On the eighth day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my eighth favourite book was in 2017…

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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I was completely in awe of this book; it is quite unlike anything else on this list or indeed anything else I read this year and floored me with dense but highly readable prose that is absolutely packed with satirical zingers.

In The Sellout’s opening scene, the novel’s African American protagonist Me (we only ever know him by this, his surname) is at the Supreme Court, defending himself in the case of Me v The United States of America. This joke runs and runs. The rest of the novel takes us back over the events that led to the landmark court case, brought against Me for reintroducing racial segregation and slavery in his home suburb of Dickens, Los Angeles.

Me finds himself running the old urban family farm after the death in a police shooting of his father, who raised him alone. For a bit of help, he ropes in Hominy Jenkins, a former child star who is now quite elderly. And by “ropes in”, I mean “takes as a slave”. With this help in place, Me has plenty of time to develop his other ideas, such as the segregation of the local education system.

Many, many other things happen, each one a little more outrageous: the book just runs away with itself and it’s quite impressive that Beatty manages to reign it in to within its plot. The Sellout won the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and I thought it was a surprising but deserving winner. It is full on, skewering (black) America culture and leaving the reader wondering how Beatty did it. Definitely the most interesting Booker Prize winner I’ve read in years.

 

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On the ninth day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my ninth favourite book was in 2017…

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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When I look back over the books I’ve read this year, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one that I keep coming back to for this list, even though my Litsy rating of it at the time – I gave it a ‘So-So’ back in March – suggested I wasn’t completely enamoured with it.

The novel opens in Canada, where Marie – or Li-ling in her Chinese name – is trying to uncover the story of her father, a concert pianist who died by suicide in Hong Kong when she was ten years old. Marie’s interest in her father is further fuelled by the arrival of Ai-Ming, a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square and hints at a complicated relationship between Marie’s father and Ai-Ming and her family.

Like the incredible The Incarnations by Susan Barker (which was my favourite book in 2015, if you remember rightly, which of course you do…), Do Not Say We Have Nothing spans years of Chinese history: not centuries, like Barker’s novel, but decades, through the Cultural Revolution. The bulk of the novel deals with three characters, all musicians: Sparrow, a composer and Marie’s father’s teacher at the Conservatory; Zhuli, a violinist and daughter of a counter-revolutionary; and Kai, a Red Guard. But we also get drawn back through the generations of Zhuli’s family and the passing between them of rewritten copies of the Book of Records, the threads and connections slowly being untangled.

Looking back at my Litsy rating, I remember that I didn’t enjoy the narrative structure of this novel; although I can see its appropriateness in terms of the novel’s themes of accepted and alternative histories and narratives, I wanted to read about Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai, not Marie, who I felt plays little more than a structural role. But when the focus was on events in China, I found them gripping and Thien’s prose engaging and often profound.

On the tenth day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my tenth favourite book was in 2017…

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

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Like yesterday’s book, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is set in the not too distant future, in a society that looks and feels like ours but for one thing: a global corporation has all but colonised another planet in a neighbouring galaxy.

Christian pastor, Peter, unexpectedly secures the job of missionary to this planet, known as Oasis by the corporation. The novel follows Peter’s departure from his beloved wife, Bea; his journey to and arrival on Oasis; and his contact with the planet’s inhabitants, the already devoutly ‘Christian’ Oasans. It is a novel about religion and faith; language and communication; and, most movingly for me, separation and grief.

While on the alien planet, Peter is able to communicate only briefly, sporadically and electronically with Bea and their separation across such an insurmountable distance becomes a kind of hum that vibrates through the novel. From Bea’s messages, received through a machine called a ‘Shoot’, we learn that back on Earth, things are falling apart. The economy is collapsing and natural disasters are sweeping across continents. Her distress is evident from her messages, but Peter’s disorientation and distance makes it impossible for him to recognise it or provide the comfort and support his wife needs.

Faber’s novels are fairly immersive affairs – it is hard not to be drawn in by them – and I found this was especially true of The Book of Strange New Things. Peter’s extreme isolation, his own alienation, is so convincingly realised that I felt it quite profoundly. The use of the Oasans’ alien script at first reinforces this isolation but Faber deploys it skilfully so that, as Peter’s understanding of their language improves, so does the reader’s. Only then do we realise that, increasingly, Peter’s isolation is from his fellow humans and not just those back on Earth.

Two days ago, I recommended a crime novel that should be read even by those who don’t think they like genre fiction and the same goes for this sci-fi novel. You will be rewarded handsomely.

On the eleventh day of Bookmas

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my eleventh favourite book was in 2017…

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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I wanted The Power to be much higher up my end of year list; it makes it on here because the concept initially had so much impact, but doesn’t make it much higher because I just felt it lost that impact as it dwindled a bit towards its conclusion. I don’t think Alderman will mind: she won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and this book was a bestseller.

The Power is set in the very near future, in a world in which women suddenly develop the ability to shoot electricity generated in a skein of muscle attached to their collarbones. This ability gifts them physical power over others, over men. It turns societies across the globe on their head; it suddenly seems that the world is on the verge of a revolution for good. But it turns out women are just as willing and capable of misusing power after all.

The aftermath is told through the stories of people from across the world: those who discover they have the power, like Roxy, the teenaged daughter of a London gangster, who wants to use the power to avenge her mother’s murder, and those who document its rapid effects, like aspiring Nigerian journalist Tunde, who finds his video of a woman using her power goes viral. These characters, the different strands of the story, come together across continents with great pace.

What have stuck with me are the genuinely awe-inspiring and hopeful early chapters in which Alderman describes a world where the balance of power is beginning to tip. There are also passages of the novel that are so plausible they are scary, particularly the online chat transcripts between men who are planning a violent resistance. But ultimately, I felt frustrated by the ending, which I won’t spoil, but which felt rushed and inconclusive. Perhaps that was intentional; perhaps Alderman is saying something about power and its abuse, whoever’s hands it is in, being perpetual.

On the twelfth day of Bookmas

I’M BACK!

My blogging efforts have been thoroughly dismal in 2017. I know. What are you gonna do about it?

To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.

As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)

Let’s see what my twelfth favourite book was in 2017…

The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross

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The Bone Readers, the first in a planned trilogy of crime thrillers set on a small Caribbean island, won the inaugural Jhalak Prize for books by British/British resident writers of colour in 2016. I probably wouldn’t have bought it if it hadn’t. But I’m glad the prize brought it to my attention because it’s an extremely well written, gripping novel that draws the reader in to its brilliantly described place and well-paced plot.

Michael ‘Digger’ Digson is forcibly recruited by alcoholic DC Chilman into a police squad populated by officers of questionable qualification and ethics. Still haunted by the disappearance and presumed death of his mother in a protest when he was a child, Digger discovers he has a number of qualities that make him a talented police officer. Not only does he bring enormous empathy to his investigations, but he can also read bones (you see where the title comes from now). These talents, he learns, are just what Chilman needs to help him solve a cold case that he can’t shake.

What Jacob Ross does exceptionally well in The Bone Readers is to turn both the genre and the setting – both traditionally masculine/patriarchal – on their head and to cast a light on toxic masculinity. The most fully drawn, sympathetic characters are women; Miss Stanislaus, who joins the squad as a well-dressed, well-spoken recruit, is complex and quietly powerful, exercising intelligent authority over her swaggering male colleagues.

This is a crime novel that should even be enjoyed by those who say they don’t like genre fiction.

Books you might enjoy: October to December

Rather late, I’m afraid, but January seems to have passed in a blur and now it’s mid February and I still haven’t recommended the best books I read in the last quarter of 2016. I’m pleased to say that, after a disappointing Quarter 3, I got my reading mojo back in the lead up to Christmas and ended the year on a real high with probably my favourite book of 2016 (a close call with Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which I blogged about last quarter).

So, almost two months late, here’s my final book blog of 2016…

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Much hyped and lauded as Waterstones’ Book of the Year, Perry’s The Essex Serpent had a lot to live up to. But it was the last book I read this year and probably the best. It is glorious. It summons London and Essex in 1893 with none of the cliches that can often be found in historical fiction but with passion and colour, with characters that appear four-dimensional and entirely relatable to the modern reader.

Cora Seabourne is newly widowed, and not too upset about it. Unexpectedly freed from a marriage that was at best unhappy, she moves with her autistic son, Francis, and her companion, Martha, to Colchester, where she hopes to nurture her interest in the popular studies of the time: geology and palaeontology. While visiting the nearby parish of Aldwinter, she hears of the Essex Serpent, a menacing creature of local folklore that villagers fear has returned to punish them for some unknown sin. She also meets the local vicar, William Ransome, for whom the growing hysteria is a source of irritation and evidence of a lack of faith. Cora and William quickly develop a friendship that crackles with attraction and conflict and its this relationship that threatens to do far more harm to their family and friends than a mythical serpent ever could.

Something in the second of the hymns – the melody perhaps, or a line or two half-remembered from childhood – touched a place she thought had scarred over, and she began to cry. She had no handkerchief, because she never did; a child saw her tears in astonishment and nudged its mother, who turned, saw nothing, and turned away again. The tears would not stop, and Cora had nothing but her hair to wipe her eyes; only the preacher from his white stone vantage point saw her; saw the deep breaths with which she tried to suppress a sob, and how she tried to hide her face. He caught her eye and held it, and his look was one she could not remember having ever received from a man. It was not amused, or acquisitive, or appalled; had in it no hauteur or cruelty. She imagined it was how he might look at [his children], if he saw them in distress; yet could not have been because it was a look divided between equals. It was brief, and his gaze moved on, out of delicacy and because the music had ended, and since it was too late to conceal her disgrace Cora let the tears fall.

In The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry tackles some big ideas – everything from science versus religion; to feminism and sexuality; socialism, poverty and housing reform – but does so without losing the narrative drive of the novel. It’s beautiful to read, deliciously gothic with stunning writing, a compelling plot and engaging characters. Not only that, but it’s the most beautiful book I bought last year – look at that cover! I will be buying copies for friends and family in 2017.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonist, Eileen, is a young woman trapped in her 1960s New England life, living in squalor with her alcoholic father and working as a clerk in an institution for young offenders. Until, that is, the prospect of escape arrives in the shape of Rebecca Saint John, the prison’s new attractive, redheaded counsellor who appears suddenly, so stereotypical in her appearance that she is like an idea, not fully formed. The pair strike up what Eileen believes to be a friendship but it’s an unlikely one and it’s apparent to the reader that it’s founded on Rebecca’s manipulation of Eileen and her situation. The gathering dread at what she might be manipulating Eileen for is truly uncomfortable.

The brilliance of Eileen is less its plot – which is tightly crafted, if unsurprising – than its vividly imagined central character. She is gross, perverse, revolting. She fantasises about murdering her father and stalks a prison guard colleague with whom she is infatuated. Several passages are devoted to deeply unpleasant descriptions of her efforts to overcome her constipation – largely brought on herself by her dangerously minimal and unvaried diet – through an addiction to laxatives. Moshfegh only just keeps the reader feeling any sympathy for Eileen.

If that brief description isn’t something you’re comfortable reading, it might be better to steer clear of Eileen. Its grubbiness is fairly relentless but I found myself enjoying what is a really unusual protagonist and well told story.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

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This book was recommended to me by a bookseller in the Gloucester branch of Waterstones and to him I am eternally grateful because I don’t know that I’d have picked up a Strout novel without direct recommendation. I’ve seen a bit of hype about My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout’s Booker longlisted novel, this year but, judging the book entirely on its cover and name, I always assumed it was a bit twee for my tastes.

Actually, Olive Kitteridge is a dignified novel that I found quietly devastating. It tells the story (unsurprisingly) of Olive Kitteridge – a retired teacher: ageing, proud, stubborn, overbearing, not entirely likeable – but does it through a series of short stories about the other people that live in the same town; some close to Olive, others barely acquaintances. In some chapters, Olive features only as a bystander, in others the protagonist. It’s an interesting device but it never feels like one.

There are great tragedies – including a traumatic, violent crime that Olive and her husband find themselves caught up in – but it’s the smaller tragedies that I found moved me like few books have managed to. When Olive hides in a bedroom to rest during her son’s wedding and overhears her new daughter-in-law talking to a friend, her humiliation is palpable.

Olive stands up and very slowly moves along the wall closer to the open window. A shaft of the late-afternoon sun falls over the side of her face as she strains her head forward to make out words in the sounds of the women’s murmuring.

“Oh, God, yes,” says Suzanne, her quiet words suddenly distinct, “I couldn’t believe it. I mean that she would really wear it.”

The dress, Olive thinks. She pulls herself back against the wall.

“Well, people dress differently up here.”

By God, we do, Olive thinks. But she is stunned in her underwater way[…]

[…]And there is the sting of deep embarrassment, because she loves this dress. Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding; those flowers skimming over the table in her sewing room. Becoming this dress that she took comfort in all day.

I called this book quiet but it is deceptively so.

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

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I know I normally only pick three books but, to finish off 2016, you’re getting a *bonus recommendation*. Exciting.

Inspired by a comment on a Guardian article (so it is worth reading the comments sometimes…), Nikesh Shukla set about curating a series of essays about what it means to be black, Asian and minority ethnic in Britain today. The result is The Good Immigrant: a book that is in turn challenging, inspiring, witty, infuriating and devastating. It made me check my white privilege again and again and again.

I initially contributed to the crowdfunding efforts to publish the book because there were some great names lined up – Riz Ahmed, Bim Adewumni, Himesh Patel, Salena Godden, Shukla himself – and I was interested to read what they had to say. But few could have predicted how even more depressingly relevant the book would become by the time it was published in September 2016 and since. This extract from Shukla’s Editor’s Note, explaining the book’s title has extra resonance now:

Before you enjoy these beautiful, powerful, unapologetic essays, a quick note on the title of the book: Musa Okwonga, the poet, journalist and essayist whose powerful ‘The Ungrateful Country’ closes the book, once said to me that the biggest burden facing people of colour in this country is that society deems us bad immigrants – job-stealers, benefits-scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.

And we are so tired of that burden.

 

This quarter, I also read:
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran

(both of which could have easily made it onto this ‘best of’ list. What a quarter!)

Books you might enjoy: July to September

I lost my reading mojo last quarter. It has almost (but not quite) returned but it means that my reading slowed right down and I worried that I wouldn’t have much to recommend to you, my dear readers, who I know have been waiting with bated breath, library cards clutched to your chests in anticipation…

Luckily – quality not quantity and all that – what I did read last quarter turned out to be pretty brilliant so here are the books I most enjoyed in July, August and September. They should be added to your To Read pile immediately.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

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It’s a slim thing, this novel… or (prose) poem… or whatever it is (it doesn’t really matter). And its brevity means you can read it again and again, or – even better – read it slowly, relishing every word, because Max Porter makes each one work hard.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers tells the story of the aftermath of a woman’s death from the perspectives of her husband (a Ted Hughes scholar), her sons and Crow, a visitor that is both welcome and unwelcome, a bully and crook, a counsellor and protector.

There were sentences in this book so good, I literally (and I’m using the word correctly in this context) punched the air in delight, at least twice. When Crow fights a demon who feeds on grief, a stream of violence spills out, only to be interrupted by Crow’s playful glee: “…splashing in blood and spinal gunk and shit and piss, unravelling innards, whipping ligaments and nerves about joyous spaghetti tangled wool hammering, clawing, ripping, snipping, slurping, burping, frankly loving the journey of hurting, hurting-hurting and for Crow it was like a lovely bin full of chip papers and ice cream and currywurst and baby robins and every nasty treat…”

like a lovely bin”! That makes me want to punch the air again.

But even in the grip of grief, in this book, there is warmth and humour:

“I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much, it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.

Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.”

I don’t think I will read a better book this year.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

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Whilst I certainly didn’t love it as much as Grief is the Thing…, I’ve never read anything quite like Swamplandia!. Ava Bigtree and her family of alligator wranglers run the titular amusement park in the Everglades, off the southwest coast of Florida, embracing their alternative lifestyle as make-believe Native Americans. But Ava’s mum (the most famous gator wrangler of them all) dies from cancer – a death so relatively mundane, the adventurous family can hardly believe it – and the family falls apart. With her grandfather packed off to a residential home; her father away “on business”; her brother defecting to rival theme park The World of Darkness; and her sister increasingly obsessed with the occult and dating ghosts, Ava is left to her own devices.

Russell’s prose is rich and dense; I’m going to go there and say it’s swamp-like. It can be wallowed in but can also be impermeable and, although I loved the novel, its originality and some truly brilliant lines, I struggled with Russell’s efforts to sustain the richness of her writing. Just look how many (admittedly wonderful) images she packs in to the last few lines of this paragraph:

“Inside the house was bare wood. Smells bloomed in the dark, a mix of salt and bird droppings and deep rot, but the structure itself was in surprisingly good condition. No Seths, no hawks, no racoons, no trespassing felines. The main room was about three hundred square feet, and the roof was low enough to scrape back the Bird Man’s hat. There was almost no furniture, but what remained was arranged in the patterns you’d expect: a dining table twin beds bunked in an alcove that opened like a walnut mouth behind what had been the kitchen, a small black desk that looked so weak I didn’t even like to rest my eyes on it. Black and white specklings covered the walls, these grim starbursts of mold on the pale wood that made me miss with a random stab my acned brother. A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky: it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once, and lost interest.”

Swamplandia! is worth the effort though. It is fantastical, atmospheric, unsettling and, at times, even funny. If you like to be surprised by a book, this is one for you.

All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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In contrast to my other two recommendations this quarter, All the Light we Cannot See seems fairly traditional in its plotting and style, almost stately in Doerr’s story telling skill. But that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile; in fact, I was really bowled over by how well crafted this book is.

It is wartime. Marie-Laure, a young blind girl, lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith at a national museum. When the Nazis occupy Paris and demand access to the museum’s most prized artefact, the Sea of Flame, Marie-Laure and her father flee to an elderly relative’s house in Saint-Malo. There, they find that their relative is reclusive and eccentric, an obsessive collector of radio transmitting equipment.

Meanwhile, in Germany, a young orphan called Werner comes to the attention of the Nazi Youth, thanks to his extraordinary talent for fixing things, specifically radios. He is transported to boarding school, where brutality reigns, and trained to use his particular skills to serve the Third Reich.

Inevitably, Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths cross. But the intricate plot to bring them together is enormously satisfying, making this book a real page-turner.


This quarter, I also read:
How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt
A Golden Age by Tahmina Anam