All the books I read in 2016, part 2


Read part 1 here


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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)


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