had not entered the monastery at age twenty-four completely inexperienced, but ten years is a long time, and now I stood before the concept of screwing the way a small child stands before the star-filled night sky, feeling its vast mystery and its close fascination in tiny tremors behind the knees.
This was an absolute delight of a read. It has a marvellous cast, lots of comic asides and set pieces, and it’s insanely quotable. Very highly recommended. I think I loved Somebody Owes Me Money slightly more, but this is still great.
By the Pricking of her Thumb, Adam Roberts
I’d enjoyed Roberts’ previous novel in this near-future crime series, The Real-Time Murders, which married a Holmes and Moriarty-style setup with a riff off Hitchcock movies. Here Roberts’ Holmes and Moriarty are back in the form of private investigator Alma and her bedbound lover Marguerite and the inspiration is Kubrick rather than Hitchcock.
This didn’t work for me, but whether that was the book or circumstances I don’t entirely know. I started it shortly before returning to the UK and lockdown. The news was worsening and a novel which has bereavement and grief as major themes wasn’t a great choice. For that reason I don’t think I can give it a fair review.
It’s cleverly constructed, the SF elements and crime elements combine well and Roberts takes a positive glee in setting up impossible crime scenarios which ultimately make sense by the rules of his world. Whether there was something lacking on this occasion in the chemistry I can’t say, but my guess is the fault on this occasion was in the stars rather than in the book.
Well, that’s a slightly depressing note to end on, but then that’s true of how March itself ended. While I didn’t quite take to the Reynolds or the Roberts this time, I did enjoy all the others (and I think I would have enjoyed the Roberts more had I chosen a better time in which to read it).
Hope you’re all keeping well and all going well I’ll see you on the other side, if not before (virtually anyway).
Between work and house hunting February was a very light reading month. Just three books! However, they were very good books. March is another story given recent international news, but I’ll speak to that in my next post.
For now, I’m going to cast my mind back to February when I could still commute to work and was looking forward to my then upcoming holiday (Bangkok and Angkor Wat, which were great though I returned to a much changed Britain).
Quesadillas, by Juan Pablo Villalobos and translated by Rosalind Harvey
This is my second Villalobos, after his excellent Down the Rabbit Hole. Rabbit made my end of year list for 2017 and it still stands up very well in memory. I didn’t love Quesadillas quite as much, but it is still very good and if it had been my first Villalobos I’d definitely still have read more.
Orestes and his many, many siblings (all named by their schoolteacher father after Classical Greek figures) live in a small and impoverished house in a slum neighbourhood. Orestes’ parents see themselves as middle class, but that doesn’t mean they have any money and Orestes isn’t so sure.
Every night sees their father shouting at politicians on the tv while the children fight to grab as many of their mother’s quesadillas as they can grasp.
We were well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home. We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas – listed in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony. The inflationary quesadillas were thick in order to use up the cheese that my mother had bought in a state of panic at the announcement of a new rise in the price of food and the genuine risk that her supermarket bill would go from billions to trillions of pesos.
The normal quesadillas we would have eaten every day if we had lived in a normal country – but if we had been living in a normal country we wouldn’t have been eating quesadillas and so we also called them impossible quesadillas.
Orestes dreams of getting out. After he gets in trouble with newly arrived rich neighbours (an early warning sign of gentrification), and his young twin brothers Castor and Pollux go missing in a supermarket, he makes his escape into an increasingly chaotic Mexico
Life at home was messy and loud. The wider Mexico is that and worse – a country of scams, petty thievery and an increasing breakdown of anything resembling reality. As the novel progresses it gets more and more outlandish – apparently its title in the original Spanish best translates as “If we lived somewhere normal.” But they don’t.
Orestes’ Mexico is not somewhere normal, so normal narrative rules need not apply. What starts naturalist can end fabulist. All you can rely on is that the politicians will always be thieves.
Quesadillas is extremely funny. Orestes has a great narratorial voice – fresh and lively. It’s an angry book, but not a bitter one. It’s laughter in the face of absurdity, because what else is there to do? I have Villalobos’ I’ll Sell You a Dog still left to read and am thoroughly looking forward to it.
Grant wrote a more detailed review of Quesadillas here which as ever is well worth reading.
The Wind that Lays Waste, by Selva Almada and translated by Chris Andrews
Next up is an excellent Argentinian novel. This is a book with only four characters and largely only one location (it would make an excellent play).
Itinerant charismatic preacher the Reverend Pearson has insisted on starting a long drive despite his teenage daughter Leni’s warning that the car won’t make the trip. The Reverend trusts in the lord, but Leni is right and they find themselves breaking down and having to pull into a remote garage.
The garage mechanic is Gringo Brauer, living with his teenage son nicknamed Tapioca. Tapioca is an innocent; Leni is increasingly worldly. What follows is a power struggle between the Reverend and Gringo Brauer as each tries to impose their own philosophy on the other and on the two teenagers.
The Reverend is an evangelical. Everything is god’s purpose. He comes to believe the breakdown was so that he would meet Tapioca, not raised as a Christian, and convert him. Gringo by contrast is a materialist, almost pagan in outlook. He believes in the world he sees, the Reverend in a world unseen.
It’s a powerful and intense book – an espresso novel to use a phrase I’ve used here before. There’s a real sense of four disparate people forced together and forced to see each other, but perhaps not to see themselves.
‘The car will be ready by the end of the afternoon, God willing,’ said the Reverend, mopping his brow again.
‘And if He’s not willing?’ Leni replied, putting on the earphones of the Walkman that was permanently attached to her belt. She hit Play, and her head filled with music.
A big heap of scrap reared behind the house, extending almost to the shoulder of the road: panels, bits of agricultural machinery, wheel rims, piles of tyres; a real cemetery of chassis, axles and twisted bits of metal, immobilised forever under the scorching sun.
Grant has written a much fuller review of this one too, here. It made his Best of 2019 list and I am not a bit surprised. I suspect this justified my subscription with Charco Books on its own.
Made in Saturn, by Rita Indiana and translated by Sydney Hutchinson
Rita Indiana’s first novel, Tentacle, was my personal best novel of 2019. I wrote a bit about it in that post, and a little more in my January 2019 round up post here.
Tentacle featured a transgender man time-travelling from the future with the aid of a psychic anemone to prevent an environmental catastrophe. It sounds terrible doesn’t it? And yet it was great. Muscular, tightly plotted and well written.
Made in Saturn is in one sense a sequel. It features one of the main characters from Tentacle as its protagonist, the artist Argenis Luna, and others crop up again in supporting roles. However, you could read this without ever having heard of Tentacle and it would stand up perfectly well on its own.
In Tentacle, Argenis is a gifted artist but working in a style overly derivative of Goya. He’s a junkie, a misogynist and fiercely homophobic (apparently due to being so strongly in denial about is own true sexuality).
Saturn takes place some time after Tentacle. Argenis remembers his weird experiences of that book, but writes them off as drug hallucinations and as far as Saturn is concerned he may be right. Otherwise, he’s not much changed.
Argenis’ father is a senior politician and one of the heroes of the Dominican Republic’s revolution. Now running for re-election he sends Argenis to rehab in Cuba. Argenis is a disappointment to his father, to his own personal Saturn (I hadn’t intended to read two books with Greek classical references and questionable politicians in one month but sometimes that’s how things play out).
Argenis is a selfish waste of space, but perhaps not be irredeemably so. If Tentacle showed him descending into a well-deserved personal hell, this is his purgatory. Exiled in Cuba he runs through his heroin-substitute at twice the prescribed rate kidding himself that he’s getting clean, sleeps with his nurse and dreams of a success that he does nothing to work for. It can’t last, and when it falls apart Argenis is forced largely against his will to start taking responsibility for his own life.
That makes this sound uplifting. It isn’t. It’s a novel about hustlers, junkies, and what’s worse politicians. Once again it’s well written and this time with marvellously evocative descriptions of Santo Domingo and of Havana:
On their drive, Havana was looking glorious and desperate, an old woman with legs open, brazenly displaying her wide and empty streets – streets that reminded Argenis of an amusement park; no cars, buses or trams. The people who were coming and going wore an anguish on their faces he could recognize as his own: it was the anguish of having to hustle for everything on the black market, just as he’d hustled for heroin in Santo Domingo.
In a way it’s a coming of age tale. Argenis starting to grow up, to come to terms with his father’s legacy and with their highly dysfunctional relationship. Argenis is an asshole, but he could be more than that. The question is will he find his own path through the world or will he be swallowed by his father’s desires and ambitions?
Highly recommended and, like each of Quesadillas and The Wind that Lays Waste, a strong candidate for my end of year list.
See you all soon and hope isolation isn’t getting you down too much!
Ps. I’ve added links to my 2017, 2018 and 2019 end of year roundups in my Best Books of the Blog tab.
So, in the hope of turning over a newish leaf, here’s the first of my monthly reading round-ups for 2020.
Water Shall Refuse Them, by Lucie McKnight Hardy
My first read of 2020 was in fact mostly read towards the end of 2019, but I count these things by when I finish a book. I wanted something well suited to long, dark nights and winter cold. I decided therefore on a bit of folk horror.
Water is certainly folk horror, but it’s not really a winter read. It’s set during the famous summer heat wave of 1976 and the whole book is prickly with long airless days and trapped sweat. It’s a dark coming of age novel, with a family on holiday following the death of the youngest child.
Nif, the teenage narrator, is quite clearly disturbed as shown early on when her toddler brother falls over skinning his knee, at which point she rubs gravel painfully into the other knee to ensure balance. Her mother is near-catatonic; her father is failing to cope.
Unfortunately, the Welsh village they move to for a month’s break has its own tensions. A local religious sect has a running feud with the family’s new neighbours, among them a teenage boy Mally who becomes Nif’s one friend but who may be even more damaged than she is.
It’s claustrophobic and well paced, and while I worked out the reveals and direction of travel fairly early I think that was intentional. Although I’ve tagged it as horror there’s nothing really supernatural here – it’s people that are the real danger.
I should caution that the book contains multiple scenes of animal cruelty. Nif’s traumas are often inflicted on the helpless around her and the book doesn’t turn away from that.
Theft, by Luke Brown
As a rule I dislike state of the nation novels, and I have no real interest in Brexit novels. It’s lucky then that And Other Stories sent me a subscription copy of this as I’d otherwise never have read it.
Paul is a 30something East London hipster, living in a decrepit but cheap apartment and filling his time with casual sex and drug-fuelled parties. He writes for a low distribution style magazine, contributing a barely read book page (his real passion) and a popular haircut street-photos page (which is why they allow him the book page). Otherwise he funds his limited lifestyle by working in what is quite evidently a thinly disguised version of the London Review Bookshop.
He’s a classic man-child protagonist, but Theft is set in 2016 and just as Britain faces an existential crisis of sorts so does Paul. He interviews reclusive cult author Emily Nardini and falls in with her, her much older husband Andrew and their 20something Guardian-column writing socialist daughter. Paul’s mother has recently died, so he spends his time shuttling between East London, Emily Nardini’s Holland Park home, the LRB, and his North-East England childhood home which he and his sister are trying to sell.
All this allows Brown to contrast the new and old establishments, London and the North, Remainers and Leavers, haves and have-nots. It’s often very funny, and Paul while never really an unreliable narrator isn’t the most self-aware either.
Theft captures a generation whose future seems to have been misplaced. Andrew sees Paul as a kind of creepy cuckoo who has somehow intruded into his family’s life for no clear reason. Paul in turn profoundly resents Andrew, seeing him perhaps as having everything Paul would want for himself, but realistically won’t ever have.
Theft is well written, has strong characters and somehow manages to avoid taking sides (particularly when it presents the views of some of Paul’s old school friends still living in his home town). It captures something of the crisis of our times, particularly the failure of many men to adapt to a changing world, and a generation’s loss of the future their parents grew up expecting.
Zero History, by William Gibson
William Gibson’s “Blue Ant” trilogy is set in the then present day of the early 2000s and follows various characters impacted by the Blue Ant advertising agency and its profoundly strange guerrilla marketing campaigns.
Gibson is of course famous for writing cyberpunk novels, in particular 1984’s Neuromancer. With the Blue Ant trilogy there’s a definite sense of him saying – this is it, we’re now in the future I’ve always written about.
I read the second of the trilogy, Spook Country, back in December and I wouldn’t normally read the third so soon after. However, Dominic Cummings famously wrote a blog shortly after I finished Spook Country calling for government to recruit people like two of the characters from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. I figured I’d better read Zero History before he wrote another blog and potentially spoiled the ending for me…
Here we’re reunited with the characters from the second book, former indie pop singer Henry Hollis and now-recovering drug addict Milgrim. They’re tasked to find the source of a new denim brand which is being eagerly sought after by those in the know but has absolutely no marketing behind it (stealth marketing it’s called).
What follows is fun and very Gibsonian, mixing up street fashion with military procurement and high-tech intrigue. I enjoyed it even though I wasn’t absolutely sure there was a point to every part of it, I liked spending time in Gibson’s strange view of what is after all our own world, and the exploration of subterranean forces underpinning consensus culture was interesting.
Taken as a whole the trilogy is I think a success – it says something about how networks and deep information flows impact our times that few other novels achieve. At the same time I suspect it could have been a bit sleeker and the hyperwealth the characters all dwell within (even if borrowed for most of them) creates a distance that slightly diminishes the effect. It’s our world, but it’s a very privileged slice of our world.
The Godmother, by Hannelore Cayre and translated by Stephanie Smee
I saw this in a Daunt Books and bought it the same day. It’s a noirish tale about a police translator who uses the information she gains listening in to police transcripts to intercept a drugs shipment and become a wholesale dealer – mostly so she can pay her elderly mother’s nursing home fees.
It’s hugely fun. Patience Portefeux, the pragmatic protagonist, is motivated mostly by a sense of life passing her by and crushing financial obligations than any desire to be a criminal mastermind. Fortunately for her though most of the dealers she’s working with are idiots and who would suspect a slightly dull-looking middle-aged woman of being the fabled Godmother the police are now searching for?
I don’t want to say too much more. There’s actually some surprising depth here in the exploration of Patience’s now-demented and previously distant mother and the motivations of the family who produce the drugs Patience intercepts. It’s very, very good. If you read one book from this roundup, well, it should probably be Theft to be honest but this is also a pretty good contender.
Galactic North, by Alastair Reynolds
This is a short story collection I’d been reading in bed over a couple of months and finished in January. It’s set in Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe. I’ve long liked Reynolds, but this wasn’t his best collection for me. If you already know him you’ve probably already read this and there’s lots to like here. If you don’t already know him this isn’t where I’d start.
And that’s it! Watch this space for a February roundup in due course… I’ll also see if I can get at least a couple of illustrative quotes from the book, which for some reason I didn’t note in January.