And finally, in my review of my reading year, it’s my Books of the Year. I always save this post for last, in case there’s a late entry. I’ve given up trying to keep the list to a dozen and have ended up instead with a baker’s dozen, plus some runners up. All of these were brilliant books that I loved reading. As always, they’re not ranked, but given appropriate categories for fun. Click on the Title for links to my original reviews. Here goes…
Best Book Group read – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
To see the full list of what we read in our book group this year – click here, or go via the menu above. We’ve read some fantastic novels this year, but Winterson’s debut stood out for me. I don’t know how I’d managed to escape reading it all these years. I’ve read (and loved) her autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, (reviewed here). It’s fair to say that if you have read Winterson’s memoir, that sense of déjà vu will be very strong, for there’s not much in the novel that didn’t happen to Jeanette in real life. But what is unique is the structure that Winterson gives to the novel, basing it around the first eight books of the bible. A truly wonderful novel.
Runner up: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, a novel that has grown on me since I read it.
Best re-read – Rites of Passage by William Golding
I’m not a big re-reader of books, but this year have done this more than usual, revisiting six novels – all were fantastic, but I did love Golding’s Booker Prize-winning novel so much again when I read it for Shiny New Books’ 50th Booker celebration week. Although, the first volume in a trilogy, RoP stands on its own as a seafaring adventure and critique on class and religion.
Best science book – To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell
One of the pleasures of reading this year was being part of the unofficial shadow panel for The Wellcome Book Prize. I really enjoyed reading the shortlist, and am already looking forwards to 2019’s longlist for the 10th anniversary of the prize. I’ll be taking part in a blog tour celebrating the shortlists from previous years in the New Year.
O’Connell’s fabulous book which explores all the facets of transhumanism, from cryogenics to anti-ageing lifestyles, won the prize in 2018, and was our shadow panel winner too.
Runner up: I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell – also shortlisted for the Wellcome Bk Prize
Best genre mash-up – Borne by Jeff Vandermeer
Horror – Dystopia – SF – Ecothriller – Romance – Family Drama: Vandermeer is a master at mashing up all the genres and coming up with weird and fanastic gems. This novel of nature and nurture and biotech experimentation gone very wrong was delightful.
When scavenger Rachel takes a small piece of biotech home and it grows and learns from her, little does she know how Borne, as she christens the green globe, will turn out. This dystopian future in which a giant flying bear terrorises the neighbourhood is brilliantly realised and like nothing else I’ve read. Love, love, love this book!
Best dialogue – In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne
Gunaratne’s novel was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, but sadly didn’t make the shortlist. It was also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize – an award that celebrates creatively daring fiction (but again didn’t win). However, daring it is, for never have I read a book where the dialogue so perfectly captures the voices of its five protagonists. It is in your face and takes some getting used to, but utterly true to the characters’ lives.
Set over 48 hours as a crisis builds on a North London council estate, we follow the lives of three young men – all second generation immigrants of different ethnicities, and two older characters – first generation immigrants. Gunaratne brings the generations together through their experiences of violence and extremism bound together with estate living. It all builds up to a devastating climax as the events spiral out of control. This is a tough, vivid, gritty and yes, daring debut novel that didn’t disappoint and marks Gunaratne as a one to watch.
Best crime / thriller – The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox
When Knox’s debut Sirens, which I reviewed here, was published in January 2017, it caused ripples. Here was a perfectly formed first novel, a crime thriller with a disgraced detective at its heart set in the nighttime economy of Manchester. I described it as ‘The Wire meets Line of Duty in Manchester’. It remained the best crime thriller I read all year. Expectations for Knox’s second novel were sky-high, and it’s a delight to be able to say that The Smiling Man not only lives up to Sirens‘ promise, but perhaps exceeds it.
Detective Aidan Waits has resigned himself to working the night shift, after nearly being thrown off the force – a case comes up at 1am, a reported break-in at the Palace hotel, which is closed undergoing renovation. Knox’s plotting in this second novel is complex and gripping, and allied with the strong sense of place in Manchester, the character-driven mystery made this book unputdownable.
Runner up: In the Woods by Tana French
Best in translation – Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima
This is a beguiling novella following the story of a young mother and her young daughter after she has separated from her husband. It was originally published during the late 1970s in installments in a Japanese literary magazine, mirroring the passage of the year in the text. Tsushima herself was a divorced mother, and you can sense she’s writing from experience. In the young mother’s narration there is a translucency to the prose that takes you deep into her mind through her detachment from life. Read in one sitting, the repetitiveness of the daily grind comes through strongly, something you wouldn’t feel so much read in the original installments. There may be a dullness to this life in that respect, but it’s not boring to read. There are enough events taking place in each chapter to distract the reader from becoming too maudlin, from interactions with her neighbours and colleagues to a nearby factory going up with a bang – life goes on.
Runner up: If Cats Disappeared From the World by Genki Kawamura
Best book about Art – The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris
Who better to talk about the Surrealists than one of them, and who better to understand them than a zoologist who has specialised in understanding the human animal. Morris is both, which may surprise those who didn’t know about his art. This super book concentrates on the lives rather than the paintings of the major surrealist painters and sculptors. It’s gossipy, and full of personal anecdote. Morris has chosen thirty-two of them to present in short biographies, looking at their lives, their oft-complicated love lives, their personalities. But the most pleasant surprise was to find that some of them, like Joan Miró, were really nice people, unlike Andre Breton.
Runner up: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman – a novel of fake and fortune.
Best coming of age – Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale
Gale was one of my discoveries this year – why I’ve never read him before, I don’t know. I loved this story of a young man with a musical talent who realises he’s different, but told through two timelines – his teenage years and when he is fifty-something, about to start a new relationship at the same time as being treated for cancer. This novel is a wonderful blend of coming of age story, small-town childhood, friendship and finding oneself, bound up with a love of music. Gale writes with sensitivity and humour to make Take Nothing With You a delightful and engaging read which I heartily recommend.
Best evocation of the 1960s – Poor Cow by Nell Dunn
Published in 1967, Dunn’s novella is a ‘classic of 1960s London life’ and was her second work of fiction after her earlier collection of stories Up the Junction. In it, we follow Joy, who was based on a real woman Dunn knew when living in Battersea, and her relationships – good and bad – but thieves both! A working class young mother with a lust for life – and sex, this novella has the power to shock with Joy’s earthiness and language. Funny and moving, Joy is a heroine and a half. The newish Virago edition also has an excellent introduction by Margaret Drabble and a foreword by Dunn about living in Battersea, both of which augment the picture in the novel.
Best novel of Eighties excess – Running Wild by J.G. Ballard
This beautifully crafted novella published in 1988 concerns one of Ballard’s favourite themes – life in a community that walls itself away from the rest of the world. It is set in an exclusive housing estate of just ten houses, each on a large plot. The estate is gated, has state of the art security systems and discreet guards. The ten families that live there are from the aspirant middle classes, with good jobs that pay excellent salaries, they live in comfortable, safe, luxury – an ideal place to bring up their children.
However, early one morning, in just ten minutes, thirty-two adults – all the parents, the guards, some of the helps – were murdered. The thirteen children are missing, presumed abducted. No ransom was ever demanded: the police are at a complete loss as to what happened, and where to look for the children.
Pure Ballard, pure genius.
Best growing old together – Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Haruf was another discovery for me this year, and this, his last novel, was so very nearly my book of the year. It’s the simple story of two lonely, widowed neighbours in their seventies who strike up a friendship which leads to love, much to the annoyance of Addie’s son who wants to helicopter back into his mother’s life when his own marriage breaks up.
This was such a beautiful book, and I cried and cried at one point. The two protagonists are so well portrayed in Haruf’s speech markless conversations. Almost the whole book is Addie and Louis just talking to each other, or with Jamie, or their wonderful octogenarian neighbour Ruth who lives in between their houses. He adds minimal descriptions of settings and actions where needed, but the book is really a dialogue between its two stars, and their characters are perfectly captured. I absolutely adored it.
And My Book of the Year (and Best Memoir) is…
To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine
My ‘Book of the Year’ is an emotional choice, something in this memoir just resonated with me. She was born in 1954, I in 1960, so we’re of the same generation really; I was coming of age as she hit her stride in the 1970s. I saw Viv Albertine talk about her book at the Faber party early in the year, and she came across as delicate, but absolutely fizzing with energy – and yes, that probably did influence my decision to choose this book over Haruf ultimately.
This is Albertine’s second volume of memoir, her first covered her career as guitarist with the Slits. This book is about her family and primarily her relationships with the women in it: her mother, her sister, her daughter. The book employs a dual timeline. Each chapter is prefaced with a vignette set in the near present, starting the day after her mother died, before moving back to before her death. Albertine had been at the launch of her first book in a Kensington Club when she got the call that her mother had just twenty minutes to live. Her younger sister, Pascale, over from Canada, had got there first, and was taking over Viv’s place as principal carer. Sibling rivalry was never so intense, but I won’t say more here. Albertine is also upfront in telling us about the failure of her own marriage: her various lovers including an enigmatic builder, her battle with cancer, how proud she is of her daughter, but also her complex relationship with her late mother.
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.