It’s been a funny, strange and often disturbing year so far and it started with a bit of a book drought for me – I couldn’t seem to settle on anything until, that is, Tracey Thorn’s Another Planet came along and with it an avalanche of great reads, which I’ve managed to whittle down to my favourite nine so far…stay tuned to the very end for the toppermost of the poppermost…
Andrea Lawlor‘s ‘Paul takes the form of a mortal girl’ is a brave, smart and questioning book about a moment in history which sheds light on the present and makes suggestions about the future. It reminds us that – despite the academic distortions and gymnastics which have diluted the original message and created the current headaches around questions of ‘identity’ – the original basic notions of ‘queer’ and the outsider remain as a potent and obvious way to live our lives. It is also a riot, full of humour, smut and dirty, filthy sex
Tracey Thorn has been a favourite of mine since my teenage years and her books are as wonderful as her music. ‘Another Planet’ is no exception, looking at the pains of growing up and the fear and sorrow of growing away from everything you once knew. Thoughtful, profound and funny, it is a book which is both specific to time and place and yet universal. It also made me revisit songs I thought I knew inside out, only to discover the malleability of Tracey’s lyrics: ‘The Spice of Life’ from EBTG’s ‘Eden’ was a song I always though of as being an ode to a female ex. It turns out it was about Tracey’s relationship with her mother….
‘Lanny’ by Max Porter was an absolute delight. Lanny is a small, strange boy who sees the world in his own special way. But when he goes missing, the effect on those around him is to unearth deep rooted feelings, thoughts and perceptions. While Porter has commented on the slight similarity between his novel and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, this is a far tighter piece, focussing on the relationships between a child and the adults surrounding him, with Lanny one of the most delightful creations I’ve come across in a while.
Two linked, at least by subject, were Kerry Hudson‘s ‘Lowborn‘ and Edouard Louis‘ ‘Who Killed My Father’. Both are gripping, angry examinations of the wicked treatment the governments of two nations (Britain and France) are serving out to the poorest and weakest in society. Both need to be read by everyone.
Another much needed book is Hallie Rubenhold‘s ‘The Five’, an account of the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper, taking to task the common perception that these women were all prostitutes, the reality of their lives mere footnotes (if at all) in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ story. These are desperate stories of women cast down through misfortune to a place where they lived in rank hostels or on the streets, striving to find some sort of life. These are stories which resonate today: the opening of the book recalls the mass encampments of the homeless in Trafalgar Square in the 19th century and no one who lives in any of Britain’s cities can deny that we are seeing the shameful (shameful to our politicians, that is) return of such desperation.
Any Ali Smith is a cause for celebration and ‘Spring’, which continues her seasons quartet, is a story flecked with cold and outrage while allowing the roots of optimism to swell and breathe. A young woman, whose humanity is being eaten away by the work she carries out in a containment centre for asylum seekers, finds everything she thought she knew questioned by a lone child who is able to circumvent all known rules and regulations. Together they meet a television producer who wants to end his life. There is so much here: so much about the here and now and the anger which permeates our society, the confusion of right and wrong, the fear of where we are headed. Not an ‘easy’ book and not a book you could love, but it is so much a book we all need to read and think about.
Ian Sansom‘s ‘The Sussex Murder‘ in the fifth ‘County Guides’ mysteries. I LOVE these books, the adventures of Swanton Morley, ‘the People’s Professor’, who sets off around the counties of 1930’s England with his glamourous daughter Miriam and Spanish Civil War veteran Stephen Sefton to encapsulate the nature of the English people, county by county. Unfortunately, in each county they stumble across rather more sinister activities than expected. Silly, intriguing, these aren’t for your hardcore mystery reader, but as a bit of frothy fun, they are GREAT…and ‘The Sussex Murder’ sees an air of sadness and melancholy seep into the pages as the taint of fascism creeps across the land and the feeling that somehow the England being chronicled was on its last legs:
‘I swam out for perhaps a hundred yards and then turned and looked. From this distance, I was surprised to say, England looked pure and untainted. You could almost imagine that all was not lost.
Finally, my book of the year so far is Bernardine Evaristo‘s masterful ‘Girl, Woman, Other’, a novel which the many in the British literary ‘canon’ would sell their souls to write: a profound, subtle, human state-of-the-nation cum history of living memory Britain.