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My favourite books read in 2018

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.

A mid-December round-up of recent reading

As I’m currently short on blogging time, here are a few notes on some of the books I’ve read lately:

Alex Beer, The Second Rider (2017)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2018)

Vienna, 1919: Inspector August Emmerich is tailing a smuggler when he comes across the corpse of a homeless war veteran. Though this appears to be suicide, Emmerich is convinced it’s a murder – even more so when other bodies start to turn up. Alongside the mystery, Beer paints a vivid portrait of a city scarred by war, trying to find its feet again amid the grand remnants of the Habsburg age. There are also some moments of great fun, such as the scene where Emmerich bluffs his way through a hospital lecture while disguised as a doctor. I loved The Second Rider, and I’m really pleased to hear there’s a sequel which will be out in translation next year.

Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)

Way Station is a space opera set in rural Wisconsin. Enoch Wallace fought in the American Civil War, and was then visited by the Galactic Council, who sought to establish a way station on Earth for extra-terrestrial travellers. Wallace’s farmhouse became the way station, and he its immortal custodian; he knows more about the universe than any other human in history, but must live in isolation. I particularly enjoyed Way Station for its sense of how unable the vast universe remains: it brings the alien to Earth, but not down to Earth.

Erhard von Büren, A Long Blue Monday (2013)
Translated from the German by Helen Wallimann (2018)

This is the third novel by Swiss writer von Büren to appear in English. In the present day, Paul Ganter has moved out of his marital home to work on a book. While there, he thinks back to the 1950s and his unrequited love for Claudia, a rich girl he met at college. The young Paul skipped several weeks of college to write a play for Claudia, in the hope of impressing her. Von Büren explores Paul’s life and background in some detail: Paul’s intense period of reflection causes him to question all that he’s done and why people might have reacted as they did. The story of A Long Blue Monday is Paul’s attempt to come to terms with what he has (and has not) become.

Edward Carey, Little (2018)

Little is a novel about the life of Marie Grosholtz, who would become better known as Madame Tussaud. Born in 1761, the young Marie becomes assistant to a waxwork sculptor, spends time as tutor to a French princess, and gets caught up in the foment of revolution. Carey’s prose is bright and colourful, and his illustrations add to a heightened atmosphere. The novel reflects on what it is to create a likeness, to look or represent – and it’s a pleasure to read.

Abi Silver, The Pinocchio Brief (2017)

The Pinocchio Brief is a legal thriller in which barrister Judith Burton and solicitor Constance Lamb team up to defend a boy accused of murdering his teacher. An experimental piece of lie-detection software will be used at the trial, which has implications for Burton – and gives the boy an idea… I found this a very engaging tale, with plenty of tricks up its sleeve. I usually have a more relaxed book on the go that I dip into now and then, and this one was perfect for that.

On a blogging break

It has been quieter on here lately than I would have liked. I was hoping to devote a bit more time to blogging in December, but unfortunately life has intervened again and I have to concentrate on other things instead. I will definitely do a full end-of-year countdown, but otherwise it’ll probably be short round-up posts for now.

Round-up: A.L. Kennedy and Guy Bolton

A.L. Kennedy, The Little Snake (2016)

The Little Snake is a novella inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (which,for context, I haven’t read). It was first published in Germany a couple of years ago, and now has a UK edition courtesy of Canongate. It’s also my first time reading A.L. Kennedy.

One day, a girl named Mary meets Lanmo, a handsome talking snake who becomes her best friend. Mary is the first human Lanmo has befriended: normally he travels the world ushering humans out of their lives. The snake visits Mary at various points in her life, seeing that her city is increasingly ravaged by war and that she is in ever greater danger. For the first time, Lanmo starts to have feelings about what he does; in particular, he wants to ensure Mary’s safety, though he knows the time will come when they must part.

The Little Snake is written as a fable, and Kennedy’s prose has a wonderful ‘tale for all ages’ quality. It’s a tale of losing and finding one’s place, what we lose and what there is to treasure.

The Little Snake (2016) by A.L. Kennedy, Canongate Books, 132 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

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Guy Bolton, The Pictures (2017)

Guy Bolton’s debut novel is a murder mystery set in Hollywood in 1939. Herbert Stanley, a producer on The Wizard of Oz, is found hanged: the case is assigned to Detective Jonathan Craine, the police force’s regular fixer when it comes to MGM matters. Craine’s job is to ensure that Stanley’s death is treated as an open-and-shut case of suicide, this being the least disruptive option for the studio.

However, things soon get complicated: Craine becomes romantically involved with Stanley’s widow, actress Gale Goodwin; and there are distinct signs of foul play about the apparent hanging. As Craine digs deeper, events spiral out to encompass organised crime; there are some gripping set pieces along the way. Crane’s development as a character is also engaging: he starts off as a pretty repugnant sort who has no qualms about pinning an (apparently unrelated) murder on a scapegoat, and becomes – if not entirely sympathetic – at least more thoughtful and scrupulous. I enjoyed The Pictures, and I’ll be reading its sequel, The Syndicate, in due course.

The Pictures (2017) by Guy Bolton, Point Blank, 400 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

T Singer – Dag Solstad

The Norwegian author Dag Solstad has been on my List of Writers to Read Eventually for quite some time. My main reason for reading this particular book right now is wanting to get a head start on some potential contenders for next year’s Man Booker International Prize (I have others lined up to read, too). Each of Solstad’s three previous novels translated into English were listed for the old IFFP, so why shouldn’t this do the same with the MBIP? (Maybe because he’ll have two eligible titles next year – the other is Armand V – but I’ll gloss over that…)

Anyway, that’s the pretext: what about the novel?

Solstad’s protagonist is outwardly unremarkable, not even receiving a full name (and the ‘T’ appears only in the book’s title). Singer feels that “his place was to be found in total anonymity”; indeed that’s where he “thrives”. He also has a detailed inner life: at the start of the novel, we are plunged into a sequence showing how Singer dwells on some of his misunderstandings, such as mistaking one acquaintance for another:

What was it he said to K, whom he thought was B? Perhaps something about how dark the room was. Perhaps something about the film (or the jazz concert) they were about to see (or hear). Perhaps some slightly joking remark about the weather, the chairs, the table, the candlelight. Perhaps a comment about a third mutual acquaintance, Y, whom K also knows, spoken in a somewhat different tone than he would have used if talking to K about Y.

(translation by Tiina Nunnally)

So it goes on, with various what-ifs around B, K and Y. I got a bit lost in the middle of this early passage, yet it was exhilarating to read. The level of detail draws everything out to the edge of absurdity, where something that might seem sensible to a character could easily be mistaken for something ridiculous (or vice versa).

The novel continues in this discursive vein as it chronicles Singer’s move to the small town of Notodden to become a librarian, which he thinks will be a good profession for attaining the anonymity he seeks. In due course, Singer falls in love with and marries a ceramicist named Merete Særthe, moving in with her and her daughter Isabella. Even this does not disrupt Singer’s sense of self, because the role of the family man is what completes his anonymity.

To begin with, Singer is quite comfortable with his tendency to keep the world at a distance; but the second half of the novel turns this on its head. As Isabella grows up, Singer finds her as distant from him as he always preferred to be from others:

But why did she behave with such intent seriousness within this childhood she’d been given, which many would say was a gift? As if the whole time she were mimicking something that she realised should have brought her delight? Singer didn’t know, but now and then he would be seized by anxiety when he saw her involved in such withdrawn activity.

I’ve sometimes seen Steve Mitchelmore refer to ‘lightness’ in fiction, meaning “the quality of great seriousness without it being overt,” (to quote a tweet of his). This kept coming to mind when I was reading T Singer, because it felt as though Solstad’s prose was skipping “like a stone across deceptively calm waters” (quoting a tweet of my own, here). For example, it hops from work to love to family with deft footwork, yet beneath that is the essential loneliness of Singer’s desire to push the world away: something that he won’t confront, in the same way that Solstad’s writing doesn’t face it directly. Then, when Singer’s distancing turns around to bite him, the same narrative technique represents the gulf between him and Isabella. Nunnally’s translation is superb in capturing the vertiginous quality of Solstad’s prose. I hope that T Singer will receive a nod in the MBIP next year – certainly it deserves to.

Read other reviews of T Singer at 1streading’s Blog; The Modern Novel; and The Complete Review.

Book details

T Singer (1999) by Dag Solstad, tr. Tiina Nunnally (2018), Harvill Secker, 263 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

Three Dreams in the Key of G – Marc Nash: a Splice review

The focus at Splice this week is Marc Nash and his latest novel, Three Dreams in the Key of G, which is published by Dead Ink Books (who are also behind the Eden Book Society). I’ve reviewed Three Dreams, which I found fascinating to read and write about. Let me introduce it…

Three Dreams has three narrators: Jean Ome, a mother living in Ulster; Jean Ohm, who runs a women’s refuge in Florida; and the human genome itself. They speak in what I’ve called “extravagantly articulate” voices, that ask you to slow down and listen. Several themes recur throughout – such as language, writing, and agency – refracted through each narrator’s individual perspective. The novel ranges from everyday human life to some of the fundamentals of biology and existence.

One of the things I find most interesting about Three Dreams is how it’s structured to reflect aspects of DNA: for example, there isn’t a conventional linear plot, as befits unguided genetic reproduction. The language and themes form a network of relationships, as genes are expressed.

If all this sounds intriguing, you can read more in my review, and Splice also has an interesting Q&A with Nash about the novel.

Book details

Three Dreams in the Key of G (2018) by Marc Nash, Dead Ink Books, 216 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

Bird Cottage – Eva Meijer: a EuroLitNetwork review

It has been a while, but I’m pleased to be back at the European Literature Network for this month’s #RivetingReviews section. The book I’m reviewing is Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett). It’s a novel about the life of a historical figure who was unknown to me: Gwendolen (Len) Howard, a concert violinist who, aged 40,changed her life and moved to a Sussex cottage to study the birds in her garden. She published two books, and her ideas were ahead of her time, but her work was not taken seriously by the scientific establishment.

Bird Cottage is a fascinating story; click here to read my review in full.

Book details

Bird Cottage (2016) by Eva Meijer, tr. Antoinette Fawcett (2018), Pushkin Press, 256 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata: a Splice review

I’m back at Splice this week with a review of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori). It’s the story of Keiko Furukura, who has worked at a convenience store for 18 years because it is the only place she feels ‘normal’ – and now her carefully ordered existence is under threat…

Convenience Store Woman has turned out to be one of my favourite books of the year. It challenges the reader to empathise with Keiko, then builds up to one of the most powerful endings I have read in a long time.

The review itself is one of my longer ones, about 2,000 words. It was a pleasure to get under the skin of a novel that had affected me so much; I hope you enjoy reading the result.

Book details

Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018), Portobello Books, 176 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

A pair from Glagoslav

Today I’m looking at two books from Glagoslav Publications, who specialise in Slavic literature. I have a contemporary Russian novel for you, and a Belarusian classic.

Vasil Bykau, Alpine Ballad (1964)
Translated from the Belarusian by Mikalai Khilo (2016)

This is the first Belarusian book I’ve read (in terms of both country and original language). From what I’ve read about him, Vasil Bykau (1924-2003) is one of the most significant figures in Belarusian literature. Glagoslav’s edition of Alpine Ballad is the first English translation to be based on Bykau’s original, uncensored manuscript.

During the later years of World War Two, a bomb explodes in an Alpine concentration camp. Ivan, a Belarusian soldier, makes good his escape. Shortly after, he comes across Giulia, a young Italian woman who was also being held prisoner in the camp. She doesn’t speak a lot of Russian, but through a mixture of that, German and Italian, the two are able to understand each other. We then follow them over the course of a few days as they try to evade capture and reach safety.

Alpine Ballad is a briskly told tale, constantly in motion. Bykau’s action sequences, when Ivan and Giulia are on the run, are gripping. There are also some really affecting moments where it becomes clear how the pair are developing feelings for each other. Giulia has an idealised image of Soviet communism, which Ivan is quick to dispel. This combination of social commentary, romance and action makes Alpine Ballad compelling reading.

Igor Eliseev, One-Two (2016)

Igor Eliseev is a Russian writer who writes in English; One-Two is his debut novel. This is the story of two conjoined sisters named Vera (our narrator) and Nadezhda – or Faith and Hope, as they are referred to throughout the book. The girls spend much of their childhood in a series of dismal institutions, including a foster home whose principal dubs them ‘One’ and ‘Two’, and where they’re subjected to much worse indignities than that. Eventually the sisters run away from the home and head to the city, hoping to find a place for themselves.

One-Two is a harrowing book, as Faith and Hope travel a difficult road. The history of 1980s and ’90s Russia unfolds in the background, and there’s a sense that Eliseev is reflecting this in the personal story of his protagonists. As well as everything that happens to them from without, the girls face their own internal struggles, as their very different personalities come to the fore. There is the tantalising prospect that they may be able to undergo separation surgery, which leads the pair to wonder what it might be like to have their own individual body, for all that the consequences may be drastic. One-Two is an interesting character study, and a powerful tale of personal struggle.

Book details

Alpine Ballad (1964) by Vasil Bykau, tr. Mikalai Khilo (2016), Glagoslav Publications, 206 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

One-Two (2016) by Igor Eliseev, Glagoslav Publications, 244 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Reading out loud: The Girls of Slender Means

I’ve been intending to read Muriel Spark (last time was The Driver’s Seat) again all year, what with it being her centenary. It took me until the autumn to actually do that, but better late than never…

I’m trying something a bit different with this post, taking inspiration from that Twitter discussion of The Rings of Saturn in the summer. I tweeted my thoughts on The Girls of Slender Means as I was reading it, and am now collecting them together here. I’ve called this “reading out loud” because it’s more off the cuff and impressionistic than a proper review would be. I felt that a ‘known’ book like this could support that kind of post.

To introduce the book briefly: The Girls of Slender Means was first published in 1963. It’s mostly set in 1945, and concerns the May of Teck Club, a London hostel for women aged under 30. I’ve expanded the original tweets a little for clarity, but still I doubt the post below will make much sense if you haven’t read the novel. If you’re looking for a recommendation, though… consider the book recommended!

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It’s been too long since I last read Muriel Spark. I’m enjoying it from the first sentence: “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Instantly recognisable voice: reading it feels like coming home.

Already the narrative is being subtly destabilised (which I’m coming to expect from Spark). The present-day passages feel more like intrusions than an alternative plot strand.

Interesting that present-day passages (which discuss a character’s death) are all telephone conversations. I need to read further to understand what this means, but I’m thinking it’s perhaps a comment on the distance created by that form of communication.

I love the little details that punctuate a scene with humour, such as the arguments over brown wallpaper in the drawing-room, or the frequent soundtrack of lines from Joanna’s elocution lessons.

Just twigged that there’s a theme of missed (or misunderstood) communication: the present-day phone calls that break up, the rote learning of elocution lessons (lines that are repeated but not necessarily felt by the person saying them).

A bomb explodes in the club’s garden towards the end of the book. Interesting that this is explicitly framed as disrupting the girls’ sense of time and space. Time is experienced differently by those trapped inside the club, and those outside who realise how urgent the situation is.

Besides bringing the plot to a point of singularity, the fire seems to bring individual characterisation to a head. I noticed this especially with Joanna reciting her elocution lines – which manage to be both empty and all too meaningful.

The closing scene of murder and violence amidst the WW2 victory celebrations underlines themes of darkness beneath events and distance from authority that have run through the book.

I love that the final paragraph manages simultaneously to link back to the start of the novel, push forward into the future, *and* leave the present both open and closed off.

Book details

The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark, Penguin Books (2013 edn), 144 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

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