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!

My Top Ten Books of 2019

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find 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. The Bedlam Stacks: Natasha Pulley. I read this novel back in January, but it’s haunted me all year. Merrick Tremayne, once a smuggler for the East India Company, travels to the tiny mission colony of Bedlam on the edge of the Amazon where the water glows, statues walk and the woods are said to be cursed. Pulley is so good at weaving together the speculative and the everyday, and The Bedlam Stacks also interrogates colonial classifications. I reviewed it here.

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2. Brit(ish): Afua Hirsch. This is the best contemporary text I’ve read on black British identity. Hirsch, the daughter of a Ghanian mother and European Jewish father, is acutely intelligent on intersectionality as well, especially class and gender – she’s painfully aware of her own privilege in relation to her dark-skinned, working-class boyfriend, who doesn’t get why she wants to write a book about race in the first place, but also utterly clear on how women of colour are marginalised. I reviewed it here.

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3. The Leavers: Lisa Ko. This beautiful debut novel alternates between the story of a son and the story of his mother. Daniel Wilkinson is the privileged son of two New York academics, but he was once also Deming Guo, a Chinese immigrant boy abandoned by his mother Polly at the age of eleven. Ko handles the reader’s split sympathies adeptly, but she also writes movingly about the need to leave where we’re from to feel like we’ve ‘made it’. I reviewed The Leavers here.

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4. Convenience Store Woman: Sayaka Murata. I think this novella, translated from the Japanese, is so memorable for me not just because of the words on the page but because of everything it made me think about. Keiko is thirty-six and is totally devoted to a convenience store; her family think that she ought to want more out of life, yet Keiko is happy the way she is. But why be happy when you could be normal? I reviewed it here.

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5. Milkman: Anna Burns. Of all the novels that have made my top ten lists over the years, this is definitely the one that I enjoyed least when I was actually reading it. But the narrator just wouldn’t let go. For me, the definitive novel of the Northern Irish Troubles. I reviewed it here.

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6. The Rift: Nina Allan. Selena’s sister Julie went missing when they were teenagers, and Selena had come to assume that Julie is dead. But then Julie turns up again, claiming to have lived the last couple of decades on a distant planet called Tristane. Allan pulls off this premise by leaving it open to interpretation; the last few segments of the novel, which postulated that ‘there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the universe, and most of them were terrifying’ are especially haunting. I reviewed it here.

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7. Self-Portrait With Boy: Rachel Lyon. One of the best books on the psychological costs of being an artist that I’ve ever read, this novel starts off with a simple dilemma. Lu Rile accidentally takes an incredible photograph of a small boy falling to his death outside the window of her apartment block. Should she show the picture and kick-start her career, even though it would horrify his grieving parents? However, Lyon is smart enough not to let this question dominate her whole story, which interrogates questions about truth and connection. I reviewed it here.

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8. The Nickel Boys: Colson Whitehead. I wasn’t as bowled over by The Underground Railroad as everybody else, but Whitehead more than made up for it with his next novel, which is one of the most moving things I read all year. The Nickel Boys follows a teenage African-American boy, Elwood, after he is unjustly incarcerated in a reform school in Florida in the early 1960s. This could have been formulaic, but Whitehead takes it to another level. I reviewed it here.

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9. Exhalation: Ted Chiang. Like The Nickel Boys, this was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019, and it didn’t disappoint. Chiang writes the best short science fiction I’ve ever read, and this was an even better collection than his last. I particularly loved ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ – this is how you write time travel – and the novella ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’, which interrogates questions about free will. I’m especially in awe of Chiang’s intelligence – his ‘Story Notes’ at the back of the book are mini-masterpieces in their own right. I reviewed Exhalation here.

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10. Ammonite: Nicola Griffith. In a list skewed towards recent releases, this science fiction novel from 1992 also stood out. It follows Marghe, an anthropologist working on a planet inhabited by an estranged strand of the human race. Centuries ago, a virus eliminated all the men from this population and conferred upon the women the capacity to reproduce asexually. For me, Ammonite had all the intellectual excitement of Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, but was much more emotionally engaging. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 175 books in 2019. This is, again, a new record for me, although I think the figures are a little skewed, as I now count some books that I did not finish towards the total. I think this is a bit ridiculous, so in 2020, I’ll set a target of 150.

I read 134 books by women, 40 books by men (including one trans man), and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary. This continues my usual gender split, with male authors making up about 23% of the books I read – and, although men are usually over-represented in my top ten, that isn’t the case this year. I would like to read more books by trans people in 2020, especially trans men.

I read 42 books by writers of colour and 133 books by white writers. Frustratingly, this percentage – 24% – is actually worse than the percentages I managed in 2018 and 2017 (28% and 25%) – and I also read fewer books by writers of colour than I did in 2018 (44). This is especially disappointing because half of my top ten books are by writers of colour, so it shows that I have once again been defaulting to mediocre white writers. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2020.

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

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2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2019 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 2019, not necessarily first published in 2019.

Highly Commended

I discovered two new favourite authors this year: Nina Allan and Natasha Pulley. I’ve now read both of Pulley’s novels, and three of Allan’s. One novel from each writer has made my top ten books of 2019, but here are the others I read: The Race, The Dollmaker and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Both Allan and Pulley write speculative fiction, and I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards speculative and science fiction this year, taking part in #SciFiMonth in November.

I didn’t find that 2019 was a particularly strong year for memoir and non-fiction, but two books stood out for me – Thomas Page McBee’s Amateurwhich was my pick to win the Wellcome Prize 2019, and Lisa Taddeo’s Three WomenInterestingly, both are essentially about the patriarchal constraints imposed by binary gender; McBee describes what it’s like to live as a trans man, while Taddeo interrogates how badly the world responds to genuine female desire. McBee’s subtitle is ‘a true story about what makes a man’, while Taddeo’s could easily be ‘three true stories about what makes a woman’.

I’ve been surprised to see some prominent end-of-the-year lists declare that 2019 was a poor year for fiction, as something that stood out for me this year was that many big-name releases didn’t disappoint! Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier produced arguably their strongest novels to date in The Confession and A Single ThreadTaylor Jenkins Reid’s much-hyped Daisy Jones and the Six was totally absorbing, while Emma Donoghue’s Akin was a slow-burning triumph. Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was a totally worthy Booker winner, even if I felt that she shortchanged her youngest narrators.

In fiction, I also enjoyed three very different novels that don’t fit into any of the above categories: Lisa See’s story of Korean haenyeo free divers, The Island of Sea Women, which, pleasingly, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019; Aminatta Forna’s difficult-to-summarise but very moving Happiness; and Naomi Booth’s eco-horror Sealed.

re-read three novels that made a big impression on me second time around (or in the case of Enchantress, probably fourth or fifth time around!): Sarah Moss’s Night Waking, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress From The Stars.

In crime and thriller, I rediscovered Ruth Ware, and was totally captivated by her two latest novels, The Turn of the Key and The Death of Mrs Westawayboth of which brilliantly mix classic Gothic tropes with a contemporary setting. But frankly, I was spoilt for choice in this genre in 2019, as Erin Kelly released her best novel yet, Stone Mothersand Jo Baker’s The Body Lies introduced a clever meta-level into the familiar story of a murdered woman.

Finally, I admired two adult fantasy novels infused with YA energy: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, about a Yale secretly run by supernatural societies, and Bridget Collins’s The Binding, which will please everyone who loves a gay teenage OTP. Both are also absolutely beautiful hardbacks.

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 three authors I had enjoyed in the past. Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil was one of my top ten books of 2018, but his debut, Beasts of No Nation, was simplistic and pointless. Anna Hope’s Expectation was supposed to present three different women reassessing their lives in their thirties, but its characters ended up moving within such narrow bonds, all wanting the same things. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days was muddled, aimless and – oddly, given how much I admired her debut, Harmless Like You – quite badly written.

Two debuts also disappointed me. Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater promised a coming-of-age story set in Sunderland and London, but totally lacked a sense of place. Katy Mahood’s Entanglement was supposed to be inspired by quantum physics but ended up being a very conventional story about two couples over several decades. Both novels were also written in a lilting, quasi-literary style that did nothing for me.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2019!

Ten Books of the Decade!

Here we go – my ten books of the decade (2010-2019). Unlike my books of the year, I have only included titles published in this decade. You’ll notice there’s an interesting skew towards the earlier years of the decade – I think it takes me a while to know whether or not a book will stick with me. I’ve also tended to favour books that I both loved and which have fed into my own development as a writer. So a partial and biased list, but still, here it is. Links are to my reviews:

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The Still PointAmy Sackville (2010). This luminous debut novel intercuts between the gruelling expedition narrative of a turn-of-the-century Arctic explorer and twenty-four hours in the life of his great-grand-niece in the present day. Sackville writes the kind of prose that slows down time, in the most wonderful way.

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A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki (2013). I was totally obsessive about this book when it first came out; it made me look at everything sideways for some time. Ruth discovers the diary of fifteen-year-old Nao on the beach in British Columbia, washed up in a barnacle-encrusted lunchbox. These two narratives become intertwined in mindbending and yet hugely moving ways.

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AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013). This is both the simple love story of Ifemelu and Obinze and a sweeping, revealing look at the experiences of Nigerian immigrants to both Britain and the US, at how black women negotiate the world, and how ‘Westerners’ respond to being told about these things. Adichie’s masterpiece (so far), and an absolute must-read.

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This Is The Story of A Happy MarriageAnn Patchett (2013). If the Booker judges can do it, so can I; this is my ‘lifetime achievement’ award for all of Patchett’s incredible non-fiction, because my favourite, Truth and Beauty, was published in 2004 and so is ineligible for this exercise. However, there are some incredible essays in this collection, especially ‘This Dog’s Life’, which is hilarious on voluntary childlessness, and ‘The Wall’, which details how Patchett put herself through the recruitment process for the Police Academy in Los Angeles to try to understand something of what her father’s life as a police captain had been like.

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All The Birds, SingingEvie Wyld (2013). Structurally perfect and emotionally incredible, this novel moves backwards through time to inquire into the past of Jake, a guarded, scarred young woman who was once a sheep-herder in Australia and now lives on a tiny British island, alone with her dog. This reads like a thriller but is as good as literary fiction gets.

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Vampires in the Lemon GroveKaren Russell (2013). This is the best single collection of short stories I’ve ever read; many other collections have included short stories that are as good but haven’t been as strong across the board. What other collection ranges from a vampire drinking from a lemon that is ‘bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt’ to a massage therapist who finds that her clients’ tattoos move to a set of silk-weaving girls who plan an escape from their slavery?

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Station ElevenEmily St John Mandel (2014). This post-apocalyptic novel is the only fiction I’ve ever read that has really pulled off the ‘story within a story’, with its depiction of the comic-book world of Station Eleven that now speaks to the survivors of a global pandemic. Magical.

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The Secret Place, Tana French (2014). I was pleased that The Likeness was published in 2007, because it saved me from having to choose between my two favourite Tana French novels. Why read Tana French in general? Because she totally reinvents the police procedural, writing interrogation scenes with exceptional psychological depth, and also infusing the genre with a brilliant hint of the speculative. Why read The Secret Place in particular? Because it’s the best thing on adolescence I’ve ever read, offering teenage girls the respect they deserve, and it’s also a fantastic set-piece murder mystery.

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The Life and Death of Sophie StarkAnna North (2015). This relatively little-known novel is technically incredible; it uses six different narrators to tell the story of film director Sophie Stark, none of whom are Sophie herself and none of whom narrate more than once. The novel works, so cleverly, both as a set of perfect vignettes and as a bigger whole.

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When Breath Becomes AirPaul Kalanithi (2016). This memoir, written by a neurosurgeon who was himself diagnosed with lung cancer, remains one of the most moving things I’ve ever read, especially his final letter to his daughter, but it’s also brilliant on the life of a doctor and on the intersections between the arts and the sciences. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

(God, 2013 was a good year for books! There are a lot I haven’t even included – The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, Bring Up The Bodies…)

Do you have any books of the decade?

My Top Ten Books of 2018

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find 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 no particular order…

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1. Speak No Evil: Uzodinma Iweala. Iweala’s second novel tells, at first glance, a very familiar story. Teenage Niru is quietly trying to fit in at an upscale DC school, although he’s set apart by being both black and gay. But its brilliance comes from Iweala’s experimental literary style, blending Niru’s dialogue and interior monologue in a way that captures his voice and yet makes complete sense to the reader. Iweala’s debut, Beasts of No Nation, is definitely on my TBR list for 2019. Speak No Evil was a NetGalley discovery, and I reviewed it here.

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2. Bookworm: Lucy Mangan. How much did I adore this engrossing memoir, in which journalist Lucy Mangan takes us on a tour of the books she loved in childhood and adolescence? Along the way, she also writes hilariously and delightfully about herself and her family. I’ve already given this as a gift to two friends. This was picked up after reading so many positive reviews of it from other bloggers, and I reviewed it here.

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3. The Western WindSamantha Harvey. This was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and it didn’t disappoint. I already knew Harvey was an incredible writer, but in this novel, she manages to write with impressive historical empathy about the late medieval mindset, narrating in the voice of a village priest, John Reve, investigating the murder of one of his flock. The novel is told backwards, but, as Reve teases out the truth in the final pages, it ends up becoming almost a circle, mirroring how fifteenth-century villagers might have thought about time.  I also loved Harvey’s Dear Thief when I read it, and I’ll have to check out her back catalogue in 2019; All Is Song looks especially intriguing. I reviewed The Western Wind here.

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4. Let Go My Hand: Edward Docx. This was one of my 20 Books of Summer, and while it’s the third of Docx’s novels I’ve read, it’s the first one that really blew me away. Louis journeys with his terminally ill father, Larry, towards Switzerland so Larry can end his life at Dignitas. When Louis’s two older half-brothers, Ralph and Jack, turn up, Docx takes us back through their complicated family history as well as unpicking the way they relate to each other now. Let Go My Hand is one of those very unusual books that manage to be both genuinely funny and profoundly moving. It’s been unfairly overlooked by most critics, and I can’t recommend it enough. I reviewed it here.

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5. The Growing Season: Helen Sedgwick. In a year packed with speculative re-imaginings of pregnancy, child-bearing and motherhood, The Growing Season easily stood out for me. Sedgwick imagines a world where babies are now nurtured in artificial wombs, installed in wearable pouches, and getting pregnant in the old-fashioned way is stigmatised. Sedgwick’s narrative is admirably even-handed, refusing to present this technological advance as either dystopian or as straightforwardly liberatory, and the result is a consistently thought-provoking, moving and gripping piece of speculative fiction. The Growing Season was another of my 20 Books of Summer, and I reviewed it here.

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6. Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday. Also on my 20 Books of Summer list, Halliday’s courageous debut faces questions about fiction and authenticity head-on, even though it begins on cliched ground, as a young writer, Alice, starts an affair with a much older writer, Ezra. I reviewed it here.

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7. Melmoth: Sarah Perry. I didn’t really love either After Me Comes The Flood or The Essex Serpentbut I was captivated by this Calvinist horror story about sin, regret and redemption. Perry creates a terrifying female figure called Melmoth the Wanderer (based on Charles Maturin’s 1820 Gothic novel), who wanders through history seeking out lost souls and bearing witness to acts of unspeakable evil. I reviewed Melmoth here.

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8. Leaving Atlanta: Tayari Jones. Jones’s latest novel, An American Marriagehas received a lot of attention this year, especially after being named by Obama as one of his summer reads. However, I was even more impressed by her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which I chose for my book group in November. The novel is set in Atlanta in 1979, when dozens of African-American children were going missing. Narrated from the perspective of three fifth-graders, it uses this particular tragedy to say broader things about the fears that  black children internalise as they approach adolescence. I’m now keen to read more by Jones, and The Untelling is up next. I wrote briefly about Leaving Atlanta here.

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9. The OverstoryRichard Powers. Powers’s Booker-shortlisted novel takes nine protagonists and sets them in relation to the fight to stop the remnants of ancient American forests being destroyed. Despite deliberately reducing the significance of humanity in light of a much longer natural history and the destruction we’re wreaking on the planet, it also presents a number of closely observed portraits of individuals. Lots of recent books have brought up the scientific hypothesis that trees talk to each other, but The Overstory makes the best use of it. Powers has a big backlist, and I think I’ll try The Echo Maker next. I reviewed The Overstory here.

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10. The Boat People: Sharon Bala. Bala’s debut starts with a group of Sri Lankan refugees arriving in Canada in 2009, and flips between three first-person perspectives: Mahindan, a refugee; Japanese-Canadian Grace, charged with adjudicating the refugees’ asylum claims; and second-generation Sri Lankan lawyer Priya. The Boat People is thoughtful and authentic, raising similar questions to Melmoth about our own moral limits, although in a less explicitly horrific way. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 155 books in 2018. This sets a new record for me, smashing my 2017 total of 127. Next year, I’ll set a target of 125 – I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to keep outdoing the previous year’s total.

I read 39 books by men and 116 by women. This has been the worst year yet for men, making up only 25% of the books I read. I’m not especially interested in setting any targets for reading male authors but I note that, as usual, men are slightly over-represented in my Top Ten books, making up 30% of the list. I’d like to continue seeking out books by male authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, and try and discover some new ones.

I read 44 books by writers of colour and 111 books by white writers. As in previous years, I’ve read more books by writers of colour than ever before, but my percentages only inch up very slowly. 28% of the books I read this year were by writers of colour (as compared to 25% in 2017 and 15% in 2016). I’m going to set a more achievable target for this year, and try and get that 28% to 33%, or one-third of all books I read.

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

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2017 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2017 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, either on this blog or on Amazon or Goodreads.

51XALDZqQwL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Highly Commended

Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone focuses on stay-at-home dad and part-time historian, Adam, after his teenage daughter Miriam collapses mysteriously at school and he has to deal with the aftermath. Like all Moss’s work, this is character-led but thematically rich, touching on parenthood, adolescence, war, architecture, and the painful helplessness of being the relative of somebody who is chronically ill. Moss has never been as well-known as she ought to be, and this is one of her best.

Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, which I haven’t written about before on this blog, tells the story of a young man leading British troops into an Afghanistan war zone when he is severely injured by an explosive device. What happens after is narrated by 45 objects. Much less experimental and gimmicky than it sounds, and genuinely moving.

Louise Doughty’s Black Water will put off those expecting another Apple Tree Yard, but this is still a fantastic thriller, even if it’s a very different kind of story. John Harper, half-Dutch, half-Indonesian, is on the run. To find out why, the novel flips between his childhood in the Netherlands and in California in the 1940s and 1940s, and Indonesia in 1965, at the time of the failed coup in Jakarta that led to the mass killings of communists. It’s a real shift away from Doughty’s usual subject-matter, and she pulls it off very well.

Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place is, in my opinion, her best novel since her wonderful debut, After You’d Gone (although this isn’t to say that she hasn’t written other great novels in between). It weaves together a massive web of characters and yet manages never to disintegrate.

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill deservedly won the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Costa First Novel Award this year. It’s an eighteenth-century historical romp with a serious core, focusing on the arrival of the mysterious Mr Richard Smith in the small town of New York in 1746, demanding payment for a vast bill. If you’ve already read and enjoyed this: don’t miss Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock in 2018, which has a very similar feel.

BonesOfTheEarthThere are other books I want to mention. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is an uneven but highly imaginative collection of short stories that move from the realistic to the speculative and from Nigeria to America, taking in grief collectors, joy destroyers, animated babies spun from yarn, alongside the simple rebellions of little girls. Arimah is a writer to watch. Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth offers a very different kind of science fiction, postulating that palaeontologists are offered the opportunity to travel back in time to study dinosaurs. Overstuffed, often illogical and sometimes confusing, I loved Swanwick’s book for its sheer guts and for its wonderful descriptions of what it might be like to walk with triceratops or watch swarms of ammonites swimming in prehistoric oceans. Meanwhile, I was very happy to discover James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, which kicks off with Leviathan Wakes – the authors were part of George R.R. Martin’s writing group and you can see the influence of Martin’s impressive plotting in their complicated and yet gripping space operas.

The Booker Prize showcased some gems. One of my favourites was the deserved winner, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; yes, it’s on all the lists; yes, it really is that good. (For those who keep on seeing it mentioned but don’t know what it’s about: a group of ghosts watch Abraham Lincoln as he grieves for his dead son, Willie; the story is told through fragments of Lincoln ‘biography’ and the internal monologues of the dead.) I’ve loved Saunders’s short stories in the past and he is simply brilliant at making impossible things seem internally coherent. His vision of the afterlife is weird, untidy and as solid as a story you feel like you’ve been hearing all your life. Kamila Shamsie’s longlisted Home Fire, which deals with two Muslim sisters and their jihadi brother in the contemporary US and UK, attracted polarised reactions, but I admired its emotional punch and the rich characterisation of the two female protagonists.

32607586In crime and thrillers, Erica Ferencik’s The River at Night stood out for me, especially as it doesn’t seem to have received the attention it deserves. Four female friends, all in their forties, undertake a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine. When they are left stranded, they’re faced with the possibility that they might not all make it out alive. I felt as compelled forward by the narrative as our protagonists are by the plummeting water. Val McDermid’s older novel, A Distant Echo, was probably my best crime read of the year (sadly I read all of Tana French in 2016), dealing with four male university friends who discover the body of a local barmaid in a snowy Scottish cemetery in 1978. The book jumps forward through time to explore what happens to the four men when this investigation becomes live again in a newly-established cold case unit. Billed as the first in the Karen Pirie series, it can easily be read as a stand-alone.

Finally, my ongoing struggle with YA fiction was epitomised by Shappi Korsandi’s Nina Is Not OK, which felt like everything a YA book should be but was sold as adult fiction. Seventeen-year-old Nina’s fight against alcoholism is disturbing but very well-handled, there’s humour in the darkness, and the characterisation is top-notch.

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.

c3ff5a31-d372-4269-9cb3-ac5060706d40Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine introduces us to a strange, isolated female protagonist, and follows her attempts to become more involved in the world while also dealing with an abusive past. Unfortunately, I found Eleanor functioned more as a narrative device than as a fully realised character; socially awkward enough to be funny, not awkward enough to actually face restrictions on her day-to-day life once she’s resolved her psychological problems; suddenly perceptive when she needs to be, but not when she doesn’t. Since reading the novel, I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable about how autistic-coded protagonists such as Eleanor (another example is Don Tillman in Graeme Simison’s The Rosie Project) are treated in fiction. In brief, their problems become a series of punchlines. Rebecca (Bookish Beck)’s review sums up the other issues with this novel very well.

Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is a tricky one to dislike, in that it deals with a hugely important and timely topic – the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence directed against black Americans. When sixteen-year-old Starr sees her friend Khalil murdered by a police officer, she is unwillingly dragged into a community backlash against the crime. However, I didn’t feel that it succeeded as a novel. Like much YA, it is issue-led with good representation but little substance, and the story is virtually structureless, and far too long.

81MGlHgOVaLSarah Stovell’s Exquisite is probably the book that frustrated me the most this year. It’s a thriller that focuses on an obsessive relationship between two women who meet at a writing retreat – Bo is the tutor, Alice her promising student. When such little fiction is written about lesbians, it means that, inevitably and unfortunately, those stories that do exist must carry a greater weight. Exquisite is not up to the task, falling into some very familiar homophobic tropes: it’s more scandalous and exciting to be part of a ‘lesbian affair’ rather than a ‘normal’ affair; lesbian relationships are emotional, intense, and ‘crazy’; they end badly; both participants are left permanently damaged. Annoyingly, the novel could have challenged this simply by presenting a wider range of lesbian characters in the secondary or even tertiary cast. Even more unrealistically, neither Alice or Bo seems the least bothered about finding out that they fancy women. This should have some impact on their self-identity, especially in Alice’s case (Bo indicates that she has been attracted to women before). It’s also notable that neither Bo nor Alice consider the idea that they might be bisexual – not because they know they’re lesbians but because, in this fictional universe, it doesn’t seem to be an option. To make matters worse, the writing is overheated, and the ‘twist’ is incredibly easy to guess.

I was also disappointed by Jon McGregor’s flat Reservoir 13, Lisa McInerney’s repetitive The Blood Miracles, and two books which were actively offensive: Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2017!

My Top Ten Books of 2016

barcelona-10-04The last few months of 2016 have been pretty difficult for me, personally and professionally (& politically!) which is why it’s now nearly the end of the year and I haven’t blogged since the summer. To be fair, a lot of things have also gone right: I had two academic articles published, I’m heading to Write Now Live with Penguin/Random House in Manchester in February, and I wrote the first draft of my time-travel novel and am more than halfway through the second draft. I also had an amazing new haircut [not pictured].

Still, I’m hoping to review a lot more books in 2017, and I’m kicking things off with my annual Top Ten Books of the Year post. (You can find my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog).

In no particular order…

51ee16ux7ul-_sx323_bo1204203200_1. The Likeness: Tana French. I’ve been raving about Tana French’s wonderful literary crime novels to everyone who’d listen this year, and picking a favourite was hard. In the end, I went for the one that most epitomises everything I like about French: wonderful writing, character-led plots, genuine, unforced tension and a touch of the supernatural. When a girl who is the spitting image of detective Cassie Maddox turns up dead, Cassie is persuaded to return to the undercover squad to investigate her murder – posing as the victim. The plot grows ever more eerie when Cassie realises that Lexie Madison, the victim, had already appropriated the identity Cassie invented when undercover on a drugs bust, and so she is essentially retracing a trail that she herself started. Who is Lexie and why did she die? And will Cassie be able to disentangle herself from the engrossing, Secret History style household she’s wandered into? Posing big questions about identity, the preservation of friendship, and the pressing but inexplicable need to leave an old life behind, The Likeness also has one of the best final paragraphs I’ve ever read. It makes me cry every time.

any-human-heart-book-cover2. Any Human Heart: William Boyd. I wrote about this brilliant novel, the ‘collected diaries’ of Logan Mountstuart, after I finished it. This is one of my dad’s favourite novels, and after he read my review he emailed to say: ‘It’s true what you write, I want him [Logan] to be real, since so much of what he describes and the people he meets are. He sort of deserves to be.’ That sums up Any Human Heart perfectly for me.

 

 

14307897875694743383. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Becky Chambers. I’ve started thinking of Chambers’ wonderful, quirky SF as the antidote to 2016. My reaction to the news of Trump’s election was to immediately purchase the sequel to The Long Way, A Closed and Common Orbit, and hide under my electric blanket. Rejecting dystopian trends, Chambers depicts a spacefaring future where a range of species, including humanity, are often baffled and confused by the range of genders, sexualities, races and cultural practices they encounter on other worlds, but where the vast majority of people want to do their very best to accept difference, rather than to suppress it. I wrote briefly about The Long Way when I first read it, suggesting that it at times felt like a bit of a hotch-potch, and that’s true; but actually, having read its sequel, which has a much more traditional and linear narrative, I think I now appreciate The Long Way even more. (Not that I didn’t enjoy A Closed and Common Orbit, because I did – but it felt like it was treading much more familiar ground). I can’t wait to see what Chambers does next in this fabulous universe.

157818324. Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Karen Russell. A collection of short stories which, again, I loved so much that everyone is probably quite sick of hearing me talk about how amazing it is. I reviewed it here, so all I’ll say now is: BUY IT AND READ IT. YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.

 

 

 

 

lisa-mcinerney-glorious-heresies5. The Glorious Heresies: Lisa McInerney. Such a worthy winner of the Baileys Prize and, in a year in which I’ve ranted a lot about how most writers struggle to write fictional teenagers, a great portrayal of male adolescence. Again, I’ve written a full review here.

 

 

 

unknown6. 10:04: Ben Lerner. Every year, I read a book that I don’t want to like because I feel I should be having a go at it for being written by a pretentious white man about other pretentious white men, and I end up loving it anyway. David Gilbert’s & Sons was That Book in 2014, Laurent Binet’s HHhH in 2015, and this year it’s the turn of 10:04. Lerner just has such interesting things to say about art and time, even if his semi-autobiographical narrator is hopelessly irritating. And how can you not find something to like in a book that finds such inspiration in Back to the Future? My appreciation of this novel was also assisted by the fact that I read most of it going back and forth on the Barcelona Metro to SEE ART [pictured above].

dig7. The Dig: Cynan Jones.

Despite having been such a crap blogger for most of 2016, I seem to have got it right when choosing my favourite books to focus on, because here’s another novel I’ve already written about. Everybody else has moved on and is now excited about Jones’s new novel Cove, so I’ll have to add that to the 2017 TBR list.

 

 

unknown-18. Tenth of December: George Saunders.

This, however, proves the wisdom of writing about books as you go along, because this collection of short stories was almost the first thing I read in 2016, and now I can’t remember very much about it other than how impressed I was by Saunders’ off-kilter visions of possible futures. I’ll have to descend to the level of saying that my two favourite stories were the very short ‘Sticks’ and the very long ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, which shares common ground with some of Russell’s imaginings in Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Also, that this was another Mr B’s Reading Spa hit. Thanks Mr B’s!

unknown-29. The Year of the Runaways: Sunjeev Sahota.

In contrast, this Booker-shortlisted novel was one of the last things I read in 2016, and what a great way to finish the year. It follows the lives of three Sikh, Indian men who emigrate to Sheffield – Tochi, Avtar and Randeep – and a Sikh, British-Indian woman, Narinder, whose story I found the most interesting of all. Though a great deal happens in The Year of the Runaways, it’s fundamentally a character-led novel, and all the better for it. It grips the reader because we really care about what happens to these four people, not because there is any complicated plot on the go, and although I do love some complicated plotting, I found this refreshing after a year dominated by thrillers. While this book refuses to be dominated by its prose, Sahota is also a wonderful writer, and there are great turns of phrase on almost every page. I’m now keen to read his debut Ours Are The Streets, although it sounds much more conventional on the surface.

61nhmc8yall-_sy344_bo1204203200_10. The Book of Strange New Things: Michel Faber.

If I’d read this at the end of 2015 rather than the beginning of 2016, it wouldn’t have made my Top Ten list. This very weird tale of a man who goes to be a missionary to a group of aliens, leaving his beloved wife behind him, initially struck me as gripping but disjointed and badly-paced. I found the two main characters intensely unlikeable, and the emotional heart of the story hence didn’t beat for me. And to be honest: I haven’t changed my mind! But The Book of Strange New Things is so fantastically imagined, so different from any other novel I’ve read, and the characterisation is so real (I might have hated Peter and Bea but you can’t deny how well they are written). More than anything else, it’s stayed with me over the last twelve months, and for that alone (sorry George Saunders) it’s earned its place in this list. I do hope Michel Faber doesn’t give up on writing novels.

Reading Stats

I read 84 books in 2016, beating my 2014 (81) and 2015 (76) totals. While I didn’t make my target of 100, it’s good to see that I did halt the downward trend! Target for 2017: let’s go for 100 again.

I read 29 books by men and 55 by women, keeping close to my usual % of two-thirds by women and a third by men. Does this bother me? No, not really. Especially because I don’t include any work-related reading in this round-up, and if I did, men might dominate the list. Interestingly, however, this is my first Top Ten books list ever to feature more male than female writers.

I read 14 books by writers of colour and 70 books by white writers. This is pretty poor, especially considering my 2015 resolution to read more books by writers of colour. Part of the problem here was that I decided to finish off my TBR pile, which was full of white men. Target for next year: improve asap.

My top ten books of 2015

As promised, here are my top ten books of 2015, in no particular order…

97814736186951. Everyone Brave is Forgiven: Chris Cleave. This war story begins in 1939 when eighteen-year-old Mary North ‘leaves finishing school unfinished’ and signs up for the war effort. Assigned to the unglamorous duty of London schoolteaching, she meets and falls in love with education administrator Tom, who is questioning his own purpose after his best friend, Alistair, signs up to fight. I wasn’t convinced there were any new riffs to play on the story of Britain’s home front, especially not through the eyes of young lovers, but Cleave reinvents familiar scenes of bombing, army training and ambulance driving with consistent skill, and deftly lines up a series of surprising twists without ever cheapening the genuine emotional impact of his story. I’ve reviewed the novel in full here.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven will be published in April 2016.

51tU1wGVI+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. Station Eleven: Emily St John Mandel. I feel I’ve come a little late to the party, but I loved this beautifully-written dystopian novel, which I’ve reviewed in full here. For me, one of Mandel’s crucial gifts is in making us understand why her characters are so drawn to the invented world of Station Eleven, as well as sparingly but brutally depicting the horror of their everyday lives. Not a novel about the power of art to make everything all right, but a novel that demonstrates that art will not save us while not diminishing its importance to us in the slightest.

Unknown3. A Little Life: Hanya Yanagihara. I don’t usually choose a single book of the year, but let’s face it; this was my book of the year. Often deeply flawed on a line-by-line level, A Little Life demonstrates the extraordinary power of structure and, simultaneously, the importance of hooking a reader on your characters. Once we engage with Jude, we won’t stop reading until we know what did happen to him and what will happen to him, even if finding these answers takes us on a horrifically brutal journey. A Little Life is also brilliantly constructed, grasping for the trappings of an entirely different sort of novel altogether then discarding them only after we are already sucked into its world. I’ve reviewed the novel in full here.

hero-portrait-the-life-and-death-of-sophie-stark-jacket_anna-north4. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark: Anna North. The story of an avant-garde film director, fragmented into distinct narratives which are related by five of the most important people in her life, turns out to have so much to say about creativity and identity. This brief novel is astonishingly easy to read and occasionally strays close to slickness, but I found that it gradually got under my skin. I’ve reviewed it in full here.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark will be published in February 2016.

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 25. Ready Player One: Ernest Cline. What a guilty pleasure! I know nothing about computer games or 80s pop culture, but I was completely gripped by this futuristic tale of a gamer’s quest through a virtual reality version of the internet to find three virtual keys that will gain him untold riches. I loved it so much that when I reached the final page I turned back to the beginning and read it all over again, something that I haven’t done since I was a teenager. Also, that title – what’s not to love? Cline’s second novel, Armada, is not nearly as immersive, but still great fun.

hhhh-by-laurent-binet6. HHhH: Laurent Binet. This was the first title selected for the reading group #storypast, and at first I was dubious. A quasi-biography of leading Nazi Reinhard Heydrich is not the sort of thing I usually read, and Binet’s narrator struck me as instantly irritating, full of half-baked ideas about what separates history and fiction and far to fond of creating elaborate rules for his own Heydrich biography which he immediately broke. But about halfway through, I started to appreciate what Binet was really doing. It helps that the writing – translated brilliantly by Sam Thompson – is consistently stunning. I’ve reviewed the book in full here.

415+khFbQQL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_7. Dear Thief: Samantha Harvey. I usually struggle to recommend a novel purely on the strength of its writing, but Harvey’s precise, intelligent, consistently evocative prose is a huge part of what makes this series of letters to an absent friend work so well. Through the voice of her narrator, Harvey conjures up a complex triangle between our three central characters, but also muses beautifully on the importance of the past. Now out in paperback with a much better cover (the image I’m using is from the hardback edition). I reviewed this novel briefly here.

4157FKvg76L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_8. Into the Woods: John Yorke. This consideration of ‘how stories work and why we tell them’ is written by a screenwriter, and almost solely uses examples from film, television and theatre, but this doesn’t stop it from being relevant to anyone who works with stories in any context, and (I would argue) anyone who is interested in why some stories work and some don’t. Why do long-running drama series inevitably founder in their third season? Why is it so hard to pull off a successful film sequel? Why was Holby City rubbish and now is brilliant? (I may have slightly exaggerated the last point). From a novelist’s point of view, the section on characterisation is rather perfunctory, and at some points, utterly wrong; Yorke argues, for example, that backstory is largely irrelevant because we audiences want to believe that the protagonists are ‘us‘, and the fewer details that make them obviously separate people, the better. I would argue (as Yorke himself does, puzzlingly, at the start of the book) that the whole point of writing fiction is to make the reader emphasise with characters who clearly are not us, although I would agree that any backstory needs to have relevance to the present-day conflict. However, the vast majority of this book is spent on structure, where Yorke comes into his own; his advice is incredibly useful, and unfailingly intelligent. Thanks to my Curtis Brown Creative tutor, Erin Kelly, for the recommendation!

214235259. Us: David Nicholls. Like many, many other people, I loved One Day but I actually liked Us even better. Nicholls manipulates our sympathies with incredible deftness as we follow the story of a failing marriage; our narrator, Douglas, is desperate to save his relationship with wife Connie, who has announced she will be leaving him after a final family holiday in Europe with their difficult late-teenage son, Albie. Douglas, an utterly strait-laced and inhibited man, is an unusual narrator, but that’s why I loved him, and although some professional reviewers disagreed, I thought that having such a conventional protagonist was hugely refreshing. To speak to the points I made above about Into the Woods, it’s easy to make readers sympathise with your protagonist by pitching him or her against a cruel and unfair world, but much more interesting to create somebody who is sympathetic, but who is often wrong. The Petersen family dynamics feel absolutely real, and I found myself siding with Douglas, Connie and even with Albie at different points in the narrative. And without giving anything away, the scene at the school quiz night is one of the most pettily tragic things I’ve ever read.

978033052989110. Tender: Belinda McKeon. I finished this timely read just as gay marriage was legalised in Ireland, which was joyful news after reading a novel that highlights the repression and stigma faced by gay men in the Dublin of the 1990s. I loved McKeon’s first novel, Solace, but Tender is possibly even more captivating as it precisely charts the development of the complicated friendship between Catherine and James. Catherine prides herself on accepting James’s homosexuality, but she also uses him to form her image of herself as a newly liberal, confident woman as she moves through her undergraduate years, with painful consequences for both of them. I’ve reviewed the novel fully here.

Reading Stats

I’ve read 76 books this year, which compares poorly with 2014 (81), 2013 (102), 2012 (90) and 2011 (99). I think my ultimate record as an adult is 2008 (119) when I was an undergraduate and had lots of time. I have no chance of beating that record any time soon, so I will aim next year to read 100 novels, or at least to halt the downward trend.

In terms of diversity, I read 51 books by women and 25 by men, which is a typical % for me. It’s also notable that I rarely read novels by men, so most of that total is non-fiction. There is no especially good reason for this; I enjoy the books that I read by men and half of the books in my top ten are by male writers, so they are actually disproportionately represented this year. More importantly, considering the persistent whiteness of the publishing industry, I read only 9 books by writers of colour, which is pretty poor. I intend to begin addressing this next year in a more systematic fashion (starting with Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which looks fantastic.)