11 Days, 11 Books: 2020’s Reads, from Best to Worst

I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year – though a number of them were started in 2019 (one as far back as September) and several of them are novelty books and/or of novella length. Just for kicks, I’ve arranged them from best to worst. Here’s how my reading year has started off…

 

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale – Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of bipolar Cornwall artist Rachel Kelly and her interactions with her husband and four children, all of whom are desperate to earn her love. Quakerism, with its emphasis on silence and the inner light in everyone, sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows for family secrets to proliferate. There are two cameo appearances by an intimidating Dame Barbara Hepworth, and three wonderfully horrible scenes in which Rachel gives a child a birthday outing. The novel questions patterns of inheritance (e.g. of talent and mental illness) and whether happiness is possible in such a mixed-up family. (Our joint highest book club rating ever, with Red Dust Road. We all said we’d read more by Gale.)

 

Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil – An extended essay whose overarching theme of hospitality stretches into many different topics. Part of an Indian family that has lived in Kenya and England, Basil is used to a culture of culinary abundance. Greed, especially for food, feels like her natural state, she acknowledges. However, living in Berlin has given her a greater awareness of the suffering of the Other – hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered the EU, often to be met with hostility. Yet the Sikhism she grew up in teaches unconditional kindness to strangers. She asks herself, and readers, how to cultivate the spirit of generosity. Clearly written and thought-provoking. (And typeset in Mrs Eaves, one of my favorite fonts.) See also Susan’s review, which convinced me to order a copy with my Christmas bookstore voucher.

 

Frost by Holly Webb – Part of a winter animals series by a prolific children’s author, this combines historical fiction and fantasy in an utterly charming way. Cassie is a middle child who always feels left out of her big brother’s games, but befriending a fox cub who lives on scrubby ground near her London flat gives her a chance for adventures of her own. One winter night, Frost the fox leads Cassie down the road – and back in time to the Frost Fair of 1683 on the frozen Thames. I rarely read middle-grade fiction, but this was worth making an exception for. It’s probably intended for ages eight to 12, yet I enjoyed it at 36. My library copy smelled like strawberry lip gloss, which was somehow just right.

 

The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame – This is the last and least enjoyable volume of Frame’s autobiography, but as a whole the trilogy is an impressive achievement. Never dwelling on unnecessary details, she conveys the essence of what it is to be (Book 1) a child, (2) a ‘mad’ person, and (3) a writer. After years in mental hospitals for presumed schizophrenia, Frame was awarded a travel fellowship to London and Ibiza. Her seven years away from New Zealand were a prolific period as, with the exception of breaks to go to films and galleries, and one obsessive relationship that nearly led to pregnancy out of wedlock, she did little else besides write. The title is her term for the imagination, which leads us to see Plato’s ideals of what might be.

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – Collins won the first novel category of the Costa Awards for this story of a black maid on trial in 1826 London for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. Margaret Atwood hit the nail on the head in a tweet describing the book as “Wide Sargasso Sea meets Beloved meets Alias Grace” (she’s such a legend she can get away with being self-referential). Back in Jamaica, Frances was a house slave and learned to read and write. This enabled her to assist Langton in recording his observations of Negro anatomy. Amateur medical experimentation and opium addiction were subplots that captivated me more than Frannie’s affair with Marguerite Benham and even the question of her guilt. However, time and place are conveyed convincingly, and the voice is strong.

 

(The next one is a book my husband received for Christmas, as are the Heritage and Pyle, further down, which were from me. Yes, I read them as well. What of it?)

 

Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker – This has had us in tears of laughter. It lists examples of English being misused abroad, e.g. on signs, instructions and product marketing. China and Japan are the worst repeat offenders, but there are hilarious examples from around the world. Croker has divided the book into thematic chapters, so the weird translated phrases and downright gobbledygook are grouped around topics like food, hotels and medical advice. A lot of times you can see why mistakes came about, through the choice of almost-but-not-quite-right synonyms or literal interpretation of a saying, but sometimes the mind boggles. Two favorites: (in an Austrian hotel) “Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension” and (on a menu in Macao) “Utmost of chicken fried in bother.”

 

All the Water in the World by Karen Raney – Like The Fault in Our Stars (though not YA), this is about a teen with cancer. Sixteen-year-old Maddy is eager for everything life has to offer, so we see her having her first relationship – with Jack, her co-conspirator on an animation project to be used in an environmental protest – and contacting Antonio, the father she never met. Sections alternate narration between her and her mother, Eve. I loved the suburban D.C. setting and the e-mails between Maddy and Antonio. Maddy’s voice is sweet yet sharp, and, given that the main story is set in 2011, the environmentalism theme seems to anticipate last year’s flowering of youth participation. However, about halfway through there’s a ‘big reveal’ that fell flat for me because I’d guessed it from the beginning.


This was published on the 9th. My thanks to Two Roads for the proof copy for review.

 

Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle – I love these simple cartoons about aliens and the sense they manage to make of Earth and its rituals. The humor mostly rests in their clinical synonyms for everyday objects and activities (parenting, exercise, emotions, birthdays, office life, etc.). Pyle definitely had fun with a thesaurus while putting these together. It’s also about gentle mockery of the things we think of as normal: consider them from one remove, and they can be awfully strange. My favorites are still about the cat. You can also see his work on Instagram.

 

Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals by Stuart Heritage – I bought this for my husband purely for the title, which couldn’t be more apt for him. The stories, a mix of adapted fairy tales and new setups, are mostly up-to-the-minute takes on US and UK politics, along with some digs at contemporary hipster culture and social media obsession. Heritage quite cleverly imitates the manner of speaking of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. By its nature, though, the book will only work for those who know the context (so I can’t see it succeeding outside the UK) and will have a short shelf life as the situations it mocks will eventually fade into collective memory. So, amusing but not built to last. I particularly liked “The Night Before Brexmas” and its all-too-recognizable picture of intergenerational strife.

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – The Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize shortlist? You must be kidding me! The plot is enjoyable enough: a Nigerian nurse named Korede finds herself complicit in covering up her gorgeous little sister Ayoola’s crimes – her boyfriends just seem to end up dead somehow; what a shame! – but things get complicated when Ayoola starts dating the doctor Korede has a crush on and the comatose patient to whom Korede had been pouring out her troubles wakes up. My issue was mostly with the jejune writing, which falls somewhere between high school literary magazine and television soap (e.g. “My hands are cold, so I rub them on my jeans” & “I have found that the best way to take your mind off something is to binge-watch TV shows”).

 

On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho [trans. from the Japanese by Lucien Stryk] – These hardly work in translation. Almost every poem requires a contextual note on Japan’s geography, flora and fauna, or traditions; as these were collected at the end but there were no footnote symbols, I didn’t know to look for them, so by the time I read them it was too late. However, here are two that resonated, with messages about Zen Buddhism and depression, respectively: “Skylark on moor – / sweet song / of non-attachment.” (#83) and “Muddy sake, black rice – sick of the cherry / sick of the world.” (#221; reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s “tired of London, tired of life” maxim). My favorite, for personal relevance, was “Now cat’s done / mewing, bedroom’s / touched by moonlight.” (#24)

 

Any of these you have read or would read?

Onwards with the 2020 reading!

26 responses

  1. Ha, I have so far read a grand total of ONE book this year! I discussed My Sister The Serial Killer with my book club recently, having first read it a while ago. It helped me to clarify why I found it so underwhelming – I think it would have worked much better if she’d give full throttle with the black comedy premise. Instead, it’s an uneasy mix of realism and dark humour.

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    1. Underwhelming, indeed. It turned up at the free bookshop where I volunteer, so I thought why not? A quick read, anyway. I know many people have loved it so I will try not to badmouth it too much, but I really don’t know what prize committees saw in it.

      What was your inaugural 2020 read? I bet you have lots more on the go!

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      1. Spinning Silver! I do have three on the go – work has been super busy so have not managed to finish any of them.

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    2. Ah yes, I didn’t know if maybe you’d finished that late last year. It’s been a busy start of term for my husband as well.

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  2. I’m glad to hear Be My Guest hit the spot, Rebecca, and thanks for the link. Pleased to see you’re keen to read more of Patrick Gale’s novels, too. His success was a long time coming but he finally made it with Notes From an Exhibition and deservedly so.

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    1. I think he’s written 20+ books; I don’t know what took me so long to try one! I have a copy of A Place Called Winter so will start there. Then I’d be keen to read Rough Music, also set in Cornwall.

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      1. I’ve been a fan since The Aerodynamics of Pork but Rough Music is one of my favourites.

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  3. thanks for the warning on the Braithwaite. Here’s a new acronym: TBAV : To be avoided!
    My 2020 start has been wonderful: The Shell Collector – short stories by Anthony Doerr. Reading slowly and enjoying each and every word.

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    1. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Doerr, so I’d like to try those short stories as well.

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  4. I’ve finished four and am reading three more so I’m happy with that. I must read some Gale as he’s friends with some Cornish friends of mine. And Matthew was given the Nathan Pyle by my best friend Emma for his birthday (a bit late as it was published afterwards, so he had the promise of it for his gift) and we’ve both loved it.

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    1. Ooh, just two degrees of separation from Gale! That’s impressive.

      We’d loved Pyle’s cartoons whenever we came across them, so when I saw a book was coming out late last year I jumped to buy it for my husband (and hoped he wouldn’t buy it for me!).

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  5. I’m a big fan of Patrick Gale. Did you hear him on the radio recently, talking about the writing process? Fascinating stuff. That is all I have to contribute to this discussion, as I also have only read one book this year so far (Stacey Hall’s The Familiars – a good read, and I’m trying to work out why I’m not more wholehearted about it), what with having been gallivanting about Spain. I might give the Stuart Heritage a whirl, before, as you say, it dates.

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    1. I don’t ever listen to the radio, I’m afraid — and don’t have a TV, so I’m fairly cut off from cultural things like that. I passed round an interview I read on the Mr B’s blog with Gale, though, in which he talked in detail about the inspirations and process for Notes. It was very interesting.

      The Familiars was serviceable historical fiction. That’s about all I can say for it, so I understand your reaction. I was keen to read it because I contributed reviews to Stacey when she was the editor of We Love This Book web magazine, but I won’t bother with her other releases.

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  6. I’ve read Gale’s last two, looking forward to more. I will read the Braithwaite – dying to see whether I agree!

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    1. ‘Dying’, eh? 😉 The hype machine definitely worked for that one. I didn’t think it lived up to the hype, but others have disagreed.

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      1. You know how I like to make my own mind up! 😀

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  7. I really enjoyed My Sister, The Serial Killer but I find the critical acclaim baffling. It’s a fun book and certainly has more depth than a lot of thrillers of its ilk, but for god’s sake it doesn’t have THAT much depth. The Patrick Gale sounds great!

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  8. Patrick Gale is one of those authors I’ve heard so much about (and most of it great) but have never read. Notes on an Exhibition sounds like a good place to start. I shared your thoughts on My Sister The Serial Killer. I enjoyed it, but thought it was really slight.

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  9. I read the Patrick Gale right at the end of last year and loved it. A Place Called Winter was good in parts (the portrayal of the hard life in the Canadian far north was excellent) but overall it didn’t interest me as much as Notes from Exhibition.
    I’ll give Serial Killer a miss – it doesn’t really interest me and I’ve seen a few comments along the same lines as your reaction. Plenty of other books to read that are more appealing….

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  10. My little sister got my a copy of Strange Planet for Christmas and my husband and I had a lot of run reading it together! I also loved the ones about the cat 🙂

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    1. We love the one where the cat is on one’s lap and the other says “my thighs are forlorn.”

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  11. I love the cover of Be My Guest!
    The Patrick Gale and Sarah Collins probably appeal to me the most (the Collins isn’t based on truth, is it?), but I also love reading signs, etc. with mistakes in them. It’s so common – my daughter and I love finding them and pointing them out to each other. Around here it’s usually just little grammar mistakes, but it still entertains us!

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    1. As far as I know, the Collins is completely made up; she said that she wanted to write something like Jane Eyre but with a Black heroine.

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  12. Frost sounds delightful – although I now would want my copy, also, to smell of strawberry lip gloss. Nothing else will do. (I never wear lip gloss and would probably shudder to think of all the chemicals combining to create that glossy illusion – but I love the idea of this all the same. Life is filled with contradictions!)

    The only one I’ve read is the Frame autobiography and I read the three volumes as a single volume, so I don’t have any true sense of which parts spoke to me most, but I agree that writers’ autobiographies don’t always touch me the same way across volumes/years. It must feel good to finally finish this one?

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    1. How a book smelled is often a good memory marker!

      In total I spent about 23 months with the Frame autobiography. The first volume, about her childhood, stuck with me the most. It truly felt like a fresh way to write about being a child. I know you’ve recommended the film before. I would definitely like to get hold of it sometime. Next I’m going to delve deeper into her fiction.

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  13. […] second from Holly Webb, and while I enjoyed it a lot, if not quite as much as Frost, I probably don’t need to read any more by her now because these two were so similar as to reveal […]

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