my top ten books of 2016

Because books didn’t let us down in 2016.  Books didn’t allow Poundshop Cruella to take over the UK. Books didn’t elect Dipshit McHairdo as US president. Books didn’t exacerbate and instrumentalise divisions between people. Books didn’t conspire with evil dictators around the world to usher in a new age of fascism.

Because books are good.

Alice, by Christina Henry

This book gripped me from the very first line, and had me enthralled right to the very last. I love Alice in Wonderland, and over the years have collected many versions and adaptations (some relevant ones here are Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice, and The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor). Christina Henry’s version gives us Alice as a victimised, imprisoned, oppressed young woman, who finds within herself the will and strength to fight back against the gruesome misogynist magical regime of the Walrus and the Caterpillar. It is gripping, funny, gruesome, and feminist as fuck. Highly recommended.

Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

Creepy fiction about a bucolic summer in which something very strange happens to the members of a folk band recording their first album at Wylding Hall. The compelling thing about this book is its telling – each of the band members relays what they recall of that strange summer, and in the gaps and overlaps between their stories, we begin to see the shape of something very sinister emerging. By layering their stories one on top of the other, Hand is able to make a whole other story emerge, ghost-like, from the interstices. A brilliant book.

Bodies of Water, V.H. Leslie

This is a book which keeps on unfolding and revealing itself long after you’ve read the last lines. Kirsten moves into an apartment at Wakewater House, a former hydropathy sanitorium. Her story intertwines with that of Evelyn, a woman treated at Wakewater House many years before. From there, this gothic ghost story is transformed by Leslie’s sensitive, passionate writing into a frightening and moving explication of the tortures that ‘unnatural’ women were subjected to, and the need to keep this history alive. Leslie is a superb writer of the feminist gothic and Bodies of Water is a very exciting first novel.

My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal

I had to stop reading this book on the tram because it was making me cry so much that it was actually embarrassing.  Leon is a young boy in foster care, broken up from his younger brother, and very lonely. His foster carer is one of those brilliant ordinary women who understand how to love and who rage against the racism and callousness of the care system. Set in Birmingham around the time of the Handsworth Riots, this is a story about family, love, racism, and power. If you like having your heart broken and put back together again, this is the book for you.

The Lost and Found, Katrina Leno

Full disclosure: Katrina Leno happens to be a good friend of mine. But I am only friends with the best, most accomplished, talented and interesting people, and she is one such. She has a unique voice which is both sensitive and sarcastic, and an imagination which knows no bounds. In her second YA novel, she tells the story of two young people who are brought together in a mysterious way, each on their own journey to solve their own particular problems. Leno’s evocation of falling in love is the most moving and compelling aspect of this book, which will make you laugh and cry. What more do you want?

A Spell to Conjure Violets, Kate Mascarenhas

Kate Mascarenhas is not only a fantastic writer, but a talented artist and a bookbinder. She printed, bound and covered each copy of Violets herself – which has sadly now sold out. You’ll be lucky to get your hands on a copy of this book, but if you can, then do! Because it is fantastically weird and beautifully written – a portal fantasy that goes fractal. It’s a novel about abuses of privilege and power, and also about what connects us to one another. A book of wonderful, frightening, enthralling possibilities. I treasure this book, and commend this writer to you with all my heart.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

Jane Eyre has been one of my favourite books since I was a small child – so I’m not sure why it took me until this year to get around to reading Jean Rhys’ incredibly powerful sister-story, Wide Sargasso Sea. It tells the story of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and in doing so, it moves Bronte’s gothic sensibilities into new dimensions of power, privilege, abuse, racism, colonialism, and sex. This is a brilliant book in its own right, but to me at least a part of its greatness comes from the conversation with Jane Eyre, who is also oppressed as a female, yet is part of the system that oppresses Bertha and denies her freedom. A very beautiful, sad, and thought-provoking book.

The Bird King, James Knight

Total cheat, as this isn’t actually just a book, but a series of books, poems, and tweets which explore nightmares (both personal and political), other worlds, strange cabaret, the thing behind the mirror, Mr Punch, illustrations of your dreams, and more besides. James Knight is currently writing a novel, which will no doubt be brilliantly surreal, moving, and extraordinary in every way. In the meantime, you can buy one or several of Knight’s books here.

The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han Kang

The Vegetarian grabbed everyone’s attention this year by winning the Booker prize – deservedly so. This short novel is about the madness and oppression of Yeong-hye, a woman who no one notices at all until she stops eating meat and thus begins her struggle to escape the imprisonment of her female body. An utterly brilliant, though bleak, book, which led me to Human Acts, Han Kang’s absolute masterpiece. This is not only the best book I read in 2016, but one of the very best books I have ever read. It is a shocking account of the 1980 Gwangju massacre, in which hundreds of students were viciously killed and their bodies carelessly thrown onto pyres. Han Kang carefully and lovingly draws out several strands of this story, bringing to life the humanity and need of each of the characters, taking us the reader into the heart of the horror, and then leading us back out to the light. This is a book of magic, with Han Kang working at the height of her powers to put the ghosts of Gwangju to rest. It is more connected and active than any writing I’ve ever come across – I came away with the feeling that the book itself is a form of prayer, a burial rite, and a powerful kind of healing. Han Kang is an extraordinary writer, a genius, an activist, and a luminary.

I read about 100 books this year, and many of them were excellent, but only ten of them can be on the list, because that’s the arbitrary rule I’ve invented to torture myself with. So sorry to those books I loved but didn’t make it. (Come back in 2017 when I’ll be reviewing some of the good ones I’ve read lately.) And happy new year! Read, write, and resist.

love medicine

I am lurgified. My head feels like it has been stuffed with bees. In case you are not sure, this is a bad thing. Please feel sorry for me.

Anyway. On with the blogathon.

Recently I read Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. It is beautifully written. Her characters are so vividly realised that you can see them, hear them speak. They walk off the page and sit down next to you, telling their stories.  Not only that, but their homes, the towns in which they live, the shape of the reservations, are made utterly concrete and real through Erdrich’s prose.

It made me think about how good writers are detailed and authentic in their settings. I think setting is the most difficult thing for many writers to master. If you do not come from an interesting place, a strong culture, a turbulent history, how do you create deep, realistic settings in your stories?

I am pretty sure that this is one problem that drives many writers to fantasy and science fiction. Writing fantastical worlds is easier than making the truth of how we live now come to life on the page. Not that there is anything wrong with fantastic or futuristic settings – as long as they are well rendered (honest, plausible, detailed), they are a vital element of good storytelling. But isn’t it a little bit easier, when you can draw your own map of your own world?

I’ve travelled a little bit and lived in a few different places, and whilst that definitely feeds the imagination, there is also a lack of depth in my knowledge of places. I currently live in a city that is rather uninspiring to me, although I happen to know it extremely well. The ideal is probably to live in a place that you know deeply and which you also find inspiring. I think writers in such circumstances are lucky indeed!

The issue of setting comes up in my writing all the time, and it is what I struggle with probably more than any other aspect of my writing at present. Do you struggle with setting, or does it come easily to you? Which writers do you think handle setting well? And do you think I should move to another city in order to improve my writing?

five writers with teeth and claws

A few years ago, I became scared that I was losing my lifelong passion for reading. So many mediocre books! So many bad ones…  I threw ‘Atonement’ across the room in disgust. ‘After Dark’ was a yawn fest. ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ made me sick with disappointment. It was a dark time in my reading life. I felt that I was falling out of love with the world.

But then I came across these incredible writers, who reached out their claws and ripped out my heart. Monsters. I love them.

1. Kelly Link

If you don’t read Kelly Link, you are missing out on something wonderful. She writes the best short stories in the world.  I discovered Kelly Link at a very strange time in my life. I was trying to write a story called ‘Magic for Beginners’ – a terrible story that had nothing going for it except that great title. One afternoon I wandered into Waterstones where there was a display table full of a book called ‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link. I felt the swift punch of fate to my solar plexus. Then I opened the book and started reading a story about a witch who gives birth to a house, and my life changed forever. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kelly Link taught me what a story could be – that it could be so much bigger and stranger than I had ever dared.

2. Rikki Ducornet

Before I read ‘The Butcher’s Tales’, I had no idea that anyone wrote the strange, very short, macabre vignettes that I had been trying to write myself for the past few years. Hers are brilliant little slices of flesh, still bloody, on a white plate. I went on to read her novels, of which ‘Netsuke’ and ‘Gazelle’ are particularly wonderful. Her writing is a knife to the heart. She sees everything. Be very afraid.

3. Kaaron Warren

Dark, dark, dark – they all go into the dark. Not quite sure how Kaaron Warren creates such spectacularly creepy stories that are still utterly involving and engaging. Her novels are diverse in subject matter and setting, but all share the disturbing ability to draw you in, and take you to places you never really wanted to go, but can’t bear to walk away from. Her novel ‘Slights’ has one of the most disturbed/disturbing main characters I’ve ever come across, and yet it is one of the most compelling stories I’ve read. I fear Kaaron Warren may have sold her soul to the devil to pay for her incredible storytelling ability.

4. Rachel Pollack

Many writers attempt to create new fairytales and myths. None, in my opinion, are as successful as Rachel Pollack. Her work as a Tarot reader informs her writing in many strange and unexpected ways. ‘The Tarot of Perfection’ is a collection of beautiful short stories that take the reader deep below the surface of things to explore the secret mysteries of the subconscious. Unmissable.

5. Greer Gilman

No one writes like Greer Gilman. No one else dares. ‘Cloud and Ashes’ is an extraordinary, beautiful book that has drawn comparisons with Shakespeare and James Joyce, amongst others. Read it. That is all.