My favourite reads in 2020

I imagined at the start of lockdown that I would play catch-up this year by reading all the still-unread books on my shelves. Great idea! 

However… new releases inevitably proved too tempting. So my favourite reads during 2020 include both old and new releases. At times, I’ve found it a challenge to read long form, when news stories seemed evermore urgent. I overcame this problem by turning to books I can’t resist—those delving into writers’ lives, whether fictional or non-fictional. And that’s where I will start with year’s round-up.

Lampedusa by Steven Price (Picador 2020)

I read Lampedusa as the reality of Covid-19 unfolded, as the virus started to spread from Italy. I was in France at the time and decided to dash home to Scotland. Steven Price’s novel, set in 1950s Sicily, depicts a time when Europe still reeled from the destruction of the Second World War. The novel imagines the last days of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa as he struggles to finish his novel, The Leopard, a classic of Italian literature, published posthumously. Once wealthy, he now lives in poverty with his wife in the bombed ruins of their mansion. An intimate novel, ultimately uplifting, and one that has stayed with me.

Barnhill by Norman Bissell (Luath Press 2019)

In a similar vein, Barnhill is a well-researched, fictionalised account of the time George Orwell spent on the Isle of Jura writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Norman Bissell adds much to my appreciation of Orwell’s classic dystopian novel. At Barnhill farmhouse on Jura, Orwell contended with great hardship, growing his own food, catching fish, while battling with poor health and caring for his son, Ricky. The novel moves back and forth between Jura and the literary world of London during Orwell’s final years. As an aside, I was delighted to learn he took the steamer between Glasgow and Jura, passing the Isle of Bute where I now live!

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Granta 2013)

Following the joy, last year, of reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and essay collection Coventry, I picked up Leaving the Atocha Station—the first in Ben Lerner’s trilogy—hoping for the same auto-fictional thrill. Leaving the Atocha Station follows Adam, an American poet, during his writing residency in Madrid. I loved this witty novel! Initially the narrator inhabits a zone of uncertainty owing to his poor Spanish, and he almost enjoys mis-communicating with the people around him. He repeatedly loses his way in the streets of Madrid, constantly on the verge of spinning out of control with his medication, hash and booze. He tells lies about his family because he can get away with it—no one in Madrid knows his background. But gradually his Spanish improves and his lies start to catch up with him. I expect I’ll read the next two books in the trilogy pretty soon.

The Love-charm of Bombs—Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel (Bloomsbury 2013)

As we all entered lockdown, I found myself—along with many writers!—dwelling on how to write fiction in the era of Covid. So, I looked back to see how writers approached their fiction during the Second World War. The Love-charm of Bombs provided a lengthy yet compelling reading experience at a time when I struggled to tear myself away from news bulletins. Lara Feigel gives a detailed insight into the writing lives, loves and wartime occupations of key writers of the era—Graham Green, Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber 2018)

Two intertwined storylines are set in Vineland—a 19th-century utopian community, but now an unfashionable suburb. A modern-day family grapples with complex relationships between generations. A traditional family in the 1870s aspires to climb the social ladder. We meet Mary Treat, the real-world naturalist who corresponds with Charles Darwin, and this provides an enchanting thread, the most seductive part of the novel for me.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura (Clerkenwell Press 2017)

A Separation delves into the minutiae of a marriage in the process of disintegration, and is mainly set in rural Greece—a Peloponnese landscape scorched by wildfires. The atmosphere is menacing, conveying a sense of impending disaster regarding the main character’s missing husband and the future of the natural environment. Kitamura’s writing is precise, exquisite. The narrator’s observations about her husband, boyfriend, in-laws and hotel staff are penetrating. Simply breath taking.

Ghost Species by James Bradley (Hodder & Stoughton 2020)

Ghost Species is a captivating novel and it formed a wonderful, early highlight for me in 2020. The story brings together a tech billionaire, a secretive laboratory in a remote location in Tasmania, and the vexed issue of species resurrection. The relationship between scientist Kate and Eve, a child, is beautifully and sensitively drawn. It’s an emotional read. And, if you’d like to know more, read this piece in Los Angeles Review of Books – “Writing Fiction in the Era of Climate Catastrophe: A Conversation Between Anne Charnock and James Bradley.”

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts (Pushkin Press 2020)

Without doubt this contemporary novel is both powerful and brutal. The parallels are clear between the unnamed narrator’s self-destructive tendencies and our self destruction as a species regarding climate catastrophe and species extinction. Absolutely, I feel the author achieved what she set out to achieve. So, full marks. The narrator is an aspiring writer who works shifts as an emergency-dispatch operator. She appears to believe she has no control over events affecting her life. In the same way, I suppose many people, in the face of rolling ecological disasters, feel a similar attitude of surrender-to-circumstances. This intimation of defeatism Ieft me feeling dispirited, but I’m certainly glad to have read The Inland Sea.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (Picador 2020)

I enjoyed Sarah Moss’s previous novels, particularly Cold Earth (see last year’s favourite books). Summerwater is a quiet novel with multiple points-of-view, much to my taste. I see this novel as a subtle form of eco-fiction, with a contemporary setting on a holiday park in the Scottish Highlands. By turns, Summerwater is dark and light, menacing and humorous, centred on everyday family tensions and holiday dramas.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel (Picador 2020)

I held high hopes of this novel, and it delivered! I particularly enjoyed the tense relationship between the main character, Vincent, and her half-brother, centred on his theft (or appropriation as he saw it) of her five-minute video collection. A complex narrative, multi-stranded, about the wealthy people brought down by a Ponzi investment scheme. But for me the novel also described the conflicting attractions of city life versus living closer to nature and wilderness. As such it seemed to speak to our pandemic experience.

The Divers’ Game — Jesse Ball (Granta 2019)

Impressive and deeply unsettling, The Divers’ Game holds a mirror to the current splits in society and the fear of otherness. The story is set in a future where poorer people and immigrants are segregated. They’re treated with contempt and cruelty. Society is controlled by fear and the population enacts bizarre public rituals, grotesque—in my minds’ eye, reminiscent of Goya’s darkest work.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton (Dialogue Books 2019)

I met Yvonne Battle-Felton in the Second Life Book Club during lockdown where our avatars gave readings! Remembered is an historical novel opening in 1910 in Philadelphia amid city riots. The main character, Spring, explains to her dying son about their family history. And so the novel develops as a multi-generational story, which takes the reader through the years of slavery and emancipation. It’s a novel of revelations, about the heart-breaking decisions mothers were willing to take to undermine the plantation owners.

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books 2012)

Last year I dipped into this essay collection, but this year I read Sightlines straight through. Kathleen Jamie’s landscape writing is poetic, authentic and unshowy. She takes the reader to the most remote islands of Scotland as she studies petrels and gannets, seals and orcas. In her essay “Pathologies,” Jamie takes the reader into the pathology lab of a Dundee hospital as she inspects diseased cells through a microscope, detecting those details that signal a patient’s chance of survival. It’s almost an odd-one-out essay in the collection, and it completely swept me away. I’ve thought of it repeatedly during this pandemic year, as Jamie’s microscopic observations offer a strange consolation.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr (Penguin Books 1980)

How have I not read this gorgeous short novel before? It offers proof that novels do not need to be doorstoppers to convey emotional depth and offer real insights about our relatively modern history. A Month in the Country depicts the poverty of post-First World War life in rural Yorkshire, where a de-mobbed and shell-shocked young man renovates a Medieval fresco in the village church of Oxgodby. Art, history, romance, and an archaeological mystery. Wonderful.

Next on the reading pile:

The Silence by Don DeLillo, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici.

Happy reading, everyone! And here’s wishing you a happy holiday season even if it’s a quiet one!

My favourite reads in 2019

At this time of year I love to look back on the books I’ve enjoyed reading, those that made a lasting impression on me. I keep a log of my reading and of the 45 books I read in 2019, these are (some of) my highlights:

The Cemetery at Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet Press, 2018)

A short novel that obliges the reader to make guesses. I felt I’d tuned into a radio play having missed the first five minutes. It denies completion for the reader and emphasises the unfinished nature of most experiences.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss (Granta, 2010)

Another novel that had me searching for answers. It’s a compelling story about a remote archaeological dig. Are the archaeologists truly stranded? Is everyone in the outside world dead? Will the plane arrive on the agreed date? Are members of the team hiding the true gravity of outside events. Are other team members colluding? And there’s an undertone of humour—all these characters with PhDs but minimal survival skills.

After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus (Penguin, 2017)

I love writer biographies and this is a fine example. Acker made her mark as an experimental writer in 60s New York. She flitted between New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and London. Her connection with the art world figures—Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneemann, Martha Rosler, Dan Graham, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Serra, Lucy Lippard, Sol LeWitt—offers fascinating asides. A biography that gets into the detail of Acker’s writing methodology.

Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber and Faber, 2018)

Although some readers found this book challenging, I found myself sucked in straightaway. I learned a great deal about daily life during The Troubles. I felt extremely grateful for this insight, and I’ve recommended Milkman to all my friends.

How Should A Person Be by Shiela Heti (Vintage, 2013)

This is a novel—part memoir, part fiction—which explores how to navigate the world as a creative person. At the core lies a simple question about the main character, Sheila: Will she or won’t she finish writing her play? But the over-arching question posed by Heti is whether art is a narcissistic endeavour. An authentic story about a playwright who is a hairdresser by day.

The Overstory by Richard Powers (William Heinemann, 2018)

At the outset, I felt slightly daunted by the length of this novel, but I found myself zipping along thanks to the four-part structure and a fascinating range of point of view characters. For me, the highlight is found in the wonderful character of Patricia Westerford, a tree specialist, who I’ve thought about many times since I finished reading the novel. Her academic reputation is trashed by male peers when she suggests that trees can communicate. A fascinating and redemptive storyline, within an ambitious novel.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (Macmillan,1970. Flamingo, 2010)

Sophie Bentwood lives in Brooklyn and is bitten by a stray cat, leading to her uncharacteristic decision to go for a middle-of-the-night drink with her husband’s business partner. And in these strange circumstances, she rashly reveals to him that she has had an affair. She reflects on that affair through this short novel, and on her husband’s disinclination or inability to explore his feelings, or other people’s motivations. The novel’s theme—that chaos might overwhelm polite society at any turn—is brilliantly set up in the opening pages in its descriptions of a part-gentrified but still seedy Brooklyn neighbourhood.

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray, 2019)

I was intrigued to read how Amitav Ghosh addressed climate change in this novel, coming in the wake of his non-fiction work The Great Derangement—his reflection on realist fiction’s limited ability to handle environmental and climate catastrophe. I enjoyed this novel partly for its setting in the mangroves of the Sundarbans, the delta of the Bengal River. It deals with the human impact of flooding. And one of his main characters is Priya, a marine biologist who investigates the beaching of freshwater dolphins. This novel feels one step removed from realism as it delves into local myth and doesn’t shy away from unrealistic coincidences in its plot.

Outline Trilogy and Coventry by Rachel Cusk (Faber and Faber, 2014-2019)

Cusk’s Outline trilogy and her collection of essays, Coventry, provided the high point of my reading year. I read the first two parts of the trilogy—Outline and Transit—in quick succession. Later in the year I read Coventry and, finally, the third part of the trilogy, Kudos. Cusk is one of the most audacious writers around at the moment, experimenting with form, specifically with the visibility or invisibility of her narrator. I’m glad I read these four books in the order I did, because her essays informed how I read Kudos. The trilogy is a brilliant and I can’t wait to read more of Cusk.

The Wall by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber, 2019)

Unlike some readers, I feel the most successful part of this climate-change novel is that set on The Wall. I felt drawn into the life of Kavanagh who patrols this massive coastal defence, aimed at repelling climate migrants. Lanchester slows down time as he describes, in pared back prose, the detail of being on shift, with the monotony and the ever-present fear of attack. There is sufficient backstory. Minimal info-dumping. And for me the elements of concrete poetry worked well. The later sections seem a little rushed but the ending is satisfying.

The Body Lies by Jo Baker (Doubleday, 2019)

This is a compelling, fragmentary, multiple point-of-view novel that deals with violence against women. More specifically, it examines how a violent event has shaped the psyche of a creative writing tutor. Smart and very readable. A true literary thriller.

Always North by Vicki Jarrett (Unsung Stories, 2019)

A novel of two halves. The first is set on a seismic survey vessel operating illegally in the Arctic and is totally convincing in its detail of seismic operations. Jarrett successfully creates an eco-thriller vibe with strong characters. The second is set some years in the future revisiting some of the original crew members who are now surviving as best they can in an environmentally ravaged world.

Stillicide by Cynan Jones (Granta, 2019)

This is a poetic and beautifully structured novel set in a world that is suffering water shortages as a result of climate change. The story is told in the form of vignettes, which are linked by the various characters’ sometimes tenuous relationships. I do recall, back in the late 70s, some serious discussion about the feasibility of towing icebergs from the Arctic to the Middle East. In Stillicide, icebergs are towed to the UK!

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Granta, 2018)

Another short read and my last of 2019. I’ve been meaning to read this since its release and following multiple recommendations by friends. It didn’t disappoint. I enjoy the detail of other people’s working lives and I truly warmed to this convenience store woman whose personal motto seems to be, If you are going to do a job, you might as well do it well. A good note to end my year on!

In addition:

I was fortunate to read ahead of publication, M. T. Hill’s novel The Breach, which will be published in March 2020 (Titan), following his well-received 2019 novel, Zero Bomb. The Breach is a crossover of psychological thriller, horror and hard SF. Hill displays his signature gritty style, and The Breach is the most visceral of his novels to date. Hill brings together the worlds of journalists, climbers, steeplejacks and urban explorers among a cast of totally authentic characters.

Happy reading, everyone!

The Rift by Nina Allan

Nina Allan’s astonishing novel The Rift came to mind last weekend, and not simply because of its imminent release. (I was fortunate to read this novel pre-publication and it is published today by Titan). It came to mind as I arrived home from my cycling holiday on the west coast of Scotland. I felt as though I’d slipped through a rift of sorts myself, from a parallel universe of spectacular scenery, of quiet roads and CalMac ferries, of clean air, seals and sea otters, where the intensity of the real world seemed unfathomably distant.

The Rift centres on the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Julie and her reappearance twenty years later to the astonishment of her sister Selena and her mother. Where has Julie been? Does she dare to tell them?

The novel starts out as a compelling contemporary mystery and morphs into speculative territory via a rift, it seems, in the fabric of space. Allan prepares the reader for this with subtlety. For example, there’s passing reference to her father’s interest in alien abduction testimonies. It’s also neatly presaged by Selena and Julie’s teenage in-joke about aliens.

Indeed, Allan foreshadows the alien worlds of Tristane and Dea: “Selena tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a world where everything was the same as it was in reality with one exception.” I knew something fantastical was going to happen when I read that! Read more

Kickstarter for 2084 – Orwell inspired anthology – plus latest reviews

Support this Kickstarter!

I’ll keep this as brief as I can for all you lovely but busy people: I’m in a fab line-up of authors for the short story anthology 2084 (Unsung Stories), and any support for the Kickstarter will be massively appreciated! There’s a special edition of the anthology with its own cover art for the Kickstarter campaign. Fingers crossed we meet the target.

Stories by Jeff Noon, Christopher Priest, James Smythe, Lavie Tidhar, Aliya Whiteley, David Hutchinson, Cassandra Khaw, Desirina Boskovich, Ian Hocking, Oliver Langmead and me.

My own story, “A Good Citizen” imagines a future with weekly referendums and a universal wage. Picture a world with a recurring nightmare of near-Brexit proportions!

Early reviews for Dreams Before the Start of Time

Publishers’ Weekly has given a starred review to my upcoming novel. This is a brilliant start for Dreams Before the Start of Time, my third novel. For those who don’t know PW, this New York-based magazine reviews some 9,000 novels a year and gives a starred review to those ‘of exceptional merit’. It’s a go-to magazine for those in the publishing industry. So needless to say I’m pretty chuffed. Read more

Hay Festival: Michael Cunningham on The Snow Queen

Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham reads the opening pages of The Snow Queen

I had not one but THREE brief chats with my author hero Michael Cunningham at Hay Festival—at his author event, at his book signing and, by sheer coincidence, at the bar of the Old Black Lion. No, I wasn’t stalking!

Unbelievably, in my opinion, this was Cunningham’s first appearance at Hay Festival. He told me he’d been waiting for an invite.

Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for his exquisite fourth novel The Hours, which happens to be my favourite novel of all time. The film version of the book was directed by Stephen Daldry and starred Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Clare Danes. In his Hay Festival conversation with Rosie Goldsmith he said, “I must be the only living author who’s happy with the film of their book.”

Incidentally, his fifth novel, Specimen Days, was written in three parts and included a science fiction element. I asked about this foray into SF because of my own writing inclinations and he said that science fiction was definitely part of the zeitgeist at the time he wrote the novel.

The Snow Queen is his latest novel and it opens thus: Read more

New Year Update and a Bunch of Recommended Reads

Happy New Year! While you’re all chilling on New Year’s Day I thought I’d offer some book recommendations based on my recent reading. What’s surprising is that I’ve not read a single eBook over the past month – only print copies. Here’s a fab selection including three novels from the Man Booker 2013 shortlist and some old favourites. I can recommend them all:

Here's a pile of books I loved reading in December.

Here’s a pile of books I loved reading in December.

In-Flight Entertainment, short stories by Helen Simpson (several stories touching on issues around climate change);

The Testament of Mary, short story by Colm Toibin (Booker shortlisted. A reading highlight of my year); Read more

Catch Up: 10 Blogposts Since Release Of A Calculated Life

It’s four weeks since 47North released a new edition of A Calculated Life and I thought I’d mark the occasion by doing a round-up of all the recent guest posts and reviews I’ve written. It’s been manic, but a great deal of fun. I really appreciate the massive amount of support I’ve received from other 47North authors and the good wishes from readers. Those all-important reviews are coming in and it’s pretty encouraging so far. Read more

Hugo Awards Short Stories 2013: My Favourite

Three short stories are in contention for the Hugo Award and they are diverse. I’ve enjoyed them all. And, as I’m writing a few short stories at the moment, I’ve found it fascinating to read the best of 2013 (as nominated and selected by members of the World Science Fiction Society).

Here’s an admission: I’d intended to read all the shortlisted novels because I wanted to compare them with the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, which I reviewed here earlier this year. But with all the work involved with my novel’s new release by 47North, I scaled back my ambition. First, I opted to read all the shortlisted novellas, and later I scaled back again and decided to read the shortlisted short stories. So I spent a lovely Sunday afternoon reading these stories in the shade of my apple tree. Read more

Latest Shenanigans: Strange Horizons • 47North • Hugos …

Before you all hit ‘silent mode’ for the month of August (that is, those of you who live in the northern hemisphere), I thought I’d bring you up to date with what’s happening in my little world. It’s just one month since I received the email from David Pomerico at 47North offering me a publishing deal, and it’s been full-on hectic – in a good way – since then. But before I tell you what’s happening with the new edition of my book…

strange horizonsOver at Strange Horizons (SF articles, reviews, new fiction), you’ll find my review of Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated by Yiannis Panas. This dystopian novel won the The Athens Prize for Literature.

While you are there, I’d recommend the article Evaporating Genres, by Gary K. Wolfe. Gary examines the crossover of SF with historical fiction, horror, fantasy and thrillers. Also, Niall Harrison is reviewing Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, which my local book group is reading at this very moment. Read more

Hay Festival #2: Will Self and the Out-Sourcing of Violence

Will Self

Will Self in conversation with Sarfraz Manzoor

Will Self always pulls a big crowd at Hay and this year he dished out a sizzling mix of wit and venom, plus comic banter with interviewer Sarfraz Manzoor. In a (literally) terrific performance, he read from his latest novel Umbrella. As he later explained to the audience, Umbrella is the completion of a trilogy that follows ‘the outsourcing of violence’ in modern times.

He said Umbrella’s main character Audrey Death – a post-encephalytic patient in a London asylum – embodied the impact of technological developments in the 20th Century. In 1908 Henry T Ford built his first industrial production line, said Self, and in 1914 this new wave of industrialisation transferred to the trenches creating a production line of death. Read more