Happy New Year & Happy New Decade!
But, before I dive headlong into the 2020s, here’s just one more backwards-looking post to pick out my highlights for each year of the 2010s, well 2010-2018 – I’m considering 2019 done!
- Book of the Year: To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine. Something about this memoir by former Slits guitarist and songwriter just resonated with me. I said:
This is no holds barred writing. Honest, brutal, very angry at the world and unsparing of herself too, but it is also full of self-deprecating wit – she’s often very funny indeed. Contrasting with this are moments of despair, pain and some shocking revelations. I cried as much as I laughed reading this book. If you can cope with the emotional roller-coaster she takes you on, you’ll find this volume of memoir truly unputdownable, memorable and agree that as a survivor of all her experiences, Viv Albertine is a remarkable woman.
- A Favourite Post: Why Have I Never Read Kent Haruf Before? One of my most commented on posts from 2018 was my review of Our Souls at Night, which was Kent Haruf’s last novel. It’s essentially a long conversation between two lonely folk who connect in their later years, and the complications that brings. Simple and beautiful. Now, I really MUST read more of Haruf.
- Book of the Year: I cheated that year and picked three, but of those three, one has stayed with me more than the rest and that is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I said:
Towles’s second novel was an entrancing tonic. Its hero, one of the last Russian aristocrats who is sentenced to house arrest for life when the Communists take over. Luckily the Count lives in one of Moscow’s great hotels, and although having to put up with very reduced circumstances in former servants’ quarters, for decades, he manages to live a life full of wonderful experiences as he befriends the staff, indeed becomes one of them, becomes foster father to a young girl and takes a film-star lover. Just wonderful!
- A Favourite Post: #WITMonth – Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex 1 – This slice of la vie parisienne grabbed me and didn’t let go. The first part of a trilogy following the fall (and rise? Vol 3 is due out in translation this year) of the titular Vernon, ex record shop owner, friend to a dead rock star, left in reduced circumstances to sofa surf descend towards homelessness. This intense and powerful novel full of flawed characters was a compelling read and felt very real in its awfulness. Frank Wynne’s translation was fab.
- Book of the Year: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. Set in New York of 1746, Spufford’s novel, a pitch-perfect pastiche of Fielding and his contemporaries was a delight. I said:
What a storyteller Francis Spufford is! I’d wager that there are more plot twists and turns than the Hampton Court maze. There is adventure, peril, comedy – both in manners and more slapstick scenes. Smith is a loveable hero, naïve yet worldly, but totally flummoxed by the contrary Tabitha. The key supporting characters all have their own story to tell. Oakeshott in particular has his own fascinating narrative. However, finally revealed is a serious heart which puts everything into perspective without detracting from all the shenanigans that went before.
- A Favourite Post: My gut obsession continues – more food for thought. The Diet Myth by Tim Spector. This book was a revelation on how to eat better and feed one’s microbiome. Diversity and moderation is the key – not excluding good stuff, and plenty of fibre, polyphenols, pre and probiotics, etc. He explains how all the different food types work on our body – much of it is surprising. Highly recommended.
- Book of the Year: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller. A dual timeline story telling the story of teenager Peggy, who is told her mother is dead and that she must go with her survivalist father to live off-grid in the woods, and later after she is rescued and reunited with her German pianist mother. The whole novel resonates with imagery from Grimm, and Liszt (his piano étude La Campanella runs through it too). I said:
Peggy is devoted to her father and believes everything he said, but she is growing up too. The novel gets darker and darker as the years go by. James gets harder and harder to live with and you know that something will happen. We know from the beginning of the novel that Peggy’s mother isn’t dead. This lets the author create an aura of suspense from the start that builds and builds as the story is teased out in both timelines. There are some great cliff-hangers too, which aren’t resolved until maybe a chapter later due to the switch in narratives. Things may happen in one timeline which have a component in the other too. This all adds depth to the plot and it’s skillfully done.
- A Favourite Post: Dancing the Seasons with Powell #4 – A Dance to the Music of Time 4: At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell I had started 2015 with good intentions, to read one volume from Powell’s cycle a month, but after volume 4, which was Widmerpool-rich and very funny, I got mired in volume 5 and haven’t moved on since. I really ought to read the rest!
- Book of the Year – The Blog Edit: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton Another author I’ve sworn to read more by but failed, as yet. This blackest of boozy, pre-war comedies tells the story of George Bone, an undiagnosed schizophrenic. I said: The novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn.Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.
- Book of the Year – The Shiny Edit: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. This was Shiny’s first Christmas, so I split my Books of the Year into books I’d reviewed on my blog and those reviewed for Shiny. Station Eleven has stayed with me ever since I read it – it would feature in my top ten books read ever I think. It’s a post-pandemic dystopia, which is heavy on Shakespeare, comics, and not all bleak. I loved it. I said:
The author has obviously thought a great deal about how civilisation would continue twenty years after a major catastrophe like pandemic flu. Her vision of this future seems entirely feasible and very practical. Sadly, as in every post-disaster novel I can remember, there will always be groups seeking to gain advantage, to set up their own little kingdoms like the misguided prophet here. There is violence in this tale; the Travelling Symphony had had a good life up until this meeting – but what happened afterwards? I can’t tell you, but there is hope, and I can recommend this novel wholeheartedly.
- Book of the Year: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo I’ve yet to read Evaristo’s Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other but know I’ll love it. Mr Loverman is the story of Barrington Walker, who emigrated from Antigua in the 1960s. Barry has a big secret. His friend Morris has been his lover for decades. His wife Carmel is at her wits’ end thinking he’s a philandering womaniser, while Morris is putting pressure on Barry to do the right thing. I said: In Mr Loverman, Evaristo has created a memorable family with a magnificent patriarch whom you can’t help falling for. Hilariously funny and exhuberant, yet compassionate and bittersweet in its portrayal of the difficulties of family life – I loved every single page.
- A Favourite Post – A Tale of Two Women in 1930s Berlin – Black Roses by Jane Thynne. This is the first in Thynne’s wartime ‘Clara Vine’ series, in which a young Anglo-German actress is recruited to be a British Spy. Her mission is to get in with the wives of the ministers of the First Reich; Magda Goebbels looms large in this installment. I immediately loved Thynne’s feminist take on the imminent WWII, reminds me I have the latest in the series (all of which are wonderful) still to read.
- Book of the Year: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Magical! A new take on an old Russian fairy tale set in 1920s Alaska, in which two childless fifty-something homesteaders find a child in the snow – or is she of the snow? A lovely book, about which I said:
I’ll leave you to read it if you wish and make up your own minds about Faina the snow girl – or not, for the author is absolutely brilliant at making her seem like a feral child surviving in the wilderness at one moment, and then an ethereal sprite born of snowflakes, in an instant. Is gaining the unconditional love of would-be adoptive parents the transformational force that occurs in so many fairy-tales where a magical being changes into a human one? Ivey’s light yet sure touch with these possibilities make reading this novel a magical experience.
- A Favourite Post – Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week – In 2012, I hosted the first BBRW (repeated in 2016). I was overjoyed at how many people joined in to read books by the Booker Bridesmaid. This is the wrap-up post from 2012, but Beryl has her own page under my ‘Projects’ tab at the top of the page (see more here).
- Book of the Year: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. It’s the mid 1800s and notorious killers for hire, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are are on their way from Oregon to California on a job. It ticked all the boxes for me – it was slick, hilariously funny, inevitably sad, and very quirky, as well as being extremely strong visually. It would make a spectacular movie in trademark Coen brothers style. I said:
If I had to make a movie pitch for this book, it would be the Coen brothers do The Blues Brothers crossed with Deadwood, HBO’s fantastic wild west series, and that encapsulates it in a nutshell for me, save to say that the combination is an absolute winner.
- A Favourite Post: A Whale of a book – I finally read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. We read this for Book Group, I’d never have picked it up otherwise, but I was so glad that I did, because this book so underpins so much of classic American lit. I get references in other novels I’d never have understood before (I should also read Bartleby the Scrivener – Melville’s other oft-quoted work).
- Book of the Year: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carré. My favourite Le Carré with the wonderful film starring Richard Burton as spy Alec Leamas. I said:
Le Carré’s third novel was the one that made his career take off. Legend has it that the British Secret Services gave it to all new spies to read and learn from but the self-effacing author insists that despite having been a spook for a while, it is all made up. Fantasy it may be, but it feels so real. It is also full of what we would call good old-fashioned ‘spy craft’ – there’s none of the gloss of the current TV Spooks. It is anchored in its own zeitgeist, where the post-war legacy of the 1950s has yet to give way to the new youth-led culture of the 1960s. Then there is the wall looming over this book, that symbol of the Cold War, the then new barrier between them and us.
- A Favourite Post – The Lord of the Rings Readalong – I took part in a four month readalong revisiting The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings hosted by Teresa at Shelflove. I said: I’m very glad to have re-read the books and have got much more from them this time, in particular understanding more about the politics between all the tribes and races. One thing hasn’t changed though, Aragorn remains my favourite character! Taking it slowly over a period of four months has enabled me to read plenty of other books in between yet keep them in the forefront of my mind. Lastly many thanks to Teresa who started the whole thing off.