I still award a score to all the books I read – recorded on my Reading List page. I score out of 10, including half points (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 122 books this year, of which I awarded 10/10 to 17 titles – that’s just over 14% – my usual amount, but due to good reading choices, an awful lot of titles got eight and above. I’m allowing myself 14 best books this year with a few runners up, and I’m including titles I reviewed for Shiny New Books. So here are the books that resonated the most with me this year, whatever their initial score, and I’ve had to leave some gooduns out too.
Most toxic relationship: My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley. The first book I read by Riley, won’t be my last. The story of Helen, ‘Hen’, as told by her daughter Bridget. It’s toxic for sure, but there is love there too – it’s the way that Bridget tells it, with a strong streak of very dark humour that had me up, down, chuckling or shocked and on the verge of tears throughout.
Best researched historical adventure: The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman, who is turning out to be a fine novelist indeed. Completely different to his first book, this Elizabethan adventure set in the world of the child theatre initially is superbly atmospheric with a young pairing at its heart to really care about.
Most jazzy: Viper’s Dream by Jake Lamar. A novel that features Thelonius Monk as a supporting character in one of its dual timelines, and the other invoking a Chester Himes feel, was always going to pique my interest, and this story of a young man who goes to NYC to play jazz but becomes a drug dealer in Harlem instead was the real deal.
Best SF that sent me down a rabbit hole: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Reading this modern classic for the first time was sublime, and naturally sent me off to watch Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, that was inspired by it, and also to read Geoff Dyer’s tribute to Stalker, Zona.
Best memoir concept: The Sound of Being Human by Jude Rogers – I love memoirs that are more than just memoirs. Rogers picks twelve tracks that are formative for her and tells her life story, and celebrates her late father, but also looks at the psychology of music a little in how it makes us feel. A lovely book.
Best gangland thriller: Squeaky Clean by Callum McSorley. What a crime debut this was! It deserves all the plaudits that have come its way. A darkly comic gangland thriller set at a Glasgow car wash with a female detective named Ally McCoist! I loved it. Runner-up: Dry Cleaning by Trevor Mark Thomas.
Most on the edge: Liminal by Roland Schimmelpfennig – A late addition to my best of list, Schimmelpfennig’s second novel, translated wonderfully by Jamie Bulloch follows a disgraced cop trying to find out about a dead girl in Berlin’s underground club scene. The dreamy and hypnotic prose is truly edgy. Runner-up: Trespasses by Louise Kennedy – an edgy affair can only end in doom.
Best Bowie feature: David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine by Nicholas Royle – Royle’s lockdown book has an eclectic mix of essay/lecture, memoir, biography, surprise and more within its pages, packed full of literary, musical and cultural intertextural references to keep you on your toes. I did a Q&A with him too, which was huge fun.
Best essays: Cary Grant’s Suit by Todd McEwen. McEwen writes wonderfully about the landmark movies in his life in this mixture of memoir and film crit. Great stuff – it’s funny too and it’ll make you want to watch Chinatown again for sure, and North by Northwest.
Best re-read: An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge. I re-read this one for the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week I hosted in November. On a second reading, I found it a lot more poignant than the first. One of my favourites by her.
Best spies: The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton. Harry Palmer just edges it from these ones… Runners-up: The Man in the Corduroy Suit by James Wolff; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré; London Rules by Mick Herron.
Best sense of place: Chourmo by Jean-Claude Izzo. Marseilles is a much a character in the second of Izzo’s trilogy as the people in it.
But which of these fourteen books was my ‘Book of the Year’ ?
It was very nearly Viper’s Dream, but for sheer atmosphere, air of mystery, and adventure, told with literary verve, a drumroll please for …
Have you read any of my choices?
Can you recommend some of yours to me….