I read a lot of books for my studies; some of them are fantastically interesting, others are complete drudgery. But by some significant miracle I also find the strength to read books just because I want to! Here, in no particular order, are the books which I have read just because I wanted to this year. I will update the list if any more squeak in before Friday.
1. Hild – Nicola Griffith
This book should be the next book you read. A novelisation of the early years of the woman who would become St Hilda of Whitby, it is amazing, amazing, amazing. I hear rumours that it is the first in a trilogy and cannot wait for the other two books.
2. Drysalter – Michael Symmons Roberts
Nourishing, beautiful poems. My two officemates and I would have poetry breaks to read from this book, and from:
3. Corpus – Michael Symmons Roberts
4. Not That Kind of Girl – Lena Dunham
Unapologetic. I liked it, and went to see Dunham in conversation with Caitlin Moran at the Southbank Centre, which was a very good time.
5. A Lot Like Eve – Joanna Jepson
Facial reconstructive surgery – would Jesus get it? Jepson’s very public controversies over beauty, vocation, and abortion related with generosity and grace. Some quietly profound reflections on the body-shaming that goes on in conservative Christian circles.
6. Ammonite – Nicola Griffith
An anthropologist on another planet finds her identity compromised – in a good way.
7. The Humbler Creation – Pamela Hansford Johnson
A vicar has an affair of the mind in mid-twentieth century west London before it was posh London. Parish life never seemed so full of despair. The worst thing about this book was that I saw myself in one of the most horrible characters in the book. Ugh.
8. Earthsea Quartet – Ursula Le Guin
People been tellin’ me to read Earthsea for ages so finally I did. It was enjoyable. Mythical origin stories without some of LOTR’s drudgery. Too much binary gender essentialism for my liking. Good thoughts on identity, addiction, and facing death.
9 .The Vicar Woman – Emma Rendel
The problem with so many graphic novels is this: they are too short. This is a fable about a small island haunted by past violences and the new vicar who tries to find out what has happened and help the community heal – but how much can she do against angry secrets? This graphic novel stopped far too abruptly; I felt I must be missing half the story.
10. Room for Love – Ilya
This was a fairly well-acclaimed graphic novel which I found pretty underwhelming, to be honest. It was gritty and interesting but hardly anything unheard of. I wanted it to be much better than it was. The art was good, though, if done in a slightly gray-heavy palette.
11. Broken Homes – Ben Aaronovitch
To relate the actual plot of this novel would sound ludicrous unless you’ve read the three preceding it in Ben Aaronovitch’s series about The Folly, aka the Magic Stuff division of the London Metropolitan Police. Suffice it to say, this book takes us – shock! – south of the River to some goings-on in a barely-fictionalised council estate in Elephant and Castle. I did not expect the twist at the end because I am an idiot, and it ripped my heart out.
12. Foxglove Summer – Ben Aaronovitch
I finished ‘Broken Homes’ on the plane back from Italy and was sitting next to my partner, going, ‘No! No! No! No!’ At which point I realised I had a leftover book token, and went straight from Stanstead to Liverpool Street to Brick Lane Bookshop to buy the next in the series, ‘Foxglove Summer’, which I then read within 72 hours. It was that good. There were: carnivorous angry unicorns, potential changelings, a whole lot of river goddess sex, and a Faerie Queen or two.
13. Joseph Andrews – Henry Fielding
Found the Penguin first edition in a secondhand bookshop in Trastevere, Rome. I now wish I had read ‘Pamela’ before to understand all the in-jokes.
14. An Encyclopaedia of Early Earth – Isabel Greenberg
This was by far my favourite graphic novel of the year. I may have cried. It was beautiful and quite sad.
15. Death in Holy Orders – P. D. James
So I have been developing a theory this year about monasteries, convents, priories, abbeys, etc. – any places run by those who have taken vows in Christian religious orders. They have a disproportionately high number of murder mysteries to (a) the amount of time they might spend reading novels and (b) the amount of time you’d imagine monks and nuns to want to read about grisly murders. But as I get to know more monks and nuns, I think that the demands of living in community would definitely require one to acquire outlets for one’s rage against other community members!
Anyways, between the two or three such places I visited or lived in this year, there was Much P. D. James to be had. ‘Death in Holy Orders’ rang eerily familiar as it was set in a fictional, Norfolk theological college. I definitely did not cheer at the death of the archdeacon.
16. The Murder Room – P. D. James
Tiny Highgate museum. Perfect murder? Sorry – Dagliesh on the case.
17. The Lighthouse – P. D. James
Back into the murder-filled English countryside for this one. I became increasingly anxious about Dalgliesh’s and also Kate’s romantic entanglements.
18. The Private Patient – P. D. James
This was a bit more ‘cozy mystery’ which was annoying as I think it was the last one James ever wrote. But hey, she could really write ‘em. It’s funny the things you notice when you read several mysteries by the same author in a short space of time: the ways that similar descriptions of people, or things, or events, crop up here and there in different books.
19. Tiny Stations – Dixe Wills
Dixe pays attention to the littlest, most strange, most overlooked things, and in this book, traveled around British Railways to those little-visited railway request stops, gathering historical, literary and philosophical clippings and a healthy dash of chaos on the way.
20. Poems of Protest: William Morris
Poetry and also essays in favour of socialism! The people’s poetry! Inspiring, optimistic, secular hymns.
21. The Book of Strange New Things – Michael Faber
One of the reviews I read for this book prior to reading it said something like, ‘I did not so much read this book as let it swallow me whole.’ This was basically my experience. I picked it up from the library not knowing it was about a person going into space to another planet with a relatively recent human settlement to fill the post of ‘Minister to the Indigenous Population – Christian’. Things don’t go as planned. The story was was beautiful, painful, and as much about the protagonists’s marriage and the apocalyptic tensions brewing back on Earth as what happened on the planet Oasis and its devout ‘alien’ beings.
22. Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick De Witt
This book was set in a dreamy landscape that was half English country town, half mittel-European castle and estate. It was dramatic and intimate and at times grotesque, but mostly funny and really quite poignant.
23. Bitch Planet, Vol 1 – Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro
Not so far in the future, women are forced into premodern states of subservience. Those who earn the charge ‘noncompliant’ are shipped to another planet which serves as a correctional facility. It’s also known as Bitch Planet. There are back stories galore, an evil conspiracy, obligatory shower scenes, kickass women all over, a Hunger-Games-esque sports tournament to be trained for, and hopefully in future volumes there will be some prison breaks.
24. Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig
I have been wanting to read Zweig ever since I saw ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ – apparently his stories were a source of significant inspiration to Anderson in the making of that film. This book is like being in an emotional Austrian tumble dryer, but that doesn’t stop it from conveying some very deep things about how people, in order to avoid giving offence, sometimes really treat each other like shit.
25. The Painted Drum – Louise Erdrich
Where has Louise Erdrich been all my life?
26. Jacklight – Louise Erdrich
No, really, where??
(The Painted Drum was a novel about a woman in small town America encountering her Native American ancestry through an artefact; it was dark and lovely. Jacklight was a poetry collection; less dark, still great.)
27. Berlin – Rory MacLean
My friend Leah likes to give me books she knows I’ll like that she finds me in charity shops. This was one of them. MacLean writes about Berlin through the eyes of people: some fictional, some real, each with her or his own contribution to the fantastic history of this relatively young city. I spent a large part of November and December 2015 wishing I were in Berlin, and this book didn’t help.
29. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
Two friends recommended this book to me. As I was in the throes of research work, I promptly forgot both recommendations, and picked it up randomly — so I thought — at the end of the year. Now I know why they recommended it. 20 years post global flu pandemic, a Shakespeare company travels around the shores of Lake Michigan performing to the settlements of survivors. Some survivors are violent. Some are not. ‘Survival is insufficient.’
30. Carmilla – J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Via a comment on The Toast I was directed towards the web series ‘Carmilla’, which takes this novella as its inspiration and then goes very far away from the original plot, but it still awesome. So I thought I should read the original. It was just as sorry-not-sorry about its homoerotic subtext (barely subtext, actually, just text) as the web series.
31. Poldark – Winston Graham
Because it was on telly earlier in the year, and I couldn’t wait for the new episodes to show up. I had to know what happened to sexy, sexy Ross who kept making bad, bad life choices. Answer: all the drama. I only finished the first book in the series.
32. Death in Venice – Thomas Mann
Read this mostly in Berlin whilst on the U-Bahn and sitting in the Tiergarten. Felt duly, Germanly, hopeless.
33. Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor
My friend Lorna gave me this book, saying, ‘You’ll love the setting, but you might not be wowed by the plot. Also the protagonist has blue hair!’ She was right.
34. The Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling
Rowling tried to write a Thomas Hardy novel, and, as one of my uni professors liked to summarise Thomas Hardy, it was basically, ‘Life sucks and then you die.’ I thought that Rowling’s critique of English village life, still completely stratified along class lines, was chilling. But I thought that the TV adaptation was a better story, if it at times did feel a bit like a grimmer, more English version of the film Chocolat.
35. Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman
In his foreword Gaiman disparages short story collections as vanity publications. This collection did feel a bit like that: Gaiman collecting together lots of bits and publishing it for the Gaiman fandom. But as a member of that fandom, I did not at all mind this collection’s disorganisation, and I imagine that was precisely the point.
36. Love’s Work – Gillian Rose
My friend Orion had been urging me to read Gillian Rose for some time, and this memoir-cum-philosophical treatise wrecked me. There are few books under 150 pages which make me feel incredibly uneducated because of their breadth and social/philosophical depth; even fewer that do this and also make me need to hole up with a gin afterwards to recover from the heart-wrenching reality of what they talk about.
37. Heresies – Orlando Ricardo Menes
In his poems Menes fuses African and Caribbean folklore with Roman Catholic saints’ folklore. This in itself isn’t particularly heretical, though the vitriol with which he writes may be. He’s a lover of well-chosen, precise words, but not quite as perceptive in his irreverence as he thinks he is.
…So which books should I have read this year, huh? Your turn to recommend them. I may even remember your recommendations.