Thanks to a confluence of babies and university, there’s a good decade of the early 2000s where pretty much all new literature passed me by. In July I rectified one of the worse oversights of that era by reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith. The Dickens comparisons made immediate sense: ripe characters and rolling state-of-the-nation discoursing make it a fat pleasure of a novel. But then this became the month of Bond when the Guardian asked me to review Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis. I’ve never read Fleming so I banged through Casino Royale, Moonraker and Goldfinger in short order until I entered what is probably a kind of literary Stockholm syndrome and my wide-eyed horror at Fleming’s undisguised misogyny, racism, sadism and masochism gave way to rhapsodising earnestly about his fine sentence-making (describing the south east of England as “the bungaloid worlds of the holiday lands” truly is lyrical though). I also read Horowitz’s YA spy-thriller Stormbreaker, which is actually a much more successful updating of the Bond mythos than his official entry to the canon.
In August I read The Next Next Level by Leon Neyfakh for review in the Guardian – a memoir of life as the number one fan of rap-rock nearly-man Juiceboxxx. I’d never have read it without the assignment, but it’s an utterly winning reflection on art, inspiration and growing up. I thoroughly recommend it. 2015 has been a big year for Ted Hughes, with both Bates’ massive biography (currently on my to-read shelf) and Max Porter’s Crow-inspired novella Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which I reviewed for the Spectator. In preparation for that, I re-read Ted Hughes’ Crow poems, which remain shockingly violent (at least once I shouted “FUCKING HELL” involuntarily at the page). I dipped into The Letters of Ted Hughes (ed. Christopher Reid) too, although I didn’t read them in full so they don’t count in this year’s total. What a mad brilliant brutish old stoat Hughes was: Porter’s unwillingness to tangle with the violence and misogyny of his literary inspiration was the main reason I found his Goldsmiths-nominated novella disappointing.
Also in August (which is a wicked month and a month where I had two weeks of holiday and one week child-free) I read The Silent Dead by Claire McGowan for review in Crime Scene Magazine, a serial killer novel set in the guilt and blame of post-Troubles Ireland. It gives serious treatment to heavy moral issues of forgiveness, but would have done better to cover the tracks of its plotting with a little more care. Activist-slash-science-communicator Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger is a gossipy and provocative romp over recent science controversies. Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane is part elegy to the lost language of landscapes, in the form of potted biographies of nature writers; part campaign for the preservation of that language and the landscapes it describes. Purple Hibiscus by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie is fantastic, a Nigerian girl’s coming-of-age that feels as intensely alive as actual adolescence. And I steamed through The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, a tightly plotted amnesia thriller which paid out fully on its premise.
Then in September I seem to have slowed right down. Maybe that’s because I’d done enough reading the month before, but it’s also because I decided to muscle my way past The Faithful Couple by A D Miller. I was quite taken with the premise: it’s a story of male friendship, told from young adulthood to middle age, and I was excited to read a tender anatomising of men’s relationships. I was not excited when the novel blew its symbolic load in the first chapter (the Faithful Couple are two intertwined, inter-dependent sequoia trees that cannot be separated though they suffer in each other’s shade), and nor was I thrilled that this turned out to the story of how men are afflicted by committing statutory rape. Niamh McKevitt’s Playing with the Boys is a kind of book I don’t read very often at all: a sports memoir. Since she was 12, McKevitt has been the only girl in England playing in the boys’ leagues, and the story of how she did it is breezily told and insightful about the costs and benefits of crossing gender lines. I interviewed her and wrote about her book for the New Statesman. And for the Guardian, I reviewed The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida, a watery and strange doppelgänger story that I felt transfixed by.
I reviewed Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone for New Humanist, but I’d had the proof for a few months and only grabbed it off my to-read pile in October when it was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize (which it ultimately won). A fictionalised rendering of John Lennon’s lost days in Ireland, it manages to turn a myth-bloated figure of music into someone actually interesting again. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life caught mixed reviews, and my feelings were mixed too: in the end, I didn’t feel like the extravagant brutality it invokes (child abuse, institutional rape, intimate partner violence) was quite repaid in the compensations of art, but its tender and lawyerly way of thinking about love as a kind of contract stuck with me. I read Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl for review in the New Statesman. My editor’s sole request that I “not be too fannish” (Brownstein is guitarist in my favourite band) was probably always slightly doomed. And I read Nothing Natural by Jenny Diski, a story of a woman succumbing to sexual obsession that felt a little like an answer song to my beloved 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray. I haven’t stopped thinking about it yet.
In November I read Follow Me by Angela Clarke – a blunt and often funny, if not entirely satisfying, social-media-themed crime thriller that I reviewed for Crime Scene magazine. And then I read what is definitely one of the books of my 2015 and should be one of the books of your 2016: Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things (out February). This is a YA novel of extraordinary loveliness and truth, an honest evocation of the intensity of female friendship, an unflinching description of emotional damage that never sentimentalises or lies. Pre-order it now. Andrew Hankinson’s You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] (which I’ll be reviewing for the Spectator in the new year) is the strangest book I’ve read: an account of the last days of mass shooter Raoul Moat stitched together from his recordings and statements, and from state agency records of their contact with him. And I read Mr Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt for review at the Guardian.
December is my month for mopping up. I read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which I’ve been meaning to get round to since it came out. His storytelling is as ever the best, and his vignettes of internet shaming are vivid and telling. It felt well timed too: 2015 seemed like the year that most people, not just Ronson, decided the Twitter storm was an unlovely instrument. I was a little disappointed that he didn’t have an analysis of the gender politics of shaming, which became a serious problem for the book when in its conclusion, Ronson advances a thesis that shame itself leads to anti-social behaviour and violence: if that’s so, why is so much shaming specifically focused on women, but so much violence male? Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity for someone else to take this analysis further, because it’s interesting stuff. I read Sarah Perry’s humid, engrossing gothic After Me Comes the Flood (her follow-up, The Essex Serpent, is out next year and I’m looking forward to it very much). I finally finished The Empathy Exams, in a fugue of jealousy and wonder at Jamison’s precisely felt writing. And last of all, I polished off Anita Anand’s Sophia, the biography of suffragette and princess Sophia Duleep Singh, which combines a fascinating subject with a streak of purple prose and a little too much presumption.