Books of the Year 2020

I’ve read more books this year than I’ve ever read in a year before. It’s been a very strange time, but these are the books published this year that have resonated with me.

This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)

Tambudzai’s life is not going how she expected. In her 30s, living in a hostel, unemployed, in a country that’s hostile, there are multiple structural barriers preventing her progress. An examination of a woman and a country. A masterpiece. Longer review here.

Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (Faber)

A woman widowed from her abusive husband; her young son, and a gay man hiding his sexuality. Their bond asks the question what really makes a family? Betty, Solo and Mr Chetan have lived in my head since I read this in the first half of the year. Gorgeous. Longer review here.

So We Can Glow – Leesa Cross-Smith (Grand Central)

Cross-Smith’s latest short story collection celebrates women and girls. Their triumphs, their tribulations, their crushes, their loves, the way they support each other to rebuild themselves and their lives. The language and the characters fizz. Longer review here.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis (Macmillan)

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that Carey’s memoir isn’t your average celebrity memoir. Open, honest and reflective, Carey looks at her traumatic childhood, her marriage to Tommy Mottola and her career. A fascinating insight into who she is and how she became one of the most successful singers in the world.

The Bass Rock – Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape)

The story of three women, in three different time periods, lived in the shadow of the Bass Rock. They’re linked by what one of Wyld’s minor characters – the brilliant Maggie – describes as a serial killer: toxic masculinity. Maggie’s idea of a map showing places where women have been killed by men has haunted me all year, as has the final page of the novel. Longer review here.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)

Named for Shakespeare’s son who died – probably of plague – and the play that was probably written about Shakespeare’s grief: Hamlet. Really though, this is the story of Agnes (Anne), Shakespeare’s wife. Beautiful and vividly told. O’Farrell’s well-deserved acclaim was long overdue. Longer review here.

Breasts and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) (Picador)

A novel in two-parts exploring Natsuko’s sister’s desire for breast implants and then Natsuko’s questions around whether or not she wants a child. An examination of the expectations placed on women from a working class Japanese perspective with a bonus send-up of the literary industry. Longer review here.

In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail)

A ground-breaking memoir of an emotionally abusive, same-gender relationship. It questions notions of the canon through a range of devices and genres while delivering a devastating portrait of domestic abuse. Longer review here.

Postcolonial Love Poem – Natalie Diaz (Faber)

An investigation of the body as a site of trauma and of desire. Diaz connects the body to the land, the water (particularly rivers) and the air, showing how violation of the elements by white Americans has led to irreparable damage. This is also a celebration of queer love and language that elevates and transcends. Longer review here.

Bad Love – Maame Blue (Jacaranda Books)

19yo Ekuah has an on / off affair with up-and-coming musician Dee. Later she meets English teacher and spoken word night organiser Jay Stanley. The two men exert different pulls on her life, but Ekuah has to work out how she wants to live. I was rooting for her all the way. Longer review here.

Writers & Lovers – Lily King (Picador)

Casey’s in her 30s. Single, a waitress trying to write a novel, living in her brother’s friend’s shed, she meets two men: Silas is a teacher and a writer, but unreliable; Oscar is slightly older, an established writer, widowed with two young boys. Casey has to decide whether to accept or reject a conventional life. I wrote about her choices for the Pan Macmillan blog.

Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie (Dialogue Books)

Okojie is the queen of stories that take you to unexpected places. Her latest collection is a wild ride of time-travelling silent monks; some unexpected zombies; a heart-eating goddess; mechanical boys, and an albino man who brings fountains to a small town in Mozambique. The incredible ‘Grace Jones’, about an impersonator and her past, deservedly won the 2020 AKO Cane Prize. Slightly longer review here.

Thanks to the publishers (as listed) for This Mournable Body, The Bass Rock, Hamnet, Breasts and Eggs, and Writers & Lovers. All other books are my own purchases.

#DiverseDecember #17 – #21

Things have been slightly derailed by my despair at the situation in the UK and being exhausted at the end of term. I also wanted everything I recommended to be fairly recent publications and I over-estimated how much reading I could do. But I’m back on track so I’m going to do two round-ups, one today and one on Thursday (Christmas Eve). 

So We Can Glow – Leesa Cross-Smith (Grand Central Publishing) 

The ‘We’ in the title of Lessa Cross-Smith’s latest short story collection is women and girls. Through a collective narration in the opening story ‘We, Moons’ the hopes, dreams and fears of women and girls are laid out:

We’re not depressed all the time, some of us aren’t even depressed sometimes. We’re okay, our hearts, dusted with pink. When we cry in our bathrooms together it’s about men or our mothers or our fathers or our bodies. […] We love men. We are ashamed of this attraction. We, the ones who aren’t lesbians or asexual; we fantasise about lesbian communes or asexual communes. 

What follows are 41 stories in which women and girls have crushes, fall in love, have affairs, have relationships with good men and terrible men, form friendships which last a lifetime, live, laugh, cry. 

One of the reasons I love Cross-Smith’s work is that we share a lot of cultural references. This exchange from ‘Teenage Dream Time Machine’ is a perfect example:

Dave and I were listening to
DEF LEPPARD.

POUR SOME SUGAR ON
ME?!

Of course! LOL.

I love it. Did you ever dye
your hair?

Bright pink once and my mom
almost killed me. I used to 
spray Sun In in my hair when I
laid out but it didn’t do much. It
smelled good though. I wanted 
to be Drew Barrymore. I wanted
to be Courtney Love for a 
minute too. 

Same. This is so funny…all
the women our age…we 
were practically living the
same life! We’re all
connected…like magic.

I also love that she takes crushes, especially on pop stars / actors / sportsmen seriously and the lives and thoughts of teenage girls. That she writes like a dream, ending so many of these stories on the most perfect lines, only elevates the stories of women and girls further. As it should be. 

My Darling from the Lions – Rachel Long (Picador) 

Rachel Long’s excellent debut collection considers love in all its forms: romantic, familial, friendship, discovering how to love yourself. A series of poems called ‘Open’ punctuate the first section:

This morning he told me
I sleep with my mouth open
and my hands in my hair.
I say, What, like screaming?
He says, No, like abandon.

But it’s the love for her mother that really shines through:

Orb

Mum combs her auburn ’fro up high.
So high it’s an orb.
Everyone wants to – but cannot – touch it.

Themes of race, class and misogyny underpin the collection and it’s often these undertones that deliver the vivid images and sucker punch final lines that resonate long after reading.  

Endless Fortune – Ify Adenuga (Own It! / Boy Better Know)

Ify Adenuga is the mother of four children: Joseph Junior aka Skepta; Jamie aka Jme; Julie, who was the voice of Apple’s music station Beats 1 when it launched, and Jason, music producer and graphic designer. They’re the reason I picked up Endless Fortune, but Ify Adenuga’s own story turns out to be more interesting than her children’s.

The book begins when Adenuga is 10, living in Lagos with her family. The Bifran War begins and Adenuga’s family, who are Igbo, flee the city to their father’s village. Adenuga misses much about Lagos, not least attending school. When she is able to go to the nearest school the teacher suggests she skips a year (having missed three years of schooling) This creates tension with her father who thinks she should do things chronologically and come top of the class. Adenuga finds a way around this and passes the year with a high mark. This sets up two threads that weave throughout Adenuga’s story: the first is her passion for learning which takes her to a ‘good’ school, through a degree as a mature student, to setting up her own education centres and the second, her determination that no one will stand in her way. 

Adenuga’s memoir is one of a woman who took risks, stayed resilient through multiple setbacks, and created a life that allowed herself and her family to flourish. It’s a fascinating story. 

Future Home of the Living God – Louise Erdrich (Corsair)

When I tell you that my white name is Cedar Hawk Songmaker and that I am the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals, and that when I went looking for my Ojibwe parents and found that I was born Mary Potts I hid the knowledge, maybe you’ll understand. Or not. I’ll write this anyway, because ever since last week things have changed.

Cedar’s diary is written for the unborn baby she is carrying in a world where being pregnant is dangerous. As society breaks down, pregnant women are being captured and kept in hospitals. 

When Cedar discovers she is pregnant, she goes to meet her birth mother, withdraws all her savings and stockpiles things that might be useful – cigarettes, guns, ammunition. Protected by the baby’s father, she attempts to stay hidden, communicating with her birth family via her mother’s husband. 

It’s a tense tale with some particularly evocative scenes; a period of time in hospital with an elective mute roommate is a really interesting section of the story, and there’s a graphic description of labour and birth that had me wincing. 

If you’ve read Erdrich before you’ll know that in her novels the backstory is the story. In some ways, Future Home of the Living God, feels like a departure – things happen in the now as society changes and Cedar’s pregnancy progresses – in others, it feels like a typical Erdrich novel, specifically in the ending that makes the whole book feel as though it’s backstory. It left me wanting more of what happens next. 

Cannibal – Safiya Sinclair (Picador) 

Safiya Sinclair’s debut collection takes her childhood home of Jamaica, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and her present home of America to explore and confront exile, otherness, race and womanhood. The poems here are deep and rich with language and ideas. Some feel very intense, ‘Pocomania’, for example, which begins:

Father unbending father unbroken father
with the low-hanging belly, father I was cleaved from, 
pressed into, cast and remolded, father I was forged 
in the fire of your self.

Others more spacious and provocative, such as ‘Elocution Lessons with Ms. Silverstone’, which opens with:

In high school boys were easy – 
they saw none of you 
or all of you

in one ravenous gaze, 
slurped hankering glances
or walked right through

you in sterile absolution, 
high-fived and hissed about
your dick-sucking lips.

Brewing names
for your body
in the mastabatorium. 

It’s an incredible collection and I’m excited to see where Sinclair’s career takes her. 

All copies of these books are my own purchases.

Books of the Year 2018

It’s been an unusual reading year for me; new work has meant I’ve read lots of things I wouldn’t have otherwise and it’s no coincidence that, for the first time, there’s a poetry collection included here. It’s also the first time there’s been a graphic novel in my list, although I’ve confused myself here as The One Hundred Nights of Hero is one of my favourite books and I’ve no idea why it didn’t make the list last year. Anyway, here’s my favourite fifteen books published in 2018, if there’s a theme to the list it’s this: feminist as fuck.

Milkman – Anna Burns

Until last week, I’d known what my book of the year was since May. And then I read Milkman. An eighteen-year-old woman walks the streets of what appears to be Belfast, although the setting is never named, reading classic literature. An encounter with a paramilitary man called Milkman sets off rumours about her and him, leading to an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere in which the community, and her own family, draw conclusions from hearsay. Since Milkman won this year’s Booker Prize, much has been made of its apparently challenging nature. To me, it read like someone telling an anecdote in the pub, the story both moving forwards and circling back, characters known by nicknames and monikers. It’s a superb read: often funny, resolutely feminist, and possibly the best book about the Troubles I’ve read.

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

This is the book that was knocked off the number one spot at the last minute. Ghost Wall is the story of teenager, Silvie, as she takes part in an Iron Age reconstruction with her family. Her father is particularly keen that things should be as authentic as possible and it soon becomes clear that his views on women are severely outdated. The tension builds until a horrific act is committed. Moss’ writing is taut, sharp and will keep you on edge. My mini-review is here.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

When I read Everything Under earlier in the year, I described it on Twitter as spellbinding, the first time I’ve ever described a novel as such; the prose is mesmerising though. Gretal works as a lexicographer and is attempting to get Sarah, her estranged mother, to tell her story, allowing Gretal to fill in the gaps in her adolescence. Johnson reworks the Oedipus myth as an exploration of gender and mother/daughter relationships. Absolutely worthy of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.

America Is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo

Hero is an illegal immigrant, a member of the New People’s Army, a former prisoner of war. She leaves the Philippines to live with her uncle’s family, who she hasn’t seen in years. In San Fransisco, she begins to rebuild her life and makes friends who’ll become her new family. Castillo explores ideas of home through language, food, family, friendship and love. Big, bold and absorbing. My full review and interview with Elaine is here.

Three Poems – Hannah Sullivan

I wouldn’t have read Three Poems if Hannah Sullivan hadn’t been booked for Manchester Literature Festival and I’m so glad she was. Poem one tells of the narrator’s time in New York, living and dating; two of moving to California and repetition, and three of the birth of her son and the death of her father. As a whole, it’s an impressive piece of work, while individual lines have stayed with me for months.

Whiskey & Ribbons – Leesa Cross-Smith

Eamon is killed when his wife, Evi, is nine-months pregnant. In the grief that follows, Dalton, Eamon’s adopted brother moves in to support Evi in raising Noah. As Evi and Dalton try to come to terms with their loss, they begin to grow closer. A beautifully written story of love, loss and longing. The story’s expanded from some pieces in Cross-Smith’s debut short story collection Every Kiss a War which I reviewed here.

The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui

Triggered by the birth of her first child, Thi Bui tells the story of her parents emigrating to the USA, intertwined with the history of Vietnam. Through it she begins to understand the experiences which shaped her parents and herself. Compelling and beautifully illustrated.

The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

Christine Pizan is in her final year on CIEL and she’s planning to go out in spectacular style. She’s creating a skin graft telling the true story of Joan of Dirt, a story which has been outlawed by CEIL’s ruler, Jean de Men. Fierce, feminist and concerned with climate change, I’m still reeling from The Book of Joan ten months later. My full review is here.

To Throw Away Unopened – Viv Albertine

Viv Albertine’s second memoir is more personal than her first and all the better for it. Alongside the end of her marriage and her foray into dating again, she reconsiders her upbringing after the death of her father and the discovery of a bag of documents previously unseen. This is also considered alongside the death of her mother, which is detailed gradually as the book progresses and also her relationship with her sister which culminates in an unforgettable scene at their mother’s hospital bed. A powerful look at family stories and relationships and the impact they have on women.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

Another discovery thanks to Manchester Literature Festival. Pat Barker’s retelling of The Iliad focuses on Briseis, largely telling the tale from her perspective. It’s brutal and brash, showing the men for spoilt, squabbling brats while giving women a voice in one of the oldest stories in literature. My full review is here.

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

Melmoth is condemned to wander the world, watching and collecting those of us who’ve been complicit in acts of harm. While Helen Franklin discovers the various accounts of Melmoth, Perry uses them as a vehicle to bear witness to atrocities from the Holocaust to the violent deportation of immigrants, forcing the reader to question their complicity. Compelling and uncomfortable reading. My mini-review is here.

Sight – Jessie Greengrass

There was a spate of books considering motherhood this year, Sight was one of the best. The narrator documents her thinking about whether or not she should become a parent alongside her memories of her grandmother, a psychoanalyst; the death of her mother, and medical developments including the creation of the X-ray. Clever and exquisitely written.

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon

Phoebe Lin, a student at an elite NY university, is drawn into a cult intent on committing a terrorist act. Outsider, Will Kendall becomes close to Phoebe and, following her disappearance, tells the story of their relationship and what he knows about cult leader, John Leal. Compelling.

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – Meg Fee

Sometimes you read a book at the perfect time and Places I Stopped on the Way Home was one of them. Fee writes about her time in NYC, dating, living in shared houses, managing her recovery from an eating disorder, and what she learned about how to live. I underlined a lot. My review is here.

Snap – Belinda Bauer

In the first chapter of Snap, Jack and his sisters are left in the family car, on the hard shoulder of the motorway, as their mum goes to telephone for help. She never returns. It seems as though this is going to be a straight psychological thriller until chapter two jumps three years. Now Jack and his siblings live alone, the police are investigating a cat burglar they’ve called Goldilocks and pregnant Catherine has found a knife and a threatening note next to her bed. This is crime if it was written by Kate Atkinson and Lissa Evans; it’s about people not being who you think they are and what family will do to protect each other. It’s also very funny. I stayed up late to finish it in one sitting.