Category Archives: Uncategorized

May 2022 roundup

May was an interesting month in reading terms. I tried a mix of new and familiar authors and read a lot of good books, but despite their quality there were few that I actually loved. None I think that will make my end of year list.

Before I go into those, looking back at the past few months it’s interesting to note which books have stayed fresh for me. For example, Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow is lasting in memory better than I thought it would.

Some of the books that have stuck with me are by authors I’ve known and loved for a while now – Penelope Fitzgerald, Irmgard Keun, Matthias Enard and Elizabeth Taylor. Others are by authors new to me but who I fully expect to return to – Claire Keegan, Tessa Hadley, and Chris Powers. Somewhere in between is Annie Ernaux, whose The Years I liked and respected but whose A Girl’s Story and Happening I found much more emotionally powerful (perhaps inevitably given the scope of Years compared to the narrower focus of those two).

There’s lots else I’ve enjoyed this year, but those are the authors I’ll be making a point of returning to. All that said, on to May!

Seesaw, Carmel Doohan

Seesaw uses a young woman’s relationship crises as a lens through which to examine the wider issues of the refugee crisis. That might sound a bit absurd, but it’s similar in that sense to Madeleine Watt’s The Inland Sea which uses a young woman’s self-destructive impulses and mistreatment of her own body as a mirror through which to examine wider issues of climate change and humanity’s mistreatment of the natural world.

Seesaw’s parallels are a little less on the nose than Inland Sea, but there is still a common theme of miscommunication and impasse. It also struck me as capturing something of how many of us actually navigate these issues. The protagonist cares about the refugee crisis, she volunteers and tries to get involved, but the rest of her life doesn’t stop for it and her impact is minimal next to the scale of the challenge.

There’s been a piece trending online recently arguing that nobody is writing state of the nation novels, that it’s all interior fiction. It’s an absurd argument. Seesaw is a state of the nation novel. As it closes Trump is on tv praising ’very fine people on both sides’. It’s also an interior novel. The one doesn’t preclude the other.

Minutes from the Miracle City, Omar Sabbagh

I can’t now recall how I discovered this. It’s set in contemporary Dubai and is something of a love letter to the city. It shows various people – a Pakistani taxi driver, a Ugandan waiter with dreams of becoming a writer, a Moroccan beautician, an Emirati journalist recently returned home from London and more – and how their lives intersect and impact each other in small ways and large.

It’s an interesting book, but given Dubai’s fairly awful record on treatment of non-natives I was left a bit unpersuaded by its portrayal of Dubai as melting pot. Of course, I may simply be projecting my own prejudices on a city I’ve not been to and if you do have connections with the city I suspect you might want to check this out.

A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood

Apparently this is seen by many as Isherwood’s best novel, though I preferred his Berlin novels (though I understand he had doubts about them). George is a middle aged Englishman living in 1960s California. His lover has died leaving George bereft, awash with grief. The novel traces a day in his life.

It’s superbly well written and beautifully observed, capturing much of the pain and the rewards of life. In fact, for a novel overshadowed by death it’s suffused with life.

If you’ve read any other Isherwood you should read this too, even if it did leave me a little cold on this occasion. If you haven’t I’d still probably start with the Berlin novels.

Murder at the Savoy, Sjöwall and Wahlöö (translated by Joan Tate)

Number six in the series and by this point they’re getting much more openly political. This one opens with a rich businessman being murdered while dining at the Savoy. His killer escapes, but seemingly through luck rather than plan. It looks like a professional hit, but what hitman would carry out a killing in such a public place and with apparently no escape route in mind?

Beck and the team are under huge political pressure here to find the culprit quickly, not least because senior political figures may have turned blind eyes to the murdered man’s illegal arms dealing.

This wasn’t my favourite of the Beck sequence, but they’re never less than solid and this again has memorable characters, a satisfying plot and yet again a tremendous portrayal of police work as actual hard work. A ten novel series is a fair commitment, but I’m not regretting this one at all.

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is a hard sf writer I’ve long loved. This is one of his more recent and shorter novels. After a ceasefire between two interstellar societies, war criminals from both sides (plus a few people accidentally caught up with them) are being shipped in suspended animation to a prison planet. Disaster hits the ship and the prisoners wake up to find themselves badly off course. Worse, it appears they’ve been asleep for a very, very long time and there’s no home to go back to.

The survivors split into four factions – the two sides from the war, the small number of civilians being transported and the handful of crew survivors. The question for them all is can they find a way to live together given the terrible things so many of them have done? It’s a good premise, brought further to life by the main character being obsessed with hunting down one particular war criminal who left her for dead, her conflict a microcosm of the larger one.

This is a solid Reynolds for me rather than a great one – I preferred his recent and very good time travel thriller Permafrost in which the consciousnesses of a handful of scientists are sent back to the present day to avert an apocalypse. Still, I enjoyed it and I can imagine rereading it at some point.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe

One of the earliest reviews on this blog is Alan Sillitoe’s excellent Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. It’s taken me almost 14 years before reading more by him.

Loneliness is of course famous from the film and is the longest story here (almost a novella really). Along with the other stories we’re in territory that’s familiar from Saturday Night with northern working class lads out to screw the world and taking no prisoners as they do so.

The trouble is, it’s a little one-note. Saturday Night is brilliant, but these didn’t add a lot to it for me. I recommend that, not sure I recommend this. By contrast, Stan Barstow’s short story collection The Desperadoes also explores northern working class life but with a far richer palette ranging from comedy to tragedy to everything in between. Go read The Desperadoes is what I’m saying here.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell)

My second Enriquez collection. She’s an Argentinian writer and her stories blend horror and social comment, but what surprised me is the extent to which they work as pure horror. These are not stories for the squeamish. I grew up reading horror fiction, much of it pretty lurid, and Enriquez can give any of them a run for their money.

As ever, the Argentinian dictatorship looms large. The ghosts, curses, returned dead are nothing against the real life terrors of the disappeared or those trapped in abusive families. It’s dark stuff, but very good.

Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson

An Australian classic. Tirra Lirra explores the life of Nora Porteous who has returned in old age to her childhood Australian home after long years in London. We see her growing up, her suffocating suburban marriage, her later independence in London and now her return to where it all started. It’s a short book, under 200 pages, but as so often with memory it takes a while for everything to come into focus as Nora intersperses the present with the past and initially skirts round some of the less appealing bits.

Anderson is brilliant on the constraints Nora faces, going from the limits imposed by family to the far greater strictures of marriage where her husband tries to control her by withholding even the meagrest allowance. He seems a dull monster, but the book subtly undermines some of its own messaging with Nora at times wondering if she can still see the real man past the caricature he became for her afterwards. Similarly, Nora reflects on the limits put on her artistic talent, but on her return home she discovers that some of her childhood works done before she escaped to London were actually good and remain much admired, while she has nothing particular to show from the period when she had actual artistic freedom. It’s a clever book that makes its points about women’s lives well without ever being didactic. I can see why it’s a classic.

Guy Savage did a great write-up of this here which inspired me to read it. I agree with Guy by the way that it’s not a depressing book – it contains much that could be depressing, wasted years and lost opportunities, but it contains a lot more too. I’ve read a couple of novels recently which portray a whole life from cradle to grave and generally they’re bleak affairs, too much so to be entirely credible. Here Anderson shows not only the disappointments and frustrations, but also the joy, humour and resilience.

A World of Love, Elizabeth Bowen

I bought this ages back, before Bowen’s The Hotel, but never got round to reading it. It’s the story of a young woman, Jane, growing up in a crumbling Irish estate (are there any other kind in fiction?). The family dynamic is complex and claustrophobic. Jaded and fashionable Antonia owns the estate, but doesn’t know how to work it. Maud’s mother, Lilia, is married to Antonia’s half-brother Fred but years ago was in love with Antonia’s brother Guy who died in the war. Meanwhile Jane’s younger sister Maud runs half wild about the place. Among it all, Jane without realising it has become ‘a beauty’ leading to change when she’s noticed by ageing English neighbour Lady Latterly…

This is a novel in which in a sense nothing happens, yet it’s full of tension and drama. Early on Jane discovers some love letters clearly written by Guy, but perhaps not to Lilia. Lilia lives with Antonia because Antonia long ago felt responsible for her, and because Antonia needs Fred to run the estate, but Lilia has no ownership rights of her own and lives effectively as Antonia’s guest. It’s a situation that’s lasted years, inherently unstable yet unchanging.

While I preferred The Hotel, this is very well written and I do plan to read more Bowen. I’ll likely try her A House in Paris next. Heavenali did a really good write-up of this one here which I’d recommend reading as she has a much better grasp of Bowen’s work than I do.

And that’s it!

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

April 2022 round-up

This was a strong, strong reading month. I read a lot of books, but more importantly I read a lot of good books. Many of these I wouldn’t have discovered (or at least wouldn’t have tried) without the blogosphere so thanks to those of you who’ve been busy posting about Tessa Hadley, Annie Ernaux and Jessica Au who I might well otherwise have missed or ignored.

The Past, Tessa Hadley

Simply brilliant. My first Hadley, but definitely not my last. It’s that classic middle class English novel thing about a bunch of fairly privileged people in the countryside not doing very much, but as ever execution is everything. Here family tensions come bubbling out as adult siblings take their partners and in one case basically an acquaintance on holiday to their old rural family home which they’re considering selling. There’s a lovely mid-section which ducks back several decades showing how events then inform events now. Just a really well constructed book. Lots of reviews of this one, but Jacqui’s here is the one that tipped me over into actually reading it.

Betty Boo, Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Miranda France)

Sadly my last Piñeiro, in the sense that I’ve now read everything by her in translation. Happily I believe more is coming. Here a former best-selling crime writer and washed-up former star crime reporter get together to investigate a murder in a rich gated community. They’re supported by the star reporter’s young replacement which makes for one of the novel’s better strands as the older reporter slowly and rather reluctantly becomes mentor to the younger.

Piñeiro explored the same territory in her Thursday Night Widows and unfortunately for me that one was simply better. The central characters here are great, among her best in fact, but the crime got a bit far-fetched and it all just felt a bit less tight than usual. It’s not bad, in fact it’s pretty good, but for me Piñeiro has written better. Guy wrote a great review of it here.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is a somewhat prolific SF writer that I quite like, so you’ll probably see more by him here in due course. This is a rather gentle picaresque novel set long long after an unspecified apocalypse has reshaped the earth. The archivist central character travels through a strange futuristic landscape with ominously intelligent ants and sentient coral in search of I honestly don’t remember what. The plot is actually pretty minimal, it’s very much about the world and journey and I rather enjoyed it.

Dead Stars, Álvaro Bisama (translated by Megan McDowell)

On to darker and more difficult fare here. The wife of a couple about to finalise their divorce sees in the paper that a woman she knew years before has just been arrested. Memories unfold from her and her husband as they each look back on a history shaped by politics both national and personal.

Technically this is pretty impressive. The chapters are small, sometimes just a sentence, and yet Bisama captures both a time in Chilean history and the history of a marriage. My ignorance of Chile’s recent-ish past means that I’m sure I missed a lot of context, but not so much this still wasn’t a fascinating read. Tony of Tony’s Reading List gives it a good write-up here.

Mothers, Chris Powers

I write these posts in the order I finished the books. In most cases that’s also the order that I read them in. Short stories though I space out, so typically by the time I finish a collection I’ve already been reading it (possibly interspersed with other collections) for a couple of months or more.

Chris Powers wrote an entire series in the Guardian on the art of the short story. He’s therefore set himself a bit of a high bar in bringing out his own collection. Fortunately he meets it. I thought this superb. The stories range in length and subject matter but show a real appreciation of the craft of the short story. Three of the stories are connected and some common themes run through the collection, but it’s the sheer skill Powers brings to this that made me love it. It’s hard to discuss Powers’ technique without spoiling some of the stories, but I will say that I immediately reread some just to see how he pulled them off.

David Hebblethwaite wrote a review of this which you can find from his blog here along links to an interview and to a couple of the stories (my favourite of the collection, The Crossing, and probably my least favourite, Johnny Kingdom).

The Many, Wyl Menmuir

There’s been a trend recently in horror cinema of horror as metaphor. Of course horror has always acted as metaphor, but recent films have made the link much more explicit exploring themes such as bereavement, male violence, fear of dementia, big topics. It’s not a hugely successful trend, mostly as later in the film you tend to get a tension between the logic of the horror narrative and the logic of the metaphor. Put simply, if you’ve established that the true horror is dementia then the metaphor demands the protagonists come to terms with their issues, but that doesn’t make any sense when in the fiction they’re grappling not with a declining family member but with some flesh-eating monster. The Babadook inspired the trend and did pull it off. Its successors less so.

Anyway, The Many. A man moves to a remote fishing community where he has bought up the home of a young fisherman who died in a tragic accident. The community aren’t exactly welcoming. So far we’re in the classic territory of the tension between gentrifier and local community (the film Bait explores this very well). Here however the narrative is slippier. The fish in the bay are few and mutated. Some unexplained (government? corporate?) agency buys the catches anyway. Reality seems at times slippery. I’ve made it sound like SF or horror, but it’s not, it’s metaphor.

It’s well written if at times perhaps a little too oblique. By the end however the metaphor for me rather overwhelmed the narrative with the result that it becomes a bit neither one thing nor the other. Too solid and real in the most part to work as fable or allegory. Too openly unreal to work simply as story.

I should say in fairness that plenty of folk, including the Booker jury, liked this a lot more than I did. You might find you have more in common with them than me on this one.

Babette’s Feast, Karen Blixen

I so wanted to like this. I’ve not seen the film Babette’s Feast but I have read and liked a Dinesen before (with some mild caveats).

The stories here are lengthy fables as much as anything else. Honestly I can barely remember any of them and I had to push myself to finish this. Blixen/Dinesen typically gets pretty good reviews so this may be just a case of bad chemistry, but I find it hard to write about this since all I really remember is that I didn’t like it.

The Fire Engine that Disappeared, Sjöwall & Wahlöö (translated by Joan Tate)

I’m reading one of these a month now. This is another great entry. Here a house fire results in several deaths and prompts an investigation when it becomes apparent it wasn’t an accident. With several victims though which one was the target? It’s not my favourite of the series but it’s definitely a solid entry with consistently great characters and a satisfying story. If you’ve any interest in the Scandinoir genre at all these are definitely worth reading.

Happening, Annie Ernaux (translated by Tanya Leslie)

What to say? I didn’t love The Years as much as many have (though I did like it a fair bit). A Girl’s Story I thought was great. This is something else. It’s the account of Ernaux’s illegal abortion in the 1960s.

Ernaux is unsparing, not just of the procedure itself but also of just how trapped she is in a society where condemnation comes easily but access to vital medical services is dependent on chance acquaintances being willing to risk punishment to point you in the right direction. Ernaux shows too how when you’re in trouble you really can’t predict who will help, who will try to take advantage and who will turn their back. It’s brilliant. Jacqui wrote an excellent review of this here. I know it’s a dark subject matter and I know you probably don’t want to read it, but this is great and honest writing and I recommend it very highly indeed.

Cold Enough for Snow, Jessica Au

A young Chinese-Australian woman walks through Tokyo trying to connect with her now elderly mother. It’s a slight novella, nothing really happens and the book is elusive enough that we can’t really be certain how much of what we read is real. This is a book of mood and moment. I’m not absolutely sure the whole is greater than the parts, but the parts are very good indeed and the whole comes in at under a 100 pages.

I’m pretty ruthless these days on what books I keep, due to space constraints. This has made the cut because I believe it will bear rereading. It’s a bit like poetry – what’s not said carries as much weight as what is, perhaps more. Kaggsy captures it well here.

And that’s it. Phew!

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Lyrically affected ladies are apt to commit thoughtless deeds.

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.

13 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

February 2022 roundup

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?

And that’s it! See you all for the March roundup.

11 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

January 2022 roundup

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.

14 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A reading journal of the plague year

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.

Honourable mentions

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:

January

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

February

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

March

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

April

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

May

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

June

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

July

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

August

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

September

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

October

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

November

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

December

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

Diary of a Film, Niven Govinden

17 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

23 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Filed under Uncategorized

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!

15 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

8 Comments

Filed under Sagan, Françoise, Uncategorized