Such are the debts among men; they’re paid with songs and bullets.

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:

El “Kirili”

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.

Drumroll please!

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.

January

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

February

The Ivory Grin, Ross Macdonald

Europe at Dawn, Dave Hutchinson

Nomads, Dave Hutchinson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

March

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

April

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

May

The Remainder, Alia Zéran

The Old Jest, Jennifer Johnston

The Night Visitors, Jean Ashworth and Richard Hirst

Holiday, Stanley Middleton

Empty Words, Mario Levrero

June

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

The Watchtower, Elizabeth Harrower

Jagua Nana, Cyprian Ekwensi

July

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

August

The Last Summer, Ricarda Huch

Die, My Love, Ariana Harwicz

The Appointment, Herta Müller

September

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

October

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

November

The Taiga Syndrome, Christina Rivera Garza

The Labyrinth Index, Charles Stross

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym

December  

Spook Country, William Gibson

26 Comments

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26 responses to “Such are the debts among men; they’re paid with songs and bullets.

  1. Nice to see you back – life gets in the way sometimes, doesn’t it? So agree about the Fremlin – a rather scary window into life before mod cons. I found it hard enough coping with howling kids with washing machines, convenience foods and a microwave, let alone what the protagonist has to deal with! Happy New Year!

  2. I second Karen’s sentiment: good to hear from you again, Max. Good as well to see you’ve discovered B. Pym – a great favourite of mine. I posted about Middleton’s ‘Holiday’ a while back – another quietly excellent novel. I’ve heard lots of praise for I. Keun, and fully intend reading her – I hope in 2020. I don’t usually like these end of year posts, but was amused by your off-beat ‘categories’ – great fun. Happy new year!

  3. So glad you found the time to do this – I always love your different categories! Thanks for the links – I was also a fan of Tentacle which, like you, I got through subscription and might not have picked up otherwise. Hope you can blog more regularly in 2020 again, but, above all, have a great new year!

  4. It’s lovely to hear from you again, Max, especially with such an interesting ‘best-of-the-year’ list. I’m glad the Jackson made the cut. It really is an exceptional book. Dark and slippery is a great way of describing it; and yet there’s something magical about it too, almost like a twisted fairytale.

    Great to see some more personal favourites here too – The Artificial Silk Girl, Excellent Women and Ghost Wall – winners all.

    Of the others on your list, the Daisy Johnson definitely appeals. It sounds a little like some of Angela Carter’s work and possibly Sarah Hall’s. If so, chances are I’d like it very much. The Celia Fremlin is tempting too, especially as you’ve given it such a strong recommendation.

    How did you get on with Hotel du Lac? It’s a book I read some 35 years ago and probably didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I’m hoping to revisit it in the future, possibly next year, now that I’m older and better placed to relate to the central character (Edith?).

  5. Nice catch you back max and see what you have enjoyed reading this year

  6. Of those you mention, Max, I really liked ‘West’ and ‘Fen’. The one I will consider reading is ‘The Waitress was New’..
    It used to be that the female writers were under-represented, but this year it seems like the male writers are scarce. 🙂

  7. Good to have you back with us and to get this retrospective glimpse on what you’ve been reading all this time you were away from us. I should read West and not just out of loyalty to an author from my home country. I loved her short story collection which is an amazing statement given I don’t like that form usually.

  8. Hi Max, it’s nice to have you back.

    As always, your list is an interesting mix of genres and countries.

    The Pym was really excellent : light and deep at the same time with Mildred not following the spinster path the reader expects. (Thanks for the link)

    I’d like to read Keun but the French publishers haven’t rediscovered her yet. Only too of her books are available and not in paperbacks.

    I wish you a Happy New Year, filled with good books.

  9. Welcome back! Great categories. I loved Excellent Women when I read it a few years ago. Like you, I want to read more by her but have just never got around to it. What did you think of the Jennifer Johnston?

  10. Thank you all for the welcome back!

    Kaggsy, I could easily make a good case for the Fremlin being my book of the year. That topic, the sheer exhaustion and the challenge of trying to bring up a tetchy baby, it’s barely explored in fiction and yet such a common experience.

    Simon, this is my second Pym (Glass of Blessings was my first, I think I write about it somewhere here). She is truly excellent. Holiday was also very good, strange how it later slipped from view.

    The categories are based on my old life in the City where we’d go to these awards ceremonies where the organisers made their money by selling tables, so half the award categories were tailored to make sure people who’d buy tables would win something…

    Keun is great.

    Grant, thanks! I was glad to see your review of it actually. It’s reassuring on a book like that to see a second opinion since it’s so unusual. I do hope to post a bit more in the new year, but we’ll see how it plays out.

    Jacqui, The Jackson is extraordinary and couldn’t help but make the cut. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the Johnson, and I do think you’d like the Fremlin.

    I actually made a note back when I reread Hotel du Lac (I first read it as a teenager), but I never posted on it so didn’t use it. It read “characters dwelling in a sort of airless privilege” which probably sums up how I felt about it. It was very well written, but it’s a dry sort of book and I wasn’t sure I cared about any of these characters’ not particularly difficult problems.

    Stu, thanks! All the best to you for 2020!

  11. Tony, I didn’t realise until I’d formed the list that it was mostly female writers. West and Fen are both great. The Waitress was New is also very interesting, I think most people commenting here would like it.

    Booker, I’m not sure I’d realised she was Welsh (though it does sort of ring a bell). Was it Some New Ambush that you read?

    Emma, thanks. I thought your review of the Pym captured it really well so I was glad to find that. Keun you could read in English – it’s not slangy or anything and she’s a very clear writer (and your English is excellent of course so unless there were heavy slang I shouldn’t think many books would be much of a challenge).

    Kim, I liked The Old Jest, but simply didn’t remember it come year end. I just googled it and having been reminded I do think it was very good. It’s strange how it didn’t stick in memory. Had I written it up at the time I’d have written very positively of it. How did you find it?

  12. Belated welcome back to the blogosphere, great to see you caught the Shirley Jackson bug. Those two novels are probably her best, but her short stories are always worth a look, and I’m planning to (re)read all of her novels in the order they were written probably this coming year.

  13. Thanks Marina! I’ll check out the short stories, I can see how she could do well in that form. I’ll look forward to your thoughts on your rereads too.

  14. Great to see you back, Max. This looks like a great year in reading. Of your favourites, I think the only ones I’ve read are the Moss and the Keun (both fantastic). I have West from the library as my first audio book of the year. And of the others I am most keen to read the Fremlin and the Berberova. I am hoping 2020 will be the year I finally get to the latter.
    I’ve stolen your monthly recap idea–here’s hoping you have a bit more time this year to return to it.

  15. The West, Fremlin and Berberova are all worth reading.

    Did you write about the Moss?

    Not sure the monthly recap idea was mine, but glad it’s useful. I’m hoping to continue with it myself.

  16. I’ll be interested to read it, thanks.

    I didn’t know you wrote for Mookse. Do you do a lot there?

  17. Just twice so far. (Plus I have one very overdue piece… sorry, Trevor!)

  18. HI, good to see you back on deck!
    What did you think of Herta Muller’s Appointment? I read The Passport (transl Martin Chalmers) and admired it, but when I tried to tackle Green Plums I found to my surprise that I couldn’t get anywhere with it…Now I’m not sure if I should chase up more of hers or not.

  19. I read Stanley Middleton’s Holiday too. Liked it. I was expecting something a bit stronger for some reason.

  20. A great list, Max. Seems we had a similar year in terms of blogging hiatus.
    Reading your list I’m shocked to realize I had forgotten Fremlin’s novel. I also read it last year and was also very impressed. The way she describes insomnia is spot on, even when you don’t have kids.
    Keun is an old favourite. I loved Excellent Women too. As you know, it made my best of as well. Not so Ghost Wall. Just got on my nerves after reading Ali Smith’s Autumn, which I also found a bit too much reflecting what we see on the news. I need to get back to Berberova. She’s just so sublime. The Waitress was New sounds like a book I would love.

  21. Thanks Lisa! I liked it, and I remember it well now you prompt me on it, but it didn’t quite stick enough for the end of year list. I think she’s good, but I’m not sure I’m her reader.

    Guy, quite.

    Caroline, I do think you’d like The Waitress was New, and Berberova always delivers. Interesting on Ghost Wall. I hadn’t read anything on similar topics which may well have helped.

    Odd the great books one forgets sometimes. Memory is fickle though. Besides, it leaves open the chance of rereading them!

  22. Eric P

    I read The Waitress was New a while back. I enjoyed it. While the plot is somewhat inverted, it put me in mind of Sempe’s Monsieur Lambert.
    I’ve read all of Pym’s novels, and am just gearing up for another pass through them. They are generally terrific (there’s one posthumous one that I didn’t care for as much, possibly Crampton Hodnet).
    One of my favourite discoveries of 2019 was Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban. If you haven’t checked it out, you should give it a try.

  23. I don’t know the Sempe, should I look out for it?

    Interesting on Crampton, I’ve seen it quite well reviewed. I didn’t know though it was posthumous – I tend to leave author’s posthumous works as quite often they weren’t published while the author was alive for good reason.

    I’ve heard of Turtle Diary, but had forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder – I’ll look it out.

  24. Eric P

    Monsieur Lambert is a short graphic novel set in Paris. It’s entertaining though a little slight.

  25. Pingback: February round-up | Pechorin's Journal

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