All the books I read in 2017, part 1 (January-June)

The time in which I’ve been writing these annual posts is also the time in which I’ve become a more-or-less professional literary critic. It’s funny to see them turn from a snapshot of what I, Sarah Ditum choose to read (an awful lot of George RR Martin in 2011) to being a snapshot of how I read as a reviewer.

Firstly, I read a lot: 91 books finished so far in 2017, assuming I polish off the Lovecraft anthology by the end of the year (and if I don’t, nobody can judge me for sliding off of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” because COME ON, IT IS CALLED “THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH”). Secondly, the majority of what I read is directed by work one way or another: either stuff I’m reviewing, critical background for review, or as research for a project or article.

About two-thirds of what I read this year was female-authored, to one-third male. Only six were by black or Asian authors (skip forward to October for some thoughts on publishing’s whiteness). I read more fiction than non-fiction, but not by as much as I thought: fiction only just edges over the halfway mark. I read a pitiable four books of poetry. Six of the books were children’s or YA, and six were translations. More than half of what I read was new – published 2017 or to come in 2018. After that, 15 were otherwise C21st, 17 were C20th, and only one was pre-C20th, which is pretty poor. Four were re-readings (Ariel, Riddley Walker, Nightwood and Emma).

The rules of this post: this is every book I read in 2017, in the order I read them; I finish what I start (dream-quests notwithstanding); if I’ve marked an author with an asterisk, we have the same agent; I’ve noted where I was reading something for review, and linked where possible; like Toulouse Lautrec the magical sitar in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, I only speak the truth. And now, the headlines:

Top five new fiction

Michelle Tea, Black Wave (And Other Stories) – January

Gwendoline Riley, First Love (Granta) – see November

Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire (Portobello) – see November

Anneliese Mackintosh,* So Happy It Hurts (Jonathan Cape) – see June

Fiona Melrose, Johannesburg (Corsair) – see August

Top five new non-fiction

Rachel Hewitt, A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind (Granta) – see March

Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply (Fleet) – see April

Jenny Landreth, Swell: A Waterbiography (Bloomsbury) – see April

Angela Saini, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (Fourth Estate) – see April

Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker: A Biography (Allen Lane) – see July

Best stocking-filler

Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole: The Collected Poems (Penguin) – see March

Best children’s/YA

Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends (Usborne) – see September

 

January

I’m desperate to read more men tackling the politics of masculinity. Jack Urwin’s Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity* (Icon, 2016) isn’t quite it: while the book starts from an understanding of masculinity’s harms, by the end Urwin is trying to rehabilitate something he calls “true masculinity”, without ever having addressed the relationship between masculinity and power. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray, 2016; 2014) was a brilliantly disturbing gothic which fudged its conceit a little at the end.

Al Alvarez’s The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (Bloomsbury, 2002; 1971) was reading for my Lancet Psychiatry essay on Sylvia Plath. It’s rangy, but whistle-stop, with flashes of insight (especially in his memories of Plath) countered by patches of dullness probably caused by his closeness to the subject of suicide (despite setting out not to glamorise it, he inevitably does). Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (Faber, 1990; 1965) I reread for the same piece (with my awful teenage pencilled marginalia), and then reread again in her original manuscript order – her Ariel is very different to the edition Hughes created, with the wonderful bee poems as the climax rather than a strange interlude between the works of ferocious, morbid genius.

Conundrum by Jan Morris (Faber, 2002; 1974) is my favourite kind of trans memoir: unselfconscious and well-written, although Morris’s airy thoughts on the “eternal feminine” could have been specifically devised to wind me up. I reviewed Michelle Tea’s Black Wave (& Other Stories, 2017; 2016) for the New Statesman and I absolutely adore it: apocalyptic in the most spectacular way and intimate in its sharp-eyed view of the San Francisco queer scene.

I read Karen Finley’s Shock Treatment (City Lights, 2015; 1990) (which I bought from City Lights bookshop when I was in SF last year) to fill in some of Black Wave’s backdrop, and because I thought it would be a nice distraction from Trump’s inauguration day. This was a terrible choice: it includes the poem “A Woman Can’t be President” and the honest-to-goodness line “Trump would rather build the world’s largest building than provide the world’s largest low-income housing project”. As you can probably tell from that, it’s all a bit spoken-word, with the lines split 50-50 between splenetic truth bombs and right-on clangers.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (Faber, 2001; 1936) is (still; this was a reread of a uni set text) a bewitching tour through the damned underbelly of European “inverts” (the hoary old sexologist’s term encompassing gays, lesbians and cross-dressers). Becky Johnson’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015; 2014) is pleasing sci-fi in the spirit of Star Trek (space liberals) and the style of Firefly (misfit crew of a rickety ship at the frontier of civilisation).

I really liked Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Windmill, 2015), which has one of the least roman-a-clef-ish main characters I’ve ever met in a first novel, and a tremendously horrible kick in the story. That novel’s strange pilgrimage sent me back to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (Picador, 1982; 1980), which remains purest genius, a thing entirely itself and like nothing else.

Then, also by Sara Baume, A Line Made by Walking (William Heineman, 2017), for review in the New Statesman. This is the opposite of Spill Simmer on the autofiction scale: art obsessive main narrator Frankie shares a lot with her creator. “Liked” is not quite the right word for how I feel about Line. Its invocation of Frankie’s depression is so precise that midway through, I started to feel like I was depressed too. It is, however, extraordinary and recommended.

 

February

I hadn’t read any of Susan Faludi’s books before I reviewed In the Dark Room for The Spectator last year. This year, I started to remedy that by reading Backlash (Vintage, 1992; 1991). It’s an object lesson in non-fiction writing: tightly argued, comprehensive, clear-eyed, building an argument theme-by-theme. I had to replace my 1992 paperback when I found 30 pages were missing somewhere in the last half, so don’t buy that edition, but do buy it. It remains dismally relevant: her account of Geraldine Ferraro’s treatment as a vice-presidential candidate is basically the Hillary story set in 1984.

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017) is a deliberate application of the past to politics now: it’s a crisp guidebook to resisting Trump, based on Snyder’s insights as a historian of the Holocaust. In the same line but less successful is What We Do Now, edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians (Melville House, 2017), a patchy collection of essays. I wrote about both for the New Statesman.

I read Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth* (Freight Books, 2014), a brilliant and brutalising collection of stories about grief and violence. Then, I started my reading for a big NS review-essay on trans-themed books with the dismayingly po-faced Trans Like Me by CN Lester (Virago, 2017), read an exciting sci-fi manuscript that’s now on its way to publication, and then back to the trans stuff with Amy Ellis Nutt’s Becoming Nicole (Atlantic, 2016; 2015), an account of one family and their trans child which features some woefully sloppy writing about brainsex and some extraordinary sexism in its ideas about gender roles: Nicole, we are told, “was a girl who wanted to be pretty and feel loved and one day marry a boy – just like other girls did.” (Bad luck, lesbians, you no longer count as girls.)

Benjamin Myers’ Beastings (Bluemoose, 2014) is a rural gothic with a taste for extreme violence. I can image Ben Wheatley filming it. Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (Penguin, 2006; 1932) is also set in the cruel cruel countryside, only with a big dose of funny and a sly seam of unexpected futurism. I’m a jackass for not having read it till now. I’ll definitely read it again. More Benjamin Myers next, as I was reviewing The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose, 2017) for the New Statesman: it doesn’t quite have Beastings’ vicious drive, but it’s a savage portrait of rural lawlessness and a tussle for sovereignty, which feels extremely Brexit-relevant.

 

March

The Spectator asked me to review Charlotte Rampling’s Who I Am (Icon, 2017) (written with Christophe Bataille, translated by William Hobson with Charlotte Rampling), a slim and idiosyncratic take on the celebrity memoir that has a shattering loss at its core. Intriguing, but insubstantial.

Also tiny is Adrian Mole: The Collected Poems by Sue Townsend (Penguin, 2017). Sue Townsend was a sublime satirist and social observer, and also – as this volume of the poems she wrote in her most famous creations voice underlines – a brilliant writer of comic verse, who always alighted on not the merely bad but the immaculately bathetic. I wrote about Adrian and his entwined history with Labour for the New Statesman.

Back to the trans books: Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man (Canongate, 2017; 2014) is sometimes thoughtful and often revealing as it recounts McBee’s journey from sexual abuse in girlhood to transitioning to living as a man in adulthood. Then a belated run through Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil (Sceptre, 1984; 1983), which is still a mean-spirited riot.

A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind by Rachel Hewitt (Granta, 2017) is essential. It’s a history of the 1790s that makes a persuasive case for this as the decade that defined the way we “feel about feeling”, and a provocative argument for putting emotion back into politics. (I interviewed Rachel for my regular books page in In the Moment Magazine.)

Fay Weldon’s Death of a She Devil (Head of Zeus, 2017) revisits her breakout book and craps all over it. You can read the full debrief on its dull, plotless and unfunniness in my Guardian review. Man, I needed something good after that: a week in France and a reread of Emma by Jane Austen (Penguin, 2003; 1815) fit the bill, waspishness and wisdom in immaculate proportions.

 

April

When Ariel Levy turned her journalistic eye on herself in her extraordinary 2013 New Yorker article “Thanksgiving in Mongolia”, she was as unsparing and acute as she is on any subject. Her full-length memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply (Fleet, 2017) surveys her upbringing, her career in journalism, her partner’s alcoholism, her infidelity and the miscarriage of “Thanksgiving” with sharp insight and precise prose. For example: “lurching between lives is hell. Even if one life is manifest and the other mostly hypothetical, the inability to occupy your own reality is torment, is torture. It is sin and punishment all in one.” For example: “There was no due date to anticipate now, but I was often distracted by a poisonous kind of counting.” Is she too harsh on herself over the miscarriage? Yes. But her honesty regarding this harshness tells us something that is rarely spoken about the self-torture of in-utero bereavements.

Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (Fourth Estate, 2017) is a brisk tour of the sexism has infected medicine, evolutionary theory and biology which in a smart twist suggests that while misogyny isn’t be justified by reproductive inequality, it is explained by it: women are a resource, and this is a strategy for men to control it.

The Little Buddhist Monk by César Aira, translated by Nick Caistor (And Other Stories, 2017; 2005) was a big no for me – regrettably, because I love the publisher. Throwaway and weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness, it left me with no desire to dig into Aira’s absurdly massive back catalogue. I wish Jesse Loncrane’s In the Field* (Blue Mark Books, 2017; 2016) had gotten more coverage. Sons, mothers, witness and war in the intertwined tales of a junky foreign correspondent and the child soldier he’s trying to track down.

Then back to the UK and back to work reading with a bump, as I slogged through Rhyannon Styles’ The New Girl: A Trans Girl Tells It Like It Is (Headline, 2017). I was considering it for the NS review essay, but I cut it in the end. For some reason, the memoir has been the main literature of the trans tipping point, and 2017 saw a glut of them. If Styles’ retelling of a ’90s Britpop-obsessed midlands adolescence couldn’t captivate me (a Britpop-obsessed midlands adolescent in the 1990s), then it wasn’t going to work on anyone. Prose like “this was a pivotal turning point” and “I had tears streaming down my face as I was trying to find the quinoa” didn’t help.

Caroline Paige’s True Colours (Biteback, 2017) also didn’t make the cut. Paige’s story – successful RAF career, transition in middle age – is an interesting one on paper, but neither part is compellingly told. Section heading (“Into the Blue” for cross-dressing boyhood, “The Edge of Pink” for the beginning of transition) underline that this is a life with not so much examination.

I wish I’d enjoyed Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Penguin, 2014). “The Rape Joke”, which is the standout poem, is superb. A lot of the rest felt less like verse than like artfully disjointed prose supporting hyperextended puns. Oh my God, The Nothing by Hanif Kureishi (Faber, 2017). If I hadn’t read Death of a She Devil, this would easily be my worst book of 2017; as it is, it’s a battle of giants, but Kureishi comes out underneath. Which is the kind of low grade double entendre he’d probably reject as too subtle, given the relentless stream of misogynist grot in The Nothing. I reviewed it for The Guardian.

Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human (Hutchinson, 2017) falls in a witchy place between nature writing and psychological thriller, about a woman who (seems to) fall in love with a fox (but does she) (she does) (ah but does she). It would have been better with more plot to underpin the musk-heavy atmosphere, but it did leave me with one unforgettable phrase: “a rewilding of the heart”.

2017 was a moment for swimming books. Jenny Landreth’s Swell: A Waterbiography (Bloomsbury, 2017) took the prize for me: a memoir of Jenny’s unlikely journey from back-of-the-bikeshed smoker to obsessive coldwater swimmer, and a history of women swimming – despite men’s best efforts to stop us with peeping, bylaws and straight-up assault. Glorious and inspiring. (I chose it for the first issue of In the Moment.)

Look, I didn’t want to enjoy Caitlyn Jenner’s The Secrets of My Life (Trapeze, 2017), but you know what? It won me over. Jenner’s flagrant disregard for the trans rulebook – embracing deadnaming and cheerfully acknowledging a sexual kick from femininity – made it a lot more frank and a lot less stressful than, say, Trans Like Me. It helps that Jenner has had an interesting life, with plenty of athletic and celebrity exploits. Plus, it’s co-authored with Buzz Bissinger (Vanity Fair writer, Friday Night Lights author and self-confessed leather perv – one of the reasons Jenner considered him a good match for the project), which means the prose kicks along with no boring bits. This was the last book that made it into the NS essay, and probably the best of them.

 

May

I did Will Storr’s Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us (Picador, 2017) for Literary Review. I’ve got reservations, but I can set them aside for great reporting and a strong argument. Then I read an early manuscript version of a novel that will be out next year, and that I cannot wait for. Natalie Haynes’ The Children of Jocasta (Mantle, 2017) was a treat: a realist retelling of the Oedipus myth through the eyes of Ismene that locates the human and specific in the epic and immortal. I reviewed it for The Spectator.

I did some chairing for the Bath Literature Festival, which was an absolute joy. My first event was with Alys Fowler on her memoir Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017). If I precis it as “woman takes up urban canoeing, discovers she’s a lesbian” I won’t have done justice to this celebration of the unexpected wildness of our cities and ourselves. Plus, it taught me the indispensable word “synanthropic” to describe animals which thrive in human-made habitats, like foxes, pigeons and rats. The next event was a panel with Jenny Landreth (see April) and fellow swim-author Alexandra Heminsley, whose Leap In (Hutchinson, 2017) helped me finally fix my front crawl.

Lili: A Portrait of the First Sex Change, edited by Niels Hoyer (2015, Canelo Digital; 1933) (better known as Man Into Woman) is such a weird book. Largely composed of the letters and diaries of Lile Elbe (who was actually called Elvenes), it’s credited to Hoyer, who is a pseudonym for journalist Ernst Harthern. For a book that claims to be about revealing a true self, an awful lot is hidden or invented. Elbe died after an inevitably botched womb transplant (immunosuppressant drugs had yet to be invented), and it’s hard to disagree with Jan Morris’s verdict: “There never was a sadder tale.”

Elbe’s initial treatment was overseen by Berlin sexologist Marcus Hirschfeld, whose clinic was destroyed by Nazi Youth. But though much was lost, his work continued, and one of his inheritors was the endocrinologist Harry Benjamin. I read his book The Transsexual Phenomenon (Symposium Publishing, 1999; 1966), which was a defining text in the treatment of trans people. Benjamin has a humanitarian concern for the anguish of people with dysphoria, and a remarkably blatant seam of sexism: for example, he describes the “genetically normal man” as “sexually attracted to women” while claiming the “genetically normal woman” merely desires to “be attractive to men”. Hoo boy, I was glad I already had Saini (see April) in the clip when I was reading that.

Syd Moore’s Strange Magic (Point Blank, 2017) – Essex witches, Essex girls, a hairsbreadth caper to avert diabolical evildoings – was loads of fun. It’s the opener for a series (book two came out in the second half of 2017), and I’m looking forwarding to hoovering up the rest of the adventures. (I interviewed Syd for In the Moment.)

 

June

Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of Privilege (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) has a compelling argument: that the “privilege” framework is not just unhelpful but corrosive to social justice, turning structural issues into personal faults that must be punished or atoned for. I buy that, and her analysis of how badly “privilege” obscures both anti-Semitism and misogyny, though there was more rehashed Twitter drama at some points than made for elegant reading.

Muster your holy water: I read Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (Teachers College Press, 1994; 1979). It’s very interesting to read Raymond’s criticisms of John Money, well in advance of Milton Diamond’s exposé of the John/Joan horror – especially given that feminists have subsequently been blamed for Money’s heartily anti-feminist practice. In her 1994 introduction, Raymond also foresees the Rachel Dolezal business with remarkable acuity. She explicitly disavows legislation forbidding surgery, and calls for legislation that “lessens the support given to sex-role stereotyping”. She says trans people need their “own unique context of peer support”, which still sounds like a good idea. There’s no way to set aside rhetoric like “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies”, though.

Then Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto (privately issued, 2014; 1987), which is Stone’s response to Raymond. (Ah, the pre-Twitter days when it could take eight years to get a take together.) In lots of ways, it’s the foundation of contemporary trans politics: critiquing “passing”, attacking “gatekeepers” and drawing on Judith Butler, although a line like “Transsexuals do not possess the same history as genetic ‘naturals,’ and do not share common oppression prior to gender reassignment” would be considered hate speech now. It’s also a good example of using poststructuralism to obfuscate rather than analyse: “In the transsexual as text we may find the potential to map the refigured body onto conventional gender discourse and thereby disrupt it, to take advantage of the dissonances created by such a juxtaposition to fragment and reconstitute the elements of gender in new and unexpected geometries.” Excuse me, would you repeat that please, I have lost track of the nouns. And Stone gets Raymond plain wrong at points: “neither the investigators nor the transsexuals have taken the step of problematizing ‘wrong body’ as an adequate descriptive category” is untrue, given that Raymond spends a great deal of her book doing precisely that.

God I love James Baldwin, and Giovanni’s Room (Penguin, 1990; 1957) is superb. Two decades on from Nightwood, Paris is still a hell where expats have the freedom to be gay, but can’t escape their homophobic self-loathing. It’s also an extraordinary novel about woman-hating. Baldwin gives this speech to a female character: “Men may be at the mercy of women – I think men like that idea, it strokes the misogynist in them. But if a particular man is ever at the mercy of a particular woman – why, he’s somehow stopped being a man. And the lady, then, is more neatly trapped than ever.”

Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques (Verso, 2015) is firmly in the middle rank of trans memoirs: not exceptionally badly written, not strikingly insightful. Savannah Knoop’s Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy (Seven Stories Press, 2008) sounds like it’s going to be a trans memoir, but it isn’t – not exactly. Knoop was the public face of one of my favourite literary hoaxes. In the 1990s, unsuccessful author Laura Albert invented the alter-ego Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy and gave him a compelling biography: an HIV-positive truck-stop rent-boy transgirl, with a beloved white-trash hooker mom. LeRoy rapidly became a full-on star. Everyone read “his” “autobiographical” 2000 novel Sarah (including me). Everyone loved it. Albert – an overweight, unglamorous mother IRL – recruited her androgynous sister-in-law Knoop to play the part of LeRoy at celebrity readings and fashion shows, and the whole thing spiralled. This is a great story told by Knoop with lots of trashy dash (if not quite the amount of remorse warranted), containing a horde of revealing details about performing gender and getting away with big lies.

I reviewed Catherine Lacey’s novel The Answers (Granta, 2017) for The Guardian (nice concept goes AWOL in the execution), and did Damon Youngs’s pop-philosophical manifesto of bookishness The Art of Reading (Scribe, 2017) for In the Moment. I loved Anneliese Mackintosh’s So Happy It Hurts (Jonathan Cape, 2017) – an untidy, generous and funny story of alcoholism, loss and tenderness. I reviewed it for The Guardian.

I’d flicked through Juno Dawson’s The Gender Games (Two Roads, 2017) when considering it for the NS essay, and now I decided to finish it. It vacillates unpredictably between defining gender as an inherent identity and defining gender as a social force, and though Dawson claims to be a feminist, lines like “traditional, basic-bitch definitions of male and female” don’t suggest a thoroughgoing critique of misogyny.

If only I’d read Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (Allen Lane, 2017) before I picked up the book of poetry that came with them. I nearly didn’t read it at all after that disappointment, which would have been a great loss. Luckily my friend Matthew Adams set me right, and so I did not miss out on this incredibly funny account of an incredibly weird life with a Catholic convert for a father. In a year without Levy, this would have easily been a standout piece of life-writing. The line “the nearly stupid genius of Hemingway” alone is a standout piece of criticism.

Part 2 coming soon

All the books I read in 2016, part 2

all-the-books-2016-2

Read part 1 here

July

I bucketed through Deborah Levy’s An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (& Other Stories, 2014; 1990), which is like a theologically-minded version of Victoria Wood’s “The Ballad of Barry and Freda”; I then continued bucketing with Kit De Waal’s My Name is Leon (Viking, 2016), a pounding bit of storytelling that makes you fall in love with its foster-kid star and made me cry more than any other book this year. I should probably have read The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 by Elaine Showalter (Virago, 1985) a long time ago, having dipped into it at uni: it’s a great political analysis of women and madness that is ripe for revisiting as we face a contemporary crisis in girls’ mental health.

Penguin Modern Poets One: If I’m Scared We Can’t Win by Emily Berry, Anne Carson and Sophie Collins (Penguin, 2016) is a gloriously rangy collection. Carson was the standout for me. Holly Bourne’s Am I Normal Yet? (Usborne, 2015) is YA done the best way: funny, fearless and kind, with a solid backbone of feminism. I passed my copy on to a young friend who soon came back for the follow-ups. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Stay: A History of Suicide and the Arguments Against It (Yale University Press, 2013) is a provocative – and I think correct – work of moral reasoning. Hecht’s open and unembarrassed interest in establishing, and maintaining, ethical norms for the good of communities is rare and valuable.

Mount! by Jilly Cooper (Bantam, 2016) was just horrible. I reviewed it for Literary Review. (It’s paywalled, but I’m sure they won’t mind me giving you the conclusion: “about as jolly as masturbating with a DVD of Top Gear. Truly there is nothing the rich cannot ruin – including, it turns out, a good wank.”) And Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (Picador, 2014) did not win me to her fans. I found it aggravatingly twee, with a story that collapsed like dust under the slightest application of scrutiny.

August

I know that objectively Oneworld has had a storming year with its second Booker in a row, but subjectively, the only book of theirs I read was Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte (Oneworld, 2016) and that was a stinker. I reviewed it for the Guardian. Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child (Granta, 2012) was not at all what I expected, in a very good way (inexplicably, I thought it might be a picaresque tale about a travelling salesman and his son): not quite a novel and not quite a short story collection, but all-round bewitchingly macabre, with the best metaphysical policemen since Flann O’Brien. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Viking, 2016) is a close character study, finely drawn and emotionally stark. Then I read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (City Lights, 2014; 1914) and never felt quite sure whether it was ravishing or piss-taking, but I did like “magnificent asparagus” a lot.

Two weeks of holiday (Rutland followed by Scarbados) started with Scarlett Thomas’s Bright Young Things (Canongate, 2012; 2001), a kind of nineties-nostalgia version of And Then There Were None with an abundance of lightly deployed malice that would surely please Christie. Rereading The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (Penguin, 2000; 1926) is ever a pleasure, with its cruel fates, crueler personages, splendid excess and peculiar grace. Sylvia Plath’s Winter Trees (Faber, 1975; 1971) is great collection slightly out of the high ranting style of Ariel: a piece like “Three Women” shows her thinking through the body in the most brilliant way. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (Virago, 2001; 2000) was just tremendous. Pulpy, playful and heart-gorgingly romantic, I loved every single page.

Why didn’t I love Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2014; 2012)? I found it too much tell and not enough show, with characters outlined in detail but never actually realised. But it sprang to life in the last few pages enough for me to think I’ll read the sequel. Back home, I read Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby (Virago, 2014; 2013) which cleverly combines brilliant and clear-eyed criticism with my other favourite non-fiction genre, true crime. Churchwell is a great reader and will make you a better one.

September

I loved A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and so I also loved Eimear McBride’s more-of-it follow-up The Lesser Bohemians (Faber, 2016). More unspeakable trauma! More fractured stream-of-consciousness lyricism! More transfixingly awful descent! But, this time, some redemption too, and a Tindersticks reference that I was very gratified by. Tiffany McDaniels’s The Summer That Melted Everything (Scribe, 2016) came from a reliable publisher in a plush package (my heart soared at the foil on that dust jacket), and was terrible. Overripe southern gothic with an incoherent chronology (the “present” sections of the narration appears to be set more-or-less now, but the age of the character suggests that it should actually be several decades into the future), magical negro bullshit and a false rape accusation thrown in for good measure. I reviewed Wendy Jones’s The Sex Lives of English Women (Serpent’s Tail, 2016) for New Humanist. A collection of decontextualised interviews with women about sex, it’s doggedly unenlightening thank to Jones’s refusal to offer any connecting argument or buttressing factual detail. Read Nagoski (see May) instead.

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm (Granta, 2012) is a captivating study of biography, its ethics and its victims. All the Plath and suicide reading I’ve been doing was towards an essay for publication next year, which unexpectedly includes a quote from Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A Memoir (Granta, 2016) – although I actually picked this up for a change of pace after thinking my research was done. Negroland, like Hanley’s Respectable and Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level (which I reviewed for the Guardian last year), belongs to the intriguing genre of “aesthetic autobiography”: it’s about race and class and taste and aspiration and mobility and acceptability, with a knockout section about female ambition and the drive to self-destruction. If I felt frustrated in the end that Jefferson keeps the reader at a cool distance, I also grasped enough to see that my wish for more intimacy was in direct conflict with the dignity that Jefferson values so much.

October

Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (Icon, 2017) is Cordelia Fine doing what she does best: dismantling the stories that sustain sexism, and doing it wittily and comprehensively. I’ll be reviewing it for the Guardian in the new year. My friend Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder (Macmillan, 2017) follows up her great YA friendship story Beautiful Broken Things with a sensitive and sweet love story between a mute girl and a deaf boy, which is really about finding your voice. Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference (Allen Lane, 2003) is hilariously bad. Did you know that making mix tapes is a fundamental trait of the male brain? The book is, in fact, a pile of one undeniably essential aspect of maleness: ballbags.

Sara Flannery Murphy’s The Possessions (Scribe, 2017) is a great gothic potboiler. Again, look out for the Guardian review next year. I loved Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Viking, 2016), which I reviewed for the New Statesman. In fact, one of the few things to give me solace since the US election has been making lists of men I’d like to electrify, given the same power that Alderman bestows on women in her book; consequently, I am a living exemplum of the novel’s thesis that non-violence doesn’t come naturally to women.

God, Emily Witt’s Future Sex (Faber, 2016) was disappointing. I reviewed it for Literary Review, and found it sloppy with details to the point of downright disregarding anything unhelpful to its thesis, although it did give me the jump-off point for this New Statesman column about the demise of techno-utopianism. Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2016) is crisp and melancholically lovely, although it is also, as the Private Eye review pointed out, in quite large type and and surrounded by rather a lot of white space. It feels like part of a (very good) novel rather than the full work. I’d been putting off reading Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate, 2013) because come on, how interesting is a book about the pharmaceutical industry really going to be? Answer: very interesting. Read it and suddenly the world of medicine looks like a whodunnit to be cracked open.

November

Dragon’s Green (Canongate, 2017) is Scarlett Thomas’s first YA. It heads to a weird place about a third of the way through, and that’s when it starts to get very interesting. Look out for it. The main pleasure it gave me, though, was being set in a world where due to some cataclysm or other the internet and mass media no longer exist; and since I was reading this as the US election result came in, I was more than happy to escape into the counterfactual of a world where a reality show bully couldn’t make a Twitter-fueled power grab. Ah well. Good luck, planet.

In those bleak days, the only thing that felt like consolation was reading Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis (Vintage, 2008), which I know everyone else read ages ago but is perfect for now if you need it underlining that yes it can happen here, yes it can happen faster than you think, and when drinking and dancing are the only acts of resistance left, you’d better get some blackout curtains to drink and dance behind.

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton, 2016), like The Pure Gold Baby (see January), is told from an anthropologist’s perspective, and it’s possible that I just don’t like books about anthropologists. While the writing is often luminous, the overall effect is flat, and characters seem to simply act for the sake of acting. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017) is a low-key coming-of-age novel; review coming for the Guardian next year.

December

Another upcoming review is Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others (Picador, 2016), which I’ve done for the Spectator. I am very, very excited about this novel and plan to bore on about it to anyone who will listen. Next, I read Girls Will be Girls by Emer O’Toole (Orion, 2015), which is a chatty and funny introduction to the idea of gender as performance. If you tend to side with Nussbaum over Butler (and I do), O’Toole is your go-to for proving that performativity is actually a mighty useful concept for getting under the skin of gender, although I think the book’s strongest in the first half when it’s running headlong at the issue of male power and privilege. Performativity can show that men’s dominance is unjustified, but I’m sceptical about whether that’s enough to convince men to get up and (say) do the laundry or wash the pots en masse. (Disclosure fans: we share an agent.)

And now, and possibly till the end of the year, I’m finally reading something Victorian: Villette by Charlotte Brontё (Penguin, 2004; 1853). I was nudged into rereading by The Possessions, which riffs on Brontё’s epically sad novel. It is hard to think of any book quite as suffused in bleakness as this one, as protagonist Lucy Snowe’s comforts and securities are progressively stripped away from her by death and unnamed fates. It’s a novel where nature and nurture tussle it out in full view: “I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and activity were forced upon me by circumstance,” says Lucy, whose prissiness would make her disagreeable if she wasn’t surrounded by so many even more disagreeable people. And so in the end the Victorians did have 2017’s number after all: it is all so very, very grim.

All the books I read in 2015 part 1 and part 2

All the books I read in 2016, part 1

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Momentously, in December last year I threw in my resignation from the full-time job I was doing, and so from February this year I’ve been entirely dependent on freelance journalism for my income. This means I’ve read a lot more than in previous years, both because I’ve had more time for it, and because I’ve needed to in order to have things to write about. It also means I’ve read more new books than ever before: the majority of my 2016 reading was published in 2016, which is quite a painful circumstance for someone who’s a Victorianist by disposition.

But then this has been a painful year to be a Victorianist anyway, as any sense of order and security underpinning ongoing progress has been shattered by a series of shocks until only violence and fear seem certain. I think about Virginia Woolf’s brutal pen-portrait of George Eliot in the TLS from 1919 (“the long, heavy face with its expression of serious and sullen and almost equine power”) often now, as not just a standard act of artistic matricide repaying Eliot’s swipe at the silly lady novelists before her, but also as a semi-hysterical surrender of the steadiness and good sense that Eliot represented, split into bits by a world war and civil disorder.

Still, my favourite novel of this year was Victorian-set: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (see March, below). Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First (March) and Naomi Alderman’s The Power (October) run it close. My favourite non-fiction was Susan Faludi’s memoir of her father, In the Darkroom, which I read in June; Respectable by Lynsey Hanley (April) and Pimp State by Kat Banyard (June) are up there too. Of the older books I read, Janet Frame’s The Daylight and the Dust: Selected Short Stories takes the fiction prize (see February), and Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis (November) wins from non-fiction.

I read a lot of books I didn’t like as well, although the only one I tossed aside unfinished was Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours by Slavoj Žižek (Allen Lane, 2016) because come on, I don’t even think Žižek finds his Žižek character interesting anymore.

December

In the sleepy days around Christmas, I read Mhairi McFarlane’s Who’s That Girl? (Harper Collins, 2016) – perfect company for long baths with a G&T handy in the soap dish. Heroine Edie is a perfect example of McFarlane’s talent for inventing flawed and fully-formed characters, and the novel’s mix of wit and sharp moral wisdom pull you all the way through its tale of social-media shaming and celebrity travails to a Christmas climax. Then on to Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Biography by Jonathan Bate (William Collins, 2015), which is both satisfyingly gossipy and perversely shallow. His comments on Plath’s relationship to the women’s movement missed the mark hardest for me, although it’s difficult to be completely unimpressed by any literary critic with the chutzpah to make a case for Hughes’ mad hippy wizard side.

January

The first book I cracked the spine of in 2016 was Margaret Drabble’s The Pure Gold Baby (Canongate, 2013). The Plath reference pulled me in after finishing the Bate, but I ended up feeling strangely untouched by it, its anthropologist’s eye view both remote and unrevealing. Sarah Paretsky’s Brush Back (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), which I reviewed for Crime Scene magazine, is a satisfyingly tough-talking neo-noir for one of my favourite crime characters. But Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (Little, Brown, 2016) fell short. Its evocation of the Seattle WTO protests was timely and thrilling. Its characters, however, were slight (especially the female ones) and its plot lacking in payoff. I reviewed it for the Guardian.

February

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, 2014) was a present from my husband, which makes it a sort of meta-mansplaining. The centrepiece essay is, of course, great; but “Woolf’s Darkness” (which beautifully smudges ideas about space and certainty and the body) left a mark on me. So too did “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite”, which revisits the 1999 Seattle protests in the course of writing about the rape allegations against former IMF president Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and sharpened up my sense of what was missing from Your Heart is a Muscle.

For years I’ve been trying to identify a short story I heard as a Radio 4 reading when I was a child. It involved a scholar who wanted to be rid of his body and who, with the assistance of some mice, finally pared himself down to a wizened, senseless walnut of brain. This year my brilliant friend Rachel Hewitt made the identification: it was “Solutions” by Janet Frame, and I was finally able to re-read it as part of The Daylight and the Dust: Selected Short Stories (Virago, 2010). I cannot stress enough how truly great these stories are: Frame’s writing is wildly gifted with both generic range and intimate observation. From the near-sci-fi satiric absurdities of “Solutions” and “The Mythmaker’s Office” to the banal terror of “The Bath”, every one is riveting.

Next: Irvine Welsh’s The Blade Artist (Random House, 2016), which was so crass it managed to make torture-porn boring (I reviewed it for the Guardian), and then the off-puttingly mannered and precise Vertigo by Joanna Walsh (And Other Stories, 2016), which I reviewed for the New Statesman. Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years (Icon, 2015) is a brisk and witty manifesto for women of middle-age and after (we now share an agent, disclosure fans); and Joanna Walsh’s Hotel (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) was vastly more satisfying than her short stories. A digressive, extended essay on the meaning of hotels, the things that happen in them, and the breakdown of Walsh’s marriage, it prods at the fantasy of sterility rather than succumbing to it as as the stories do.

March

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail, 2016) is one of my favourite novels of the year, a historical potboiler simmering over with a truly Victorian sense of strangeness and possibility, where science and the supernatural face each other down to find out which is which. It also has the best sex scene of the literary year. I reviewed it for New Humanist. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton (Scribe, 2016), which I reviewed for the New Statesman on its UK release later in the year, is also historical, telling the story of seventeenth-century noblewoman and literary pioneer Margaret Cavendish. Brief but brilliant, it is a superb study of what it means to be ambitious while female in a misogynist world, and came to me as a recommendation from the ever-wonderful Sian Norris.

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (Vintage, 1994) is still exhilarating, though the late career faults (a weakness for the Grand Guignol stuff, a utilitarian approach to character consistency) are there in embryo. Freya by Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape, 2016) continued this month’s theme of historical novels by being set in the post-war period, and also this year’s theme of me giving bad reviews to books by men (this time in the New Statesman), by being low on incident and schematic of character.

And then I went to California for two weeks, so the next six books I read were all California-related. Miranda July’s The First Bad Man (Canongate, 2015) is whimsical in a very Miranda July-ish way, but it’s also teasing and clever about sex and gender, and full of unexpected things. Reading the description of Santa Monica pier the same day I visited Santa Monica pier was a fine thing to do.

I’ve thought a lot about which book I read this year was the absolute worst, and decided it’s Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (Penguin, 2000). Utter misogynistic bullshit. After finishing that in a lodge at Yosemite, I went on to Norah Ephron’s I Remember Nothing (Black Swan, 2012), mousse-light and charming, leaving nothing but the warm feeling of having been entertained.

April

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (New York Review Books, 2015) was a recommendation from Daisy Buchanan. Purchased in Book Soup on the Strip, it’s as cynical and starry-eyed as I could ever dream of Hollywood being, and even if Babitz is maximum cool girl (she calls Steinem “Gloria the Crass and Gross”),  there are moments of dagger-sharp feminist insight here.

In the Yosemite Village book shop, I bought John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra (Modern Library, 2003; 1911): a fine piece of nature writing, and a fine illustration of the making of the white American myth. His obsession with the dirtiness of first-nations people (by then, driven hard to the margins by European colonisers, though Muir of course does not acknowledge that) and his use of this to classify them as not natural, and therefore no more entitled to the land than the white settlers displacing them, is an instructive study in the flexibility of racist tropes. His extended hatred of sheep (“woolly locusts”) is an irony as well as a delight, in the circumstances.

I finished that on the plane home and then started How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher (North Point Press, 1988). I bought this from the Booksmith in Haight-Ashbury on Babitz’s recommendation (in Eve’s Hollywood she calls Fisher “just like Proust only better because at least she gave the recipes”), and it is a wonderful thing that is both food-writing and life-writing, wise and resourceful. Read it. It’s possible that I’ll never go to America again now, but as I finished Fisher on my sofa at home, I had never loved the country so much.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Fleet, 2016) came highly tipped as an Oprah book club pick, and survived its own hype with ease: a raw and painful story of slavery which pulls off a steampunk liberty with history (the underground railroad becomes a literal railroad here). I haven’t read Estates by Lynsey Hanley so I can’t say how Respectable: The Experience of Class (Allen Lane, 2016) compares, but I can say that it’s an incisive and insightful book on the paradoxes of belonging and mobility. Later this year, weighty efforts to understand the white working class became an exhausting constant, but this brisk work of a mind both affectionate and analytical is the one to read. Hanley’s nods to the band Broadcast, though, were what won me over entirely. (I quoted the book in this column on sexual harassment in schools.)

Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (Granta, 2014) is a novel that captures wonderfully the shine and the compromise of love. Few things will ever make making-do seem so ecstatic – and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (Fourth Estate, 2016) certainly didn’t. The glorious portrait of the hypochondriac mother in this novel was in no sense a compensation for the vile whimsy of an anthropomorphic squirrel. And if cutesy animals don’t sicken you, the cheery attitude to coercive control and punching holes in women required to carry the “happy ending” probably should.

May

I was rapt by Emma Cline’s The Girls (Chatto & Windus, 2016), partly because I have an abiding fascination with the Manson murders on which the novel is based (thank you, Evan Dando and Q magazine c. 1993), and partly because it’s a meticulous anatomy of power and coercion from a girl’s point of view. I reviewed in for the Guardian, and wrote more extensively about the figure of Manson in popular culture for Little Atoms. Cline’s decision to excise Manson’s racism from his fictional counterpart – and by extension, from the San Franciscan counterculture and the entertainment industry of 1960s America – has sat increasingly ill with me, though.

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Melville House, 2015) just sat ill with me from the start. Widely displayed in American bookshops, I’d toyed with buying it and decided it would annoy me. I bought it in the UK. It annoyed me. Nelson’s lyrical writing on the body and its transformations is fatally shot through with a keening insistence that she’s not like the other women, which hits a note both pretentious and apolitical. I wrote about The Argonauts along with Dept. of Speculation and The Portable Veblen in another essay for Little Atoms.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry (Arrow Books, 1974) is a towering piece of true-crime writing. I hadn’t read James Baldwin since my teens when I cracked open Going to Meet the Man (Black Swan, 1984; 1948). His unsparing insight into how racism corrupts the individual makes these short stories tense, uncomfortable and impossible to look away from. “Sonny’s Blues” is shatteringly brilliant of course, but his sympathy with the female lead of “Come Out the Wilderness” and her experience of sex has echoed in me long since reading too. Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life (Scribe, 2015) is by turns reassuring and revelatory about women and sex. I wish everyone would read it.

The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff (John Murray, 2016) was at its best when Schiff let her imagination run surrealist and satirical, as in the standout story “Rate Me”. Otherwise, she seemed too tightly bounded by writing in a character that is already wildly overdone: the sad ironic slutty young American woman writer. I reviewed the collection for Literary Review. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (Virago, 2004) was boosted up my reading pile by fervent recommendations from Sara Barnard and Sarah Perry, and it did not disappoint: sad and strange and full of painful truths and human lies.

June

The best non-fiction book I read this year was Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom (William Collins, 2016), which I reviewed for the Spectator. It’s memoir of Faludi’s reconciliation with her abusive father after his transition to live as a woman that is also a book about Jewishness, about identity, about manipulation of images (Faludi’s father was a photographer) and about life in the shadow of violence, both interpersonal and state-sanctioned. Further excellent feminist writing in a more polemical style from Kat Banyard’s Pimp State (Faber, 2016), which I reviewed for the Guardian: a clear, calmly angry and robustly evidenced argument against prostitution, and a book that legislators should read closely. Faludi inspired me to open up Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times (Granta, 2000), a fine and complex story of the founding of Israel. I read this in the garden after the Brexit vote, and thought about the confounding of twentieth-century hopes, the invisible worms in the roses we tried to cultivate.

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing (Canongate, 2013) did not ultimately answer its own question, but did make unambiguously clear that drunks are arseholes, if you needed that making clear. Rereading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (Faber, 1988; 1963) was a revelation – the expressionistic, vivid passages of breakdown I’d remembered but Plath’s immense gifts as a darkly comic writer and chronicler of shame hit me anew. Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Fleet, 2016) is a deft and moving account of a life in science that will make you think warmly about friendship and trees.

All the books I read in 2016, part 2 

All the books I read in 2015 part 1 and part 2

All the books I read in 2015 (part two)

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Read part one here

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.

 

 

All the books I read in 2015 (part one)

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In August 2014, my husband gave me a black notebook, and I started what’s turned out to be one of my most important habits as a writer: keeping longhand notes on every book I read. So not only do I know everything I read in 2015, but I also know what I thought about it, rather than having to agonisingly reconstruct it all from the stacks of books I’ve left around the house and half-formed thoughts I tweeted as I went.

I read 50 books this year, 18 non-fiction and 32 fiction (which is less biased towards fiction than I expected). 35 were by female authors and 15 by male authors. A thoroughly unimpressive five were by non-white authors – which means that I read more books by BME authors than I did James Bond books, but only just. Something to work on next year. Only one of the books I read was in translation. 14 were for review (because this year I started writing book reviews regularly for a few places), and another six were background reading for reviews.

In January, I read The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (a present from my husband), in which Wonder Woman’s secret history turns out to be tangled up with some of the key figures in the women’s rights movement in America as well as the febrile domestic life of her creator. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel nearly lost me early on with a pile-up of coincidental meetings between characters that tested my disbelief, but won me over by the end with its enormously beautiful evocation of human life after near extinction, and its hymnal to the persistence of art, high and low. I was maddened and beguiled by Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, which flits between ferocious insight into the dehumanised condition of woman under patriarchy, and lunatic vortexes of puns.

I grew up in the country in almost exactly the kind of village where Melissa Harrison sets her novel At Hawthorn Time, which I read in February. Her rural realism is attentive to both nature and people, tender but not sentimental, and beautifully written – though I wish the world had had more room to breath before the climax. Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James is the start of a good novel that peters out into too much white space and not enough story. And I read Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing, a collection of essays edited by Jill Radford and Diana E H Russell, which meticulously places men’s fatal violence against women into the political context of men’s social dominance over women. It’s brutal, horrifying and essential.

In March most of my reading was directed towards a project that is as-yet unpublished (but will hopefully appear in the new year). So I read Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome by Sarah Richardson; Gender Hurts by Sheila Jeffries (a polemic against trangenderism); Redefining Realness by Janet Mock (the engagingly written memoir of a transwoman); and Brain Storm by Rebecca M Jordan-Young, which I only regret not reading sooner. Jordan-Young is one of those writers who can make a whole field of otherwise impenetrable study (in this case, neuroscience’s quest to discover features that might amount to “brain sex”) entirely lucid and open to criticism.

I wrote my first review for the Guardian in April. The subject was The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (who also won the Polari First Book Prize this year for her short story collection The Rental Heart). Despite the promisingly eerie drowned world it is set in, and the sweetness of the romance between its two main characters, it didn’t quite make it for me. When everyone was reading Piketty in 2013 (my copy is still on my nightstand, bookmark near the beginning, looking squat and accusing), one of the big questions from my friends was: “Where is the feminist response?” Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? was actually originally published before Piketty but only came out in English this year, and goes a very long way to answering the question of what feminist economics might look like: it takes seriously the value of unpaid work and the degree to which society is borne up by the female body. It changed the way I think about labour. Do It Like a Woman by Caroline Criado-Perez is an invigorating survey of female endeavour and activism, from the South Pole to the slums of India, from spray painting in London to divorce courts in Yemen. It is a catalogue of sheroes and I loved it. And finally in this month, I read Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, which has stuck to my brain like goose grass since: a double-jointed story of love and women’s work and loss and the strange transfers of sympathy that art can accomplish. (I wrote about it for the New Statesman when Smith won the Baileys Prize this year)

I read Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill in May, and it’s fair to say this dystopia of sexual and reproductive exploitation in a world where women are grown and moulded to precisely serve male desires never quite shakes off the shadow of Atwood. The New Statesman asked me to review In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume, with the proviso that I had a weekend to read it, and it happened to be a weekend when I was taking four nine-year-olds camping. So in what felt like the most Judy Blume reading experience in the world, I read it on what was basically a sleepover, in a tent, by torchlight. As you might expect from Blume, it’s a novel of humour and honesty, delivered with enormous kindness. Wonderful. I started Leslie Jamison’s exquisite essay collection The Empathy Exams which was shortly (but fortuitously) interrupted by the Guardian asking me to review the new novel by Scarlett Thomas, so I read Thomas’s 2006 novel The End of Mr Y in preparation, and couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it before, as this concoction of metaphysics, metafiction and bad sex was almost the exact definition of my bag. Very, very funny too.

In June I read, reviewed and entirely loved The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas, a family saga that pushes ideas about dependency, relationships and the eroticism of empathy (I ended up quoting Jamison in the review) to a strange, raw and filthily hilarious new place. The character of Bryony is an invention of pure splendour. I’m appalled that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have noticed how right I am about this, and I plan to bang on about it indefinitely. Then I read A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin, which I somehow hadn’t read before. I love the idea of magic as the power of words to order the world. I love the idea of a magician haunted by the unstoppable evil he summoned in his hubris. I just love it. Heather O’Neill’s short story collection Daydreams of Angels, however, I did not love. In fact it was a naus, overripe with sentiment and leaden with ill-thought-out twists on fairytale scenarios. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Schafer was much better, a conspiracist thriller set in a corporate data dystopia that’s all the more disturbing for being basically the world exactly as it is, although I wanted more than the conclusion gave and was sorry that of the three principles, the female character was the one who tracked the closest to cliche.

Read part two here

My year in books 2011

When I decided I was going to write a review of my reading year, I had a bit of an anxious moment: totting up my annual literary consumption, it seemed that I hadn’t read very much at all. I was wrong, it was just that I’d blanked out the 4,576 pages of George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire sequence that dominated my recreation hours between March and September. My original plan was to read just the first novel, then pick up the second after the second TV series, and so on. I did not do that.

Instead, I became a dragon-fevered fantasy obsessive for a season, tugged along from book to book by some downright cynical plotting – Martin breaks the story up into various POV chapters, and he exploits this constantly to withhold information and generate cliffhangers. As much as I couldn’t stop reading, I’m not sure if I’d definitely recommend to anyone else. For one thing, at least two books’ worth of plot points are invented just to be whimsically annihilated later on. For another, the story still isn’t finished, meaning there’s an outside chance that I could be cheated out of an ending even after reading all those pages. Continue reading