I still award a score to the majority of books I read – out of 10, including halfs (so out of 20 really!). Those scores are only snapshots of course, and some books fade from your memory as others, which maybe scored lower initially, stay or grow. I read 150 books this year, of which I awarded 10/10 to 26 – 17% roughly but an awful lot of titles got eight and above. Having read so many books this year, I’ve allowed myself 21 Books of the Year (whenever published) with a few runners up. So here are the titles that resonated with me this year, whatever their initial score.
Best Book About Books and Writing: Tinderbox by Megan Dunn – I enjoyed this memoir of trying to write a book inspired by Fahrenheit 451 even more than re-reading Bradbury’s masterpiece. (A very close run with Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink)
Best Sequel/Book in a Series: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman – He did it again! If The Thursday Murder Club was brilliant, the follow-up took the character development of the quartet of mature sleuths to new levels. Absolutely adored it.
Best Graphic Novel: Flake by Matthew Dooley – This story of ice-cream wars in a small northern town won the Everyman Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction in 2019. It’s all about the struggle of the underdog – and is touching and funny and all done in ice-cream pastels. Lovely to look at as well as great fun to read.
My Best Book Group read: Drive by James Sallis – This was a real marmite book – only me and one other in our group enjoyed this. I loved Sallis’ spareness in the writing, and the look into the craft of a stunt-driver, alongside being being a getaway driver. “I drive. That’s all I do.“
Deepest Friendship: Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan – A joyous beginning as young Tully and James embark on a mad weekend in Manchester in 1986 – but a three-hanky finish thirty years later, beautifully written by an author I must read more by.
Best Rabbit: Putting the Rabbit in the Hat by Brian Cox – I’ve read three books with rabbits in the title: one a top secret game, another a giant one at an adventure park, but the third is metaphorical – from the title of actor Brian Cox’s autobiography, which I’ve yet to write up. It was wonderful in a rambling way, wandering through his life story with many digressions into the mechanics of acting, directors, script quality, roles he turned down, and Ian McKellen (among many actors). I’ve seen him on stage four times – The Taming of the Shrew with Fiona Shaw, In King Lear as Buckingham with McKellen, Fashion at the Pit, and Frankie & Johnny with Julie Walters. His autobiography was great fun.
The Most Bonkers Book in Translation: Monday Begins on Saturday by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky – My first encounter with the Russian brothers was a super one – this 1964 SF novel is totally mad! Here, I just want to salute translator Andrew Bromfield who obviously had a field day with it.
Best Meta: How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu – A superb SF novel about a lonely time machine repair man called Charles. I loved the philosophical meta nature of it, the techno-babble that you just accept, the playfulness of Yu’s writing and his loveable alter-ego, narrator Charles.
Best Auteur: Diary of a Film by Noven Govinden – follows a few days in the life of an auteur film director who is in Italy with his two lead actors to promote their new movie at a prestigious film festival. The auteur’s thoughts are very much presented by Govinden in a stream of consciousness style, each chapter being presented in a single paragraph with unpunctuated dialogue. Govinden gives us a sympathetic character overall and a unique insight into the creative process, being profoundly introspective as the auteur examines his life and work.
Biggest Paranoid: Mrs. March by Virginia Feito – This has been one of the books with buzz since its publication late this summer – and it’s worth all the hype. A witty, dark thriller of a woman’s descent into paranoia, I couldn’t put it down. (Runner-up: The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz)
Best Cult Read: All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook – The world, it seems falls into two parts: those who’ve read and fallen for this fascinating book that is part psychogeography, part delving into the darker side of writer’s and artist’s lives, and those who haven’t. I’m in the former camp, finally.
Funniest book: Are We Having Fun Yet? by Lucy Mangan – Mangan takes her inspiration from EM Delafield’s 1930 Diary of a Provincial Lady, giving us a year in the life of Liz and her family. I chuckled my way through this novel, recognising so many of the situations in its pages. Mangan’s writing is witty and wise, giving us an honest and refreshing look at modern life and parenting with all its ups and downs. (Runner up: The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan)
Longest Road Trip: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – Towles’ third novel is a sprawling nod to Homer’s odyssey, Emmett and Billy set off for California to find their mother driving the titular road. But they haven’t reckoned on stowaway friends, borrowing the car and heading for New York instead. Reading The Lincoln Highway was a joyous adventure for me, a superb dose of escapism, all 592 pages of it.
The Book I Couldn’t Review but Loved: Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder – I loved this novel about a woman, a recent mother, gradually turning into a dog at night – it is really witty, its extremely visceral and dark – feral even. I just found it impossible to review!
Most Existential: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – Such a pleasant surprise, to find a noir thriller between this book’s pages. Yes, it is existential, but its protagonist Janina is fabulously realised, and the whole is suffused with William Blake too.
Most Ballardian: Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart – JG Ballard is a key author for me, and this spec fiction SF/eco thriller set in a drowned world where to save resources people sleep for 3 months, wake for 1 with just the ‘janitors’ to look after things, has many resonances with JGB. (Runner-up: Line by Niall Bourke)
The Deborah Levy Award for Eloquence: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy – Another of my favourite authors, Levy can’t write a sentence that is ineloquent, unthinking, uncrafted. This second volume of her living autobiography sees her angry, newly single again, rebuilding her life in a new, better way. I identified, totally!
Best Japanese Flowers (and love story): A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery – A contemporary novella with a calming, philosophical slant set in Kyoto, A Single Rose is a beautiful thing, a simple story of self-discovery for Rose, a Frenchwoman who never knew her Japanese father, but travels there after his death to discover her heritage, and finds love along the way.
Most Musicianly Rock ‘n’ Roll: Beeswing by Richard Thompson – A genial memoir by the virtuoso guitarist and song-writer taking us from his youth through to the end of his stint with Fairport Convention. He never really felt the urge to join in with hippy movement, but his observations are fascinating, and there are great anecdotes here.
Most Experimental Lore: Lanny by Max Porter – Lanny’s style is experimental and polyphonic, but accessible, the story of a village, but in particular a child – Lanny – who will go missing. Observing everything going on though is Dead Papa Toothwort. He’s the village’s spirit, like the Green Man, but on steroids! He’s mischievous, gets in everywhere and is distinctly earthy. When Dead Papa Toothwort listens, we hear fragments of conversations all over the village, chopped up and swirling over the page in italics, a chorus if you will – cleverly done. And Dead Papa Toothwort is wide awake and ready to make havoc. (Runner-up: Treacle Walker by Alan Garner
Best rediscovery: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes – I’d read and enjoyed some of Himes Harlem novellas written in the late 1950s before, but never the first one which introduces detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Himes’s Harlem drips with atmosphere, it’s teeming with life – all of it!
Now, it’s almost time to reveal my book of the year, but before that here are some of my favourite book covers that didn’t get featured above…
And My Book is the Year is…
cue drums and a long pause…
Although both Muriel Barbery’s A Single Rose and Virginia Feito’s Mrs. March gave this book a run for its money, this novel which I read back in March has stayed with me so vividly, and was so beautifully and elegiacally written.
Niven Govinden, Diary of a Film (Dialogue, Feb 2021). 978-0349700717, 224pp., hardback.
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