Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.Continue reading
By accident rather than design, I read less in 2018 than I had in quite some time. However, unlike last year, it feels right to do my usual list of twelve favourites. One thing that really stands out to me is what a good year it’s been for short story collections – I have four on my list, more than ever before. 2018 was also the year when I started reviewing for Splice, and you’ll see that reflected in my list, too.
As always, the ranking is not meant to be taken too seriously – I like to have a countdown, but really I’d recommend them all. I haven’t differentiated between old and new books, though as it turns out, most are from this year. The links will take you to my original review of each book.
You can also read my previous favourites posts from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year. It’ll be the tenth anniversary of this blog, so I have some plans for looking back as well as forward.
12. And the Wind Sees All (2011) by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Andrew Cauthery and Björg Árnadóttir (2018)
I read this book only a few days ago and it made such an impression that it went straight on to my end-of-year list. Part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series, And the Wind Sees All is set in an Icelandic fishing village, during a couple of minutes during which Kata, the village choir’s conductor, cycles down the main street. Like the wind, the novel flows in and out of the lives of the villagers Kata cycles past, revealing secrets, losses, fears and joys. The writing is gorgeous.
11. Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo
Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe (2018)
The English-language debut of Colombian writer García Robayo, Fish Soup collects together two novellas and seven short stories. Among others, we meet a young woman so desperate to escape her current life that she can’t see what it’s doing to herself and others; a businessman forced to confront the emptiness in his life; and a student being taught one thing at school while experiencing something quite different in her life outside the classroom. All is told in a wonderfully sardonic voice.
10. Three Dreams in the Key of G (2018) by Marc Nash
This is a novel of language, motherhood, and biology, told in the voices of a mother in peace-agreement Ulster; the elderly founder of a women’s refuge in Florida; and the human genome itself. Perhaps more than any other book I read this year, the shape of Three Dreams is a key part of what it means: it’s structured in a way that reflects DNA, and the full picture of the novel emerges from the interaction of its different strands.
9. Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (2018)
This was a book that had me from the title. A composite of corpses comes to life in US-occupied Baghdad. It starts to avenge the victims who make up its component parts, then finds those disintegrating, so it has to keep on killing to survive… and becomes a walking metaphor for self-perpetuating violence. Saadawi’s novel is powerful, horrific, and drily amusing where it needs to be.
8. The Last Day (2004) by Jaroslavas Melnikas
Translated from the Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute (2018)
A collection of stories where the extraordinary intrudes on the everyday – such as a cinema showing the never-ending film of someone’s life, or a mysterious treasure trail leading the narrator to an unknown end point. Melnikas’ stories become richer by reflecting on what this strangeness means for the characters, an approach that was right up my street.
7. The White Book (2016) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2017)
Another deeply felt book from a favourite contemporary writer. The White Book is structured as a series of vignettes on white things, from snow to swaddling bands, all haunted by the spectre of a sister who died before the narrator was born. Reading Han always feels more intimate than with most other writers; her prose cuts like glass, bypassing conscious thought and going straight to the place where reading blurs into living.
6. T Singer (1999) by Dag Solstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally (2018)
My first experience of Solstad’s work, and it’s like reading on a tightrope. A synopsis would make it seem that nothing much is going on, as Solstad’s protagonist seeks anonymity by becoming a librarian in a small town. But the busyness of Singer’s inner life creates a contrast with his essential loneliness, an abyss for the reader to stare into.
5. The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark
Every time I read Muriel Spark, I’m reminded of why I want to read more. Set in a post-war London boarding house for young women, this is a tale of lost (and sometimes found) opportunity and missed communication. I love the way that Spark twists her characters’ (and reader’s) sense of time and space, the undercurrent of dark wit… No doubt there’s even more to see on a re-read.
4. The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood
Everything that Lucy Wood writes ends up in my list of favourites. I love the way that she evokes a sense of mystery lying beneath the interaction of life and place. The stories in The Sing of the Shore are set in off-season Cornwall, a place where children take over other people’s unoccupied second homes, the sand advances and recedes, and both people and things are transient.
3. The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan (1993)
I loved this Norwegian classic about a girl trying to come to terms with her friend’s disappearance. Vesaas’ novel is full of the raw sense of selves and friendships being formed, and examines what it takes to find one’s place in a community or landscape. The prose is beautiful, crystalline and jagged, like the frozen waterfall that gives The Ice Palace its title.
2. Mothers (2018) by Chris Power
Stories of family and relationships, travel and searching – each illuminating and resonating with the others. Three stories following the same character’s journey through life form the backbone of Power’s collection. In between, there’s a frustrated stand-up comedian, a couple walking in Exmoor who find their relationship tougher terrain, a chess-like game of flirtation in Paris, and more. I can’t wait to see what Power writes next.
1. Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018)
A novel about a woman who has worked in a convenience store for 18 years, trying to find her own sort of normality. The protagonist’s sense of self is challenged, and the reader is also challenged to empathise with her. Convenience Store Woman is a vivid character study that builds to the most powerful ending I’ve read all year. I won’t forget this book for a long, long time.
Over the last few years, Lucy Wood has been creating her own distinctive fictional worlds of Devon and Cornwall. Although the general settings are recognisable, the places are rarely named, which to me always gives a feeling that the worlds of Wood’s stories are unbound. Each of her books has had a different focus: the stories in Diving Belles have foundations in folklore; the novel Weathering revolves around the relationship between characters and raw landscape.
Now we have Wood’s second story collection, The Sing of the Shore, which is an evocation of Cornwall off-season. An epigraph explains the book’s title: “the sing of the shore” is the varying sound of waves as they break against different surfaces (sand, pebbles, etc.), which enables experienced fishermen to tell where they are even when it’s foggy – in other words, it represents the secret soul of a place, known to locals but not to outsiders. Unlike Diving Belles, there’s only a relative tinge of the supernatural in this book – but the sense of otherworldiness running through Wood’s work is as strong as ever.
In these stories, the place gets in everything:
There’s sand everywhere around here. When you walk in the wind, grains crunch against your teeth. We’re out on the edge of town, where the cliffs start to crumble and turn to sloping dunes. The dunes are heavy and soft, like flour in a bowl. They never stay still. They slip and shift about; sometimes growing, sometimes flattening out. When the gales come, loose sand blows down the road and heaps at our front doors.
This is from the story ‘Salthouse’, which begins with teenagers Evie and Gina going to plant their Christmas trees in the sand, as most people in the area do, in order to keep the dunes in place. On the way there, Gina suggests visiting the fair, yet seems reluctant to join in with Evie. It transpires that Gina has arranged to meet a boy, and Evie’s time at the fair becomes a kinetic dismantling of the childhood she thought she still had. Except, as the ending makes clear, some things don’t change: the sand is still there, advancing and receding as ever.
‘The Dishes’ provides another example of how Wood layers character and metaphor with a lightness of touch. In this story, Jay has moved to Cornwall with his wife Lorna for three months, where she has been seconded to a satellite ground station. Jay spends his time looking after the couple’s baby; since Lorna can’t talk about her work, a lack of meaningful conversation is getting to Jay (“All he wanted was to speak to someone and not have them say forofoo, or whatever the hell it was, back”). There are mysterious comings and goings at the neighbouring house, which also make him anxious. Wood paints an elegant study of a man succumbing to paranoia, out of little more than baby talk and next door’s phone ringing.
There’s a great range of tone among the stories in The Sing of the Shore. ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ invests a tale of a woman crossing fields and dodging cows with an atmosphere of genuine menace. ‘Way the Hell Out’ turns a conversation about a mysterious figure seen from a house into something of a shaggy dog story. ‘A Year of Buryings’ is a wry catalogue of the dead, who may persist (“Now someone’s tapping on windows. Who is it? It’s Jameson with his stick, out in the rain again, trying to remember where he used to live”); it reminded me of ‘Notes from the House Spirits‘ in Diving Belles. ‘By-the-Wind Sailors’ ends the volume on a melancholy note, with the story of a couple forced by circumstance to flit from house to house. A certain sense of transience may run through Wood’s tales in this book, but the stories themselves linger long in the mind.
Watch Lucy Wood reading from the story ‘Home Scar’.
The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood, 4th Estate, 230 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).
My book group chose Lucy Wood’s collection Diving Belles for this month, which gave me a welcome excuse to re-read it. I enjoyed it even more the second time around, and – having read Weathering quite recently – gained a greater appreciation of Wood’s approach in general.
By coincidence, Max Cairnduff reviewed Diving Belles the other week; like me, he loved it (I wasn’t surprised, as we tend to have quite similar taste in books). One of his comments that I found particularly interesting was that, even though the metaphors in Wood’s stories aren’t the subtlest, he was more forgiving of this than he’d usually be.
Thinking about this in the broader context of Wood’s work, I am struck that her fiction inhabits a space where metaphor becomes interchangeable with action and landscape. She can get away with using broad metaphors, because they are the foundation of her work, rather than its end-point. To borrow an expression from Ethan Robinson, magic is a ‘living presence’ in Wood’s stories; this is a key quality that draws me to her work, and why it continues to haunt me.
Book details (Foyles affiliate links)
Diving Belles (2012) by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury paperback
Weathering (2015) by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury hardback
Three years on from her marvellous story collection Diving Belles, Lucy Wood returns with her debut novel. Let’s not beat about the bush: Weathering is just as marvellous. In fact, it had me from the first paragraph:
Arse over elbow and a mouthful of river. Which she couldn’t spit out. Which soaked in and weighed her down until she was steeped in silt and water, like old tea. But where was her arse anyway, where was her elbow? There was nothing but water as far as she could tell. A stew of water and leaves and small stones and herself all mixed up in it – a strange grey grit. Scattered, then dragged under again, everything teeming, and not sure which way was up or down. Light and dark, light and dark, like a door opening and closing. (p. 1)
I love the rhythm of that prose, and the way it erases the line between character and river. It does so for good reason, too: the character, Pearl, has died; those are her ashes being scattered in the river, apparently still self-aware. They’re being scattered by Pearl’s daughter Ada, who’s returned to the valley to sort out Pearl’s old house; and Ada’s six-year-old daughter Pepper, who never knew Pearl at all. Weathering is the story of how the three generations deal with their sudden change in circumstances.
It’s easy enough to imagine a situation like this being the subject of a straightforward social realist novel – but such a novel would likely have been less interesting and powerful than Weathering. What makes Wood’s book so striking is its sense of what it is to be in that raw landscape. Each of the three protagonists has reason to feel particularly close to the valley: Pearl lived there for years, and of course is now literally part of it. For a wild soul like Pepper, whose life is just beginning, the valley is a place of excitement and colour. For Ada, who thought she’d got away from the valley years ago, it’s dreary and miserable.
Key to Wood’s technique is that she does not allow the valley to become known. For all the vivid descriptions of place, there are no names; this is not somewhere that can be given a label, and thereby given shape. Choppy sentence fragments disrupt the easy flow of understanding; like the characters, we as readers are plunged straight into a new world and have to orient ourselves as best we can.
We can also see this at work in the dialogue, which – like real conversation – is often laden with the unspoken, which can be stifling for Ada, because she finds herself having to be the person others remember, rather than the person she feels she is now; when the village shopkeeper tells her about a collection for ‘old Edwards’, Ada’s emphatic reply of ‘I don’t know who he is’ (p. 35) seems very much like a forlorn attempt to distance herself from the past. As the novel progresses, and Pepper and Ada become more comfortable in their surroundings, so the dialogue and descriptive prose become more conventionally novelistic – but never entirely; the valley will not be tamed.
The title of Weathering has two meanings: being worn away by time, but also holding on, riding out the storm. Ultimately, Wood’s characters experience something of both, as they try to find a place for themselves when the river is the thing that will carry on. Whereas in Diving Belles magic and story lay beneath the surface of everyday life, here it’s the deeper reality of the landscape that pushes through into the characters’ lives.
I want to end with another quotation, which may be tricky, because you really need the momentum of context to understand what Weathering is like. But here’s a stretch of dialogue between Pepper and a woman on the riverbank, which to me captures something of the novel’s general attitude, as well as showing how amusing Wood’s writing can be:
[…]‘It certainly is cold today,’ [Pepper] said.
‘What are you talking about that for?’ The woman said.
Pepper shrugged. ‘I’m trying to make conversation.’
‘Oh,’ the woman said. ‘That.’
‘This is what you have to do. I say, whereabouts do you live and what do you do for a living? And then you tell me. And then I say it’s cold. And then you agree. And then I say I hope the road doesn’t get ice. And then you say you heard the road will get ice. And then I say—‘
‘Christ,’ the woman said. ‘Why do we have to say all that?’
‘I don’t know,’ Pepper said. (p. 108)
Why indeed? Weathering is a novel that says just what it needs to say, in its own idiosyncratic fashion. It cements Lucy Wood’s voice as one that will continue to have my full attention.
Weathering has been picking up very positive mentions all over the place; here are a few of them:
My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.
Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.
I’m always fascinated by the differences in book covers between countries. The Millions runs an annual feature comparing US and UK cover art, and a similar post appeared on Flavorwire a few days ago. I’ve decided to do a cover post of my own, with some of the books I’ve featured on this blog.
(UK covers are on the left, US covers on the right; title links go to my reviews of the books, for context.)
Diving Belles – Lucy Wood
The UK cover indicates folklore and the sea; it’s nice enough, but feels perhaps a little too obvious. The US cover, I think, captures the deeper heart of the book – that mixture of domesticity and sinister magic; I especially love the way that the stairs shade into abstract geometry. Winner: US
The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka
Two broadly similar treatments here, with the red parasol as focus. I think the closed parasol in the case evokes the novel’s themes better. Winner: UK
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry – B.S. Johnson
The covers of the most recent editions. There’s a simple elegance to both, but for me the disintegrating ledger is a little too literal, especially compared with the boldness of the UK cover. Winner: UK
The Longshot – Katie Kitamura
I like the composition of both these covers, but the image of the fighter and his trainer walking away makes it look as though their job is done. The clenched fists of the US cover evoke the tension and violence which are at the novel’s core. Winner: US
The Still Point – Amy Sackville
Oh, there’s no contest here: the paper cut-out look of the UK cover is gorgeous; the US cover doesn’t come close for me. Winner: UK
Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord
The composition of the US cover is elegant, but I think the UK cover better evokes the tone of the book (tricksy-but-serious) . Winner: UK
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu
Hmm. Yu’s novel plays with the conventions of both sf and mainstream ‘literary fiction’, which is captured nicely by the UK cover, with its ordered arrangement of laser guns. But it’s also a playful novel, and that spirit is evoked by the US cover, made to look like an old manual, complete with ‘creased’ cover obscuring the publicity quotes. I can’t choose one over the other. Winner: it’s a draw.
Communion Town – Sam Thompson
I’m not sure either of these covers really captures the essence of Thompson’s book, but the UK one wins out for me as being more intriguing and distinctive., turning a map into abstract art. (Incidentally, this is the cover of the UK hardback; the paperback cover, like the US one, goes down the less-interesting ‘murky skyscraper’ route.) Winner: UK
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Robin Black
Well, I don’t think the UK cover is very interesting at all. The US cover is not great, but the paint effect is a nice touch, and the title is used well within the composition. Winner: US
The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt
Wow. What a difference in treatment. I love nigh on everything about the UK cover (it looks even better on the physical object). The US cover is too specific to suit the novel’s air of ambiguity, and just isn’t as well conceived as the more stylised version. Winner: UK
It’s that time of year again, for looking back over what I’ve read and picking out the highlights. In previous years, I’ve limited my list to books published in the year in question, or split it equally between old and new titles. For 2012, I’m just doing a straightforward list of my favourite twelve reads of the year, regardless of when they were first published.
So, in alphabetical order of author surname, here they are:
Adrian Barnes, Nod
Telling of a battle of words and perceptions in contemporary Vancouver, this is a dystopian novel with the nervous energy of a new world still being negotiated, and a keen sense of its own precariousness. It never feels as though it’s about to settle.
M. John Harrison, Viriconium
Possibly the ultimate anti-escapist fantasy (and almost certainly the only major work of fantastic literature to be set partly in my home town of Huddersfield). In this collection of novels and stories, it’s fantasy that does the escaping, leaving readers and characters alike scrabbling at mirrors.
Katie Kitamura, The Longshot
The tale of a mixed martial artist heading for one last shot at glory. This short novel is as taut and focused as a winning fighter; it’s a brilliant unity of form and subject.
Jonathan Lee, Joy
A fine character study of a successful young lawyer who attempts to take her own life in front of her work colleagues, and of other key figures in her life. Lee has superb control of voice and tone, and the whole novel is a great pleasure to read.
Simon Lelic, The Child Who
Here, by coincidence, is another incisive character study focusing on a lawyer – this time the solicitor defending a twelve-year-old accused of murder whom he (and everyone else) knows is guilty. This unusual angle enables Lelic to give certain key scenes an unexpected texture, and to give a complex picture of the issues he raises.
Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo
A Senegalese folktale spliced with quantum physics. A morality tale whose only moral is that the reader should decide on one for herself. An examination of choice wrapped up in a glorious piece of storytelling that knows just when to turn on itself.
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
A chorus of narrators tells the story (and stories) of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’ who go to the US at the start of the last century, and their descendants. Otsuka’s short novel is a beautiful composition whose focus shifts elegantly back and forth between a wider and more individual view.
Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn & Child
An anti-detective novel in which any semblance of narrative or coherence dissipates as soon as you look. Its pieces are brought together into a whole by superb writing and Ridgway’s distinctive aesthetic.
Adam Roberts, Jack Glass
Read during my ongoing semi-hiatus, this novel brings together Golden Age detective fiction and science fiction, and interrogates them. It is very much alive to the limitations and shortcomings of those types of fiction, but still plays fair with the reader. (See Jonathan McCalmont’s masterful review for more on the book.)
Zadie Smith, NW
A collage of a novel that examines the connections between several characters’ lives in north-west London. Smith goes through several different styles and approaches in NW, but all combine successfully in this insightful read.
Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat
A deeply unsettling piece of work that turns the concept of the murder mystery on its head and – perhaps even more effectively – puts a dark twist on the notion of a character study. This is the sort of novel that makes me want to explore the rest of its author’s œuvre.
Lucy Wood, Diving Belles
My favourite debut of the year, this collection brings Cornish folklore into the present day. These stories are by turns amusing, mysterious and evocative; I can’t wait to see what Wood writes next.
This will be my last blog post of 2012. Wherever you are, I’d like to thank you for reading and wish you well for the coming year. See you again in 2013.
Would you like to hear about the best book I’ve read so far this year? Here it is: the debut collection from Lucy Wood, a set of contemporary stories inspired by Cornish folklore. Wood is clearly going to be a name to watch out for in the future; to find out why, I’d invite you to read my review of Diving Belles, which is up on Strange Horizons today.