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.

Reading Diary #2

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.