Many of you in this lockdown are juggling extra responsibilities, working from home, wrangling small children or elderly relatives who won’t stay put, and perhaps bouncing off some walls. Please know that I am thinking of you, and I hope you are finding a few moments of peace each day.
If that’s not you though, if you suddenly find yourself with extra time on your hands and fancy a good book, then I’m here for you all the way 🙂 I never got around to doing a wrap-up of last year, so here’s a whirlwind tour of the books I loved most, original posts with longer reviews can be found under the ‘Best Of 2019‘ category. Enjoy!
Best Novels: I fell hard for The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx (who also wrote Brokeback Mountain). It’s the story of an odd family who move back to their ancestral tiny town in coastal Canada, and build new lives there. The characters are wonderful and I cried at the end. I’d love a dozen sequels. Milkman popped up everywhere of course, being the 2018 Booker winner, I loved it, and it gave me a new insight into what life might have been like for my Irish relatives before they migrated to Aus. Lanny was on my to-read list as soon as I heard about it – Max Porter is a genius. Another family story, this time set in a commuter village in Surrey. A fascinating weave of different voices, including that of the land itself. I’d never read Elizabeth Strout before, and I loved both Olive Kitteridge and Lucy Barton, (team Olive in case you’re wondering). There’s a sequel to Olive now, which I inexplicably haven’t read yet. Finally, three books in a row from a single author – unprecedented – made it onto the lists. Diane Setterfield is a fantastic storyteller, with shades of Philip Pullman. Once Upon a River is a story about storytelling set alongside a flooding Thames; Bellman and Black is a fabulously creepy tale of Victorian death and mourning; The Thirteenth Tale is another mystery – books, secrets and a looming gothic mansion in the middle of the moors.
Best Queer Reads: Obviously a queer book can be anything, and this category is actually blatant cheating on my part so that I can squeeze two (or three…) books into the same blog post if I want to, having made a rule that they have to be different genres. Patrick Gale and Sarah Waters featured heavily last year, as I decided on reading marathons of both. I did move on from PG eventually, as there are so many, but Take Nothing With You was probably in my top three for the year. It’s a dual timeline which follows the coming-of-age of a teenage cellist who is discovering his sexuality, and a specific period of his life as an adult when he has to be quarantined for a short time following radiation treatment. Again, great family drama, and fabulous music content. My favourite Sarah Waters is not Fingersmith (shock!), but a close run between Tipping the Velvet and The Night Watch. I like the way they both portray people in normal everyday queer relationships (I’m thinking of the end of TTV), rather than the discovery of sexuality/coming out or dating-and-breaking, that are more common storylines. (TTV is the club choice for Jen Gallagher’s April book club – join!) I’ll pop The Argonauts in here too – Maggie Nelson (author of Bluets) is also a genius, this is an exploration of family and gender and is just fabulous. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a queer coming-of-age story about a young Vietnamese-American, in poet Ocean Vuong’s incredible lyrical prose, is a book of the century.
Best Poetry: Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough (ha – see how I can put queer books anywhere I like?) is now one of my favourite collections of all time. It’s beautiful and surreal, heartbreaking in places and loud laughter in others. I also read all of Jacqueline Saphra’s work last year – I’d heard her read but had been missing out. Her partner collections Dad, Remember You Are Dead and All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches Press online book event in April – join!) are both astonishingly good. In Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic a small town under occupation embraces deafness in solidarity with one of their residents. This collection blew me away and is deservedly winning almost everything. Mona Arshi is another poet who I’d read anything and everything by, and Dear Big Gods did not disappoint. Alice Oswald is one of my dear loves, but you also have to accept that you just may not understand it all. Nobody is, in places, completely impenetrable, but still so beautiful.
Best in Translation: I didn’t meet my own expectations last year for translated books, and I’m trying to do better (I always try and do better with translation.) There were a few though, mostly Japanese as a friend of mine was giving me lots of recommendations. The Last Children of Tokyo is set in a world where children have very short life expectancy and are cherished and looked after by a generation which enjoyed exceptionally long life. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. I also read Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, another book exploring a relationship between the very old and the very young, and Revenge, her surreal short stories. I really enjoyed them both, but have been holding off on the newest novel as I heard it wasn’t as good – have you read it??
Best Short Stories: Not so many here, but I finally finished the collected Katherine Mansfield – absolutely loved them, but would recommend spreading them out a lot more than I did. Lucy Wood’s The Sing of the Shore was phenomenal. Super creepy, fantastically written stories set around rural Cornwall.
Best Non-Fiction: (getting close to the end!) Educated was a stand-out book for me last year. It’s a story about growing up in and escaping from an extremely conservative and violent background, but told at a distance which allows for reflection and some objectivity, rather than the drama and sensationalism that stories like that often involve. Queer Intentions and Transgressive were part of my ongoing project to learn a lot more about LGBTQ+ community and history. QI is an interesting look at where we are now (well, in 2019) and whether progress in legal rights is reflected by actual behaviour of society; in Transgressive, Rachel Ann Williams discusses her experiences as a trans woman and reflects on the broader context of transgender rights, history and research. Last but by no means least, Necropolis, by Catherine Arnold, is my favourite so far in the pile of ‘death books’ I’ve been reading during my cemetery residency. It investigates the dead of London from stone age settlements with up to the present day. It’s gory, and gothic, and full of plague pits, and well worth a read.