Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star by Tracey Thorn
The Girls by Emma Cline
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
The Census-Taker by China Miéville
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Vertigo by Joanna Walsh
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Stranger than Paradise by Jamie Sexton
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler
Kudos by Rachel Cusk
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression by Darian Leader
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Stop the Clocks by Joan Bakewell
Dancing on the Outskirts by Shena Mackay
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Only to Sleep by Laurence Osbourne
Both Ways is the Only Way I Like It by Maile Meloy
Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Wary Wollstonecraft
The Collected Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
I looked to friends this year to lend me books by authors I had never read before. I clamped my eyes to their bookshelves whenever I visited, and never came away empty handed. These kind loans made up the bulk of my reading. The rest of this year’s reads had either been sitting neglected on my own shelves for years, or were gifted to me; bought in the local bookshop, The Bookseller Crow on the Hill, in Crystal Palace, or grabbed second-hand from a local charity shop.
Looking back over the list, it is astonishing to me that I had never read Steinbeck, Wharton, Shelley (Mary), Bronte (Charlotte), Kerouac , Chandler or Jackson. But I wanted to use this year to plug some gaps, and so I did. I read a mix of classic and contemporary authors, and still managed to avoid Emily Bronte and Martin Amis. I don’t think I’ll ever get around to those two.
I started the year strong, with a book that had been bought for me by my friend Simon, as one of his Writing Group Secret Santa gifts. When I unwrapped it, he saw me look at the ‘Winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award’ sticker on the cover of Station Eleven, and reassured me that I thought I wouldn’t like it but I would. And he was right on both counts. A dystopian novel set in a future that felt plausible, because most of the world’s people had died while everything else stayed the same. This meant that there was weather (providing water to keep the survivors alive and to grow food) and shelter and it felt like a world I could believe in. I remember not getting out of bed until I had read huge chunks on a weekend morning; taking it to the gym so I could read it on the bike. I remember finding it beautiful and profound and moving, and just loving the writing and characterisation. A book about the power of theatre; unexpectedly gripping. It remains one of my favourites of the year.
Amanda loaned me her copy of The Remains of the Day, which I devoured during a bout of flu, my heart breaking with every page. It’s a world and an emotional life so seemingly different from my own and yet I identified so strongly with it. For me, the book is a model of restrained writing perfectly evoking the central character and the way of life and set of values that the character so strongly adhered to. An absolute highlight of my reading year, and one that got me thinking a lot about the remains of my day.
I’d been warned by Daisy, who loaned me Standard Deviation, and by Hilary, who had also read it, that my feelings for this book would stand or fall on whether I loved or hated the central character. The story is told from her husband’s point of view, and I loved her as much as he did.
Bedsit Disco Queen, on loan from Lucy, proved a lively and interesting intermission between novels, and from there I headed to The Girls. I’d heard mixed reports but I really liked it. It captured a certain period and the intense friendship between girls – that can sour and leave you spinning –really effectively. Most importantly, I was completely convinced by the central character’s move into life with a cult. It felt slightly pornographic – the narrative structure building up to a gruesome description of the central crime – but it evoked the situation with skill and suspense. I’d given it to my friend Ian for his birthday the year before, as part of his research for a book he was writing about the Manson Family in popular culture, and he’d read it, loved it and loaned it.
Jane Eyre (on loan from Lucy) and Eileen couldn’t be more different in their backgrounds, environments, characterisation and style, and yet they had in common a loneliness and a darkness that pulled me towards them and kept me there for weeks.
Simon had also bought me The Census-Taker as the other part of his Writing Group Secret Santa gift. I would never have bought this for myself but I am glad it was bought for me, because I really enjoyed it. I whizzed through it, unlike The Essex Serpent, which I assumed I would love, but which I really struggled to wade through. Eventually, I sat and read the last 200 pages in a bid to simply get through it. I ended up liking it, but it felt like a chore, and that surprised me.
I’d had The History of Love on my shelf for a few years (a second-hand bookstore buy). It wasn’t in my hands as long because from the first paragraph I was hooked and I read it in a couple of sittings. Another book about loneliness and love; tender and humane.
The jury is out on who loaned Vertigo to me – Roberta or Alice. It’s a slim and unusual novel, which occasionally read like one of the experimental short films by women directors that I saw during my film and drama degree in the late 1980s/early 1990s.Then a perfectly written sentence or organisation of words that nailed something meaningful to me would smash me in the jaw. I read it in one sitting, thankful for my insomnia that night.
I borrowed Middlesex from Lucy, and was introduced to one of the most original and engaging narrative voices of contemporary fiction, rendered with a breath-taking lightness of touch. Aside from the San Francisco section and the ill-judged handling of Father Mike, I loved this, and it led to one of my favourite text message exchanges with a work friend who also loved it:
Me: Oh my word, I’ve just got to the gender reassignment clinic in Middlesex.
Rachel: I had to read this text twice. I got a bit of a shock until I realised you were referring to the book.
My friend and one of my authors from my first publishing job, Jamie Sexton, sent me his monograph on one of my favourite films by one of my favourite directors: Stranger than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch’s first official full-length feature. I edited the first eight books in the erstwhile Cultographies series at what was then Wallflower Press, so I felt territorial about this one. Read it in one sitting, like a proud mother.
The House of Mirth showed me what I’d been missing in not having read Edith Wharton. Cutting, deliberate and precise prose, surprisingly gripping story, detailed yet light characterisations, and hands-down one of the most brutal endings of any book I’ve ever read. No wonder Martin Scorsese looked to Wharton (though not this book) when he wanted to adapt some classic literature. ‘The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.’
My friend Ian, a true-crime book aficionado, loaned me The Devil in the White City. It takes place in Chicago, and my visit from 2017 was fresh in my mind as I worked my way through this impeccably researched and fascinating work. A dark way to spend some of the hot summer evenings on my balcony, but so brilliantly written and interesting that some light was let in.
I finally pulled The French Lieutenant’s Woman off the shelf and was absorbed by it. I was expecting ponderous and weighty but found that it held me carefully and lightly. I followed it up with Frankenstein, which moved me as much as I had expected, based on my knowledge of the first film version. The ending is still touching and powerful, even when you have seen the internet meme that proclaims ‘If, in the future, you just want to call me Frankenstein, that’s ok. I don’t mind.’
Two American crime classics followed: James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia and The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler. Both shard-glass sharp and full of zingers. Never dull.
On a trip to the West Coast, I read Kudos and Conversations with Friends, both on loan from Katy. Kudos is the third of a loose trilogy, but I was advised (truthfully) that I didn’t need to have read the first two to get this one. It’s a remarkably accessible, and simultaneously smart and literary, piece of work. I can’t wait to read the others. In a Portland diner, a woman stopped at my table to tell me how much she loved Conversations with Friends (and then we had a good chat about Olivia Laing). I loved it while I read it, by the Willamette River on a sunny day; at breakfast or dinner. I saw myself as my mum must have seen me when I went home for those first university holidays – annoying, arrogant, irritating; thinking I knew it all. I read it quickly – found the style absorbing and engaging. But it didn’t stay long with me.
I picked up The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression in Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. It explained a lot, especially in its inclusion of this sentence from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed: ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.’ This book destroyed me, even as it was putting me back together.
There were only four things I read this year that I didn’t like. The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, which I started on my last night in Portland, Oregon, and continued in Seattle, could have – should have – been brilliant. The weaving of personal memoir into the investigation of a disturbing crime is an interesting formula. But the writing style trowelled over any necessary delicacy, with lines like this: ‘I must have seemed to her like a walking time bomb. A bomb made of time.’ I feel sure that the editor wasn’t doing their job that day. The other three were well-received in their various times. I instantly gave away one to a local woman whose daughter urgently needed a copy (yes, Of Mice and Men is still on the exam syllabus and no longer in my flat); I passed another on to Roberta, who had coveted it when our friend Matt was giving it away (no one I know, it seems, could hang on to First Love). The third – The Lonesome Traveler – is probably in the charity shop, hoping it finds the love I couldn’t give it.
I found Stop the Clocks surprisingly mixed. I loved the premise and some of the points made, but found Bakewell’s writing pedestrian and cumbersome. A shame – books about getting older, written by brilliant women are thin on the ground and I’d have loved to have raved about this collection of thoughts.
I was gifted Dancing on the Outskirts at an author event at the local bookshop (part of my 50th birthday present from the shop’s owners). My view of it as patchy is not a popular one, but reading a short story collection is never reading time wasted and I am glad to have spent the time with these characters.
I bought Days Without End in a sale at the end of last year, because I had heard it was brilliant. I started reading it as this year edged towards its final months because I found myself with a free afternoon, feeling a bit unwell. The precis wasn’t particularly encouraging, and I was expecting the usual tale of men in war suffering hard times. Within pages, I started falling for this book, hard. The narrative voice; the characters; the language and the style; the plot and structure: it’s a modern masterpiece, and as I approached the final hundred or so pages I stayed up all night finishing it, reading the last chapters as a Saturday night became Remembrance Sunday.
Only to Sleep captured Chandler’s Philip Marlowe brilliantly. In a year when I read Chandler for the first time, it was interesting to read his key creation written by a different author. Here was Marlowe, older, frailer, unable to give up the work of his younger days. A poignant, witty and gripping novel.
I’d never heard of Maile Meloy until my friend Kathy loaned me this collection of short stories. The style reminded me of some of my favourite contemporary short story writers, like Julie Orringer and Robin Black, but Both Ways is the Only Way I Like It is as singular and original as it is sharp and knowing and wonderful.
I bought The Lottery and Other Stories with a birthday book token, and was delighted to finally discover what people have been going on about for years. ‘The Lottery’ itself (no spoilers) is everything you have heard and more. The last few stories made me breathless – the writing and ideas creep up and grab you hard.
I started A Vindication of the Rights of Woman during the summer, but had to keep putting it down to read other things, because it wasn’t an easy book to get through. It’s important and interesting and I am glad I have read it, but it took half a year, on and off, and it often felt like work. But it’s definitely one to have read in the year that we celebrated the centenary of some women being allowed to vote.
The Collected Dorothy Parker was bought with those aforementioned birthday book tokens, and I ended the year with poetry, reviews, columns and the dark, often choked, wit that Parker was famous for.