2020 Hindsight: My Year in Review - Part 2
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
It’s been a slow and often faltering year for reading books, unfortunately, and there are a few (mainly the non-fiction, and a couple of short story collections) named here that I still haven’t finished or am otherwise rationing out - though that should not be taken as a comment on their quality or the level of interest they generated; my mind has simply wandered, or I have, out along the lane to differently distract myself from the year’s peculiar constrictions. Also, I have at times just been binge-watching a lot more, at least in part to mimic and compensate for a lack of social interaction. And yet, as I set about compiling this list, I was surprised to see that I’ve read more than I thought, and reminded that there have been some absolute beauties - some of which are newly published, and others of which have been out a good while. So, without further ado, here are the ones I enjoyed the most and that have made the strongest and most lasting impressions on my mind.
(Disclosure: If you buy books through links on this page, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees also support independent bookshops.)
Eyrie, Cloudstreet, The Shepherd’s Hut, and The Turning (Tim Winton) - Back in the halcyon days at the start of this year, when I could freely roam the library and peruse the shelves at length, I happened on Eyrie, which I picked up mainly because it’s cover suggested it was set in a tower block like my own debut (and in fact resembled an early design I’d mocked up for Donna’s cover). However, after giving it the first page test, it became clear it was a very different kind of story, and I raced through it in a few days. After that, I was hooked on Winton’s writing, and in fact ‘discovering’ him has been one of the highlights of my year. Cloudstreet is a generational drama, telling the story of two families over the course of twenty years after WWII, and it is utterly stunning. The section with the kangaroos (you’ll know it when you reach it) features some of the most dazzlingly visual prose I’ve ever encountered, and the ending left me in bits. The Shepherd’s Hut is different again, focusing on a teenage boy on the run, who ends up sharing the eponymous building with a very unlikely housemate. In its taut yet surprisingly full road-story structure, and the adolescent wit and confusion of the protagonist, it also called to mind perhaps the most unexpectedly excellent and excellently unexpected series I’ve watched this year, Upright - co-written by and starring another Aussie Tim, Minchin this time. The Turning is simply an excellent collection of linked short stories, all tied to varying degrees around the same coastal Australian town.
The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe) - As you may have seen, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager, recently died aged 97. Which is a hell of run, and all the more remarkable after reading even just the opening chapter of Wolfe’s air force opus, which recounts the many hazards involved in the early days of the American space programme, and some of the young men who did not make it through. While keeping this sense of potential death ever-present, Wolfe then expands his inquiry to wonder why the men who survived might have done so, beyond mere luck, and whether their success and the ultimate success of the whole endeavour depended on them having the titular ‘right stuff’. There’s a lot of the expected hero worship, an envy and awe of their bravery and recklessness, but perhaps in a different way to, say, Hemingway’s steadfast reverence for (good) bullfighters. But this wasn’t off-putting, and was even understandable. Also, while I had expected it to be fascinating, it was surprisingly funny in places - not quite Hunter S. Thompson funny, but the comic anecdotes and reflections, when they came, were well-landed.
Washington Black (Esi Edugyan) - This had been on my radar since release, but again it’s one I only finally got around to via library-enabled serendipity. This time, it was recommended by the Libby app with which one of my local libraries is connected, and, being as it was early summer and I wanted something adventurous to sit out with in the sun, I snapped it up. And was instantly kicking myself for having waited so long. It started off in an almost Great Expectations fashion, with a young slave (the Washington of the title) coming into contact with a mysterious benefactor, in the form of the brother of the plantation owner, and thereby being taken, through numerous unpredictable and often unfortunate turns of events, to freedom. It nimbly sidesteps and undercuts the potential ‘white saviour’ trope, however, through making it plain at several points that Washington Black would have been dispensed as useless were it not for his own ingenuity and peculiar talents - and indeed it is the roundabout pursuit and furtherance of these skills that eventually leads him towards romance and the chance of a safer, if still uncertain, future. All in all, a thought-provoking, entertaining, and very well-written yarn! (In fact, for anyone needing further recommendation, there seemed a bit of overlap in some ways with The Good Lord Bird - especially with the potential white saviour character revealed as very flawed and blinkered, albeit with good intentions. Should point out that I haven’t yet read the original novel of that, though, only seen the TV adaptation, which was another standout for me.)
Riot Baby (Tochi Onyebuchi) - An incredibly timely and potent novel, this follows the contrasting, strained, yet always intertwined fortunes of two siblings, Ella and Kev. The latter was born during the L.A. riots (hence the title), and the legacy of both the police brutality that instigated that clash, and the growing national and international pushback against it, shapes and informs their passage through the world. In fact, the fallout from this may be the source of Ella’s considerable (and potentially devastating) powers - and while that premise may sound clichéd by this point, and suggest a run-of-the-mill YA adventure, this is anything but. It is the concentrated voice of a righteous anger barely held in check, Onyebuchi’s mastery of tone absolutely central to developing and maintaining the tensions within both the plot and the characters - consequently, it’s short, fast, furious reading. But the impact and its relevance still lingers, months later.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown) - Again, this is something I had been meaning to read for years, but, perhaps in anticipation of its grimness, I had kept putting it off. Upon finding it likewise available online through my library, though, I finally gritted my teeth and dove in. I studied some of the American West way back in high school, and while it wasn’t the most comprehensive course, it was the first time I was introduced the some of the details of what was done to the Native American people. In particular, I recall being (and still very much am) shocked by the systematic destruction of the plains tribes, helped in large part by the cull of the buffalo - the photographs of the mountains of buffalo bones will, I think, never cease to be haunting. And yet, I was just not prepared for the sheer, relentless mendacity of the US’ actions; their constant, harrowing deceit and the shifting of borders and treaties at will. And as for the account of what was done at Sand Creek (and elsewhere)… fucking hell. A horrifying book now, I can only imagine the outrage it caused upon its initial release. But it is, for all that horror, also a fascinating insight into a largely lost culture (many, in fact - and the careful evocation of the different tribes’ ways of life, while unavoidably nostalgic and mournful, at times contains moments of wonder and joy. A necessary book.
Prisoners of Geography (Tim Marshall) - As, I would argue is this, albeit in a different way. In ten surprisingly concise and fast-moving chapters, Marshall does an excellent job of introducing and summarising the main points of global political tension, particularly in relation to how these tensions are either enhanced or kept (at least for now) in check by the peculiar quirks of this planet’s geography. It was hard to shake the feeling while reading this that were more people better informed on such matters, certain major political decisions of recent years might not have been arrived at, at least not in so rushed, vague and feckless a manner. But then, others may take different conclusions from the information and problems laid out herein. The main thing is, reading more about this subject (and the many that interrelate with it) has both challenged some of my preconceptions and helped to clarify and deepen my understanding around others. Which is never a bad thing.
The Shipping News (Annie Proulx) - And neither is an Annie Proulx book. Though, I have to confess, this is the first of her novels I’ve tackled - having previously only done three of her story collections (all of which are extraordinary). I (perhaps fortunately) have never got around to the film adaptation of this one either, so I came into it with only a rudimentary understanding of the premise, and perhaps expecting something somehow too deliberately quirky. Which seemed a reasonable expectation, given that it is set around a maritime community in Newfoundland, and the main character is named Quoyle, as in coil of rope. And while there is an undeniable air of artifice about the set-up and literary devices and playfulness abounds, in a very different way at times to that within her shorter work, this is never annoying, and indeed is often highly enjoyable. More importantly, it also serves to actually enhance the depth of my feelings for Quoyle and his displaced, slightly ragtag family, and populace of the strange town in which he finds himself marooned. To such an extent, in fact, that I was in that state of overjoyed yet grief-full yearning to be back amongst them for a good few days after I’d finished reading; and sometimes even now. A very special book.
The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco) - This (and I know it is rather tediously becoming a theme by this point) is yet another book I had been intending to investigate for years, ever since I first watched and fell in love with the film adaptation - and it was another that was finally facilitated by my library’s online loan system. I was reading part in research for one of my own ongoing ‘backburner’ projects, and found the level of detail regarding monastic life and learning immensely useful, but was quickly distracted by both the power and (occasionally rueful) curiousity of Adso’s narration, and the strength and charm (or distinct and grimly compelling lack thereof) of the characters on display. Even though I roughly knew the story from the film, it is of course much more fully explored in the prose (expertly and smoothly translated from the original Italian by William Weaver), with the sundry allusions more fully, and often vividly explained. More of Adso’s moral tumult is explored as well, to satisfying effect, and overall it very much lived up to expectations. Would certainly consider revisiting it in future, too.
The Border Keeper (Kerstin Hall) - This is a great fantasy novella, from a relatively new author who is definitely one to watch. The prose is vividly evocative, and the liminal realm the protagonist inhabits is very well drawn. The characters and plot, too, are compelling, if frequently with a disquieting edge. Though it is only short, it covers a lot of ground, and the mechanics and tenets of the world are deeply intriguing - I would happily read future work set in the world, and be eager to see where the protagonist’s story goes next. But while a follow-up does seem to be on the horizon, I’ll have to content myself for now with looking forward to Hall’s debut novel, Star Eater, released next June. Which, to be fair, should be excellent in its own right.
Nudibranch (Irenosen Okojie) - Earlier this year, Okojie was awarded the Caine Prize for Fiction for her story ‘Grace Jones’, and while it is very much deserving of all the plaudits thrown its way (really, get on it quickly, if you haven’t already - it’s piercing and rich and the prose is incredible!), that doesn’t mean that it stands head and shoulders above the rest of this collection. Rather, it just exemplifies the generally high standard at which Okojie is working, as well as being indicative of her deftness with both tonal and stylistic shifts, and the breadth of her range. Also, what is deeply admirable and refreshing is that she doesn’t care for genre separation - this is literarily spectacular writing, but not so Literary that it can’t also make room for sci-fi, fantasy, myth, and even the brilliantly unnerving horror of ‘Point and Trill’. Simply put, if you’re looking for a collection of short stories that is going to challenge, engage, and move you in unexpected and experimental ways, then look no further.
The Push (Tommy Caldwell) - Last year, I finally committed myself to bouldering at a local climbing gym, which has led to equal parts enjoyment and intense frustration at not starting earlier. Like, a decade ago, at least. In fact, after a long time without a regular sporting hobby, I’d come to depend on climbing as a release and necessary escape from being stuck in front of a screen all day. So the fact that I haven’t been able to go back to my gym since March has been really tough to take; and made worse by the fact that I haven’t yet reached the stage where I feel comfortable climbing outside, and so haven’t been able to fall back on that. The point of all which is that it has made me even more envious of both Tommy Caldwell’s upbringing, climbing in areas around Yosemite and other famous sites from a very young age, and also his incredible talent now, and the skill of those like him who will have been able to weather 2020 a bit better than I. And yet, it is not simply the talent I admire, but the character behind it, even despite his occasional flaws. I first found out about him while watching the brilliant documentary The Dawn Wall (though had seen a few news reports about his achievement a few years before), and although that is a pretty comprehensive account of matters, when I learnt he’d also written about the experience of free climbing El Capitan, I was keen to know more. It’s an engaging and honestly written account of his career, and covers key interactions with many other stars of that sport/lifestyle, and I’d recommend it both to anyone else who’s been missing regular climbing, and those simply in need of an inspirational real-life tale. (Shout-out to YouTubers like Eric Karlsson and Emil Abrahamsson for helping me cope on that front, too!)
Running in the Family (Michael Ondaatje) - This is another memoir, of sorts, but very different in both tone and approach to Caldwell’s. For a start, it is not so much about Ondaatje’s early life as about the history of his family in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in particular that of his parents. Though it is arranged in a loosely chronological manner, it doesn’t necessarily follow a linear path; it is more jazz-like in the way it circles around and returns to themes. Also, with Ondaatje not having been alive or around to witness a lot of the events described, he is free to adopt the anecdotal tone of a master raconteur, and takes to the role with wit and aplomb. Indeed, though there are moments of great humour throughout most of his books, this is the funniest and the lightest, in a lot of ways, even though it deals with such fraught and potentially devastating topics as alcoholism. There are times in fact where it threatens to sweep too far into Jeeves & Wooster parody of a feckless, late-colonial upper class, which perhaps wouldn’t quite be appropriate, and yet Ondaatje somehow always keeps it on just the right side of that line. And as always with his work, there are some magnificent sentences, and concise, piercing insights into human nature. It’s well worth reading on its own, even if you aren’t already a fan, but also a great companion with his other lighter book, The Cat’s Table, which tells the fictionalised tale of his own childhood journey to London from Ceylon.
The Sound Mirror (Heidi James) - There are shades of Ondaatje’s work in Heidi James’ latest, not just in terms of her masterful prose, but also her understanding of (and the ability to effectively express) the impact of history and geography on character. Likewise, in its time-hopping nature (with the threads of three separate generations running slowly, intricately together), it calls some mind some of Penelope Lively’s exquisite Moon Tiger. Yet, for anyone who has read any of James’ work before - like her excellent previous book, So the Doves - this will also be identifiably, undeniably her style. And probably the finest example of that style to date. The crisp, almost casual lyricism of the prose is frequently breath-taking, especially in the way it evokes three very different voices and yet weaves them sinuously, flawlessly together. The stylistic framework, which would be tricky for anyone to pull off entirely, never falters. And the characters’ respective storylines are compelling and raw and feel humanly true. Read it. Read it now.
Note: This is published by Bluemoose Books, who as many of you will know also published my debut. But this is by no means an in-house marketing job. This is a book so good that I’m sure I’d have heard of it eventually regardless of my knowledge of the publisher, and I’d still happily be singing its praises even if it had come out through one of the ‘big’ firms. Though, the fact that I share a publisher with someone as gifted as this doesn’t half make me proud!
Saving Lucia & Famished (Anna Vaught) - And the same can be said about Anna Vaught, whose novel Saving Lucia kicked off Bluemoose’s Year of Publishing Women (and, even more crucially, at least second novels by women over 40). Telling the story of Lucia Joyce (aye, that famous writer bloke’s daughter), in particular with relation to her time in an asylum, it is a gripping and surprisingly fast-paced study of the human imagination’s capacity to bypass such captivity - and, as such, took on an even greater resonance for me when I read it in the middle of the year’s first lockdown. Along with being a fitting showcase for Vaught’s exceptional prose, it also introduced me to a brilliant character in the form of one of Lucia’s fellow patients, the Honourable Violet Gibson - who, it turns out, once took a shot at Mussolini in 1926, and overall comes across as the best kind of righteous eccentric. Highly recommended.
As is Vaught’s second book of the year, and her first short story collection, Famished. It’s very different from the novel, but again her virtuoso writing is on full display, and easily lives up to promise of the book’s stunning cover (Best of the year? Definitely up there!). I especially enjoyed what felt to me echoes of Roald Dahl’s more adult stories (in particular his food-themed masterpieces ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ and ‘Taste’), and hints of Angela Carter and Karen Blixen, but again it is very much Vaught’s own ideas and humour that ultimately shine through. A darkly delicious selection box of stories; the perfect accompaniment for a long winter’s night.
The Earth Wire (Joel Lane) - Another Influx Press collection I’ve been enjoying (though, it’s also one that I have, as mentioned earlier, been rationing), is this reprint of Joel Lane’s The Earth Wire. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t actually heard of Lane before these were announced, despite his clear influence on the New Weird movement, but I’m glad to have finally righted that wrong. Straight from the initial story, ‘Common Land’, I was aware I was dealing with an exceptional and very unsettling talent - I want very much to rave about the indelible imagery of its central conceit, but at the same time I want every new reader to encounter it fresh, as I did. So, without saying more, if you’re into weird urban fiction, this will likely be for you. There is also a companion collection, Scar City, if this leaves you wanting more.
American Hippo (Sarah Gailey) - I was, for whatever reason (does there need to be one?) itching for a western adventure, when I was reminded, quite coincidentally, that this omnibus exists. It collects Gailey’s two novellas, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, into one volume, along with a couple of bonus short stories set in the same world - and what a world it is! As the foreword explains, there was apparently a plan in the early 20th Century to solve a meat shortage in America through importing hippopotamuses into the Louisiana bayous (here's a bit more background on that scheme); this of course didn’t happen, but Gailey’s decision to use such a plan as the background for these stories (albeit thrown 50 years further back in US history) straightaway sets up irresistible visuals (hinted at on the cover). And yet cowboys (or in this case ‘hoppers’) with hippos instead of horses might have been only a mildly diverting gimmick if it weren’t for the strength of the characters, and the pulpy fun with which they’re named. Winslow Remington Houndstooth (originally hailing from Blackpool, of all places…) makes for an engaging lead, and has to put together a ragtag crew (kind of like The Professionals, but with far more variety to their composition) for a dangerous mission. While I was reading it mainly as a fun distraction, which it absolutely was, there was an unexpected level of emotional depth to the storylines, some unexpected twists, and satisfying conclusions to all the four tales contained within.
Dirty Havana Trilogy (Pedro Juan Gutiérrez) - And now we go from wallowing in the mud to what may well be the filthiest book I’ve ever read, and even if not, then it certainly delivers on the promise of its title. Which is not to say that it is necessarily erotic, even with such a profusion of explicit sex (at times, there is barely a page without any), or that it is always low-minded (though, frequently, it undeniably is - and I doubt the author would take that as a criticism). Rather, it simply strives to be a matter-of-fact account of, and response to, being confined to a life of poverty and struggle in Havana amidst the economic recession and food shortages of the early-mid nineties. And as such sex is seen and used as an understandable distraction, an escape, and regularly also as a means of generating income. Gutiérrez espouses a worldview that is at once pragmatic, deeply cynical, often incredibly hilarious, and frequently disturbing. There is an apparently contradictory acceptance and embrace of racial differences, at the same time as there are some heinous and lazy stereotypes and prejudices on display. There are some incredibly grim and visceral accounts of abuse. There is more sex. Theft. Violence. Drugs. Booze. Prison. And in general a vision of Havana that is about as far from the romanticised, picture postcard Hollywood version as one could get. And although I’m not sure, for several of the reasons listed above, I would necessarily recommend it to others in the way I would the rest of this list (definitely not passing it round to my parents...), I have to admit that it affected me greatly, and perhaps more so because I read it in October-November, when my general state of mind was pretty bleak and I was missing social contact intensely - the physicality and viscerality of it were helpful counterpoints then.
The Shell Collector (Anthony Doerr) - I had heard of but not read (surprise!) Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, but I wasn’t aware of this collection until I happened across another book with the same title (again on the library’s online lending service), and decided to look for reviews. The first results turned out to be regarding this rather than the other book, and were so overwhelmingly positive I decided to give it a try. And am delighted I did. One of the my favourites in the collection is ‘The Hunter’s Wife’, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere, but they are all quietly extraordinary, and some are up there with the very finest examples of the form I’ve read. ‘For a Long Time this was Griselda’s Story’ is such a fascinating study of talent and fame, and so much else besides, that I’d almost recommend getting the collection simply for that. Another reading ‘discovery’ that, like Winton, has really made me reassess my own writing approach, and look even harder for ways to improve my own work.
That Old Country Music (Kevin Barry) - I’ve been a massive fan of Kevin Barry for years now, and I love his first two collections (and have in fact reread them both this year as well), so was very excited to hear that he had a new one coming out. I’d read perhaps a third of the stories in here through the original publication in sundry magazines, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm - rather, I was eager to see how they’d work in wider context. And, in turns out, they work rather well. A turning point in my reading year, however, was when I ended up listening to the audio version of the first story, ‘The Coast of Leitrim’ (reviewed here). Barry, being Irish, has an almost automatically magnetic voice, and it’s such an enjoyable reading that I’ve actually ended up indulging in the audio version of the full collection, too, which adds an extra dimension to some of the tales - and stops me trying out my own Irish accent in my head. Among the ones I hadn’t heard before, ‘Old Stock’ and ‘Toronto and the State of Grace’ were especially enjoyable, but they’ve all been good company on some of my recent walks; his voice a suitably musical backdrop to my time in the brisk part-countryside air.
The Wolf Border (Sarah Hall) - Speaking of countryside, here is the latest book I’ve read, and definitely among the best of my year. I only got around (here we go again…) to trying Hall’s writing after she won the BBC National Short Story Award for the second time, but it was so bloody good that I’ve since been quite hooked. Along with reading a few more of her short pieces, I decided to also try this after finding that it was (and again…) available online through my library, and it has not disappointed. Quite the reverse. The premise of a project to reintroduce wolves to Britain, funded by a quietly eccentric Earl in Cumbria (the Lake District), has an undeniable Jurassic Park feel about it, which Hall gamely acknowledges not only with a direct reference later in the book, but with an early drop of the “Clever girl…” line - albeit in this instance it relates not to a velociraptor or a wolf, but the Earl’s daughter. While that aristocratic family play a crucial role in the story, the protagonist is Rachel Caine, who was previously working on a reserve in America, but lured back to her former home by a mixture of curiosity and a desire to escape recent developments abroad. She’s a captivating and well-drawn character, as are the supporting cast, and Hall’s descriptive talents are on full display throughout as well, evoking the landscape and the animals with just the right blend of practicality and awe. A remarkable book, and one I may well return to in future, even as I’m very aware that there are quite a few more books by this author I still need to catch up on.
Even though it might seem like I’ve still got through a lot, my To Read pile does not seem to have shrunk one iota, so I’ve got plenty I’m hoping to embark on in 2021. However, if you have any recommendations, either just ones that you’ve liked, or ones you think I might like based on some of the above, I’d be delighted to hear from you (probably easiest through twitter). In the meantime, I hope you found something on this list to entice or inspire you, and otherwise have plenty of great stuff to read to help see you through winter! And, again, take care of yourselves and have (sensible) fun!