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My favourite books read in 2020

2020: what a year, eh? Anyway, this is a place for talking about books, and I had a good reading year. As usual, I have picked out my favourite dozen and listed them in loose order of enjoyment (though of course I’d recommend them all). What I particularly like is that this selection encompasses many of the different strands of my reading from the year: the Goldsmiths Prize, International Booker, Fitzcarraldo Fortnight, the Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month… They’re all represented in here somewhere.

12. The Blessed Girl (2017) by Angela Makholwa

One of the funniest books I read all year, this is the story of a young black South African woman with the trappings of a successful life and no shortage of suitors to support her. But keeping her lifestyle going is not as easy as it looks, and there’s a poignant undercurrent to the novel that really changes things.

11. Arkady (2018) by Patrick Langley

The tale of two brothers surviving on the margins of an austerity-ravaged Britain in a near future. What really makes this novel work for me is its abstract quality: the broader contours of society are unknown to the brothers, just as they are unknown to it. This makes their relationship leap off the page even more.

10. New Passengers (2017) by Tine Høeg
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

Here’s another novel whose bare summary may not sound much: two characters meet on a train and embark on an affair. But the verse-style prose transforms it, breaking the novel into small pieces just as the protagonist tries to compartmentalise her life, and merging them together just as the parts of the woman’s life refuse to stay separate.

9. Lolly Willowes (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to society’s expectations of women, but is in danger of being consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly. She breaks free of it all in spectacular fashion: by moving to the country to practise witchcraft. This is an exuberant character study that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

8. Bina (2019) by Anakana Schofield

A restless novel narrated by a restless character: seventy-something Bina, who’s here to warn us – though the full extent of what she has to warn us about about only emerges gradually. This book had affected me deeply by the end, and I still can’t explain exactly how it does what it does.

7. Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) by Gabriel Josipovici

Here is another book whose effect on me emerged spontaneously and without warning while reading. Infinity is the account of an Italian composer who comes across as pompous and larger-than-life at first… But later his vulnerability becomes apparent, and we start to feel his intense engagement with existence.

6. Snow, Dog, Foot (2015) by Claudio Morandini
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)

It was a strong year for Peirene Press, and this was my favourite: a novel of reality unspooling for an old man in his Alpine cottage, with only his (occasionally talking) dog for company. This is a powerful study of isolation, with the sort of perceptual ambiguity that I love. 

5. Earthlings (2018) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

After loving Convenience Store Woman a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to this. But that earlier book could not prepare me for Earthlings. Murata’s protagonist may wish for a spaceship to carry her away, but these seemingly childish games have serious and disturbing consequences. 

4. Mordew (2020) by Alex Pheby

A rich and indulgent fantasy from Galley Beggar Press. Reading this took me right back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense that here was a fantasy novel that could go anywhere it wanted. Pheby takes classic fantasy elements, such as a poor boy discovering his destiny, but Mordew is very much its own thing. 

3. The Nacullians (2020) by Craig Jordan-Baker 

Like Mordew, this novel feels unconstrained by any preconceived notion of what it ‘should’ be like, though this time the novel a family saga. The Nacullians are a family who don’t fit into the traditional family saga, so Jordan-Baker takes his novel apart and rebuilds it around them. The result is exhilarating. 

2. The Birds (1957) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)

The Ice Palace was high on my list of favourites a couple of years ago, and now it’s joined by The Birds. Vesaas’ novels are so delicately observed. There’s a sequence in the middle of this tale of siblings that will go down as one of the best I’ve read. 

1. The Memory Police (1994) by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2019)

I’ve enjoyed Yoko Ogawa’s work before, but The Memory Police was extra special. The tale of an island where concepts routinely fade from the collective memory, it starts off looking like an allegory of life under authoritarianism and ends up enacting a very personal form of loss. There was no book I read all year that stayed with me as much as this. 

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That’s my round-up of 2020. What have you enjoyed reading this year?

My previous yearly selections of favourite books are all here: 2019, 2018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. I’ll be back on the blog in the New Year, and you can also find me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata, Earthlings (2018)
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

Sometimes you read a second book by an author and you think you have an idea of what’s coming. In Earthlings, we meet Natsuki, who as a child believes that she has magical powers, and that her plush toy Piyyut is a visitor from another world. Natsuki’s cousin Yuu says he is an alien himself, and that a spaceship is coming to take him home. Natsuki wishes she could go with him. But events conspire to tear the cousins apart, and Natsuki and Yuu make a pact that they will survive, whatever it takes. 

These are not just games: there are horrific events in Natsuki’s childhood (graphically written, so be warned), and a real sense that she acts this way as a means of protection or displacement from reality. So I thought that, like Convenience Store Woman, here was another study of a character with an unusual view of the world, another challenge laid down to the reader to meet such a character on their own terms. 

Well, Earthlings is all of that. But it’s also so much else. 

As an adult, Natsuki pretends to fit in. She views society as a ‘Factory’ for producing babies. She’s able to opt out of that, but still has a deep-seated conviction that she does not belong here. When Natsuki finally has cause to reunite with Yuu, it seems that he has put away what he now sees as childish fantasies – but these are clearly still realities for Natsuki. 

And then… Well, I’m not telling. Not since New Model Army have I read a book whose ending felt so audacious to imagine. I won’t forget the experience of reading Earthlings, not for a long time. 

Published by Granta Books.

#WITMonth: Stockenström, Kawakami, Quintana

Here’s another trio of reviews from my Instagram for Women in Translation Month.

Wilma Stockenström, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (1981)
Translated from the Afrikaans by J.M. Coetzee (1983)

This short novel introduces us to a young woman living in the hollow of a baobab tree. She finds her own paths to gather food alongside the nearby animals, and measures the days with a string of beads.

LIfe hasn’t always been like this. The woman was a slave, one who has been treated brutally at times. At other times, though, she became a favourite of her owners, which might have made life a little easier, but also left her an outsider in more ways than one.

The woman joined her final owner on an expedition to find an inland city. It didn’t go well, which is how she ended up by herself in the baobab tree. Stockenström’s novel is the story of how the woman becomes isolated, but also finds a certain autonomy in finally being able to shape her own existence for herself.

Published by Faber & Faber.

Hiromi Kawakami, The Nakano Thrift Shop (2005)
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (2017)

For this year’s Women in Translation Month, Meytal organised an international book swap. This is the book I got – not a totally random choice, as it was one of a list of options I asked for. I’d been meaning to read Hiromi Kawakami again.

Some of Kawakami’s books are quite strange (such as Record of a Night Too Brief, or my personal favourite, Manazuru), while others (like Strange Weather in Tokyo) are lighter. The Nakano Thrift Shop is one of the lighter ones.

Haruo Nakano is the eccentric fiftysomething owner of a thrift shop. He has two young employees: Hitomi, our narrator, and delivery boy Takeo. There’s also Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist who brings a level head to the shop.

Each chapter is almost like a self-contained story, so we see snapshots in the lives of Kawakami’s characters, and the halting relationship between Hitomi and Takeo. The Nakano Thrift Shop is fun to read, and quite touching.

Published by Granta Books.

Pilar Quintana, The Bitch (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

Damaris lives with her husband in a shack on the Colombian coast. They both look after the property of a rich family, but since that family left some years ago, they are no longer paid. The couple have no children, and Damaris’ uncle reminds her that she is at the age “when women dry up”. When the opportunity arises to adopt a puppy, Damaris sees a way to fill a gap in her life.

But the dog has a tendency to disappear into the jungle, which tests Damaris’ patience. The Bitch is a short novel that rattles along with tension. It explores Damaris’ character and relationships with others through her changing attitude to her dog. You never quite know where the story will turn, which keeps it compelling to the end.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, World Editions.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 5-1

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.

The previous instalments of this series are available here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11, 10-6.

Continue reading

Three reviews: Ogawa, Dusapin, Mesa

Today I’m rounding up three reviews that I’ve had published on other websites in the last few months. I would recommend all of these books…

First, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). It’s one of my favourite books from this year’s International Booker Prize, a tale of loss set on an island where things disappear from living memory without warning. I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

The second book is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). The narrator is a young woman working at a guest house in the South Korean tourist town of Sokcho, who’s ill at ease with her life. The novel is a quiet exploration of a moment when that might be about to change. I’ve reviewed Winter in Sokcho for Shiny New Books.

Finally, we have Four by Four by Sara Mesa (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore). This is a novel about the use and abuse of power, set in an exclusive college. I’ve reviewed the book for European Literature Network.

Red Circle Minis: part 1

Red Circle is a publisher specialising in translations of Japanese fiction. A while ago, they offered me a set of their Red Circle Minis to review. These are a series of individually bound short Japanese tales, which have been specially commissioned and published in English translation first. I’ve been working my way through the stories; here are my thoughts on the first three.

Stand-in Companion by Kazufumi Shiraishi
Translated by Raj Mahtani

The first chapter of this story sets the scene as follows: when Yutori has an affair and child with another man, she and her husband Hayato divorce. Hayato is granted the right to a “stand-in companion” – an android replica of Yutori, complete with her memories. ⁣

The second chapter tells a similar story, but here it’s Hayato who has the affair and child, and Yutori who receives a stand-in companion. The the rest of the story is wonderfully ambiguous as to who is who – or who is what. Since stand-in companions don’t know they’re androids, maybe this Hayato and Yutori are both artificial. ⁣

Shiraishi uses this set-up to explore the emotions that come out of a disrupted relationship. Both Yutori and Hayato are out for rev\nenge in some way against their ex-partner, but taking it in such an artificial situation underlines how hollow it may ultimately be. This is a thought-provoking piece of work.

Backlight by Kanji Hanawa
Translated by Richard Nathan

This story was inspired by an actual incident that took place in Japan in 2016. A boy is abandoned on a mountain road by his parents to teach him a lesson. When they change their minds ten minutes later, he had disappeared. Hanawa writes about the search for the boy, but his focus is on the small group of psychologists brought in to help.

While others are out doing the hard graft of looking for the missing boy, we’ll often be with the psychologists in their comfortable accommodation, where they discuss their theories of abandonment. Their talk gets quite abstract, and far removed from the reality of the boy’s predicament. Backlight becomes quite a cutting reflection of how society may treat those who fall through its cracks.

Tokyo Performance by Roger Pulvers

Roger Pulvers is an Australian writer who has a long association with Japan, and writes in both English and Japanese. Tokyo Performance is the tale of Norimasa Inomata, a popular TV chef in the 1970s. We meet him as he’s filming his live weekly show, but this week there’s something more personal to go along with the cookery. Inomata starts ranting about his personal life, and we discover that he is estranged from his wife and children. The chef’s commentary grows more and more heated, until he dares his wife to ring him live on air… ⁣

You just know that Inomata is on a path to self-destruction but, with Pulvers’ words, this is one performance from which it’s hard to turn away.

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories – Taeko Kono

It’s August, which means Women in Translation Month (founded by Meytal from Biblibio). My reading for 2019 starts in Japan, with this collection of stories by Taeko Kono (1926-2015), all originally published in the 1960s. Kono’s tales explore the darker undercurrents of their protagonists’ lives and desires. For example, the title story concerns Akiko, who can’t bear the sight of little girls. They remind her of a pupa she once saw in science class.

Akiko dotes on little boys, however. She has a habit of buying expensive boys’ clothes and choosing a friend’s son to give them to, almost on a whim – often to the consternation of the friend in question. Kono’s unflinching eye makes even the smallest interactions in the story disquieting, as the reader tries to piece together where Akiko is coming from.

In ‘Night Journey’, a couple head into town one Saturday evening to look for their friends whom they had invited for dinner. Kono fills in the history of their friendship along the way, while the present-day journey grows ever more charged:

Nobody had ever lived in this half-finished house, Fukuko realized: such places have their own peculiar atmosphere, different from that of an old abandoned house. An abandoned house would be creepy and cold, too frightening to enter. But this one almost seemed to taunt her with its own strange vitality. There was nothing hateful about it, but she felt an urge to scrawl graffiti on the broad doorframe of bare wood, or throw a wooden clog through an empty second-floor window.
(translation by Lucy North)

Past and present develop in parallel, until it becomes uncertain where either the friendship or tonight’s travels will go next. Kono’s stories often end on ambiguous images that linger once the reading is done, refusing to resolve into easy explanations.

Book details

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories, tr. Lucy North with one story tr. Lucy Lower (1996), New Directions, 274 pages, paperback.

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.

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).

The Last Children of Tokyo – Yoko Tawada

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese writer living in Germany, who writes in both German and (as is the case with this book) Japanese. The Last Children of Tokyo is set some time after a catastrophe has ruined at least part of the world. Japan has isolated itself, with even foreign words largely banned. Children are weak and sickly, while the old may yet live on and on: someone in their seventies is merely ‘young-elderly’. Yoshiro is a hundred years old, but there is no sense that he may be reaching the end of his road:

The years are recorded in rings inside the trunk of a tree, but how was time recorded in his own body? Time didn’t spread out gradually, ring after ring, nor was it lined up neatly in a row; could it just be a disorderly pile, like the inside of a drawer no one ever bothers to straighten?

(translation by Margaret Mitsutani)

Yoshiro’s main concern in life is to care for his great-grandson Mumei, a boy who loves his Illustrated Guide to Animals, even though he’ll never see many of the creatures depicted in it (that’s if they’re still around). Though Yoshiro would like to look after Mumei’s health, the information on child health changes so fast these days that he feels it’s hardly worth keeping up: “Unable to foresee what sort of fate awaited Mumei in the future, Yoshiro kept his eyes open, taking each day as it came, hoping the present wouldn’t crumble under his feet.” The Last Children of Tokyo is in large part a portrait of Yoshiro skating along on the surface of that fragile present (not just with Mumei, but also with the two generations of his family between).

The world of Tawada’s novel is strange and striking: giant mutant dandelions grow rampant, and certain words have been replaced with more palatable expressions (orphans, for example, are now referred to as “independent children”). This world exists at a point where the reader’s ability to rationalise what may have happened between now and then is balanced finely against the characters’ fading knowledge. It leaves the reader in the same precarious position as Yoshiro: we can’t envision the edges of Tawada’s world, and therefore can’t be certain of where its story will lead. Things are indeed grim, but there may be hope… if you know where to look.

Book details

The Last Children of Tokyo (2014) by Yoko Tawada, tr. Margaret Mitsutani (2017), Portobello Books, 140 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The US edition of this book is titled The Emissary and published by New Directions.

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