Backlist Books of the Year

At the end of 2019, I challenged myself to read 100 books from my own shelves. What I meant by from my own shelves were the books that had been sitting there some time, often for years. I was fed up of not getting to books that I knew I wanted to read because there was always something shiny and new in front of me. The pandemic helped, of course; losing most of your work and being forced to stay at home will do that. I finished the 100 in early December. Here are the ones I really really loved.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender (Windmill)

I thought this would be twee, I was so wrong. The story of a girl who realises she can taste people’s emotions; the story of her brother who begins to disappear. It’s about trauma and depression and it’s perfect.

The Western Wind – Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)

A Brexit allegory disguised as a Medieval whodunnit. Utterly compelling.

Fleishman Is in Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Wildfire)

A soon-to-be-ex-wife and mother disappears. A terrible soon-to-be-ex-husband who thinks he’s great has his story narrated by his ‘crazy’ friend. A piercing look at heterosexual marriage and a send-up of the Great American Novel. Longer review here.

Things we lost in the fire – Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell) (Granta)

Dark, dark, dark stories. So haunting, so brilliant.

Exquisite Cadavers – Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic)

A Oulipo style novella showing how fiction can be created from life, but it isn’t the same thing. Longer review here.

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary – Sarah Manguso (Graywolf Press)

Manguso wrote a daily diary until she had her first child. This is full of ideas of letting go which are so brilliant I copied many of them on to Post-Its and stuck them above my desk. It’s published by Picador in the UK.

we are never meeting in real life – Samantha Irby (Faber)

Irby is my discovery of the year. Her essays are laugh-out-loud funny and entertaining but they are also about her life as a working class, disabled Black woman with a traumatic childhood. Revolutionary.

Heartburn – Nora Ephron (Virago)

Funny; good on cooking and marriage. Devastating final chapter.

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters (Virago)

Clever crime novel about class, the art of theft and pornography. Superb structure. A masterpiece.

The Chronology of Water – Lidia Yuknavitch (Canongate)

Yuknavitch’s non-chronological memoir about the fifteen lives she has lived. It’s about dying (metaphorically), swimming (literally and metaphorically) and living (literally). It fizzes.

Bear – Marian Engel (Pandora)

The headline is this is a book about a woman who has sex with a bear. It’s really about female autonomy. It’s being republished in the UK in 2021 by Daunt Books.

Magic for Beginners – Kelly Link (Harper Perennial)

Kelly Link is a genius. These stories are so rich in detail; she takes you from a situation that seems perfectly normal to a wild, subverted world that also seems perfectly normal. Incredible.

Parable of the Talents – Octavia E. Butler (Headline)

The novel that predicted a president who would aim to ‘Make America Great Again’. It’s as much the story of a mother / daughter relationship formed under significant trauma as it is the story of a country at war with itself. Longer review here.

Copies of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Fleishman is in Trouble, Exquisite Cadavers, we are never meeting in real life, The Chronology of Water and Parable of the Talents were courtesy of the publishers as listed. All others are my own copies.

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.

My Women’s Prize for Fiction Wishlist

It’s that time of year again. On Thursday 8th March, International Women’s Day, the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced. The list will comprise of twelve books (if they stick to their own rules this year) written by female writers in English and published in the UK between 1st April 2017 and 31st March 2018.

I call this my wishlist because it’s somewhere between a prediction and what I’d like to see longlisted. I’ve never successfully identified more than half of the longlisted books but reading titles I might otherwise never have chosen is part of the pleasure of shadowing the prize.

I’ve reviewed the first three, click on the covers to read.

  

The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

I mean to give myself two birthday presents before I’m forced to leave this existence and turn to dust and energy. The first is a recorded history. Oh, I know, there’s a good chance this won’t attract the epic attention I am shooting for. On the other hand, smaller spectacles have moved epochs. And anyway, I’ve got that gnawing human compulsion to tell what happened.

The second present is a more physical lesson. I am an expert at skin grafting, the new form of storytelling. I intend to leave the wealth of my knowledge and skill behind. And the last of my grafts I intend to be a masterwork.

2049. Christine Pizan lives on CIEL, a free-floating space station which siphons resources from the ravaged, dying Earth below. At 49, Christine is a year from the time when residents of CIEL die to make room for others; she’s determined she’s going out in spectacular fashion.

CIEL’s leader is Jean de Men. He’s risen from self-help guru to author to TV star to military leader. I have no idea who Yuknavitch was thinking of when she gave Pizan the line ‘We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.’

Jean de Men wrote CIEL’s most famous narrative graft, a romance. The irony of this being that CIEL’s inhabitants are mostly genderless and without genitalia. Humans have devolved.

It was a wish like the moth’s wish for flame. It was a wish to fuck the sun. To be burned alive inside a story where our bodies could still want and do what bodies want to do.

Grafting, creating skin stories, is the latest entertainment and a way of telling someone’s worth and social class. It’s how Christine earns a living. It’s also how she’s waged war against Jean de Men. In his stories, ‘all the women […] demanded to be raped’. In hers she re-creates the story of people’s bodies ‘as desiring abysses, creation and destruction’. Her work has inspired women to reclaim their bodies, their space, themselves.

A new philosophy took hold and pulsed: the idea that men and women – or the distinction between men and women – was radically and forever dead.

Christine’s partner-in-crime is her oldest friend and the love of her life, Trinculo. Trinculo is an engineer, inventor and illustrator, the person who designed and engineered CIEL. When we meet him, he’s wearing a belt garnered with vibrating appendages. The two main crimes on CIEL? Any acts that resemble the act or idea of sex and anything other than blind allegiance to Joan of Dirt’s official death story, the one where she was burnt at the stake. Clearly Trinculo’s taking charge of breaking the first law. The second? Christine’s last graft, her masterwork, the story she’s going to tell the reader, is the true story of Joan.

In a reworked version of the story of Joan of Arc, told by Christine de Pizan, Yuknavitch considers the damage we’re doing to Earth and to humanity. How we’ve made ourselves more important than the universe because we can’t cope with the idea that we’re a small, insignificant part of it. She looks at our need to take and hold onto power and the myriad ways in which women are belittled in order for this to happen.

The voice and tone of the novel is fierce from beginning to end. It is also very funny in parts. Trinculo, in particular, pertains to play the part of the joker, quoting insults from a favourite childhood app which generated medieval insults.

The Book of Joan is furious, eloquent and inventive. The best feminist dystopia since The Power and an early contender for one of my books of the year.

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.