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2020 Book Variations

Weird year. I spent most of trying to write a book, trying (failing) not to read the news, and winding down with books that were sufficiently familiar to help me forget about work at the end of the day.

The Sea Cloak & Other Stories -- Nayrouz Qarmout
Reading this collection of short stories drawn from Palestinian experience, while sitting in a lovely little café in Hampstead in January was discordant, but the stories were very good. The title story reminded me a little of Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening', with a twist, which may have been intentional. The tone and rhythm of the rriting, and the occasional jarring intrusion of war was very effective. I also liked the tension she sets up between the violence of war and the violence of gender and social expectation. The way hopelessness builds as completely normal plans and desires are frustrated, fruitless, leading to radicalisation or despair.

Single & Single -- John Le Carré
David Cornwell died this December, which means Le Carré did, too. This was the latest of his that I read (I had waited a while, as my mother once told me I was too young and I tend to assume that applies in perpetuity). I love his tortured spies who have hidden away in out-of-the-way lives/careers, the lawyer who knows his business to the fingertips, and the father/son dynamic. It reminds me a little of Perfect Spy in that respect. Also, I am a sucker for any book that will give me detailed descriptions of the dynamics of economic crime.

Good Talk -- Mira Jacob
This is a graphic memoir of sorts, and a very good one. I kept having to take breaks while reading it, however, because it drove home so very effectively how deeply depressing the world and so many people in it are. I liked the style, however. It was funny (in a deeply depressing, and occasionally in a less depressing, way). Some of it had be laughing out loud. Some parts had me wanting to punch specific kinds of people. A very good portrayal of subtle put-downs and how tiresome they can be.

The Scarlet Pimpernel -- Baroness Orczy
This is one of my go-to books when my brain needs to shut down. There are so many things in it that really should bother me, from sexism to anti-semitism (and historical inaccuracies), but my mind skips over those bits and land elsewhere. It is pure nostalgia. Also, there is Sir Percy and the idea of doing the difficult thing for the sake of it, and because it is right. That idea gets more and more appealing as the world spirals out of sense and into deeply narcissistic greed.

How Long 'til Black Future Month? -- N. K. Jemisin
I love how Jemisin plays with myths and power structures. I would read anything she writes. Her thought experiments are lovely. And in this collection, it was also interesting to see the early versions of the worlds that became book series.

Før plogen din over de dødes knokler (Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead) -- Olga Tokarczuk
This is a Nobel Prize winner I can get behind. I am not a great fan of astrology and how it keeps popping up in newer literature, but here it fit in with the Blake connection. It is a murder mystery of the best kind, and I loved the ending.

The Mystery of Angelina Frood -- R. Austin Freeman
I have spent the year writing about the fan reception of Dickens Edwin Drood, and while Freeman's book never mentions Dickens or Drood at all both serve as important intertexts. I am not going to spoil the ending, but while it is perfectly serviceable as a Thorndyke mystery, and it contains a very amusing incident with language confusion, it gains another dimension if you are familiar with Dickens' novel and the discussions on its possible endings.

Strong Poison -- Dorothy L. Sayers
Have His Carcase -- Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night -- Dorothy L. Sayers

One of my greatest pleasures this year has been rediscovering Peter Wimsey. All of Peter Wimsey. He is one of my absolute favourite detectives, and I could read these books over and over for the character alone (and Bunter). But I will maintain to my dying day that the books with Harriet Vance are Better. And these in particular. I like Lord Peter's self-revision of his own conduct, and I love how their conversation improves the detection. Despite (?) the aristocratic sleuth, the political tendency of the satire in these novels appeals to me. There is anger simmering underneath.

Dei sju dørene -- Agnes Ravatn
I am ashamed to say I do not often read Norwegian literature, but this managed to get on my radar. I'd say it is Ingrid Winter meets The Seveth Function of Language, but I am not sure that would make sense to anyone but me. Literary criticism and detection is a classic combination, of course. Here, with echoes of Bluebeard and fairy tales.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood -- Charles Dickens
This was the 150th anniversary of Dickens' death, and as a consequence also his final, unfinished novel. I like the later Dickens much better than the earlier, and feel duty bound to love this above all else. I notice that reading it now is very different from when I first read it a decade and a half ago. I cannot help seeing characters through the many Droodian readings -- perhaps particularly Bazzard and Grewgious. Helena and Rosa are very obviously meant to end up together. Consider this the hill I will die on.

Mr Loverman -- Bernardine Evaristo
The Emperor's Babe -- Bernardine Evaristo

Evaristo is stellar. She is perhaps the finest prose stylist I know of, and she combines it with excellent characters and a good, GOOD story. I was so delighted with her perspectives, showing the damage done by racism and homophobia in its wider radius, yet managing to defy it with joy and life; and combining the language and attitude of contemporary London with Roman Londinium.

The Knox Brothers -- Penelope Fitzgerald
The best biography I have read in ages. I started it because I was looking for some specific information on Ronald Knox, but was quickly completely engrossed in his brothers. I am sorry the sisters were not included, but the story of Dilly alone is worth any time invested in this. There are so many wonderful anecdotes, encounters, Edwardians, excellent balance of emotion and puncturing humour. I now want a TV series where the Knox siblings solve crime, variously at Cambridge, Oxford, country houses, the intelligence world, and slums. With a dabbling of Bloomsbury and secret sorcieties.

Northanger Abbey -- Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility -- Jane Austen
How do I love Jane Austen? Let me count the ways. Whenever I read her, I am struck by how applicable her books are to the discussions and debates that surround me. Toxic masculinity galore in Thorpe and Willoughby (and oh my god, in rereading his speech when he shows up believing Marianne to be dying, could he be more self-centred). Money, gendered expectations, aesthetics, privilege, all in glorious, glorious satire.

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome -- Emma Southon
I adored her Agrippina, and this lives up to expectations. I felt bad at giggling to myself over so many deaths, but it was balanced by some very incisive analysis of things that are too often glossed over in discussions of Ancient Rome. I love her vendetta against Tacitus and would not gladly fight him at the slightest provocation. I had some trouble reading the chapter on judicial murer, as it got seriously gruesome, but the intention is good -- a refusal to look away where everyone has been looking away, and a commitment to seeing individual life. And pain. Even (or especially) where history hasn't.

Piranesi -- Susanna Clarke
I am not sure how much I can say about this book without spoiling it. Except that while it is not Jonathan Strange it is well worth reading. One of the most relaxing books I have read, in a beautifully lyrical tone. It left me happy and horrified all at once.

I recommend them all.
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