It’s been a busy six months at Shoshi’s Book Blog, as I’ve tried to navigate reading without an all consuming Russian Literature project but with ambitions to:
a. Read more recently published novels
b. Read more books in translation/from around the world
c.Read one non-fiction book a month
d. Read all the books on my Diverse Reading A-Z
e. Read all the books that have been accumulating on my ‘to be read’ shelf
… and so on
Fortunately, the upshot of foolish ambitions is a certain amount of qualified success. In fact, I’ve decided I can’t wait until December to summarise my reading (by that point, things may have spiralled truly out of control) so here is my list of top reads from the first half of 2016.
One of the first books I reviewed in 2016, ‘Citizen’ is poetry, polemic and, I firmly believe, a modern classic that will be read and studied for years to come. Its highly personal and emotional exploration of racism in contemporary western society makes for uncomfortably powerful reading. It is a book that genuinely made me question the way I act in public and use language inside my own head. ‘Citizen’ shows how the personal cannot be ignored when discussing the political, and through this argument makes a compelling case against anyone who tries to ignore racism or to claim that it is a problem of the past. (Full review here).
The unknown classic. I highly, highly recommend ‘The Viceroys’ by Federico de Roberto, an utterly cynical historical novel that traces the fortunes of its central family through the tumultuous years that saw the end of Bourbon domination and the start of the Unification of Italy. The characters are all grotesque and more or less insane, brought to life with a chilling misanthropy which is its own commentary on how power corrupts and the corrupt acquire power. It’s also very very funny and an excellent companion to the rose-tinted nostalgia of di Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’. My full, even more gushing review, can be read here.
Oh, how I love ‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim. It’s the perfect holiday read, and also the perfect escapist read if you can’t go on holiday. I know I’m not alone in feeling like this, and one of the joys of discovering it has been reading the other adoring reviews popping up all over WordPress as the word spreads. Once again, I’m going to have to leave the review to Von Arnim herself and revert to the passage (quoted more fully in my review) ‘How beautiful, how beautiful. Not to have died before this … to have been allowed to see, breathe, feel this …’ the modern world can be such a scary place; books like ‘The Enchanted April’ are essential, escapist reading for 2016.
‘Rush Oh!’ may not have made the Bailey’s shortlist, but it easily fits into my list of top reads so far for 2016. A historical novel about whaling in New South Wales is an equally effective form of escapism to the period charm of ‘The Enchanted April,’ and I was completely won over by the scope and setting of Barrett’s writing. Plucky first-person female narrators can be hard to pull off, especially when they are supposed to live in an earlier historical period, but Mary Davidson convinces from the very first page. ‘Rush Oh!’ made me laugh out loud, and this is not just because of its steady wit, but also because of the pleasure of seeing such an accomplished piece of historical fiction. (My full review can be read here).
‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ was always going to be on this list, partly because I approached it with absolutely no preconceptions. I knew who Mary Seacole was (Creole nurse in the Crimean War/the dark-skinned Florence Nightingale), but these facts did nothing to prepare me for such an incredibly engaging writer. I bought my copy of ‘The Wonderful Adventures’ in a library sale for 30p. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in any bookshops or on any reading lists. I’m going to use this space to beg anyone reading who has the ability to please get this book into shops, prominently displayed. Mary Seacole is a woman who deserves to be remembered, and no one who reads her own inspiring account of her life will ever forget her. (Click here for my full review).
It is so hard to describe ‘Dreams and Stones’, charting as it does the life of a city rather than of people. Enigmatic, mystical and utterly enthralling, Tulli has created a book like no other I’ve ever read. The city is traced from its mythical beginnings through Soviet inflected optimism and into disillusioned decay. Symbols emerge, are owned and then subverted. All I can do is urge everyone to try this book, it’s short, it’s powerful, and it may have overtaken ‘Invisible Cities’ as my all time favourite novel of the city. For an attempt at a more coherent review, and, more importantly, a long quotation to illustrate what I mean, click here).
A very worthy Bailey’s Prize winner, ‘The Glorious Heresies’ was my favourite from the shortlist and (in an even tougher crowd) one of my top reads for the first half of 2016. It is an exuberant story of those on the fringes of society in modern day Cork. The characters’ lives and trials are never trivialised and McInerney’s sparkling prose brings a real joy to her tragic-comic tale. From the grotesque to the wretched, her characters are utterly believable and the twisting story is equally compelling. This is a book I might never have picked up were it not for the Bailey’s recognition, so I’m really grateful to the prize for introducing me to one of my top reads from 2016. (Click here for the full review)
The book I have probably recommended the most this year (on and off the blog) is ‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal. The story, dealing with neglect and adoption, might be a hard sell, but the narrative is so convincing and rings with such authenticity that I really think everyone should read it. Written in the third person, but from the young Leon’s point of view, this is the best book about fostering I’ve read since falling in love with Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracey Beaker. Unsentimental and with a fine eye for detail, ‘My Name is Leon’ had me both crying in public and laughing out loud. It’s a superb work of fiction, a point I made in more detail in my full review back in June.
If you look closely at the the bright cover for ‘Woman Next Door,’ you’ll see that one of the silhouettes is holding something to her eyes ‘The binoculars had been a gift from the grandchildren, but Marion had never intended to use them to birdwatch.’ The Mapp and Lucia-style feuding neighbours who provide the central relationship and drama in the novel are magnetic company. Omotoso uses them to explore important issues around race, ageing and vulnerability in present day South Africa, but these discussions are never forced. Instead our two wonderful heroines behave appallingly to each other, and the world at large; I couldn’t get enough of them. (Click here for my full review).
Edith Wharton provided me with some much needed escapism during July. It is a testament to her imaginative and compelling writing that she managed to allow me to leave 2016 London and immerse myself in the tensions and trials of her New York protagonists. Some stories are heartbreaking, others are laugh-out-loud funny, and all are written with the perfect blend of wit and sensitivity. This collection covers a range of tones and themes, from satirical takes on art and artists to evocations of early twentieth-century romance and honour. Whatever the topic, I found each story a gem, and the whole volume the perfect antidote to the pressures of life in London at the moment…
It’s been really hard narrowing down the list to include only ten titles. In fact, I’m going to cheat slightly and give honourable mentions to Tove Janson’s ‘The True Deceiver’ and The Early Science Fiction Stories of Philip K Dick, which so nearly made the list. I can’t imagine any of the above volumes not making my final December top-ten of 2016, but who knows what new delights the year has in store?