These days, I’ve given up trying to limit my choices to an established number characteristic of best of lists, long or short. I’ve had a good year of quality reading, awarding 10/10 to no fewer than 26 books – so 20% of my reading approx. Those scores are only snapshots of course, and some books fade from your memory as others, which maybe scored lower initially, stay or grow. With great difficulty, I’ve narrowed it down to 15 with a few runners up. Here they are, with links to my reviews in the titles.
Bleakest Romance: In Love by Alfred Hayes – As break-up novels go, Hayes’ trilogy of which this is the first are the ultimate in ‘writhing’ as Hayes’ called his own writing style. Beautiful and heart-breaking.
Best Swansong: A Long Way Off by Pascal Garnier – The last of Garnier’s wonderful noir novels, delivered shortly before he died, this is a father and daughter road trip with a murderous difference and full of his trademark black humour!
Best Rock & Roll: It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track by Ian Penman – My best book of rock’n’roll this year is a book of non-fiction essays, each of the eight focusing on a different artist or musical movement. Sinatra, Elvis, Prince, Steely Dan, Mod and more – Fab! (Runner-up: The Ruins by Mat Osman – twins, death and a missing album feature in this fab novel)
My Best Book Group read: A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines – Working class Yorkshire in the 1960s, and a boy who manages to find beauty in life, if only for a short while training a hawk, is a true modern classic. Uplifting yet terribly sad; its themes are timeless, its appeal ageless.
Best re-read: Electricity by Ray Robinson – I finally saw the film made from Robinson’s debut, and re-read the book, loving the story of Lily who has severe epilepsy, searching for her missing brother all over again.
Best Badger: Grave’s End by William Shaw – Shaw’s Alexandra Cupidi crime novels set in and around Dungeness in Kent are superb. This, the 3rd (4th if you include The Birdwatcher) features interludes written from the PoV of an old badger – no anthropomorphism here, it works. (Runner up: The Dig by Cynan Jones – badger baiting novella – tough but wonderfully written.)
Best Hollywood: Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe – Set around the filming of Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, Fedora, with a present day framing strand, we see the Hollywood machine through an innocent’s eyes in Calista, who is employed as an interpreter on location in Greece, and the ageing director’s realisation that in the late 1970s, they don’t really want his kind of cerebral dramas any more. Chock full of atmosphere, and an exploration of ageing and outgrowing the interests of youth, this is Coe’s best novel for a while.
Most Architectural: Piranesi by Susanne Clarke – We had to wait 16 years for Susanna Clarke to write her second novel, with just some short stories in between, and it was worth it. Her story of a man living in a self-contained universe of halls full of statues has such richness, intertextuality, mystery and sublime writing is A-MAZ-ING!
Biggest Addict (in a Series): Bad News by Edward St Aubyn – This summer was the year I embarked on the Patrick Melrose set of five novels, and what a ride they were. Absolutely hilarious, but also shocking and sad, the second in which Patrick has to travel to New York to collect his father’s ashes in the height of his addiction was a stand out read. (See my series round-up with links to the individual titles here).
Most Experimental: I am Sovereign by Nicola Barker – A black comedy set over a twenty minute house-viewing, Barker takes us into the minds of her characters to hear their every thought. Such fun.
Best Fall and Rise: Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes – Translated by the wonderful Frank Wynne, the final volume of Despentes state of the nation trilogy brought things to an unexpected close. (Runner-up: The Manual of Darkness by Enrique de Hériz, transl. Frank Wynne again is another fall and rise – of a magician who goes blind and has to learn to live again.)
Best Survivor Memoir: The Chronology of Water by Lydia Yuknavich – An early read that has stayed with me. It begins with tragedy, then flashes back to swimming, drugs, sex, and eventually the medicine for the mind that is writing. You’ll wonder how she survived.
Best Writer’s Block: The Monsters We Deserve by Marcus Sedgwick – who continues to write crossover novels that are only superficially YA, this partly auto-fiction novel is about Frankenstein and writer’s block.
Best Future Weird: The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer – This SF novella is set in the same world as his 2017 novel Borne, a post-disaster world of survival and biotech, into which the hybrid bird/human/creature is released and has to survive. Some of Vandermeer’s best writing.
Best Retirees: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman – If you haven’t read this by now, him off the telly has proved that he can (like his brother Mat, above) write too. A satisfying murder mystery set in a retirement village with a quartet of residents who are always one step ahead of the police. Sadly, we have to wait until next September for this follow-up!
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…
No surprise really. I gave it 11/10 back in September and have been rabbiting on about it to everyone ever since basically. Nuff said!