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.
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.
The Book of Sheffield, which includes my story ‘The Time Is Now’, is currently the Sheffield Big City Read. As part of the celebrations, Dan from Sheffield Libraries interviewed me for their podcast. I talk about why my story is a love letter to the city, as well as Sheffield bands, Doctor Who, why you can’t escape yourself, tram journeys and writing in my local pub. You can listen to the podcast here.
And because I love music and I scattered several titles throughout the story, I’ve made a playlist of all the songs, which are verified Sheffield bops (mostly from the 90s). The playlist is available on Spotify and YouTube Music. Enjoy!
For the first time, I’ve read (almost) all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist. Almost because I haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light. The reason for this is purely because I have the other two parts of the trilogy in paperback, so I’ll be buying and reading part three next year (I assume, there’s no listing for it at the moment) when I might also treat you to my rant about publishers who change cover designs during the publication of a series.
As for Mantel’s potential third successive Booker win, which dominated initial coverage of the longlist, I’m all for it. I think amongst Mantel’s recent success, it’s been forgotten that Mantel is (1) a womxn, (2) from a working-class background, who (3) wrote nine novels, a short story collection and a memoir, all of which are excellent and were largely ignored by the big prizes until she (4) wrote a big, historical fiction novel about a man in Tudor England. If it was a male writer up for a historic third win, I wouldn’t have to spell out why he was worthy. Anyway, having read all the other novels by womxn on the longlist, I don’t think Mantel’s got in the bag at all; there are some superb books here.
What’s interesting about the longlist are the number of novels which tell stories that have been hidden or remained unpublished. Not only the historical fiction of The Shadow King and How Much of These Hills Is Gold but also Burnt Sugar and its mother/daughter relationship, and Such a Fun Age with its young, Black female protagonist who just wants to live her life. There’s also significant consideration of how societies are organised and how we choose (or are forced) to live. Plenty of calls for urgent change here.
It’s the first time I’ve felt compelled to read of all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist and it was a joy. This year has highlighted a list of gems, all of which are very much worth reading.
The New Wilderness – Diane Cook (Oneworld)
Somewhere in the not too distant future, Bea’s daughter Agnes is ill. When a doctor suggests that moving out of the smog-ridden, overcrowded, filthy city might be the answer, Bea allows her husband Glen’s dream to come true. Glen wants to be part of a study that involves living in the Wilderness, a refuge for wildlife. Twenty people are placed in the last wilderness area left, given a Manual on how to behave, and allowed semi-regular contact with the Rangers, including distribution of mail from friends and family.
The novel begins at a point where the Community have already spent several years living in this terrain. Although they claim to do everything by consensus, leaders have emerged, relationships have strengthened and strained, and some of their number are dead. The Rangers tell them they’ve camped too long at one particular spot and send them on a route they’ve never crossed before.
The world Cook creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of society. There’s a clear hierarchy from the Administration to the Private Lands (which may or may not exist) to the Rangers to the Community to those living in the city. The rules might be bullshit and are a contradiction to living life in what’s supposed to be a wilderness, highlighting that all rules are created by societies to keep people in their places. There’s also some fetishisation of consumer goods that the Community are supposed to have relinquished.
Alongside this, Cook uses the relationship between Bea and Agnes to look at mothers and daughters. As Agnes grows in age and confidence, their relationship becomes more complex and more challenging. Bea doesn’t agree that she’d do anything for her daughter – moving to the Wilderness has pretty much cost Bea her relationship with her own mother – and isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing anymore.
There’s a good narrative pace to the book and enough intrigue to propel the reader through it, as well as some interesting characters and set pieces. A good debut.
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)
The question of who can, and who cannot, who does and who does not succeed, returns to echo ominously, bringing bitterness back into your soul.
Tambudzai’s life is not going well. In her 30s, she’s unemployed and living in a hostel. The woman who runs the hostel wants to throw Tambudzai out for being too old, concerned she’ll lose her license. Tambu finds a room in a big house run by a widow, which is deteriorating, and plans to marry one of the widow’s sons. Eventually she’s offered a job as a project manager that comes with accommodation, working for Green Jacaranda Getaway Safaris, a start-up dealing in environmentally friendly entrepreneurship solutions.
What connects each of these moments in Tambu’s life are the structural issues which consistently prevent her from progressing, despite having been educated at a white school, gaining a university degree and doing what she sees as playing by the rules, even when it means ignoring others in danger. There’s a horrific scene near the start of the novel where Tambu watches her hostelmate Gertrude as she’s attacked and has her skirt ripped off.
‘Tambu,’ she whispers, singling you out. Her mouth is a pit. She is pulling you in. You do not want her to entomb you.
This isn’t the only moment of violence against women; there are several, both physical and emotional.
The novel’s set during the time that Mugabe was redistributing farming lands controlled by whites to landless Black Zimbabweans. The white people in the novel are mostly represented by Tracey Stephenson, who was Tambu’s rival at school and later her boss at an advertising agency – where the white workers claimed Tambu’s work as their own – and then at Green Jacaranda, which Tracey runs. It doesn’t matter what Tambu does or where she goes, she can’t escape Tracey and will never rise above her. Tracey complains about her own disempowerment while constantly working to ensure that Tambu is kept in her place.
Dangarembga writes the novel in second person. This serves to distance Tambudzai from herself and her decisions; she can’t face what she’s doing in order to try and create a better life for herself – she’s educated, it shouldn’t be this hard and, of course, it wouldn’t be if she wasn’t a Black woman. It also makes the reader complicit, which is interesting, and I suspect will work differently on each reader depending on their race, gender and class. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable reading experience, which is entirely the point.
On a sentence level too, the writing is superb. The book begins There is a fish in the mirror. It’s metaphorical, a representation of Tambu’s face at that point, but it serves to disorientate us and to introduce a number of animal metaphors, including frequent use of snakes, to show Tambu’s emotional and physical state.
This Mournable Body is the final book in a trilogy that began with Nervous Conditions. I haven’t read the earlier books and, while I’m sure I’ve missed things I’m unaware of, that didn’t affect my reading of this novel. I could easily write an essay on the issues Dangarembga considers in this book alone. If I was awarding this year’s prize, this would be my winner. This Mournable Body is a masterpiece.
Burnt Sugar – Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton)
There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness. Maybe we were hungry for the same things, the sum of us only doubled that feeling.
Antara’s mother, Tara, has dementia; she wanders around at night, asks Antara to phone people who are dead, and eventually doesn’t recognise Antara at all. They have a complex, antagonist relationship. When Antara was small, her mother left her husband, Antara’s father, because she felt stifled in his parents’ home, and joined an ashram. Run by a guru who promoted free love and took some of the women as his lovers before casting them off, Antara was neglected by her mother, instead becoming close to a woman called Kali Mata. Now, Antara seems to want a conventional life; she’s married and has discussed the possibility of children with her husband. However, she works as an artist; her most recent project being one in which she copied the face of a man over and over again.
The damage Antara’s mother rendered has left Antara in a position where she both loves and hates her mother. She wants to take care of her as she deteriorates, while also wanting to hurt her. It’s deliberately unclear whether some of Antara’s actions are because she wants the thing she is pursuing or because she knows it will hurt her mother; perhaps that she’s her mother’s daughter makes any distinction impossible.
The epigraph to the book is a quotation from Lidia Yuknavitch’s superb memoir The Chronology of Water. Yuknavitch is one my favourite writers so I figured I was in for a treat as soon as I opened Burnt Sugar and I was right. Doshi’s depiction of Tara and Antara’s relationship shows how complex, interdependent and toxic the mother/daughter dynamic can be. There are few good portrayals of this type of motherhood in literature; it’s refreshing to see another excellent one.
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste (Canongate)
These aren’t the days to pretend you’re only a wife or a sister or a mother, she says. We’re more than this.
Set during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war, The Shadow King, tells the story of Hirut, a servant working for the landowner and soldier, Kidane, and his wife Aster. Kidane took Hirut in when her parents died and his interest in her provokes jealousy from Aster, who is grieving the death of their child. Beginning in a claustrophobic domestic setting, the scope of the novel widens when the Italians invade Ethiopia. It’s clear early on that neither Hirut nor Aster will be content with supporting the men as they wage war; Hirut is furious when Kidane takes the gun her father gave her and donates it to the cause, and – in a superb set piece – as Empress Menen gives a speech calling on women to ‘express their solidarity’ against acts of war, Aster dresses in her father-in-law’s uniform; A woman dressed as a warrier, looking as fierce as any man.
The narrative roves between a number of other characters including Ettore Navarra, a Jewish-Italian photographer; Ferres, a highly educated, expensive sex-worker and spy; Carlo Fucelli, leader of the Italian invasion, and Haile Selassie, initially in Addis Ababa and then in exile in Bath, England. There is also a chorus which comments and advises. Their appearance works alongside increasing references to Greek mythology, as the behaviour of some of the characters echoes those from the epic journeys. This movement is skilfully done, creating an engaging picture of the various battles – physical and psychological – that take place.
The novel’s title refers to an incident at the centre of the book where Hirut recognises the similarity between a peasant musician called Minim (‘nothing’) and Haile Selassie. In order to motivate and encourage the soldiers, Aster and Hirut dress Minim and train him to act like the emperor. Hirut becomes his guard. This isn’t the only shadow over the story though; many of the characters act in particular ways due to stories, advice and traits that have been passed down to them. Mengiste shows how ideas of masculinity and femininity are moulded in this way and the damage these gender constructs wield. She also considers how Ettore’s family have been forced to create a narrative and a different life due to anti-semitism and the impact this has on him when he’s seen as other in all the contexts he’s placed in.
Huge in scope and ambition, The Shadow King is an absorbing narrative through which Mengiste writes back into history the presence of female soldiers (including her own great-grandmother) in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war. A triumph.
Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury)
Emira, a young Black woman, is months away from her 26th birthday and the loss of parental health insurance cover. She works two part-time jobs as a typist for The Green Party and as a babysitter for a wealthy white couple. She’s at a friend’s birthday party when the couple call her for emergency cover while the police deal with an incident at their house. Emira takes two-year-old Briar to Market Depot to distract her. A middle-aged white woman tells the security guard there’s something suspicious about Emira, out late at night dressed for a party holding a white child, and the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar. The incident is filmed by a white man who later agrees to delete the video after emailing a copy to Emira.
What unfolds is a story of white people attempting to out-woke each other while ignoring the wishes of the young Black woman they think they’re trying to protect. Emira’s boss Alix wants to befriend Emira and make her part of the family, while the man Emira dates – Kelley Copeland, who is also the man who filmed the video – seems to fetishise Black people. However, this is as much a tale of class as it is race; Emira is the first in her family to gain a degree, but at 25 she doesn’t earn enough to have benefits included in her work package. In various ways, Emira’s friends, Alix, Alix’s friends and Kelley all attempt to push Emira into doing something more with her life, while Emira can’t imagine leaving a job in which she cares for the little girl she loves.
This is a smart, compelling and smoothly written novel. The sections where Reid interweaves conversations characters are having with the interruptions of a small child are deftly handled. Alix and Kelley are recognisable and, by the end of the novel, decisively skewered by their own behaviour, while Emira, the character everyone else seems to think is lost, shows that it’s possible to be content without grand ambition.
Redhead by the Side of the Road – Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)
44-year-old Micah Mortimer has a steady life. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone. He works as a superintendent at the building he lives in and runs his own tech company, mainly sorting out the computer woes of elderly women. He has a girlfriend – Cass, a teacher – who he sees several nights a week.
Two things happen to disrupt Micah’s quiet existence: Cass thinks she’s going to be thrown out of her apartment and when Micah doesn’t suggest she move in with him, Cass is annoyed, and Brink, the son of Micah’s first girlfriend shows up unexpectedly, thinking that Micah might be his dad.
Like many of Tyler’s novels, this could be described as a quiet book. While nothing much appears to happen, Micah is forced to recalibrate his entire view of himself and his life so far – the redhead of the title doesn’t exist, it’s a fire hydrant that Micah repeatedly mistakes for a small person while running without his glasses on. There’s a superb set piece of a dinner with Micah’s family that is vintage Tyler and much to admire in the novel as a whole.
Love and Other Thought Experiments – Sophie Ward (Corsair)
Rachel and Eliza are a couple. When the novel begins their flat has an ant infestation and they are thinking about having a baby. Lying in bed one night, Rachel dreams she’s been bitten and wakes up. She becomes convinced that an ant has crawled into her eye. Eliza thinks Rachel is mistaken and Rachel connects this to her belief that Eliza doesn’t want a baby because she thinks Rachel will be a bad mother. They have the baby and the ant takes up permanent residence inside Rachel. From there the book develops in unexpected ways.
Each chapter begins with a summary of a philosophical theory, then the story that follows illustrates that theory. As you’re reading the chapters seem to be loosely interlinked stories, but the connection between them becomes clear towards the very end. The book moves between perspectives, time periods and genres. To say too much would spoil what a clever, intriguing journey this takes you on, but I will say that the ideas reminded me of Speak by Louisa Hall and the structure of The Shore by Sara Taylor and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Definitely worth a read if genre-bending time travel is your thing.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Virago)
Set in the North American goldrush, How Much of These Hills is Gold is largely told through the perspectives of Lucy and Sam, 12 and 11-years old respectively. Their Ba is dead and, as the novel begins, they set out to bury him somewhere he might regard as home. The problem is that Ba never settled, always in pursuit of the gold that would make the family rich. This journey bookends the novel. In the middle, we get the story of the family, particularly that of Lucy’s education, followed by Ba’s ghost telling the true tale of how him and Ma met, rather than the version that’s become the family story.
The book’s concerned with who’s allowed to tell a story and how they choose to, or are allowed to, tell it. Ba’s section particularly serves as a corrective to the rich, white men’s tales of who found gold and who it belonged to. Zhang also considers race and gender. We would describe Sam as trans, and his story illustrates that trans people have been present (and erased from many narratives) for a long time. His trajectory, when contrasted to Lucy’s, highlights similarities and differences between the way they are treated.
The novel reinserts non-white people, specifically Chinese people and, to a lesser extent, indigenous North Americans, back into a part of history from which they’ve largely been erased, reasserting their agency and complexity. Zhang does all this while pulling off a page-turning, immersive story of the American West complete with cowboys, shooting, stealing, a rotting corpse and the question of what it means to be family. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is superb.
Review copies provided by the publishers as listed except This Mournable Body, Such a Fun Age, and Love and Other Thought Experiments which are my own copies.
It’s been longer than I thought it would be, but life, eh? Here are some of the things I’ve read since last time. I recommend all of these…
Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (Faber)
Ingrid Persaud’s stunning debut novel Love After Love asks what makes a family? When her abusive husband dies, 40-year-old Betty takes a lodger in the form of Mr Chetan. Along with Betty’s young son, Solo, they become a family – of sorts. But the revelation of a terrible secret sends Solo to New York, after which Mr Chetan decides to move into his own place.
Held together by a thread, Betty begins dating again, Mr Chetan rediscovers an old flame, and Solo gets to know his uncle and cousins. Told in patois, this is a lyrical and beautiful portrayal of single motherhood, a young man finding his place, and a gay man who has to hide his sexuality in a country that doesn’t accept him. Love After Love is a big, beating heart of a book.
Fleishman Is In Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Wildfire)
I avoided this novel for months because I thought I was going to hate it. Reader, I loved it. 41-year-old Toby Fleishman is enjoying his new-found freedom. His favourite dating app is full of up-for-it women who he doesn’t even need to take to dinner first, he has a great job as a doctor, and shared custody of his two kids. Then his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Rachel, disappears and he’s left juggling work, dates and playdates.
I’m a sucker for a woman walks out of her life narrative, but this one is especially delicious. Toby’s story is narrated by his ‘crazy’ friend Lizzie, who’s known him for twenty years. This allows the cracks in Toby’s narrative to be exposed, revealing not only the lies he’s told about his marriage but also how readers of the Great American Novel have been lied to by white male writers for decades. A pitch-perfect rendition of heterosexual (middle class) marriage.
Glass Town – Isabel Greenberg (Jonathan Cape)
Isabel Greenberg’s latest graphic novel interweaves Brontë history and their juvenilia. Charlotte is alone, following the deaths of her siblings. Her creation Charles Wellesley returns to Charlotte from Glass Town and convinces her to write one more story. From here Greenberg goes back in time, imagining the initial creation of the Brontës’ worlds as Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell grow up. In Greenberg’s version, the ‘real’ and imaginary worlds melt into each other creating a metafictional delight, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of the Brontës.
Missing, Presumed – Susie Steiner (Borough Press)
As you might have noticed from this list, there’s a special place in my heart for stories focused on women over 40. Okay, so Manon Bradshaw, protagonist of Susie Steiner’s excellent debut crime novel, is 39, but it’s close enough and she’s a hero. She’s single, internet dating a string of ‘fucktards’ and scraping by when it comes to dealing with domestic matters.
Bradshaw’s investigating the disappearance of a young woman from the home she shared with her boyfriend. We get chapters from the perspective of the young woman’s mother, her best friend, and also Bradshaw’s partner at work, DC Davy Walker.
There are a couple of things about this book that make it different from your average police procedural: it shows how information can trickle through in investigations, or indeed stop entirely for a while, and it made me snort laugh more than once. Quite something, as I read it at one of my lowest ebbs during the lockdown. There are now three books in the series, the latest having been published last month. I’ve already got my hands on both follow-ups.
My Shitty Twenties – Emily Morris (Salt)
Age 22, studying full-time, working part-time and partying hard, Morris discovers she’s pregnant. The father’s response to Morris’ decision to keep the baby is to tell her to Enjoy your impending shitty, snotty, vommity twenties. Goodbye and with that, Morris becomes a single parent.
Her memoir takes us through the pregnancy considering her fears, the amount of stuff you need (and how much it costs), and how her family and friends reacted to the news. Morris is open and honest about the good and the bad and, most impressively, has created a page-turner. The TV show is being created as I type; I can’t wait to see Morris’ story on screen.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk – Kathleen Rooney (Daunt Books)
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish takes a walk across Manhattan and through her whole adult life. Boxfish, inspired by 1930s advertising copywriter Margaret Fishback, has quite a story. A working woman who rises to prominence as a poet and ad writer in a time when it was rare; a divorcee; a mother of a grown son. But this is also the story of NYC and its inhabitants. As the night progresses, Lillian meets a driver, a family out for a celebration meal, some newly made friends with an unconventional lifestyle, and a street gang. Lillian holds her own throughout. A tale of a smart woman and a smart city.
All review copies from publishers as listed, except Love After Love and Glass Town which are my own copies.
Hello! It’s been a while. I wasn’t planning on posting here ever again really, and, no doubt, some of you have forgotten you ever subscribed to this blog, so this will be a surprise. A pleasant one I hope, but if not there should be an unsubscribe button around here somewhere.
So what’s going on and why am I here? The short answer is that I read Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock over the Easter weekend and want somewhere to shout about how brilliant it is. The longer answer involves an existential crisis prompted by the UK lockdown. If you’ve met me in real life, you’ll know that I can talk for England. Being locked down on my own means that, other than creating a rota of my long-suffering friends and forcing them to talk to me on a daily basis, I’ve mostly got no one to babble on to other than myself and I’ve had enough of the monologue in my own brain. Consider it a treat that I’m foisting it upon you instead; it has lots of thoughts about books and politics and misogyny.
One of the reasons I stopped reviewing books here was because I was no longer enjoying it. I never wanted reviewing to be a chore and when you’ve fallen out of love with it, it shows in your writing. I want to create something different instead. The basic plan is a diary with thoughts around some of the books I’ve been reading, along with links to other things – essays, stories, poems. Apparently, I think I’m Alan Bennett (well, we are both from Yorkshire) or Deborah Levy (I wish), whose Lockdown Diary is one of the best things to come out of the pandemic so far.
My reading habits have changed this year; at the start of 2020, I set myself a challenge to read 100 books from my own shelves (about 70% of my total reading in a good year). The reasons behind this were that I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the number of unread books on my shelves, some of which have been sitting there for 20+ years, and I thought I’d limited my own reading through running this blog. The feeling that I should review everything I read and that I should stay up to date with new releases was a box of my own making. I hit 50 books/50% of my target on Maundy Thursday. This was unexpected. I’d assumed that come October, I’d be creating piles of novellas round my flat and powering through them. What I’m expecting to post here in future then is a mix of old and new.
When I make it to 50, I give myself a break and an opportunity to read the books that have recently been or are soon going to be published by writers I love. Evie Wyld’s previous novel, All the Birds, Singing, is one of my favourite books, so I’m both keen to read The Bass Rock and a little trepidatious. By the start of the second chapter I know I’m going to love it. Vivianne, one of three female protagonists, answers the door to a delivery guy in the middle of the day in her dressing gown. Her waste bin and recycling are overflowing. She’s 40. I don’t need protagonists to be relatable but it’s unusual to read about a character who’s over 35, lives alone, is neither a complete mess nor super competent. I like her. I feel seen. Vivianne lives in London but, throughout the novel, travels back and forth to North Berwick to sort out the personal items in her grandmother’s house, which is up for sale following her grandmother’s death.
The second protagonist is Ruth, recently married to Peter who has two boys from his first marriage. It’s post-World War II and Ruth’s negotiating how to be a wife to a man she doesn’t know very well, in a place far from her London roots, while also attempting to be a mum to two boys whose mother has died. The third woman is Sarah. It’s the 1700s and she’s on the run, having been accused of witchcraft. She’s sheltered by a family whose son narrates the story. All three women are linked by their proximity to Bass Rock, an island off the coastline, but also by the violence – physical and psychological – that is inflicted upon them by men. Wyld draws the links between these women through the structure of the chapters which move from Vivienne to Ruth to Sarah to Ruth and back to Vivienne. She also provides echoes between the years, both through actions and incidents that reoccur and through items passed between the generations.
Wyld’s purpose is to bear witness to the incidents of violence against women that have taken place for centuries. She makes this clear through the character of Maggie, a woman Vivienne meets in a supermarket in the opening chapter. It’s late at night and Maggie warns Vivienne there is a man creeping around by her car. They meet again in a later chapter where we discover that Maggie is homeless, considers herself a witch and sometimes undertakes sex work. Vivienne is wary of Maggie and, initially, so am I, until I realise that Wyld’s making me consider how we think about women who warn us about the behaviour of men. Of course they’re wild and weird and unpredictable, according to patriarchal societal conventions. Maggie’s the friend who, when you’re dismissing male behaviour that’s made you feel uncomfortable, reminds you yes, all men.
It’s an image that Maggie conjures that stays with me after I finish reading the book. She asks:
What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once? If we could see them lying there. What if you could project a hologram of the bodies in the places they were killed? […] We’re just breezing in and out of the death zone. Wading through the dead.
I think about all the places I’ve lived and wonder whether there’s a dead woman in each one. I think about the route I take from my flat into Sheffield city centre and wonder how many dead women lie along it. It’s been days and I’m still haunted by it.
Irina, the protagonist of Eliza Clark’s debut Boy Parts has a response to male violence. She photographs men through the lens of the female gaze, creating portraits of them as sexual objects which she sells via her website and to a private collector known as B. Initially, Irina appears in control. She’s confident and brash, with a fuck you attitude to life. It soon becomes apparent though that she’s an Ottessa Moshfegh character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, albeit set in Newcastle, and therefore not entirely reliable or stable. She torments her friends and the men she photographs, but the cracks are there and, as the story descends into violence, it’s Irina that is tortured. I love an unlikeable female protagonist and Irina’s a delicious one; you wouldn’t want to be friends with her irl but she’s fun to spend time with from the safe distance of the page.
Talking of safe distances…when the lockdown begins in the UK, I find the only genres I can concentrate on are crime and historical fiction. The latter of which I would usually tell you is one of my least favourite genres (along with men’s fiction, obviously), but there’s something comforting about escaping into a past where things have already happened and the outcomes are certain. It’s perfect timing then for me to read Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel Hamnet, named for Shakespeare’s son who died when he was 11 and was possibly the inspiration for the play Hamlet, the two names being interchangeable. It’s Agnes (better known as Anne) Hathaway who takes centre stage here though. I take great delight in noticing that William Shakespeare is never referred to by name but as the tutor or the father or her husband, in the same way that women are often reduced to being someone’s wife or mother.
The first two thirds of the novel move between Judith, Hamnet’s twin, falling ill and Agnes and Will’s courtship and marriage. Agnes is viewed with suspicion by a town who don’t understand her ways. She keeps a kestrel, makes herbal remedies, and can read someone’s soul and future by touching the spot between their thumb and first finger. Shakespeare’s enchanted by her; in him, she encounters a boundless soul she can’t fathom. O’Farrell’s always been skilled at handling different timelines, but here her movement across time and perspective is fluid and flawless. It reminds me of Deborah Levy’s comments about how we don’t experience time chronologically and O’Farrell shows this specifically through Agnes’ ability, mirroring it for the reader as we move between the stages of her life.
Around the mid-point of the book, O’Farrell includes a chapter showing how the bubonic plague might have reached Stratford-upon-Avon and Judith Shakespeare by way of a cabin boy who encounters a monkey in Alexandria and then goes on to collect some glass beads from Murano, which are eventually delivered to the Shakespeare’s next-door-neighbour. At this point, I realise I had no idea how Hamnet died and my comfort read has been invaded by thoughts of passengers on cruise ships and airplanes and ideas about contact tracing and testing. Too late by now though as I’m well invested in the world O’Farrell has created.
The final 100 pages are a single chapter that runs from the death of Hamnet to the staging of the play named for him. It’s a superb study of grief and the different ways in which we deal with it. When I finish the final pages, it’s difficult to believe that I’m not standing in The Globe after the audience has mostly emptied out.
O’Farrell has long been pigeonholed as a writer of ‘women’s fiction’ (oh how I hate that term) and largely ignored by the big prizes. Hamnet is longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction and I sincerely hope it makes an appearance on the Booker Prize list too. It is O’Farrell’s masterpiece.
Between the novels, I’m reading lots of short things. While I’ve had too much time to think, I’ve realised that all my favourite writing is political. By which I mean overtly political. (In one sense, all writing by women is political by nature of its existence.) It’s why I love Sinéad Gleeson’s story ‘The Lexicon of Babies’, an allegorical tale of motherhood and society, and Salena Godden’s poem ‘I saw Goody Procter jogging without a face mask‘ which combines The Crucible and people’s policing of each other under social distancing. The final lines, which highlight the hypocrisy of racists and the Tories as they clap and cheer for health care professionals they’ve undervalued and underfunded for years, are pointed and pertinent.
When the news that we were going into lockdown broke, I was a third of the way into Cash Carraway’s memoir Skint Estate. I finished it as schools closed and the majority of the population shifted to working from home or not working because their jobs had suddenly disappeared.
Carraway writes about trying to secure housing for herself and her daughter, showing how difficult it is even when she manages to save enough for a deposit and several month’s rent. Her income is unstable, whether she’s making it through sex work or writing; landlords don’t want to take tenants whose income is supplemented by universal credit, and Carraway has no guarantor. If she applies for council housing, she knows she will be moved out of London, away from any support networks she has, and indeed, towards the end of the book, she is. Carraway’s book becomes a channel for my anger during a time when there’s a sense it should go unspoken. I walk around my flat saying universal basic income to myself like they’re the words of a lullaby.
One morning earlier this week, I wonder how Ali Smith is doing and whether she’s rewriting sections of Summer, the final volume of her seasons quartet. I check the publication date and find it’s been pushed back a month to August. This might be because many books are being delayed at the moment, but I hope it’s because she has something to say about the UK government’s reaction to coronavirus. There’s no one whose views I want to hear more right now than Ali Smith’s.
[Review copy of The Bass Rock provided by Vintage; review copy of Boy Parts provided by Influx Books; review copy of Hamnet provided by Tinder Press; Skint Estate bought and paid for by me.]
I started the year re-reading my favourite book. For those of you at the back, that’s The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall. It tells the story of Cy Parks: his childhood in Morecambe, raised in his mother’s B&B; his apprenticeship to Eliot Riley, the local tattoo artist, and his journey to New York, where he sets up a booth in Coney Island and meets Grace, a woman from war-torn Eastern Europe, who asks him to decorate her body. Throughout the book there’s discussion about women’s bodies and what they’re allowed to do with them but it’s Grace who seems to have the answer:
It will always be about body! Always for us! I don’t see a time when it won’t. I can’t say you can’t have my body, that’s already decided, it’s already obtained. If I had fired the first shot it would have been on a different field – in the mind. All I can do is interfere with what they think is theirs, how it is supposed to look, the rules. I can interrupt like a rude person in a conversation.
I’m not going to give anything away about whether or not she succeeds, I’ll just mention again that it’s my favourite novel of all time and leave you to do the right thing.
My Sister the Serial Killer– Oyinkan Braithwaite
Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.
Ayoola, as you can see, has a thing for murdering men, men she’s dated who’ve become angry with her. Korede’s good with the bleach so helps with the clean-up. Two things are about to become a problem though: Femi, the man Ayoola kills at the beginning of the book, has family who want to know what’s happened to him, and Ayoola starts dating Tade, a doctor at the hospital where Korede’s a nurse. A doctor Korede also has a crush on.
Braithwaite examines the role of the patriarchy in the way women behave, both towards men and towards each other. She asks whether we can ever escape our childhoods and if blood really is thicker than water. A smart page turner.
Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy.
Louis & Louise– Julie Cohen
Louis and Louise, Cohen’s protagonists, are the same child, born to the same parents, in the same place, at the same time. But they are born as two different sexes. Cohen then jumps forward 32 years to show us how their lives have turned out. Lou(ise) is a teacher and single mother to her daughter, Dana, living and working in Brooklyn. Lou(is) is a writer who’s in the process of splitting up with his wife. In both timelines, Lou is summoned home to Casablanca, Maine, because their mother is dying of cancer. This means a confrontation with Allie, Lou’s former best friend, and the uncovering of secrets kept for over a decade.
What I was expecting from Louis & Louise was a critique of gender from the protagonist’s perspective, a ‘look what you could’ve won’ style narrative. But Cohen’s version is more sophisticated than that; she uses the twins, Allie and Benny, Lou’s childhood best friends to explore the restrictions binary gender places on both women and men. There are points where this isn’t a comfortable read [cn for domestic violence, rape and suicide] but Cohen shows that there might be another way. There are a number of points in the book where Louis and Louise’s stories meet. These sections are written as though the character is non-binary, using singular they for their pronoun, and show that some of this person’s experience was identical, regardless of gender. Both versions also end with hope. Louis & Louise is a sophisticated look at gender and love and is well worth your time.
Thanks to Orion for the review copy.
Baise-Moi – Virginie Despentes (translated by Bruce Benderson)
On Sundays, I’ve started giving myself free rein to read whatever I want from my poor, neglected shelves. You know, those books I bought because I wanted to read them that sit there while I go through proofs and reading for work. Woe is me and the books that never get read. I was so enamoured with Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 1 that I’ve bought everything that’s been translated and decided to start from the beginning.
Baise-Moi translates as Rape Me so let me insert all of the trigger warnings here. Nadine is a sex worker who watches pornography incessantly. Manu has a huge appetite for sex and alcohol. After Manu is raped and Nadine kills her flatmate, the two women’s paths cross and they embark on a killing spree. It seems superfluous to mention it really, but this isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s violent, full of sex and swearing, but also – dare it say it – gripping. There’s an element of excitement in watching two women do something men have dominated for years. Morality aside, of course. Thelma & Louise meets Natural Born Killers.
The Mental Load – Emma (translated by Una Dimitrijevic)
Emma went viral with the comic ‘You Should’ve Asked’ a couple of years ago. The Mental Loadis a collection of her pieces dealing with gender and political issues, ranging from working in a hostile environment to forced caesarean sections to the male gaze to raids on immigrants made under the guise of terrorism laws. The strips are informative, clear and interesting. However, it felt a little feminism/capitalism 101 to me, in which case, I’m not the intended audience. I do heartily recommend that every heterosexual man reads a copy asap though, but not at the expense of doing his share of the housework or childcare.
You Know You Want This – Kristen Roupenian
Roupenian went viral last year with her story ‘Cat Person’ which was published in The New Yorker. Much has been made of the subsequent high figure deals she then netted for this, her debut collection. I mention it more because it’s become a talking point that as an indicator for how to read the stories – the collection seems to have taken a battering in some quarters because it isn’t what the reader expected it to be on the basis of one story and some publishing money.
If you’re looking for more stories in the same vein as ‘Cat Person’ you get one; ‘The Good Guy’ is the longest story in the collection and tells the story of Ted, who thinks he’s good but is clearly bad. Ted’s one of those men who thinks that because he had female friends, because he was the nice guy who hung around listening to their problems while working out how he might shag them, he’s good. Roupenian (and the rest of us) have news for Ted.
The rest of the stories take a somewhat darker turn. If you were expecting Sally Rooney, prepare for Ottessa Moshfegh without the redeeming qualities. In ‘Bad Boy’ a couple who have a friend staying in their flat know he can hear them having sex, so persuade him to join them; in ‘Sardines’ Tilly makes a birthday wish that will please her mum but cause problems for her dad and his new, younger girlfriend; in ‘Scarred’ the narrator conjures up her heart’s desire to discover that maybe it’s not what she wanted after all. When Roupenian’s at her best, she makes your skin crawl: ‘The Matchbox Sign’, in which Laura discovers bite marks on her skin which her doctor thinks are psychosomatic, made me itch, while ‘Biter’, in which Ellie does what it says, made me wince (and maybe punch the air, a little bit). You Know You Want This isn’t a perfect collection but it’s an interesting one.
Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.
Blood Orange – Harriet Tyce
Madeleine Smith is found next to her husband’s body; he’s been stabbed to death in their bed. Madeleine says she’s guilty but there’s something about her story that doesn’t quite seem right.
Alison is going to take Madeleine’s case – her first murder case, but Alison’s got problems of her own: she’s drinking too much, having an affair with a colleague and someone knows. Her husband, Carl, is a therapist who’s had enough of Alison’s drinking and late nights at work and isn’t afraid to use their daughter, Matilda, to make Alison feel guilty.
Tyce tells the story from Alison’s perspective and – as we follow her thoughts and actions – it starts to become clear that something isn’t quite right.
Because this is a psychological thriller and therefore some of the enjoyment hinges on the twists, I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. However, Tyce takes a very topical look at the behaviour of men and finds them wanting. Blood Orange is fierce, smart, gripping and sticks a very big middle finger up at the patriarchy. Obviously, I loved it.
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.
Some of the best books I read this year weren’t published in 2018 so I thought I’d put them in a separate round-up. I always try and keep this to ten books, I haven’t managed it this year, here’s twelve instead.
Union Street – Pat Barker
One day I’ll learn to read a writer’s work before judging it. I’ve always assumed that Pat Barker wrote books about men in war, then I had to read The Silence of the Girls to write the copy for her Manchester Literature Festival event. I posted a picture of me reading it on my personal Instagram and the brilliant Adelle Stripe mentioned Barker’s earlier, feminist works which she thought I’d like. She was right. Union Street begins with Kelly, stalked by an older man, then moves along the street, chapter-by-chapter, to tell the tales of the other women and girls. It’s a grim read filled with neglect, abuse, pregnancy and death but it captures life for white working class women and still feels as relevant in 2018 as it would’ve done in 1982.
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire moves Sophocles’ Antigone to the present, telling the story of twins Isma and Aneeka and their brother Parvaiz. When the young women meet Eamonn Lone, son of the UK’s first Muslim Home Secretary, all of their lives are irrevocably changed. A compelling retelling which places a spotlight on the West’s treatment of Muslims and ideas of integration. My full review is here.
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward
Narrated by 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie, and the ghost of a boy named Richie, Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of a Black family in Southern America who can’t escape the ghosts of the past. Ward intertwines family history with that of Black people in North America and uses the present day to show the damage that history has wrought. It’s a devastating and timely tale. My mini-review is here.
A Thousand Paper Birds – Tor Udall
Another example of my work leading me to a book I’d previously overlooked. I was asked to interview Udall as part of a panel at Jersey Festival of Words and A Thousand Paper Birds was a real surprise. Jonas’ wife is dead. He retreats to Kew Gardens as a place to try and heal. There he meets Chloe, Harry and Millie, all of whom are keeping their own secrets. Beautifully written and affecting, an absolute gem.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (some sections translated by Lizzie Davies)
Another timely work. In 2015, Luiselli began working as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. Through the questions the children are asked, Luiselli tells some of their stories and the wider tale of how these children are being failed. My full review is here.
Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy
Conceived as a response to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ and the first in a trilogy about Levy’s life and work, Things I Don’t Want to Know is a feminist discussion on women’s writing. Levy talks about the need to speak up, to write calmly through rage, to find a space in which to write. I underlined a lot.
Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)
An unnamed woman struggles with new motherhood in a new country. She’s angry and frustrated but also full of love and lust, all of which spill out at inappropriate moments. Harwicz questions society’s expectations of women in this inventive, sharp novella. My full review is here.
The White Book – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
A fractured, often brutal book about Han’s sister who died two hours after she was born. Han uses the colour white repetitively as a meditation on grief and loss, writing her sister back into existence. Beautifully translated by Smith, The White Book is short and highly affecting but not without hope.
Kindred – Octavia Butler
One of the bookish things I’ve most enjoyed this year is taking part in the #ReadWomenSF discussions on Twitter, led by the writer G X Todd. It’s meant I’ve read a number of books that have been sitting on my shelves for some time and Kindred was one of them. In 1976, Dana, a young Black woman, is pulled into 1815 where she saves a young white boy’s life. He is the son of a plantation owner and one of Dana’s relatives. Through Dana, Rufus and Dana’s white husband, Kevin, Butler explores structural inequality, complicity and the normalising of horrific behaviour, all of which doesn’t seem so distant in 2018.
The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly
Last year I loved Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said so this year I went back to the beginning and read her debut, The Poison Tree. In 1997, Karen meets Biba and is swept into her bohemian lifestyle. In 2007, Karen and her daughter Alice, collect their husband and father from prison. We know that at the end of the summer in 1997 two people died. But we don’t know how and we don’t know who. Tightly plotted and compelling with a perfect ending.
Die a Little – Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott is one of those writers that everyone seems to rave about so I decided to start at the beginning with her debut. Set on the edges of Hollywood during the Golden Age, Die a Little, tells the story of school teacher Lora King’s investigation into her new sister-in-law, Alice Steele, a Hollywood wardrobe assistant. As her findings build, Lora uncovers a world of drugs and sex work as well as some secrets about her own life. Possibly the only book I’ve ever read that I thought was too short.
Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic
Caleb Zelic’s best friend dies in his arms in the opening pages of Resurrection Bay and the pace doesn’t let up until the end of the book. His best friend has been murdered and Caleb’s turns investigator to find out who did it. His mission is made all the more interesting – and sometimes scary – because Caleb’s deaf meaning sometimes he picks up on cues others might miss and other times he doesn’t hear people sneaking up on him. There are subplots involving his estranged relations – a brother and a wife – and some fun with Australian sign language too. My review of the follow-up And Fire Came Down is here, along with an interview with Emma Viskic.
Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying. We sat on the shady veranda and contemplated it for a moment and then suddenly burst out laughing, both of us together – not just laughing either, whooping, screeching, gasping for breath, until, finally, the men turned to stare at us and Tecmessa stuffed the hem of her tunic into her mouth to gag herself.
The Trojan War, probably the most famous war in literature. The story told in The Illiad. The story, as Barker puts it in her epigraph (taken from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain), of a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon over ‘a girl’. Briseis: Mynes’ wife, stolen from Lyrnessus as a war trophy and given to the man who killed her husband and brothers – Achilles.
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.
Barker takes the story from the men and gives it to the women. She allows those long silenced by literature a voice – and what a voice. Briseis is no nonsense, confident, intelligent, blunt. She moves between Achilles’ hut and the women’s camp detailing what she sees, hears, and the things to which she’s subjected. Achilles rapes her, of course – ‘He fucked as quickly as he killed, and for me it was the same thing’ – but it’s after Briseis arrives at Achilles’ bed having been in the sea that he goes wild:
…there was immense passion; passion, but no tenderness. He made love – huh! – as if he hoped the next fuck would kill me. One moment, he was grinding me into the dust, the next, clinging on to me, as if afraid I might suddenly disappear.
Achilles has mummy issues. He’s also cocky and petulant, beautiful and elegant. He’s loyal to Patroclus, his friend from childhood, but at loggerheads with Agamemnon.
By handing the story to the women, Barker humanises Achilles and his fellow warriors. They are arrogant and spoiled with no qualms about taking anything they like whether that’s cities, finery or women. While Achilles’ prowess on the battlefield is shown, so are its consequences. From the systematic rape of the women – many of whom Briseis gets to know – to the goods that have been looted and turn up at unexpected moments: Briseis’ father’s tunic worn by Myron; the bride-gift necklace given by Briseis’ father to her mother and then placed around Briseis’ own neck by Odysseus.
Perhaps more importantly though, Barker wrenches one of the key canonical texts from the grasp of men – throwing shade at Roth along the way – and claims it for the women who’ve been ignored for centuries. At one point, when Briseis is serving wine she ponders why the men have her doing so. She concludes, ‘Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men’. With The Silence of the Girls Barker’s carved meaning into literature, messages addressed to women – these are our stories to claim and to tell – and to men – we’ll be silent no longer, literature doesn’t belong to you.
TheCertifiablyTRUERavingsOfASectionedPhilosopher: Don't be afraid to think you might be a little 'crazy'. Who isn't? Check out some of my visualized poems here: https://www.instagram.com/maxismaddened/
Hmmm so I am the Hungry Reader. The one who reads. The one who is constantly reading or wanting to read constantly. This blog is all about the books I have read, the ones that I am reading and gems that I plan to read in the future or whenever it arrives.