All the books I read in 2017, part 2 (July-December)

Read part one (January-June)

July

Kathy Acker set the template for Riot Grrrl, so why didn’t I read Blood and Guts in High School (Penguin, 2017; 1978) till this year? No idea and I wish I’d done it sooner, though if I was doing it again I would not take it on public transport, being forewarned about the number of penis pictures therein. (Conductor: “High School, eh? My daughters love reading. Would they like that?” Me: “NO ABSOLUTELY DO NOT BUY YOUR DAUGHTERS THIS BOOK, THEY WOULD 100% HATE THAT.”)

I was reading it because I was about to review Chris Kraus’s Acker biography, but before that, I needed to read I Love Dick (Serpent’s Tail, 2016; 2017). A weird one: I wouldn’t say I loved reading it, but having read it, I can’t stop thinking about it. Then I did Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From (Picador, 2017) for the New Statesman, which is one of those novels that’s written like poetry, i.e. without very many words and all of them feeling overloaded with importance. I lost my rag about the unlikelihood of finding non-rancid butter in an apocalypse scenario and never recovered it.

After Kathy Acker: A Biography by Chris Kraus (Allen Lane, 2017) feinted that it was going to be as tricksy with truth as I Love Dick, but actually it’s a pretty straight biography and a very good one too. It pulls off a rare trick of celebrating Acker without romanticising her (she sounds, honestly, like a complete dick a lot of the time). I’ve thought a lot since about Acker’s relationship with pain, her courting of cancer, and what that means; though my write-up for Literary Review was more about women and art. I did Jill Filipovic’s The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness (Nation Books, 2017) for In the Moment, and enjoyed interviewing her about why happiness as a political goal has been sidelined for women.

 

August

Hilary Mantel, how are you so good? Fludd (Fourth Estate, 2010; 1989) was great and of course surpassingly strange, a comedy about faith and theology. My friend Pete leant me David Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem (Biteback, 2016), and then I ended up reading it while I was housesitting for him in York: if you want to get to grips with the origins of left-wing anti-Semitism, it’s essential.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (The Borough Press, 2017; 2016) is a thoroughgoing delight, updating Pride and Prejudice to contemporary America and losing nothing from the comparison (Sittenfeld’s Mrs Bennet is particularly wonderful). Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg (Corsair, 2017) also conjures an intimidating forebear and pulls it off – this time, Virginia Woolf, in a novel of overlapping narratives recounting overlapping lives in the run-up to a party. I read them both very happily between swimming off the Yorkshire coast.

I’m a sucker for a juicy true crime, but Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body (MacMillan, 2017) is more than that. As a trainee lawyer and committed opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich encountered a client whose crime was so vile, she knew she wanted him to die. In this book, she explores his crime, the life that made him, and the life that made her react to strongly. It’s a deft balance of simmering suspense and moral reflection.

Then, a week in Germany. I was reviewing Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season (Harvill Secker, 2017) for The Guardian, so I read that first. A smart speculative fiction set-up (what if pregnancy could be shared?) that never cashes out fully on either the unsettling scenario or an intimated conspiracy plot.

Somehow, I managed to fit Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth (The Bodley Head, 2015) into my case. It genuinely changed the way I think about the Holocaust: Snyder’s arguments about levels of local complicity and the importance of the state will probably spend years being refined, but the overall picture he draws makes a lot more sense (and is a lot more disturbing) than “Hitler made everyone do it”.

 

September

I couldn’t get into anything when I came back from holiday, so I decided to read HP Lovecraft, Omnibus I: At the Mountains of Madness (Voyager, 1999; 1966). It’s a mixed bag. “Mountains” (which I’ve only consumed as an audiobook previously) is great, with weird horror growing out of that deliciously boring phony science report style that HPL excels at; then things go on the slide until “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, which is so genuinely boring that I chucked the book aside in the end. (Sample: “back to Dylath-Leen and up the Skai to the bridge by Nir, and again into enchanted wood of the Zoogs”, which is exactly like someone telling you their stupid boring dream.)

For the Speccie, I got a dream assignment: The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume I: 1940-1956 (Faber, 2017), ed. Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. A dream which involved reading 1,300-some pages in a week. A terrible, word-drunk week where I got up, sat at my desk, read solidly and then staggered off in the evening to fix a G&T to perk me up for a pre-bedtime push. At some point, I realised that this is not how these letters are supposed to be read – either by Plath herself (duh, she didn’t want my prowling eyes on them at all) or by the editors (it’s a volume for dipping, or reference). I’m glad I did, though. The piece I wrote is the best review I did this year, I think.

Then, reading for some panels I chaired for the Bath Children’s Literature festival, starting with Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster: Total Control (OUP, 2017) (an excellently malevolent update for an esteemed old villain) and then moving onto Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends (Usborne, 2017). This tells the (true) story of how a party of boys survived a harsh winter abandoned on a bare rocky outcrop off the coast of Scotland in the eighteenth century, and I was riveted by it.

 

October

I smuggled in a very fast read of Shelter by Sarah Franklin* (Zaffre, 2017), which I loved so much (mostly for its lavish writing about trees) that I turned it into an In the Moment title. Then back to litfest reading. Alex Wheatle made up the third part of my first panel, along with McCaughrean and Cross. His Straight Outta Crongton (Atom, 2017) is a buzzy, slangy piece of YA hyper-realism. It’s also the only book I read this year by a black British author. Which is a bit of a WTF.

Actually, the racial split of my reading had started to worry me a long time before this. I pitch the titles for my In the Moment pages: how come I hadn’t managed to pitch any black authors yet? The problem starts with what comes through my door. It’s very, very rare for me to be sent books by black authors. Scouring the pre-release lists on Amazon and the publishers’ catalogues, I find out there’s a (partial) reason for this: very few books by black authors are being published, and when they are, they’re unlikely to fit the genres (litfic, or non-fic with a self-knowledge bent) that I can use. Publishing remains ridiculously white. Wheatle spoke about this during the panel – about how his move into YA had been precipitated by his adult novels’ pattern of vanishingly small sales and awkward solicitousness from posh white publishing professionals. YA, he said, was more welcoming, more capacious: a genre defined by its readers’ age doesn’t impose the same narrow ideas of who an author can be.

My second panel covered two books about dragons: The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis (Bloomsbury, 2017) (sweet-natured romance, in the mythic-beasts-and-questing sense) and Claire Fayers’ The Accidental Pirates: Journey to Dragon Island (Macmillan, 2017) (good, chaotic fun with jokes to spare). Then a book about, rather than for, a young adult. My review of Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts (Bloomsbury, 2017) will be in the New Statesman in the new year. Smutty, shocking, but slight.

I got Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? (Simon and Schuster, 2017) when I saw her at Cheltenham Literature Festival. I usually don’t read politicians’ books (they’re either manifestos in disguise, or after-the-fact efforts to shape history, or very bad novels) but could make an exception to the rule for this one. Unusually self-critical, insightful on US policy and international affairs, occasionally so American it made me cringe (the yoga routine!), unsparing on the rival who beat her – this is neither quite a stall-setting nor a reputation-fixer, since while Clinton is resigned from further pursuit office of, she doesn’t have a legacy as such to protect right now. I came away from it feeling the loss of the election harder than I had for a long time, but also invigorated by her commitment to service, and her refusal to make of herself either martyr or scapegoat.

Han Kang’s The White Book (Portobello, 2017; 2016), translated by Deborah Smith was a spare, elegant emotional savaging on the topic of unspoken grief and dread mortality. Danny Denton’s The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow (Granta, 2018) is likely to make a big impression next year, with hefty pre-release buzz and winningly dystopic future-Ireland setting. It left me cold, though, by only including women characters who were mothers, dead, or (the ideal!) both.

 

November

I cursed myself for not having read Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (Portobello, 2017) when it first came through my door, and so missing out on pitching a review: it’s a genius collection of nightmares with a beadily feminist perspective. Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard (MacMillan, 2018) takes on a hard topic (teenager groomed and abducted by her teacher) from a difficult POV (the loyal best friend swayed by talk of “agency” and “love”), and proves again that inside or outside YA, few authors understand more about girls’ friendships.

More emotional brutalising from Han Kang with The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015; 2007), a staggeringly violent parable of feminine – resistance? Dissolution? I’m not sure, and that ambiguity is probably why I’m still thinking about it (also the violence). My review of Peach by Emma Glass (Bloomsbury, 2018) will be in The Guardian in a few weeks, and I have much to say about the cultural space we give to this kind of “girls fall apart” narrative.

I met Gwendoline Riley at a literary party where I was having one of those awful times where there were not enough canapes in the world to stuff the mouth of my imposter syndrome (a man asked me for a book recommendation and basically started eyeing the exits when I launched on an encomium on the merits of Lovecraft, and I couldn’t make myself stop it). Then I read Riley’s First Love (Granta, 2017), and bumped into the line: “It must be a dreadful cross: this hot desire to join in with people who don’t want you. This need to burrow.” At which point I felt the most devastatingly read that I have maybe ever felt, but this dissection-sharp noticing is Riley’s art. A brilliant novel.

Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano’s The Woman Who Fooled the World (Scribe, 2018; 2017) is less fun than I’d hoped. Phony cancer survivor and disgraced “natural health” entrepreneur Belle Gibson is a fascinating subject, but this feels like a feature spread thin, with no bigger argument or clinching psychological insight. Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments (And Other Stories, 2018) is wonderful. Quin was a female, working-class, experimental writer working in the sixties and seventies, a peer of B. S. Johnson, with a gift for the grubby and the cruel. The best stories in here (“Nude and Seascape”, “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking”, “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes With His Fingernails”) are among the best I’ve read this year. And I did Caroline Williams’ Override: My Quest to Go Beyond Brain Training and Take Control of My Mind (Scribe, 2018; 2017) for In the Moment.

 

December

My name is Sarah Ditum and I did not enjoy The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (John Murray, 2016; 2015). I thought I was going to love it (McInerney’s prose is terrific, stuffed with sideways metaphors and unlikely laughs), and then I didn’t. Maybe that’s because it was basically a story about men, and 2017 has left me hardline misandrous. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t get on with McInerney’s way of telling a story: she periodically jumps the characters forward, then informs you how they got from their last position to this one, which doesn’t work for me as a staple narrative technique.

But I love Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2017) (I interviewed him for an upcoming issue of In the Moment), love it with the kind of proprietary intimacy which makes me want to argue the walls down when people get it “wrong”. The life of a village, the loss of a girl, the natural history of human society, the secret world of nature, the gentle shift into oblivion of a certain kind of rural existence, the spare poetry of its neutrally-observing narration: all these things meant an immense amount to me.

Also excellent: Look What You Made Me Do by Helen Walmsley-Johnson* (MacMillan, 2018), a memoir of an abusive relationship that comprehensively answers the question “why didn’t she just leave?” And finally, splendidly, my son gave me two Stephen King novels for Christmas, in answer to my constant wittering about how I have got to 36 without reading him. I did The Shining (Hodder, 2011; 1977) over three days. God damn, King can do story, wheeling away from one strand just as the claustrophobia of the Overlook has begun to feel like a dead end, then bringing it all back together. The well-hewn naturalism of his prose lets him carry off the strange and experimental layering of characters’ conscious thoughts, unconscious thoughts and the intrusions of the hotel; you have to be basically a master of free indirect discourse to pull off a novel about psychic powers (see also Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel), and King is.

Literary Review | Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed & What It’s Doing to Us by Will Storr

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The idea that all of us have a self – essential, irreducible and inherently valuable – is something that’s accepted across social divisions, party-political lines and ideological differences. The mere suggestion that the existence of the self is a belief rather than a natural law can induce the scratchy, uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Yet, Will Storr argues in Selfie, it is only a belief: in reality, human beings are inchoate creatures, acting under influences we barely comprehend and creating post-hoc rationalisations for our behaviour to sustain the fiction of coherent identity. And this is all just in the first chapter.

Read the full review at Literary Review

All the books I read in 2016, part 2

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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