My Top Ten Books of 2021

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2020 post here, my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

A note: I feel like 2021 has been one of my worst reading years for a long time, not in terms of the number of books I read, but the quality – or perhaps I was just very bad at picking books that suited my mood. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was struggling to find books for my top ten rather than struggling to choose between them. These books are still all great, but I’m hoping to have a better reading year in 2022.

In no particular order…

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1.My Dark Vanessa: Kate Elizabeth Russell. I held off from reading My Dark Vanessa for a long time, convinced that there was nothing new to add to the vast number of recent novels that deal with coercive, abusive relationships. But this collaboration between Russell and her teenage self made a huge impact on me. I reviewed it here.

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2.Light Perpetual: Francis Spufford. I loved Spufford’s clever and inventive Golden Hillbut I thought this was even better. Many readers and reviewers seem to have misunderstood its ‘alternative timeline’ conceit; it’s not a Sliding Doors type book, but kills off its ordinary protagonists at the beginning so we can feel the weight of their loss, even though they make no direct impact on history. I reviewed it here.

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3.A Deadly Education: Naomi Novik. Novik’s Spinning Silver was one of my favourite books of 2020, and this very different, but utterly delightful novel took me back to being a pre-teen reading the early Harry Potter books for the first time, although the narrative voice also reminded me of one of my adult SFF favourites, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. I reviewed it here.

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4. In This House of Brede: Rumer Godden. 2021 was the year of novels about nuns for me, and although there were some other nun novels that I really enjoyed (such as Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts), this was the best of the bunch. Set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s, this novel centres on new recruit Philippa, but expands outwards to give a portrait of the entire community. I reviewed it here.

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5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: George Saunders. This is probably the best book I’ve ever read about fiction-writing, even though it’s centred on a series of classic Russian short stories which I am not especially interested in. I’ve now signed up for Saunders’s online writing course on substack, Story Club.

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6. Slow River: Nicola Griffith. Nicola Griffith can’t put a foot wrong with me; this is the third time in a row she’s appeared on my top ten books list (after Ammonite in 2019 and Hild in 2020). Slow River is not only the best SF novel about sewage treatment I’ve ever read, but features a truly compelling central character and a skilful back-and-forth structure. No idea what’s going on with the cover of this edition.

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7. Transcendent Kingdom: Yaa Gyasi. What an incredible, cerebral, emotional novel. It’s brilliantly written, handles so many interesting ideas, and yet is so vibrant and human. I loved the protagonist, Gifty. I reviewed it here.

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8. Little Gods: Meng Jin. This is another one with a great, complex protagonist, which seems to be something I’m really looking for in novels at the moment: Su Lan is only the more fascinating because her story is told through a series of other narrators, and we never hear from her directly. I reviewed it here.

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9. Breasts and Eggs: Mieko Kawakami. This took me such a long time to read, but it was such a worthwhile experience. This strange, meandering novel about lonely writer Natsu has a great deal to say about parenthood and our responsibilities to the next generation. I wrote briefly about it here.

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10. In The Dream House: Carmen Maria Machado. Squeaking in just under the wire… I raced through this memoir between Boxing Day and New Year, hugely impressed by Machado’s ability to weave together self-narrative, fantasy, and academic reflections on how abusive relationships between women have been (not) written about before. Everyone who recommended this to me was right.

Reading Stats

I read 153 books in 2021. Slightly more than 2020, but quite a few less than my 2019 record, 175. This is pretty much where I want to be, so in 2022, I’ll again set a target of 150. However, I’d also like to start keeping track of how many books I re-read. This year, 11 of the books I read were re-reads, and I’d like to see that number go up in 2022.

I read 125 books by women (including one trans woman), 27 books by men, and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary.  This means I read the same percentage of books by men as I did in 2020 – 18%. I usually say I don’t care about upping the number of books I read by men, but this article has made me realise that I really want to read more by men of colour. Therefore, I’ve tried to include lots of books by men of colour in my 2022 Reading Plans, which will be up tomorrow. I also still want to read more from trans men, despite reading 0 books by trans men this year!

I read 43 books by writers of colour and 110 books by white writers. This means the percentage of books I read by writers of colour has dropped a little since 2020, to 28%. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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2021 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2021 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2021, not necessarily first published in 2021.

Highly Commended

 In prize lists, I loved Annabel Lyon’s Consentwhich should have made the Women’s Prize shortlist – and Richard Powers’s Bewildermentwhich did make the Booker Prize shortlist.

The new Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was massively overhyped, but it was easily my favourite Rooney so far – I loved her clever use of psychic distance, switching between an observer’s view of her characters to their innermost thoughts.

In science fiction and speculative fiction, I thought the writing team behind James S.A. Corey pulled off a hugely satisfying conclusion to The Expanse series with the final instalment, Leviathan Falls – this series stuttered a bit in the middle but the last three books were all great, and Corey effectively tied up all the loose ends while wisely leaving the ‘dark gods’ of the universe still mysterious. Tade Thompson’s Far From the Light of Heaven was a hugely inventive space-opera-cum-crime-thriller with touches of horror. Will Maclean’s The Apparition Phase was a brilliant ghost story, something that is almost impossible to achieve at novel-length. Finally, Nina Allan’s short story collection The Art of Space Travel showcased what I love best about her writing in haunting stories such as ‘Flying in the Face of God’, ‘Four Abstracts’ and ‘The Art of Space Travel’ itself.

In historical fiction, I was pleasantly surprised by Stacey Halls’s engaging Mrs Englandwhich had one of the dreaded floral covers but actually featured a complex, sympathetic protagonist who works as a Norland nanny in Edwardian England. Meanwhile, everything this damning review says about Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary is true (except that Cambridge does offer a masters degree in eighteenth-century and Romantic studies – that’s Cambridge being weird, not Penner!). Nevertheless, I found it irresistibly fun and gripping, so I guess I recommend it anyway, if you can deal with the terrible history?

Finally, in YA and YA-adjacent, I liked Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter (one of my most anticipated reads of 2021) despite its pacing problems and tendency to spell things out for the reader – it follows an Ojibwe teenager who’s an unenrolled tribal member, and so feels she’s never quite fit into her family. Emily Layden’s All Girls gave me Prep vibes (amazing), and was serious and insightful about the inner worlds of teenage girls (rare). I picked up T. Kingfisher’s Bryony and Roses after loving her short story in Escape Pod; this Beauty and the Beast retelling is heavily influenced by Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, but still brings its own wit and logic to the table, plus a nicely chilling touch of horror.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations. I have to say, there were a lot of disappointments in 2021. For whatever reason, this was a pretty lacklustre reading year for me. So this list is longer than normal.

I was disappointed by quite a few books written by authors I’ve loved in the past. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun promised a fresh take on AI but was just a tired rehash of Never Let Me Go. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness drowned in its own tweeness about literature, despite a promising central cast. And Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew abandoned all the subtlety of Elmet for Dickensian caricatures.

Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders unfortunately didn’t live up to her excellent debut, The Doll FactoryJessie Greengrass’s The High House had none of the originality of Sight. Mark O’Connell’s Notes From an Apocalypse was only mildly disappointing compared to his To Be A Machine until I reached the end, where he admits he regularly lies to his young son about the state of the world – this is horrific (children know what’s going on, so lying to them just leaves them alone with their fears). Sarah Moss’s The Fell confirmed to me that I don’t like the direction her writing is currently going. Finally, after loving Kindred so much, I did not get on at all with Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, although some of this was not Butler’s fault – so many YA writers have clearly copied her dystopian tropes that they now feel cliched in a way they wouldn’t have done when the book was originally published. Still, I found the heroine disturbingly monomaniacal and the diary entry format limiting.

At least some of this must be me, rather than the books! But I think it explains why 2021 felt like such a dud of a reading year, even though I also read many books that I loved. On that note…

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2021!

Autumn Reading, 2021

Autumn (I also like the American ‘fall’, which I used in my early childhood) is my favourite season, for all the usual reasons: Halloween, Bonfire Night, leaves changing colour, beautiful afternoon light, back-to-school, cozy jumpers, pumpkin spice lattes, comfortable boots. And some less-usual reasons: my birthday, days getting shorter, dogs allowed on the North Tyneside/Northumberland beaches, allowed to wear tights again. I always like to seek out some autumnal reading, which might be cozy or spooky or set in the fall, but sometimes just ends up feeling ‘autumnal’ to me for some unspecified reason. Here’s some thoughts on what I’ve been reading:

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Something about Sarah Hall’s work always makes me think of autumn. In the case of Burntcoat, it’s the protagonist’s, Edith’s, art, which involves sculpting from wood using burning techniques she learnt in Japan, so the wood can bear the weather better. Edith describes the process:

There was incredible skill to it – collapsing the cell walls to strengthen the wood, preserving its integrity while enhancing its beauty. Too much heat and the piece was ruined, too little and the wood wasn’t sealed, could not achieve the finish. Shun called this experience. The wood is experiencing fire now. It will be improved.

This passage could serve as an epigraph for the whole book, which darts between Edith’s past and her present. In the present, she is nearing the end of her life, living with the aftereffects of the novavirus, a pandemic that ravaged the world several decades ago. In the past, she faces the pandemic in isolation with her lover, and remembers her mother’s struggle back to life after a brain haemorrhage. I found this all strongly reminiscent of some of the Nina Allan short stories I recently read, especially ‘Neptune’s Trident’, ‘Flying in the Face of God’, and ‘Four Abstracts’. Hall has the same knack as Allan of creating imaginary art that feels so real you almost believe it exists – next time I’m at Scotch Corner, I’ll expect to see Edith’s witch – and she’s also interested in those outcast by illness and dealing with its effects on their body.

I’ve read everything Sarah Hall has written, and her uncompromising, vivid prose is in full force in Burntcoat. I found her last collection of short stories, Madame Zerosomewhat disappointing, so for me this felt like a return to form, and I was glad to see her publish a longer work again. While this was not as distinctive and memorable for me as my favourite Hall, The Carhullan Armyit’s still a highly original take on a theme that was familiar in fiction long before coronavirus: how we survive mass illness and death, and what is left if we do.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Tade Thompson’s new SF thriller, Far From The Light of Heaven, also fills the autumnal brief for me, as well as the RIP Challenge, by being pretty creepy. Shell Campion is the first mate on the starship Ragtime, and she expects an easy ride; she’ll be in deep sleep for most of her ten-year stint travelling to the new settlement of Bloodroot, and even when she’s awake, the AI captain will actually be in charge. However, when Shell is awakened abruptly from stasis, she realises something has gone terribly wrong; the AI has been compromised, and robots have killed a number of her sleeping passengers. Shell’s story intersects with that of a number of other characters, most hailing either from Bloodroot or from the space station Lagos, as she tries to find out what is going on and save her ship.

This gripping space-opera-cum-crime-thriller reminded me at times of James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, especially in its touches of horror as vegetable contagion creeps through the spaceship, and in its use of multiple points-of-view. There’s also some hints of China Miéville in Thompson’s genre-mixing. I found Far From The Light of Heaven more compelling than the only other novel I’ve read by Thompson, Rosewaterwhich failed to emotionally engage me with its protagonist. Nevertheless, it does still have a few of the same issues as Rosewater – in short, it sometimes spreads itself too thin. Thompson has a habit of suddenly lurching into chunks of backstory in the middle of the narrative, which feel out of place, especially in a novel as fast-paced as this one, and could have been introduced more originally. There are rather too many points-of-view broken up into very small chunks, which adds to the reader’s disorientation. And while this isn’t billed as the first book in a series, it feels very much like it’s setting up for something bigger, especially in its introduction of the race of mysterious Lambers, which is wonderfully imaginative but feels like a distraction from the main goings-on in this book. Nevertheless, Thompson continues to impress me with his originality, and I’d certainly like to read more set in this world.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th October.

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Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books have been a favourite autumnal read for me since I was a teenager, and although none of the later titles in the series ever reached the heights of Sabriel or Lirael, I still always enjoy returning to the Old Kingdom. This latest instalment, Terciel and Elinor, jumps back in time to focus on Sabriel’s parents, moving between their stories and ultimately interweaving them. Terciel is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, charged by the current Abhorsen to help her bind the Greater Dead creature Kerrigor, who we know will become significant later on in the history of this world. Elinor has grown up in Ancelstierre knowing nothing of the Old Kingdom, convinced that the Charter Mark she bears on her forehead is a disfiguring scar – until she is forced to come face to face with her heritage. I always get most out of the parts of the Old Kingdom books that are set in one of Nix’s marvellous set-piece locations (my favourite sequence in any of the novels is the part of Lirael where Lirael is still living with the Clayr) and so I was delighted to find that some of them feature here: Wyverley College and Abhorsen’s House (though sadly, we don’t see much of the Clayr’s Glacier). Like its predecessors Abhorsen and Goldenhand, Terciel and Elinor is fun and immersive, but doesn’t imaginatively introduce or expand this world in the ways that Sabriel and Lirael did; therefore, I can’t rank it as highly as the first two books, which were truly magical. Nevertheless, fans of the Old Kingdom series should like this.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 2nd November.

(This may seem frivolous, but I think part of the reason I haven’t got as much out of the two more recently published Abhorsen novels – Goldenhand and now Terciel and Elinor* – is simply because I haven’t had the sheer pleasure of reading them in the beautiful American hardback editions of the original trilogy. I read both on Kindle, but the British and newer American editions are so hideous that I don’t think it would have helped if I bought them in hard copy. Sadly, there are no matching editions for the more recent novels.)

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*I know Clariel exists but I wouldn’t have liked it regardless of what format I read it in

Do What Is Right, Not What Is Easy: Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate & The Harry Potter Books

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This post contains spoilers for A Deadly Education but not for The Last Graduate.

For most of my teenage years, I was a highly dedicated and committed Harry Potter fan. I was exactly the right age to ‘grow up with Harry’, reading the first book when I was eleven (and actually having to wait for the second one to come out!) and I spent a great deal of time on forums discussing the books and what might happen next, starting on Amazon.com’s Harry Potter forum (which was deleted abruptly in 2001, to my distress) and moving onto Fictionalley. As well as working out complicated theories, I also wrote some fan fiction (have a read here if you’re curious!) However, after Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in the summer of 2005, when I was eighteen, I abruptly and painfully fell out of love with the series. When I see Harry Potter fans discussing how betrayed they feel by JK Rowling in recent years, I feel a little amused and a little frustrated, because for me the series’ moral compass was always a little dodgy and crashed and burnt spectacularly with the last two books, so I don’t feel surprised at anything that’s happened since. In particular, I feel uncomfortable when I see fans lamenting that JKR hasn’t lived up to some of the moral platitudes in the series, because frankly, it’s a moral sinkhole, and shouldn’t be framed as Good Books vs their Bad Creator. I keep meaning to write a long post explaining why but it keeps on getting out of hand (for example, I managed to write more than 1550 words mostly on why The Twins are Terrible People, so you can see why I can’t keep my more extensive thoughts blog-length). 

Perhaps Harry Potter was never meant to be a series about ethics; indeed, I’ve seen some convincing essays on why it is really a series about grief and death. However, if that were the case, it certainly puts a lot of emphasis on the difference between ‘doing what is right and what is easy’ and on Harry’s own fears of becoming like Voldemort, especially in book two (where Harry’s fakeout revelation that he might be the Heir of Slytherin made eleven-year-old me screech loudly in a train, to my mum’s annoyance) and book five, where Sirius tells him ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘. The problem is, by book six – where Voldemort is portrayed as evil from birth, a creepy baby who never cried – and certainly by book seven, we find out that actually the world is so divided. Either you are Good or you are Bad; if you are Good, all your actions can be justified, whereas if you are Bad, none of them can. Choosing what is right is choosing what is easy if you are a Good person, like Harry; and choosing what is right, however hard it is, rarely comes with long-term consequences (it’s interesting that the book that is arguably not the strongest of the series, but, for my money, has the most ‘adult’ feel, is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which is the only book of the seven to try and deal seriously with trauma).

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Definitely not the best-plotted Harry Potter book, but the one that I still get the most joy from rereading.

SO. Where does Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series fit into all this? The Scholomance trilogy has been seen, and rightly so in my opinion, to be in direct conversation with Harry Potter. Set at a magical and part-sentient school and engaging explicitly with the trope of the Chosen One, there are some obvious lines of inspiration (although Rowling didn’t invent any of these things). The first book in the Scholomance series, A Deadly Education, introduced us to El, a deeply traumatised teenage girl who can barely keep her penchant for destructive magic under control, is certain that everybody hates her, and tries to hide all of this from her peers and from the reader by keeping up an ironic running commentary about everything she knows about the Scholomance and how to survive there. One of the things that was so brilliant about A Deadly Education, in my opinion, was its head-first engagement with morality. Magically gifted children, in El’s world, fight to get into the dangerous Scholomance because their odds of surviving to adulthood in the outside world are even worse. But once on the inside, those with money, power and family connections (‘enclavers’) up their own odds even further by exploiting their fellow students. El starts off the series by thinking that she wants to get a spot in an enclave for herself after graduation, but by the end of A Deadly Education, she’s realised she actually wants to burn the whole system down.

In short, in A Deadly Education and in its sequel, The Last Graduate, doing what is right is emphatically not what is easy, and Novik shows how El has to fight this internal battle multiple times, rather than simply setting herself on the path of Good and never looking back. Even more importantly, though, Novik’s commitment to portraying the trauma that every inhabitant of the Scholomance has suffered (there’s a particularly painful sequence in The Last Graduate where the students get a glimpse of the outside world through an enchanted facsimile and experience it as a punishment because they miss it so much) means that there are no real villains here. Bar a few maleficers, El doesn’t encounter a group of ‘bad’ kids equivalent to Rowling’s Slytherins, even though there are students who try and get in her way; Novik understands that the problem lies in the power structure of El’s world rather than with specific people. And while I would argue the Scholomance series is neither as ‘dark’ nor as morally complex as my all-time favourite children’s/YA series, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs – which shows its characters as not only traumatised but as fundamentally altered for the worse by their trauma – it shares more in common with that series than it does with Harry Potter.

Three cheers for the Scholomance books, then? Not yet. The Last Graduate wasn’t, in my opinion, quite as good as A Deadly Education, but it was still a great book that took some unexpected, thoughtful turns, even if it ended with exactly the cliffhanger I’d expected. Nevertheless, it will be the third book in this trilogy that will really decide whether Novik has achieved what I want her to achieve or not, and unfortunately, I do think it could go either way. Will El and Orion continue to be the true heroes they’ve showed themselves to be so far, or will something go badly wrong for one (or ideally, both) of them? A Deadly Education worked so well for me because El couldn’t accept her inner goodness; in The Last Graduate, I had had a bit too much of her inner goodness by the end. Furthermore, the cliffhanger from book one may or may not have been resolved here, and I really hope it hasn’t been, because if it has, that indicates the series is not going the way I’d like it to go. On the plus side: a lot of stuff happens in this book that I would usually expect in the final book of a trilogy, so Novik has given herself a lot of space to play with by clearing up some of the most obvious problems. On the minus side: the cliffhanger in book two sets up the potential of a rather traditional YA plotline that could take us away from what’s most interesting in this series. So we have to wait and see.

I’ve written a more straightforward review of The Last Graduate here.

A Deadly Education was accused of racist representation; I’ve summarised my thoughts on this issue at the end of my review here, and they remain the same.

I received a free proof copy of The Last Graduate from the publisher for review.

Growing Down With Harry: Why The Harry Potter Books Became a Moral Sinkhole

Snape’s Worst Memory, from the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film

In Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts, his nasty, bullying Potions master, Severus Snape, tells him openly for the first time how much he hated Harry’s dead father, James: ‘He, too, was exceedingly arrogant… Strutting around the place with his friends and admirers… the resemblance between you is uncanny.’ This comes as no surprise to Harry, who has been told long ago that Snape has it in for him because of his dislike of James. However, even though he knows virtually nothing about his father, he’s certain that Snape is recounting his own twisted version of events: ‘My dad didn’t strut. And nor do I.’ This recurrent narrative throughout the first four Harry Potter books makes the revelation in the fifth into one of the most unforgettable chapters in the series. Through a magical device called a Pensieve, Harry witnesses an uncensored version of Snape’s ‘worst memory’ – a version that, unlike Snape’s earlier accusations, he can’t write off as hopelessly biased, because it plays like a videotape. Snape’s worst memory shows a fifteen-year-old Snape being tormented by James in an exceptionally cold and vicious manner. James taunts an unarmed Snape, hexes him, then hangs him upside down (to add insult to injury, using what we later find out is a spell Snape invented), flashing his underwear to watching crowds; finally, he threatens to strip him. James isn’t motivated by anything much in attacking Snape in this way; he does it because he’s bored, because he can, and because he wants to show off to some admiring girls, including Harry’s mother, Lily.

Harry is deeply disturbed by witnessing Snape’s worst memory. It never occurs to him to try and make excuses for his father. Indeed, his instant reaction is: ‘he knew how it felt to be humiliated in the middle of a circle of onlookers, knew exactly how Snape had felt as his father had taunted him, and that judging from what he had just seen, his father had been every bit as arrogant as Snape had always told him.’ Harry seeks an explanation for what he’s seen from his father’s two best friends, Remus and Sirius. Neither understands Harry’s shock and horror. Indeed, they are happy to explain away James’s actions by claiming that this was a relationship of equal enemies, not of bully/victim, and that James had right on his side: ‘James and Snape hated each other from the moment they set eyes on each other… Snape was just this little oddball who was up to his eyes in the Dark Arts, and James… always hated the Dark Arts.’ They suggest that James was being ‘an idiot’ because he was ‘only fifteen’ (ignoring Harry’s fair retort, ‘I’m fifteen!’). Nevertheless, Harry continues to feel uneasy; this question about his father’s character is never resolved, even though the narrative itself quickly forgets it.

Snape’s worst memory is the only significant moment in the Harry Potter series where the bully is allowed to be a character whom we know to be on the Good side, and the victim a character who (at the time) was on the Bad side, which is another reason why it is so memorable. Throughout the rest of the books, only Bad characters are called out for their bullying behaviour. If you’re Good, you can get away with anything. For brevity, I’ll focus on one extreme example; the Weasley twins, Fred and George, brothers of Harry’s best friend Ron. The Twins are portrayed through the books as Good characters, culminating in Fred’s heroic death in book seven; they are also sadistic, cruel and at time, borderline psychopathic.

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The Twins are a lot nicer in the movies than they are in the books!

The Twins do too many horrible things for me to list them all, but they are consistently depicted picking on those younger and smaller than themselves, usually, but not always, members of their own family. The most persistent victim is Ron. The Twins start with childhood ‘pranks’ (they give him an Acid Pop that burns a hole through his tongue, and try to get him to make an Unbreakable Vow that would probably have killed him) and continue into adolescence; they destroy his confidence when he becomes part of the Gryffindor Quidditch team so thoroughly that he can’t play properly until they’ve left the school. Their position as classic bullies who always ‘punch down’ is summed up by a conversation in book six, where Ron admits anxiously that ‘I’d better pass my [Apparition] test first time… Fred and George did.’ His older brother Charlie failed, but ‘Charlie’s bigger than me… so Fred and George didn’t go on about it much.’ While their younger sister Ginny learns to stand up for herself later in the series, they target her when she’s still a shy, nervous eleven-year-old: in book two, they think it’s funny that she’s scared of Slytherin’s monster stalking the castle (after the monster has already almost killed a fellow student who sits next to her in one of her classes) so they ‘[take] it in turns to cover themselves in fur or boils and jump out at her from behind statues’ and only stop when their older brother tells them to knock it off because Ginny is having nightmares.

Reflecting on Snape’s worst memory, Harry compares his father’s behaviour to that of the Twins, and thinks that he ‘could not imagine Fred and George dangling someone upside-down for the fun of it.’ This positions the Twins as harmless pranksters and James as an exceptional bully. However, even though the intention of this paragraph is clearly meant to underline how bad James’s behaviour is, Rowling can’t quite stop there; Harry goes on to think, ‘not unless [the Twins] really loathed them… perhaps Malfoy, or somebody who really deserved it…’ Here, in a nutshell, is the moral sinkhole at the heart of the Harry Potter series. We know, by book five, that the Twins do things that are this bad all the time. As it happens, they bully people that Harry knows and likes, so even this doesn’t quite work out, but Harry admits here that this behaviour would be OK as long as it’s directed towards somebody who really deserved it. Unfortunately, in the world of Harry Potter, you ‘deserve it’ if you are Bad, and you are Bad because you deserve it. The Twins are Good, so they can’t be bullies, no matter how they treat other people.

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The films somewhat inexplicably save any remembered interactions between young!Snape and young!Lily for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.

As an aside: I’ve been thinking about why Snape’s worst memory shows James as so cruel, when it sits so uneasily with the rest of the text, and when Rowling clearly isn’t interested in exploring the long-term ramifications of Harry’s discovery. By book six, James is Good again. The answer, I think, is that Rowling is, as ever, focused on plotting. Snape’s worst memory exists in the text as a clue, as something we can go back to when we discover, in book seven, that Snape Loved Lily. It’s not really meant to upturn everything Harry knows about his father. Snape’s worst memory is Snape’s worst memory because he argued with Lily and lost her friendship, not because of James’s bullying. Of course, what we also have to take away is that, for Snape, being humiliated, hexed and stripped in front of the school wasn’t the worst of his memories, because it simply happened too often.

Better essayists than me have pointed out that the morality of Harry Potter is shot, so I won’t dwell on that issue here, but I’d like to discuss one of the reasons why. Rowling has frequently said that she wanted the series to ‘grow up with Harry’ and get darker as it went along. The series’ morality becomes much more simplistic in books six and seven, so it certainly doesn’t become more morally serious (which for me, is really the only relevant meaning of ‘growing up with the reader’). However, I’d agree that, from books three/four onwards, the series takes violence, suffering and death more seriously as Harry encounters it head-on. Unfortunately, this means that re-reading the early books can feel very tonally jarring, because the cartoon, schoolboy violence that Harry encounters in books one and two suddenly feels much more serious than it was meant to be. (The Acid Pop incident that I mentioned above, for example, is framed as a joke in book two, and in the context of that book, doesn’t feel so horrific.) The problem is compounded by the fact that characters like Fred and George – who are fun and even caring in book one – fail to ‘grow up’ with the series, and so seem increasingly sinister by the later books, because they’re doing things that might make sense in a certain kind of children’s literature, but now the stakes are raised, they look like villains. Snape’s worst memory is a pivot on which the series could have turned; instead, Rowling doubled down on her original plan for the last two books, cut off all the interesting offshoots that were sprouting from book five, and delivered a miserably bad ending.

Interview With Natasha Pulley

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed the speculative historical fiction writer Natasha Pulley for Newcastle’s Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA). The video of this interview is now up on YouTube:

Natasha has written four novels to date – The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, and The Kingdoms – all of which I have read and loved. (Watch out for my review of The Kingdoms coming soon – it’s out in May!)

Talking to ghosts: The Library of the Dead by TL Huchu

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TL Huchu’s debut novel, The Library of the Dead, one of my most anticipated 2021 releases, is narrated by a fourteen-year-old Scottish-Zimbabwean girl called Ropa who can talk to ghosts. Her interactions with the dead tend to be short and sweet – after all, the more messages from the afterlife she can pass onto grieving relatives, the more money she can make, and she has to support her gran and little sister. However, when a ghost appeals to her to find out what happened to her young son, who has mysteriously vanished, Ropa finds herself becoming involved in a dangerous mystery that will take her beneath the streets of Edinburgh and into the Library of the Dead.

When I heard that The Library of the Dead was not only an urban supernatural novel but a dystopian one, I wasn’t sure whether Huchu would be able to handle all of these elements in the same novel. As it turns out, the Scottish dystopia he imagines remains a backdrop to the main plot, but a backdrop that is vividly rendered, with brief descriptions that indicate a much more intricate history that I’m sure we’ll discover more about in later books in this series: ‘The concrete walls of the now-old “new Parliament” are marked with graffiti, and there’s a gaping hole through the main entrance, called “the king’s knock”. It was made by a shell from a Challenger tank when separatist MSPs holed up in the building, rejecting the crown’s authority after the restoration. Parliament looks like a wounded animal sunk on its haunches after the hunt, just before it expires. It’s forever caught in that moment. As the wind blows, you can hear its rattly gasps through the yawning cavern.’ If you know Edinburgh, these kind of passages are particularly chilling.

However, there’s a bit too much thrown into The Library of the Dead, or perhaps it’s that everything that’s here doesn’t quite work together, as great as all the components are. We have a slangy teenage narrator akin to El from Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education exploring a library that’s reminiscent of Garth Nix’s Lirael learning a magic system that reminded me a bit of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and ending up somewhere as unnerving as David Mitchell’s Slade House. The book never seems to know exactly where it sits. The tone shifts, as well. The Library of the Dead feels predominantly like YA, sometimes with a darker edge that leads towards adult crossover, and yet the resolution of the mystery of who’s been taking the children is light-hearted enough to be at home in children’s fiction. Ropa’s voice is fantastic – she seems like a genuine autodidact, with her random mix of references and slang – but because she is the kind of narrator who makes complicated jokes and doesn’t always tell us things straight, I think it would have worked better were she narrating a more straightforward plot.

Perhaps because of the amount of information that Huchu packs in, The Library of the Dead also feels weirdly slow, although plenty happens. The very short chapters and scenes chop up the reader’s attention, as Ropa moves between different plot threads, and it’s only in the final third of the novel, when she completely commits to solving the missing children mystery, that it speeds up. Huchu seems to be doing a lot of work here setting up later books in the series by showcasing his rich and original world, but for me, this first instalment struggled to stand on its own, despite all the brilliant things that were in it.

Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education: Sunshine and Shadows

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Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, her second immersive folktale retelling, was one of my top ten books of 2020. Her latest novel, A Deadly Education, is both utterly different and equally brilliant. The first in a trilogy, it’s set at the Scholomance, a magical school that takes all the nagging doubts we had about Hogwarts – ‘why are teenagers allowed to attend a school that’s so dangerous?’ – and runs with them. The Scholomance is infested with mals, dangerous magical creatures that want to kill the trainee wizards within, and so constant vigilance is required to see off attacks, whether you’re getting your lunch in the cafeteria or trying to find a book in the library. However, the curriculum itself, which is not taught by teachers but simply manifests for the students to follow, doesn’t help matters. As El, our first-person narrator, explains:

If you don’t complete a shop assignment on time, your unfinished work will animate on the due date and come after you with whatever power you’ve put into it. And if you try and get around that by not putting anything into it, or doing it wrong, the raw materials you should have used all animate separately and come at you. It’s quite a solid teaching technique.

El blithely tells us near the beginning of the novel that the reason teenage wizards fight to get into the Scholomance is that they’re even more vulnerable to mals in the outside world, which neatly dispenses with some obvious objections to this set-up. And while this isn’t a major theme of the book, I liked its unconscious riposte to Lord of the Flies-type assumptions that teenagers would descend into anarchy if left to their own devices; as we see, these adolescents are as capable of constructing a social order as adults, even if it has many of the same class issues.

El, a half-Indian, half-Welsh social outcast, is such a delightful narrator. If you don’t like tangents in your fiction, forget about reading this book now, because a massive proportion of this book is El simply telling us about how the Scholomance works, how its social hierarchies function, and the myriad ways that the students have devised to try and survive to graduation (only a certain proportion of each year group ever make it out). El even manages to shoot off on several digressions while facing a mawmouth, most terrifying of all the mals. However, I adore this kind of narration, and I can’t wait to devour two more books of it. Coincidentally enough, I happened to re-read Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, one of my favourite books of all time, just before I started A Deadly Education, and I’m convinced that Sunshine’s voice was a huge influence on El’s voice. (This theory was lent weight when I found out that Novik stuck a deliberate reference to another McKinley novel into her first folktale retelling, Uprootedclearly, she’s a fan). Sunshine, who is a coffeehouse baker in an alternative version of our world infested with vampires, shares a lot with El; both enthusiastically tell us about the intricacies of their lives even in the face of danger, and both are afraid that they might become evil. But their voices sound similar even on the sentence level, with a lot of second-person address, long sentences, and snark. Here’s El telling us why the Scholomance exists:

We’re a lot harder to get at in here than if we were living out in the wide open, in a yurt for instance. Even enclave kids were getting eaten more often than not before the school was built, and if you’re an indie kid who doesn’t get into the Scholomance, these days your odds of making it to the far side of puberty are one in twenty. One in four is plenty decent odds compared to that. 

And here’s Sunshine telling us about the ninety percent of people who have both sorcerer and demon blood who go insane:

If you were in the ninety percent, it showed up early. Usually. If you weren’t born with a precocious ability to hoist yourself out of your cost and get into really repulsive mischief, the next likeliest time for you to start running amok was in the pre-teen years, when magic-handling kids are apprenticed for their first serious magic-handling training.

This isn’t to say that A Deadly Education is in any way copying off Sunshine. Both books share a concern with being a powerful magic handler who could go bad (and both build this up brilliantly through slightly unreliable first-person narration) and both also feature enchanted objects, like wards and books, that frequently do go bad, but in most other ways their worldbuilding and storylines are very different. And to be honest, most of this probably wouldn’t even occur to you if you haven’t read Sunshine a worryingly large number of times, like me. What I am saying is, if this is a homage, it’s a fantastic one; and if you liked A Deadly Education, you need to read Sunshine IMMEDIATELY. 

A note: when A Deadly Education first came out, it was accused of being racist in this Goodreads review. As a result, one unintentionally racist, but problematic passage was excised from future editions of the book, and Novik apologised. The review makes a number of other claims about why the book is racist, but in my opinion, these additional claims just don’t stand up. A lot of them are factually wrong, while others have been challenged by other readers of colour from the relevant backgrounds (this review discusses Chinese representation, and this review covers Indian representation). I was also interested to read the comments from biracial people on all of these reviews, as one criticism of El is that she is ‘whitewashed’ and disconnected from her Indian heritage – which she absolutely is, but this seems to make sense given that she has been brought up in Wales by her white mother. Overall, the diversity of the Scholomance is pretty surface-level, and exists largely to facilitate world-building – different languages are useful for different spells, for example. This means that the book doesn’t have much to say about race, or the experience of being biracial, but I don’t think it intended to, and given its style and genre, I think Novik, as a white writer, sensibly decided not to tackle these issues. While I totally agree that it’s a problem if this is the only kind of diversity we get in fiction, this is a structural publishing problem rather than an individual book problem; while publishing remains white-dominated, it’s going to be easier to sell this kind of ‘diversity’ to publishers than books by authors of colour.

My Top Ten Books of 2020

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

In the order I read them…

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  1. Spinning Silver: Naomi Novik. Novik hits it out of the park with her second folktale retelling, telling three equally compelling stories about three very different women in the fictional kingdom of Lithvas, loosely inspired, according to Novik, by Lithuania, Poland and Russia. I’ve always believed folk/fairytales are fiendishly and perhaps deceptively difficult to turn into full-length novels, because they operate with a logic and a pace that breaks a lot of our conventional ‘rules’ of storytelling (I can’t recommend Kate Bernheimer’s essay ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale’ enough if you’re as interested in this as I am). Novik’s approach is to tell a series of miniature stories that magically combine together. Perfection. I reviewed it here.

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2. Minor Feelings: Cathy Park Hong. This series of essays on making art while considering your own cultural and historical position now feels especially relevant given the issues that were ever more strongly highlighted by black activists during 2020, but is also vital for anyone who’s ever given a thought to how artists should and can use their own experience. I’ve yet to read something better on the idea of writing both within and outside your lane; Hong, who is Korean-American, argues that even when we are apparently writing from our own lived experience, we are always ‘speaking nearby’ ourselves, because no one person can tell everybody else’s story – or even their own. I reviewed it here.

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3. Ice Diaries: Jean McNeil. There’s a whole sub-genre of memoirs written by writers-in-residence in Antarctica, but McNeil’s is in a class of its own. She brilliantly evokes how spending four months on an Antarctic base affected her sense of her own selfhood, while also interrogating the human fascination with empty spaces on the map. If you liked Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Iceyou should read this next – however, I think this is also one of those rare Antarctic books that would appeal to readers who otherwise have no interest in the farthest south. I reviewed it briefly here.

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4. The Butchers: Ruth Gilligan. I recently named this as one of the novels I thought had been most unfairly overlooked this year, and I still don’t understand why it hasn’t received more critical attention. Set during the BSE crisis in Ireland in 1996, it moves between four narrators to tell a story of cow-smuggling and cattle-slaughtering that feels infused with folktale. Read it if you’re a fan of Fiona Mozley or Cynan Jones. I reviewed it here. (Published as The Butchers’ Blessing in the US).

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5. Broken Stars: ed. and trans. Ken Liu. This collection of short Chinese science fiction in translation, the second such collection edited by Liu, gives the Western reader an insight into a literary world that is otherwise not accessible to them. The inclusion of three essays on Chinese SF and its fandom is particularly inspired, giving ignorant readers like me some context for the development of the genre in China. And the book is stuffed full of original and exciting stories, with my favourites including Han Song’s ‘Submarines’, Baoshu’s ‘What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’, Hao Jingfang’s ‘The New Year Train’, Ma Boyong’s ‘The First Emperor’s Games’ and Chen Qiufan’s ‘A History of Future Illnesses’. To top it all off, the UK edition has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, though you have to see it in its real-life gold-foiled glory to fully appreciate it.

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6. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: Natasha Pulley. I’m a massive Pulley fan, and this sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street didn’t disappoint (indeed, I thought it was better than the first, though not quite as good as The Bedlam Stacks). We now follow the clairvoyant watchmaker Keita Mori and his friend and lover, Thaniel Steepleton, to late nineteenth-century Japan, where Mori disappears on a mission of his own as electrical storms brew across the country. Before I read Pulley’s fiction, I worried her books would be a little twee, but I was totally wrong; they’re eerie and intelligent and funny, all at the same time. And having wrestled with a time travel novel for several years, I can only admire her ability to centre her plot around a character who has the gift of precognition, which makes figuring out cause and effect EVEN MORE CONFUSING. I reviewed it here.

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7. The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel. I’m not sure what else I can say about this magnificent conclusion to the Cromwell trilogy, other than that it was delightful to find myself finally falling in love with a much-praised sequence of books that I’d always had ambivalent feelings about before (though, typically for me, this happened just when everybody else seemed to decide this one wasn’t as good as the others). For me, this was the best in the trilogy, and should have won everything going. I reviewed it here.

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8. My Year of Meats: Ruth Ozeki. I would never have picked this book up if I hadn’t loved A Tale For The Time Being so much; the story of a Japanese-American documentarian, Jane Takagi-Little, who exposes the illegal use of hormones in the American meat industry back in 1991 didn’t immediately appeal to me. However, although this novel goes to some bizarre places, it really works; it’s held together by Jane, who feels real in a way that few characters ever do. I reviewed it here.

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9. New Suns: ed. Nisi Shawl. It’s very unusual for me to like one multi-author SF anthology enough to put it in my top ten books of the year, let alone two! But Shawl’s edited collection of short speculative fiction by writers of colour delivered hit after hit, and gave me lots of new names to look out for. I especially loved some creepy contributions: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’. I reviewed it here.

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10. Hild: Nicola Griffith. Having abandoned this book twice before finishing it, once in 2017 and again in 2018, it’s safe to say I never thought it would make a top ten books of the year list. However, when I finally committed to Hild, I found myself completely inhabiting her sixth-century world. It’s a book that demands a lot of time and attention, more so, I’d say, even than The Mirror and The Light; but I thought about it for such a long time after finishing it, and wished I could walk back in. (Interestingly, Griffith is now two for two in my books of the year; her SF debut Ammonite was in my top ten in 2019. I’m about to read So Lucky, so we’ll see if she can keep this up!). I wrote a little more about Hild here.

Reading Stats

I read 150 books in 2020. I’m a little surprised by this – it’s less than I read in 2018 and 2019 – as I felt I was reading much more during the pandemic. However, I have to remember that as recently as 2017, 127 books still felt like a massive number. I suspect what has happened is that I’ve read a lot of very long books because I had more time to concentrate, which have dragged down my stats (The Terror, The Mirror and The Light, Hild and The Wise Man’s Fear, I’m looking at you). In 2021, I’ll again set a target of 150.

I read 120 books by women, 28 books by men, and 2 books by an author who identifies as non-binary. This was, again, the worst year ever for men, dwindling to 18% of the books I read – and, interestingly, a few male authors appear several times (I read three books apiece by both James Smythe and James S.A. Corey) – meaning that the number of individual male authors I read was even lower.

I read 46 books by writers of colour and 104 books by white writers. To my huge surprise, the percentage of writers of colour (31%) is the best I’ve ever managed, and actually quite close to my target of 33%! I’m surprised because I felt I was really failing on this target this year, so something must have gone right. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2021.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!