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2020 – a bad year with some good books

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:

Water Shall Refuse Them, L M Hardy

Theft, Luke Brown

Zero History, William Gibson

The Godmother, Hannelore Cayre

Galactic North, Alastair Reynolds

Wind That Lays Waste, Selva Almada

Quesadillas, Juan Pablo Villalobos

Made in Saturn, Rita Indiana

Friends and Heroes, Olivia Manning

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds

Provenance, Ann Leckie

Brothers Keepers, Donald E. Westlake

By the Pricking …Thumb, A Roberts

No Tomorrow, Jake Hinkson

The Gun Merchant, Amitav Ghosh

Household Gods …, Tade Thompson

The Bishop’s Bedroom, Piero Chiara

The Lighthouse, Alison Moore

Man who went up Smoke, S&W

Enchanted April, E von Arnim

Man who Saw Everything, D Levy

All Among Barley, Melissa Harrison

The Last Astronaut, David Wellington

City Middle Night, Charlie J Anders

Wild Swims, Dorthe Nors

Dark Tales, Shirley Jackson

The Overhaul, Kathleen Jamie

The Wall, John Lanchester

Going to Meet the Man, J Baldwin

Winter in Sokcho, Elisa Shua Dusapin

Paintwork, Tim Maugham

The Offing, Benjamin Myers

Some New Ambush, Carys Davies

Cathay, Ezra Pound

Wretchedness, Andrzej Tichy

The Mussel Feast, Birgit Vanderbeke

The End of October, Lawrence Wright

Always North, Vicki Jarrett

Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, Bassani

Moontide, Colin Campbell

Last Night in Montreal, Emily Mandel

The Second Sleep, Robert Harris

Devolution, Max Brooks

World War Z, Max Brooks

The Postman, Bi Yu

Folk, Zoe Gilbert

The Peacock Cloak, Chris Beckett

Transit, Anna Seghers

Dreams of the Space Age, Ian Sales

Attrib., Eley Williams

Two Tribes, Chris Beckett

The Train was on Time, Heinrich Böll

The Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds

Rosewater, Tade Thompson

The Dark Angel, Dominique Sylvain

The Inland Sea, Madeleine Watts

Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole

Sisters of the Vast Black, Lina Rather

The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley

Feebleminded, Ariana Harwicz

Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, K Boo

Rawblood, Catriona Ward

Minor Detail, Adania Shibli

Ten Poems from Russia, Boris Dralyuk

Agency, William Gibson

Tender Shoots, Paul Morand

Elizabeth … Garden, E. von Arnim

Crow, Ted Hughes

Zama, Antonio di Benedetto

To Walk the Night, William Sloane

Permafrost, Eva Baltasar

Spring Tide, Chris Beckett

The Reddening, Adam Neville

Les Belles Amours, Louise de Vilmorin

Survivor Song, Paul Tremblay

Scarfolk, Richard Littler

Storm Birds, Einar Karason

The Horla, Guy de Maupassant

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

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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

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2018 round up

As anyone who’s read this blog for any time will have noticed, my updates took rather a dip in the second half of the year. That was due to my change of job, and indeed change of career. Happily I’ve not had any health issues or life crises.

Still, while I tend to have more predictable hours in the Civil Service, those hours I do have tend to be fairly densely packed which gives less downtime than I used to have. I’ll give some thought as to what that means for updates, but I doubt reviewing every book I read will be realistic any more.

Anyway, enough about the future, what about the past? Here, without further ado and in no particular order, are my books of 2018:

Best Western that’s not a hotel chain: Paulette Jiles’ News of the World.

I wrote this up way back in March and it’s stayed with me. I don’t read much fiction set in the Old West (though I do love Westerns). This somehow captures the sweep of the genre, but in a surprisingly slim volume. Despite it’s brevity it still packs in character growth, exciting set pieces and a lovely sense of the frontier. Really surprisingly good, and it’s held up very well in memory.

Best novel about a Bollywood-inspired computer virus: Transmission, by Hari Kunzru

This was Kunzru’s second novel and, as far as I understand, quite a disappointment to those who loved his first and wanted more like it. I’ve never read his first so can’t compare, but this certainly wasn’t a disappointment for me. I wrote it up here.

It is a bit slighter than some of the later Kunzru’s I’ve read, but I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of disparate lives brought together by a computer virus and a lonely geek’s love of a beautiful Bollywood film star.

It’s very Gibsonian, which I noted in my review comparing it to Gibson’s Pattern Recognition of a year earlier. They both capture something of their moment, but in Kunzru’s case with a definite sense of fun and with a certain romance to it all.

Best opening paragraph: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

NO LIVE organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I really don’t think I need to say more than that quote. Just superb. The rest of the book’s pretty good too… Here‘s my full review.

Best novel with hidden depths: Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbagh

(No full review of this one, but I wrote some thoughts in a monthly roundup here).

This seemed a bit slight when I read it. Slight even. It’s stayed with me though. I can remember the characters, the story such as it is, even some of the writing. It’s a lovely little tale of corruption and choices we may not notice ourselves making but are no less irrevocable for all that. This was actually a fair contender for my novel of the year just because it’s been such a stayer in memory.

Best SF/crime genre crossover: The City and the City, by China Miéville

Slightly reductive title there, as this is rather it’s own thing and arguably contains no SF elements other than the sense of strangeness and the other which is central to SF. I wrote a bit about it in my May writeup, here.

For those not familiar with it, it’s a crime novel of sorts, but set in a pair of spatially coterminous cities. As a matter of culture, tradition and strictly enforced law the inhabitants of each city must choose not to see the other, not to hear its sounds or take any part in its life. It’s a rule that’s threatened when a murder happens and it’s unclear which city the corpse is in.

What follows is both a murder inquiry and a sort of conspiracy thriller, but where there may be no conspiracy. It’s a comment on the Balkans in part, but also on everywhere where the citizenry are told what to believe, and believe the absurd because it’s safer than seeing the reality around them. It’s a novel about divisions of ethnicity, class, and all those barriers we erect which are all the more powerful for not being actually physically real.

It’s a high concept novel, but Miéville is a high concept writer so no surprise there. I loved the concept, and more importantly I loved how Miéville pulled all this off within the structure of a fairly standard crime novel (particularly the early chapters which are almost, but clearly intentionally, clichéd).

Best description of home decor in a novel: Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This was also in my May writeup, but I then managed to get back to it and do a full post here. It’s held up well in memory, particularly for the skill with which Wiles captures space and light but also for the underlying humour and humanity of it – how our fallibility compromises, perhaps for the better, our dreams of perfection.

It does have far too many similes, as I note in my original review, and it almost got bumped from this list for that. Still, better a good novel with faults than a consistently average one. 

Novel with the most surprising staying power: A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Wow but May was a good month. This is in my May writeup too, and came closest to being bumped from this list (in fact, I initially cut it on my first pass over my list of books I’d read this year).

The reason this made it on to the list was that it suddenly occurred to me that nearly seven months later I can still remember pretty much all of it. I remember the characters, key scenes, the mood even. That’s impressive.

So, I can’t really say why it deserves a place on my list. It’s not the best thriller I read in the year, I liked it rather than loved it when I initially read it, but here it is still just as clear as the day after I finished it. I think that deserves some recognition, and speaks of some talent too.

Most expensive book of the year: The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning

Most expensive in the sense that I started it in Kindle, but liked it so much I went out and bought all six volumes of the sequence it’s part of in hardcopy. 

I wrote about this at length here, and I’ve not much more to say in this post. The descriptions of a city under siege, and of a marriage equally under siege, were superb. I plan to return to Manning fairly early on in the New Year. Another contender for book of the year.

Best novel about goats: Goat Days, by Benyamin and translated by Joseph Koyippally

Translated from the Malayalam no less, a language I didn’t even know the name of before reading this (which is a comment on the limits of my education rather than the language).  I didn’t write it up and sadly I’ve lost the post which originally alerted me to it.

Goat Days is a novel about the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf. Najeeb travels there from India hoping to make money to send home to his family. Instead he finds himself effectively enslaved on a remote goat farm. His only human company is the vicious overseer who is barely better off than he is, and of course the goats. It is a life of utter privation and misery with no easy prospect of escape.

It sounds horribly bleak, and the situation is, but it’s written in hindsight so we know Najeeb somehow does escape, though as the book opens he’s so desperate he’s trying to get himself arrested in the hope of being fed and deported. Najeeb’s humanity shines through though, as does his resourcefulness and his memories of his home. I found it a surprisingly light read for such a dark subject, a clever mixture of comedy and existentialism, and if you’ve not heard of it I’d suggest it’s at least worth taking a look at if you can find a copy.

Best romantic fiction with an SFnal twist: Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

So by this point it’s fairly clear I’m a big fan of Hamid’s work. Exit West is his 2017 novel partly about the refugee crisis but also about a love story between two fairly ordinary teenagers. 

It opens in an unnamed city, likely in Pakistan though not necessarily so (it’s not the first time Hamid’s used that device). Saeed, a good natured and religious young man, falls in love with an intelligent and independent young woman Nadia and she with him.

Militant forces are encroaching on the city, so their love takes place in a time of impending (if local) apocalypse). They have dates, arguments, conversations deep into the night; meanwhile the bombings and news of atrocities gets ever closer. 

However, there is one wrinkle. Doorways are appearing across the world. Enter one and you come out somewhere else (the mechanics of this is never explained and isn’t remotely the focus of the story). That magical device means that people trapped as Saeed and Nadia are have the possibility if they can find the right door of stepping right across the world into a better life.

The decision to leave your home, even in the face of war, is difficult and you’ll be leaving behind everything you know for who know’s what? Reactions to these unasked for migrants are mixed, some compassionate, many hostile. The doors allow Hamid to ignore the logistics of emigration and instead focus on the experience. In the midst of all of this he paints a tender and persuasive love story, often unexpected and often touching too.

I loved it, and it was also one of the clear front-runners for my book of the year.

Best novel featuring overly precocious children: The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Well, who but Fitzgerald could ever win the price for best novel featuring overly precocious children? The Beginning of Spring is Fitzgerald’s marvellous novel about an Englishman in Moscow in 1913 who is abandoned by his wife for no obvious reason and left to raise their children as best he can.

It’s funny, the description above is accurate, but it captures nothing of the book. It’s an elusive book (to borrow a description JacquiWine used of it) and it’s protagonist is notable mostly for his utter lack of understanding of himself and everyone around him. It’s a book in which more is left unsaid than is ever said, and perhaps a novel too of unbridgeable distances and miscommunications. 

There’s a full review of it by JacquiWine here, and a less positive review by Kaggsy here. Simon Lavery also wrote rather well about it here. Lastly, Sam Jordison wrote a rather good piece about it in the Guardian here.

And that takes me to, drumroll please:

My best book of the year 2018: Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk and translated by Jennifer Croft

It’s not ideal that I didn’t write at all about what’s turned out to be my favourite book of the year, but there you go. Fortunately, Tony of Tony’s Reading List did the honours here. 

It’s not an easy book to describe, as there’s no plot as such and no clear connective tissue. Instead there’s a series of vignettes, some returned to, some not about matters as disparate as a man who loses his wife and child on a tiny island while on holiday; an unnamed traveler (possibly the narrator) passing through airports and constantly in transit; the real life story of Angelo Soliman, an African-born Austrian Freemason and courtier of the 18th Century who on his death had his body mounted and stuffed by his friend the Austrian Emperor and displayed as an example of a savage. 

There’s much more than that though. As you read it themes emerge, about travel and about the body itself, the irreducibility of the physical self however much we hurl it about the planet. Stories are left hanging unresolved, sometimes returned to, sometimes not. You have to construct your own narrative from it, but Tokarczuk holds your hand as you do so.

I read it, appropriately enough, while travelling. I read it on planes and in Rome and Marrakech. I think that helped. It’s a book which merits a little transience on the reader’s part.

And that’s it! Hopefully some of what’s above was of interest, and apologies to all the highly deserving books which didn’t make the list but which might have on another day.

Happy New Year, one and all!

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We were slim and pleasing, like people in a picture.

A Certain Smile, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

A while back now I read and loved Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. Come the searing summer heat of 2018 and it seemed a good time to return to Sagan.

A Certain Smile is the story of Dominique, an attractive young law student, and her affair with an older man Luc. Dominique already has a boyfriend, the perfectly likeable Bertrand. Luc is married to a kind and generous woman, Françoise. The story is entirely, and intentionally, unoriginal. Here’s the opening paragraph:

We had spent the afternoon in a café in the Rue Saint-Jacques, a spring afternoon like any other. I was slightly bored, and walked up and down between the juke-box and the window, while Bertrand talked about Spire’s lecture. I was leaning on the machine, watching the record rising slowly, almost gently, like a proffered cheek, to its slanting position against the sapphire, when, for no apparent reason, I was overcome by a feeling of intense happiness, a sudden realization that some day I would die, that my hand would no longer touch that chromium rim, nor would the sun shine in my eyes.

There’s a lot packed in there. The narrator, who we’re yet to learn is named Dominique, is “slightly bored”. That will matter, because the story is in part driven by her desire to alleviate that casual boredom.

The language is deeply sensual. The record rises “like a proffered cheek”, already introducing a hint of sex, but it’s not just that. The whole description of something as mundane as playing a record on a jukebox is suffused with languorous desire.

Suddenly the narrator is overcome by “intense happiness”, but it’s irrevocably linked to mortality and to her realisation that one day she won’t be there to experience moments like this. She isn’t happy despite the prospect of death. The happiness is born of the joy of the moment and her awareness of its transience.

In a sense the whole book is there, and for that I think it’s a pretty much perfect opening paragraph. Soon we learn that the narrator is Dominique and that she’s a law student and that it’s summer, but from these opening words we already know much more profound things about her than those quotidian facts.

Dominique and Bertrand make a good couple. They laugh together, make love, care about each other. Still, he’s her first serious boyfriend and for most people those first relationships tend not to last. Even had Bertrand not introduced Dominique to his uncle, Luc, there would always eventually have been a Luc of one sort or another.

Luc and Françoise are older, already settled in life and with each other. They have no children and Françoise becomes almost a proxy-mother to Dominique, buying her clothes and feeding her dinners. Luc takes a different sort of interest.

Dominique is flattered by his attention and more by the frank way in which he tells her he wants to sleep with her but that he will never love her and this will be just a pleasant interlude in their lives. He makes her feel grown up, adult, knowing. She believes she can be like him, dispassionately passionate. She ignores the signs that she’s wrong:

Already there was something that seemed to race like a hurricane when Luc was there. Afterwards time suddenly dropped back to normal, and once more there were minutes, hours, and cigarettes.

Plotwise I don’t have much more to say. Luc takes Dominique to the French Riviera for a  few days in a nice hotel with a sea view. It’s almost like he’s done this before…

Of course, things aren’t quite as simple as Dominique expects. People get hurt, including her. As I said at the outset, in terms of story this is intentionally unoriginal.

So why read it? Partly because Sagan is so good on the experience of being Dominique: on her evolving and conflicting feelings; her discovery of love and her worse discovery of unreciprocated love; the sheer pleasure of being young and alive. Nothing Dominique experiences is new, except to her which is all that truly matters.

Sagan writes with extraordinary clarity. Just look at that first paragraph again: it’s luminous. The whole book is like that, but at the same time it’s succinct with no wasted or unnecessary detail. Reading it I could picture every scene, but when I looked back on it prior to writing this I realised that Sagan achieves that impact often with only the barest of descriptions.

Sagan can also be very funny when she feels like it and seemingly effortlessly cool. The book is full of small sly asides (the cigarettes line above is a great example). Here’s one final quote that I just couldn’t resist including:

I was back in the Champs-Élysées with the taste of a strange mouth on my lips, and I decided to go home and read a new novel.

It seems a sensible response.

Other reviews

I wrote a little about this in my June roundup here. Otherwise, two reviews that I particularly want to note. The first is this great review by Jacqui at Jacqui Wine’s Journal. Rereading it I see that Jacqui used exactly the same phrase as I did to describe Françoise – “kind and generous”. Clearly Sagan painted the character clearly.

The second, here, is a contemporaneous review by The Spectator. I don’t usually include non-blog reviews, but I think it’s pretty much spot on and it’s interesting to see one which treats this as a new novel by a young writer rather than an old novel by a famous name.

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