Hi all, long time no see.
As anyone following this blog may have guessed I’ve struggled to find time to post this past year. That’s somewhat ironic given I have more free time than before, but I have less dead time (the civil service turns out to be a lot more efficient than corporate law, who knew?). However, if there’s any time that’s ripe for an update it’s the end of the year. Here then are my personal books of the year for 2019. (Actually, the picture is mostly books I haven’t read yet so expect to see some of them on my best of the year for 2020 all going well.)
Best western: This has to be West, by Carys Davies. I thought I’d previously written this up but I read it shortly after my April-onwards blogging hiatus. It’s a marvellous short form but wide screen western.
I enjoyed West for its prose, its strong grasp of story and its sense of the vastness of the old west. The parallel narrative strands both worked well for me – the man searching for giant animals in the far west (he read about their bones being found in a Kentucky swamp) and his 10-year-old daughter doing her best to get by at home while waiting for his unlikely return. There’s a tremendous sense of scale here both physical and temporal against which the small human tales of greed, loyalty and folly play out.
Best and boldest short story collection: I wrote about Fen, by Daisy Johnson, in my January writeup, here. Nearly a year on from reading it I still remember the physicality of it and the sense of the mythic oozing into the present. It’s a fabulous short story collection, in every sense.
Best why didn’t I read this sooner? (also strongly presented in the Best Gothic Horror category): This is the marvellous We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. This had been widely recommended to me, and no wonder. It’s dark, slippery, and undeniably powerful. I wrote about it in my February roundup here. Looking back, I’d be hard pressed to say whether I preferred this to The House on Haunted Hill (with its incredible opening paragraph). Both books are exceptional. If anyone has any recommendations for more Jackson this time I’ll listen sooner.
Best semi-autobiographical military fiction: not that Cartucho, by Nellie Campobello and translated by Doris Meyer (subtitled Tales of the Struggle in Northern Mexico), is really military fiction in any usual sense. Rather it’s a collection of linked vignettes capturing her childhood experience of the Mexican Revolution, written by her as an adult in 1931. It’s fair to say my knowledge of the Mexican Revolution is near non-existent (and reading Wikipedia while reading the book didn’t help much – people seem to have changed sides a lot).
Why read a quasi-fictional memoir of a child’s experience of a war I’m utterly ignorant of? Partly for the writing of course, and partly because I’d become aware that while I was reading a lot of Mexican fiction very little of it was by women. Cartucho (cartridges), paints a picture of brave young men (terribly young) and the ease with which they lose their lives. It’s a book filled with the romance of war and yet at the same time its terrible waste.
Cartucho divides into three sections: Men of the North; The Executed; and Under Fire. Here’s a fairly typical chapter from Men of the North:
Kirili wore a red jacket and yellow leather chaps. He liked to show off his singing voice because people would say, “Kirili, what a fine voice you have!” On his little finger he wore a wide ring that he’d taken off a dead man back in Durango. He courted Chagua, a lady with tiny feet. Whenever fighting broke out, Kirili would pass through Segunda del Rayo often so folks could see him firing shots. He walked with a swagger and an easy smile, like a buttonhole, on his face.
Whenever he set to talking about combat, he’d say that he had killed nobody but generals, colonels and majors. He never killed foot soldiers. Sometimes Gándara and El Peet told him not to be such a liar. Doña Magdalena, his mother, loved him a lot and admired him.
Off they went to Nieves. Kirili was taking a bath in a river when someone told him the enemy was coming, but he didn’t believe it and didn’t get out of the water. They arrived and killed him right there, in the river.
Chagua dressed in mourning, and not long after that she became a streetwalker.
Doña Magdalena, who no longer has any teeth and wears eyeglasses for reading, cries for him every day in a corner of his house in Chihuahua. But El Kirili lay there in the water, his body turning cold, the tissue of his porous flesh clutching the bullets that killed him.
In the UK Cartucho only comes in a Kindle edition as part of a double edition with Campobello’s later work My Mother’s Hands (which I was less taken by).
Best novel with an utterly exhausted protagonist: this is one of the surprise hits of my year and is The Hours Before Dawn, by Celia Fremlin. Guy Savage wrote about it here. It’s a crime novel, but not really. The main character Louise is a young mother with two girls and a new baby boy, Michael. Michael won’t sleep. Her husband blames Louise, the district nurse is patronisingly unhelpful, and Louise hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep now in a very long time.
When a new lodger seems to have a background that doesn’t add up and behaviours that don’t quite make sense Louise becomes suspicious, but is she just paranoid from exhaustion? I’ve made it sound like a thriller, but actually the crime is the least of it. What’s brilliant here is the exploration of what it can be like to be mother to a small baby that just won’t stop crying. Everything Louise does, every investigative path she walks, she’s accompanied by at least one child needing her attention. Her husband means well, but just adds to her burden.
I’ve recommended Hours widely and it’s been well received every time. If you read one book from this list that you haven’t before this would be a good choice.
Best folk horror: is of course Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. This is what I used to call an espresso novel – short and intense. Jacqui writes about it here as have many others (Lonesome Reader’s review here is also good). It starts out with teenage Silvie on an archeological holiday in Northern Ireland with her amateur-expert father, browbeaten (and more…) mother and an archaeology professor and his grad students.
There’s nothing supernatural here, just human ugliness and the seductive power of other people’s narratives. Best read in one or two sittings if you can.
Best slice of life novel: is The Waitress was New, by Dominique Fabre and translated by Jordan Stump. This quiet novel of a day-in-the-life of a middle-aged barman has stayed with me right through the year. It’s another of Guy Savage’s discoveries (here) and explores a drama that’s nothing in terms of most fiction but that would be huge in one’s personal life – the owner of the bar has disappeared for the day on some personal business and barman Pierre finds himself trying to hold things together with a new waitress and short handed in the owner’s absence.
It’s a small, quiet novel but very well observed. As the day goes on regulars come and go and we get glimpses of other lives, but like Pierre we never know too much about them. Life goes on. Highly recommended.
Best novel about an “It” girl: not that she really is, but this is of course The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Kathie von Ankum. Keun is hugely overlooked talent but thanks to Penguin that looks like being corrected with several of her back-catalogue coming back into print.
Here Doris is a girl about town, modelled to a degree on the characters in Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but Artificial is much the better book. It’s funny, well written and has a streak of darkness coming both from Doris’s dependency on men to survive and on the wider times in which she lives (Weimar Germany). Another strong candidate for my end of year list. Grant reviewed it here and Jacqui here.
Best science fiction not involving spaceships: because science fiction really doesn’t have to you know. Anyway, it’s The Last Children of Tokyo, by Yoko Tawada and translated by Margaret Mitsutani. This is a wonderfully melancholic novel in which the ageing (but not dying) inhabitants of a future Japan look after their enfeebled grandchildren. It’s a quiet apocalypse, but not utterly without hope. This got lots of attention when it came out and hardly needs more from me but I can’t deny its surprising power and gentleness. I wrote more about it in my January roundup here and there’s a typically excellent review from Tony’s Reading List here.
Best novel so gossamer-light it’s almost not there: is The Revolt, by Nina Berberova and translated by Marian Schwarz. This is a slim novel of roads not taken and the risks of rediscovering old love. It’s genuinely excellent and I’ve read more (also very good) Berberova since. A writer well overdue a Penguin Classics reissue. I wrote a bit more about it in my March roundup here.
Best comic novel by a writer I now plan to read everything by: is Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym. This is a wonderfully observed comedy in classic Pym territory featuring curates, country fairs and the possibility of romance. That makes it sound dreadful, but then if you summarised Jeeves & Wooster it would be a series of escapades of a nice-but-dim young man and his highly intelligent valet which doesn’t sound that great either.
Mildred Wright is one of those excellent women on whom the 1950s Church of England depends: unmarried, capable and intelligent. When a glamorous couple move in downstairs Mildred finds herself pulled into their orbit, disrupting her cosy life with the local vicar and his sister.
The characterisation is spot on, Mildred is marvellous and Pym avoids the obvious simply by making Mildred too sensible to fall into the expected traps. Emma at Bookaround wrote this up in much more detail here and again it’s highly recommended.
Best novel of the year for 2019 (and most surprising read of 2019): is Tentacle, by Rita Indiana and translated by Achy Obejas. I wrote about this back in January here and Grant wrote about it in more detail here. I don’t honestly know if it is better than the Fremlin or the truly excellent Keun, but it was so unexpectedly fun I thought it deserved the place. It’s transgender SF involving time travel and a psychic anemone and it’s brilliant. I got it due to my subscription to And Other Stories and I’m glad I did as I’d never have bought it.
And that’s it! Sorry I’ve been so quiet online. I have started commenting on other people’s blogs again, intermittently but more than during the middle of the year. I also have many other end of year lists to read through. Before I go though, there’s just time for a couple of honorary mentions – these are the books that if I’d typed this up on another day might well have made the list: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (tremendous post-apocalypse novel. Surprisingly quiet in tone and with a nice examination of what gets remembered by history); The Spoilt City, by Olivia Manning (welcome return to Manning’s Balkan trilogy with some very impressive moments and lovely characterisation); and A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon (simply a hugely fun wartime thriller).
Finally, in case anyone’s curious, here’s my total list of everything I’ve read this year. If there’s any there you’re curious about (whether what I think of them or why they didn’t make my list) please feel free to ask in the comments.
Semiosis, Sue Burke
The Fungus, Harry Adam Knight
Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada
Three Horses, Erri de Luca
Tentacle, Rita Indiana
Rustication, Charles Palliser
Fen, Daisy Johnson
The Ivory Grin, Ross Macdonald
Europe at Dawn, Dave Hutchinson
Nomads, Dave Hutchinson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
Slimer, Harry Adam Knight
Lady and the Little Fox Fur, Violette Leduc
Fell, Jenn Ashworth
The Revolt, Nina Berberova
Waitress was New, Dominique Fabre
After Supper Ghost Stories, Jerome
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos
The Cowboy Bible, Carlos Velasquez
A Scream in Soho, John G. Brandon
A Dedicated Friend, Shirley Longford
Mildew, Pauline Jonguitude
West, Carys Davies
Zima Blue, Alastair Reynolds
Glaxo, Hernán Ronsino
Roseanna, Sjöwall and Wahlöö
Amok and Other Stories, Stefan Zweig
The Remainder, Alia Zéran
The Old Jest, Jennifer Johnston
The Night Visitors, Jean Ashworth and Richard Hirst
Holiday, Stanley Middleton
Empty Words, Mario Levrero
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
The Watchtower, Elizabeth Harrower
Jagua Nana, Cyprian Ekwensi
Hotel du Lac, Anita Brookner
The Hours Before Dawn, Celia Fremlin
Man who would be Kling, A. Roberts
Pattern Recognition, William Gibson
More Far Eastern Tales, Maugham
1913: The Eve of War, Paul Ham
The Last Summer, Ricarda Huch
Die, My Love, Ariana Harwicz
The Appointment, Herta Müller
Cartucho, Nellie Campobello
Walking to Aldebaran, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh
The Artificial Silk Girl, Irmgard Keun
My Mother’s Hands, Nellie Campobello
The Dark Defiles, Richard Morgan
Murd.Molly Southborne, Tade Thompson
Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss
Delirium Brief, Charles Stross
Permafrost, Alastair Reynolds
The Spoilt City, Olivia Manning
Ladies fr. St Petersburg, Nina Berberova
Survival M Southborne, Tase Thompson
The Beauty, Aliyah Whitely
No Good frm a Corpse, Leigh Brackett
The Taiga Syndrome, Christina Rivera Garza
The Labyrinth Index, Charles Stross
Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
Spook Country, William Gibson