I read 43 books last year. Most years I read 50-60 books, and with four months of summer furlough, you would think I could have managed a few more, but my focus was shot to bits by the whole experience and I spent a lot of that time fretting about the future, and doing yoga as though my life depended on it. I suspect I am not alone in this. I was going to mention that it’s been years since I did you a Books of the Year post, but a quick glance at the archives says it’s been just over 12 months. No photo for you this year, though.
- The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker
I absolutely loved this. I was very into classics as a kid, and somewhat wish I’d pursued them academically, partly because I’ve got a bit of a crush on Natalie Haynes. Over the last couple of years there has been a rash of feminist retelling of the ancient stories, and this one was an absolute belter. I think I had it in my bag as I travelled to those last few pre-pandemic meetings and study days, maybe before we’d started elbow-touching, but after I was carrying hand sanitiser everywhere, and disinfecting hotel TV remotes.
Pat Barker retells The Iliad through the perspective of Achilles’ slave Briseis. With Homer as its skeleton, she clothes the epic tale with the stories of the women; and often of the men as seen by the women: more shaded, more human, than Homer’s heroes, and with their brutality seen for its impact on families and communities, not glorified.
It was a powerful story even before the world started to look at how we had written down all of history from the victors’ points of view, but 2020 has made me ask, what if women re-examined how we remember all the wars?
I’m currently reading A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes, which retells the story once again. Haynes is amazing, but not the writer that Pat Barker is, however I’m appreciating the fact that I already know these women.
- Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield
One of the things I found myself doing in lockdown was randomly buying books just because twitter told me they were on sale on Amazon. That’s how I acquired this book, knowing nothing about it at the time. I read it in October, in an icy-cold tipi on the banks of the Thames, just across the river from the pub in which most of the story was set. Reading the opening paragraph and realising that I was located in precisely the spot being described was quite something. The story is like the river: sometimes light and skittery, sometimes deep and slow, with meandering loops, but a clear sense of purpose. It is quite the gothic mystery, starting with a corpse that comes to life, and unravelling events in both directions of the timeline, both upriver and down. The Guardian says that Setterfield’s first novel was better, but having acquired over 50 books for christmas, I’m not sure I can bring myself….
- The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
I heard this discussed on a podcast, or maybe on Radio 4, and thought the device of a story about slavery where the underground railroad had real trains was a bit silly; so I’m not sure what made me wishlist it anyway, but the good Dr Pockless, whose gifts have received previous acclaim on this blog, gave me it at some point either for birthday or last Christmas, it’s not important when. And I was more than pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and have since pressed it on to other people who ought to read it too.
Despite unfortunately being a man, Whitehead does tell the tale from the point of Cora, a teenage slave who runs away. Obviously, since it’s based on the fictitious idea of real trains, Whitehead is playing fast and loose with reality; and yet writes with almost painful detail about life on the plantation, and the terrors of escaping it. Much of this novel is difficult to read, in that rather like The Handmaid’s Tale none of it is far from the truth; and simultaneously impossible to put down.
- The Bricks that built the House, by Kate/Kae Tempest
I know Kae Tempest as a spoken-word poet, and was intrigued by the novel, quite possibly another gift from His Pocklessness. There is a lot of poetry in the writing, almost a crafted stream of consciousness in places, but also a clear plan. This is one of those novels where characters come at you one after the other to the point at which you can’t remember the earlier ones, but then start to clarify and crystallise, and gradually make sense as their interconnectedness is revealed.
- Nothing But Grass, by Will Cohu
As you will know, Pete is a Lincolnshire lad, and his Lincolnshire dad passed this book to us. It is, if you can believe such a thing exists, a love song to the flatlands and its small towns and its smalltown people. There is a little bit of the gothic about this, although the mystery never quite gets going, and the twists are as visible as a church on the far side of the fens. Few of the female characters get to do much other than send text messages to the more sharply drawn men, but the real central character here is the countryside. Who knew it could be made to seem so fascinating?
- The Duke and I, by Julia Quinn
This is the dishonourable mention, a book I thought I was going to dislike, and very much did. To be fair, I am not the target audience for the Sweet Dreams imprint, and have long grown out of having any interest in the formulaic boy meets girl, girl and boy instantly dislike each other, incidents ensue during which time each secretly falls for the other, the sex is amazing beyond credibility, a crisis happens, and then they all live happily ever after. This has now been televised as the acclaimed Bridgerton series, but I cannot bring myself to watch it however many of my friends tell me it’s worth my time. Just nope.