My favourite books of 2020

Despite having more free time in 2020 than in most years, I’ve done very little reading. I finished 11 books in January, and I read the same number of books in the four months between August and November. The ongoing pandemic has done very little for my concentration. I’m not sure quite what I’ve done with my time dividend, but it certainly hasn’t been reading.

The total number of books I read this year is 52, but I am going to pick ten as in previous years, although the odds are a little higher for a 2020 book. So, in title order, here are my favourite books for the year:

  1. 4,3,2,1 by Craig Brown – There are a lot of books about the Beatles, all of which tell the same story. Brown’s book uses a variety of techniques to draw out new angles, and I was surprised at how fresh it felt. Given that the book was mostly research-based, this was an impressive feat.
  2. The Book of Trespass by Nick HayesReviewed here
  3. By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar – Another retelling of legends, this time an Arthuriad. Tidhar mixes previous retellings with pop-culture to come up with something fresh. Even familiar ground can reveal new things.
  4. Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk – Yes, it’s a how-to-write book, and it’s basically how-to-write-like-Chuck-Palahniuk. But there are some great insights about writing and community, and it’s made me miss writing workshops.
  5. Exit West by Mohsin HamadReviewed here
  6. The Glass Hotel by Emily Mandel – Easily my book of the year, and I knew this when I wrote about it back in June. You should read this.
  7. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – a powerful mix of art criticism and memoir, and a book that made me want to applaud as it reached its final creshendo.
  8. The Museum of Whales You’ll Never SeeReviewed here.
  9. Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers – I was quite late coming to this, but it was a brutal and captivating book which made a strong impression.
  10. Weather by Jenny Offill – an amazing novel of fragments, which I reviewed in February. Much of the detail of the book has faded in my memory, but this makes me want to return to it.

Fewer books than last year but, I think, a more consistent top ten. A surprising number of books that were published this year, as well as a lot more fiction than last year, when I only picked one novel. I feel quite inspired looking back at this list.

Thinking About American Utopia

Kate Shields will not shut up about Talking Heads. At lot of this time it’s been about the 1984 movie Stop Making Sense. This year, David Byrne released a new movie with the great Spike Lee, and it was obvious that something had to give. Kate and I have been friends for over a decade and I’ve yet to see Stop Making Sense; but on Christmas Day we watched American Utopia.

(It might not sound like a Christmas movie, but I asked Kate to pick the films. I have a bit of a tradition of watching incredibly bleak movies over Christmas – Threads being a nadir. This was not an option as far as Kate was concerned)

The main innovation in the American Utopia show is that the band’s 12 performers are not tethered to a particular location. This requires the use of harnesses to attach their instruments, and three independent percussionists. Seeing the emptiness of the stage, and the movement that the show allows, I was impressed. I wondered why no-one had done this before.

When I thought about it, the answer was obvious. Allowing the performers to move like this requires a load of technology. You need consistent wireless connections and good batteries that are small enough to be unobtrusive. The best thing was that the technology was used invisibly, even while it was essential to the show.

One of the things I miss from my MA was being exposed to culture I would not watch off my own back. American Utopia is a perfect example of this, and it made me think a lot about how I can use technology in similar ways in my own work. Through email and social media, text has become a far more significant experience in most people’s lives, yet fiction doesn’t seem to have benefitted from this.

There is also the question of what a book is in this age (something Craig Mod and James Bridle have both interrogated at points). The boundaries of the covers no longer exist in the same way – I can switch between audiobook, Kindle and hardcopy. A physical book isn’t so important as a way of enjoying stories.

And much of the text we read is fragmented. I’ve long been fascinated with micro fiction and fragments. These should be a much more successful medium in a world where we can ricochet between baby photos, doom scrolling and parody memes. (One example of this working being, of course, creepypasta).

The web is a much more complicated place than it was before, and much harder to navigate technically. But there should be interesting ways to use this technology – but while also placing it in the background.

American Utopia was simply a recording of a concert show, but it has inspired me and made me think. I am going to watch Stop Making Sense soon. But I want to think a lot more about this one first.

Review: The Book of Trespass

I had to get the Book of Trespass after reading a promotional interview with author Nick Hayes. It was fascinating and I was almost frustrated at how many other subjects it made me want to read about, such as the Harrying of the North or the King of the Gypsies.

The book is a history of trespass in the UK, along with Hayes’ accounts of his own incursions. Private land is something taken for granted in this country; so much so that, as Hayes describes, being told we’re trespassing has a near-magical effect, a speech act producing physical responses in the listener. By tracing out the history of land, Hayes shows us that this ownership is an invention. This history of property is embedded so deeply in our language that it is almost invisible. Hayes explains that that the word ‘forest’ derived from the latin word ‘foris’ meaning outside, alluding to how the forests were royal hunting grounds, outside the normal law of the land.

I’m not sure how well the accounts of trespassing sat with the scholarship. It felt, a little, like the book was trying to fit into the “man-has-an-adventure” genre. It’s not to say that the personal accounts weren’t fascinating, just that it felt like two books running alongside each other.

The book shows how many of the ills of the world are played out in the land, particularly in English land. While some on the right are trying to make the connection between British manor houses and slavery controversial, Hayes shows clearly that ownership of British land is still defined by the atrocities committed years ago. We are told that the crimes and lawbreaking of the past should be forgotten, while upholding the law in the present day; told that an arbitrary removal of this current property is an injustice. Looked at from one angle, this becomes odd and arbitrary. Why should land obtained by past theft be sacrosanct now?

While Hayes can see the importance of laws like the right to roam, he points out that such things also reinforce the idea that there is a set of land rightfully lost to us. Having read this book, it’s hard to see how Britain can really be a democracy when its property laws are so unfair; but the book also opens up possibilities.

One of the characters in the book is Richard Drax, MP for South Dorset since 2010. Drax owns over 13,000 acres of land in Dorset, among other holdings. Drax has strongly dismissed any criticism of his family and his fortune being linked to the slave trade.

You will have seen Drax’s estate if you’ve driven along the A31. It has one of the longest brick walls in Europe, and includes the striking stag gate. In 2013, Drax voted to increase curbs on immigration, saying “I believe, as do many of my constituents, that this country is full

As Hayes says (p371), “If England is full, it is full of space. And the walls that hide that”

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See

I’ll happily pick out a book because of a good title: and The Museum of Whales You Will Never See is an excellent title. Given that the book bearing the title is a travel book about Icelandic museums, I had to buy it.

Iceland’s population is, according to wikipedia, 364,000. Brighton has a population of 230,000 – so Iceland is basically a nation the size of Brighton and Lewes combined. Somehow, this small country has 265 museums. Nobody is quite sure why Iceland has so many, but it is apparently a recent phenomenon.

A. Kendra Greene’s book describes her visits to some of these museums. The writing is exquisite and reminds me of Borges, with subtle and stunning flights of erudition, such as the lovely section about Hermai. The real things she describes sound fantastical, like how Icelanders used seal- or fish-skin for shoes, which wore out quickly. They would measure the distances in terms of how many shoes they needed. Or, take this quote:

Indeed, there is a certain practice in Iceland of making a display of one’s home window. Not everyone does it, and it’s only ever one window of a home, a single stage, but there some combination of taxidermy or seashells or figurines or fake flowers in a little vase. Not a lot of things, not like storage, but the windowsill subbing as a bookshelf. No, just a few things, a spare kind of diorama: just a part of black converse shoes and a puffin posed on a rock.

Another lovely piece of phrasing comes when Greene talks about ‘qualified superlatives’: “The brochure claims ‘Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum is considered the largest private bird collection that is known in Iceland’. One only wonders about collections yet unknown.

The book makes me think of two offbeat museums that I love: Anna’s Museum in Brighton (which now has an entry on Atlas Obscura); and the Museum of Jurassic Technology (I wrote a zine about my trip there). Museums can be simple things, growing from a small wunderkammer, like Anna’s windows. Greene’s book suggests that everyone should have their own museum, however small.

Review: Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire

I have very few vices, but one of them is a love of political diaries and insider accounts. Part of it is the gossip, but there’s also a fascination in seeing glimpses of how the world really works. Sometimes these glimpses have changed my views: Alastair Campbell’s diaries gave me a more sympathetic view of New Labour; and Tim Shipman’s description of Corbyn’s behaviour during the Brexit campaign made me consider him less favourably than my friends do.

Swire’s book is an odd one, starting with its disingenuous introduction. Here, Swire claims that she showed the book to a literary agent “out of curiosity, and somewhat foolishly” and was “swept up into a publishing tornado“. She makes it sound accidental. Even more fascinating, the agent in question was Boris Johnson’s sister’s sister-in-law – small world.

I’m amazed that this book was published. It is vicious and open in its portrayal of the upper classes and their casual privilege. These are simply not very nice people, who use their money as a license to act badly. As the New Statesman memorably put it, “like a chili pepper inserted into a racehorse’s anus, this book is guaranteed to get your class war dander up”.

It’s Christopher Moran buying a cheap lease on Crosby Hall and throwing out the “old biddies“ living there before transforming it into a £25 million thirty-bedroom mansion. It’s Hugh, the MP husband, joking that a buyer in an auction must be on benefits to be bidding £60,000. It’s the resentful way the Swires deal with problems at Port Eliot festival, where they hired a teepee, “at huge expense” (I think I was there that same year and got flooded out in my own cheap tent). It’s mocking Pauline Prescott as “fragrant”, and sneering at her taste. It’s Prime Minister Cameron, involved in discussion about which female MPs are “beddable”. It’s Daily Mail heir Johanthan Rothermere and his wife taking delight in switching the ownership of a mansion to his wife to protect his “sort of non Dom” status. There are so many more such moments.

As an aside, I particularly liked one particular mention of the Rothermeres:

Despite its grand scale, [The Rothermere house] is as discreet as a military base on an Ordnance Survey map; land was purchased all around it to protect their privacy. Ironic, I know. Only one hill remains out of their possession and is clearly quite an irritation to them.

There are more differences between the rich and regular people, other than just the money. There is a episode where Swire is involved in preparations for a royal visit. Her daughter transcribes the security officer’s discussions, playing at being a spy. This notebook is then left behind at a pizza restaurant. Swire tells this as a funny story, rather than an appalling breach of security. But people like this don’t deal with consequences. To be fair, it is funny that the security officers were openly discussing the arrangements in front of someone who was writing it all down. But breaches of security like this would be a disciplinary offence for most people. It must be good to be so safe from consequences.

The book is readable, apart from the occasional bits of purple prose. My main criticism, obviously, was that there were some good sections on hiking, and these should have been given more space. I suspect that’s just me.

The book leaves me wondering, what was Swire thinking? The Guardian’s review sums it up: ”If you needed proof that Britain has been misruled by the unserious, entitled, snobbish, incestuous and curiously childish then the acerbic Lady Swire, unwittingly or not, has provided it.”

Swire at one point laments that “The electorate want gods above them and are disappointed to find humans who turn out to be just as fallible as themselves”. Most of the people I know are decent and kind and generous, and Swire has given a portrait of people who are more fallible than anyone I know.

Swire, again: “It’s enough to repulse the ordinary man, already angered by the continuing hold of the British class system”. People are angry a lot these days – just look at what Twitter became. Aimless anger suits the sort of people described by Swire, who benefit undeservedly from the class system. Far more important is actually doing something about it.

1,001 Bucket Lists to Complete Before You Die

While I hate the idea of them, bucket lists fascinate me. It’s the way that they reduce life to a set of tasks to complete before the ultimate deadline.

It’s particularly creepy how the media promotes impersonal bucket lists, almost-arbitrary requirements to have lived a ‘complete’ life. There is a whole series of books based around things that you should do before you die, produced by Quintessence Editions. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 1001 Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die. 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die. And so on.

I know these books are not really intended to be completed, but I find the idea that you might try enthralling. I have to hold myself back from researching or writing about this, because it’s a black hole and I have too many distractions already.

But, I can imagine a book collecting these books – 1001 Bucket Lists to Complete Before you Die. I can see each one graded – difficulty, novelty, time to complete and so on.

Take the book of 1000 books to read before you die. If you managed 100 books a year, that is ten years of solid reading. I only manage 100 books on a good year, and one that involves a lot of travelling. 1,000 books will take even longer if you interrupt it with other books. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is, allowing for sleep, about 9 weeks. Then there are the ones requiring travel, such as 1001 restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die. Maybe you could combine that with another book requiring travel but even so… it’s a lot.

And so many others… 101 chillies to try before you die. 1001 TV Series to Watch (how many hours is each of these?). 101 Gins. 1001 plants you must grow before you die. Although I am quite tempted to browse 1001 Walks You must experience before you die. I doubt I could get even a tenth of the way through that in what remains of this lifetime.

I wish I had time before I die to review 1001 of these volumes. I think it would make quite a book.

Nemesis the Warlock

I’ve recently been re-reading Nemesis the Warlock. This was an 80s comic strip serialised in British weekly anthology 2000AD. I was amazed at how well this held up, particularly when compared to contemporary American comics.

Nemesis is set thousands of years in the future. Earth, now renamed Termight, has been hollowed out to form a massive city which includes huge gravity-defying roadways. The Terran Empire is ruled by Torquemada, an reincarnation of the 15th century Spanish priest who led the Spanish Inquisition. This modern Torquemada leads a genocidal campaign of extermination against both his own people (including dream scanners – ‘Sleep is no refuge for impure thoughts’) and against the galaxy’s aliens. An alien resistance movement called Credo is fighting back, led by a powerful warlock called Nemesis. The saga focusses on the struggle between the two.

Comedy is an important part of this story. Fascism is repeatedly mocked, with bigotry portrayed as, not simply evil, but ridiculous. There are the slogans (‘Be pure, be vigilant, behave’ turned up on the Holy Bible album) and ridiculous hypocrisy. One double-page spread features a Torquemada convention, mocking the sort of events held in the comics industry., where the dictator’s ‘fans’ buy expensive tat.

The early books, illustrated by Kevin O’Neill and Bryan Talbot, are incredibly detailed. Kevin O’Neill, the first artist, was actually once banned by the comics code authority for his very style. There are also photo stories by Brighton’s Tony Luke, but my favourite artist on the character is John Hicklenton. He worked on the two ‘historical’ books, one set in the Inquisition, and one set in the Thatcher period. The very figures of the characters here are twisted and grotesque, Torquemada’s body seeming to be bursting from its skin.

I read Nemesis for the first time when book 7 was originally published. This one featured Torquemada travelling back in time to meet his ancestor during the Spanish Inquisition. I was 11 years old at the time, and the comic is strong stuff. Setting a science fiction comic during such an ugly period of history is strange but works to great effect.

Book 9 was set in (at the time) contemporary London. Torquemada has been sent back through a time accident, and has set himself up as chief of police. At the same time, he takes advantage of people displaced from ‘time accidents’ as a slum landlord. It should be a disaster, but it worked – even the section where Torquemada was obsessed by one of his tenants, a Goth student.

For me, the most shocking thing about Nemesis was how well it had had aged, with the satire hitting as hard as it did at the time. The oppressive Britain in Book 9 is probably slightly less of an exaggeration than it was at the time, when the home office send squads to capture illegal immigrants. It would be easy to fit a Farage or a Johnson among the characters of the Terran empire.

Few artists working in contemporary superhero comics are creating such detailed work (although the pace was brutal for the original artists). The book’s complexity probably stands against it being a classic and it never worked in the US editions, where is was shrunk and recoloured. I don’t think there would be much culture I enjoyed at 11 which would impress me as much as Nemesis has decades later.

Review: ‘Pink Floyd are Fogbound in Paris’ by Ben Graham

I read a version of Ben Graham’s new book ‘Pink Floyd are Fogbound in Paris’ in March, just as lockdown was starting. The book was written for the 50th Anniversary of the doomed ‘Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz’ festival and is officially published next month. It’s turned out to be a sadly appropriate book for a summer without festivals.

Ben does a great job of telling the story, using his research without quite puncturing the legendary parts of the tale. “On the weekend of August 14-16, 1970, roughly 25,000 people gathered for the first Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz Festival. It was also the last”.

There’s a lovely story arc, as the enthusiastic promoters do their best to put on a festival, find solutions to many problems but ultimately doomed by forces they can’t control. Ben paces the narrative well and provides some lovely asides.

I’ve been to some grim festivals. I’ve seen muddy years at Glastonbury, and was a day visitor to one of the flood years at Download. I also enjoyed the charmingly shambolic final Playgroup festival. But the problems faced by the Krumlin festival went beyond that: an isolated, exposed location, beset by vicious weather. It was a true festival hell.

The physical book is really good looking. I adore the cover, and there are some fantastic photos. I particularly liked the one of Christy Moore standing on the M62, which was being built at the time. This motorway lurks wonderfully in the background of the story, with Ben using quotes from a report on its construction to illustrate the severity of weather conditions at one point.

I re-read the book on an English summer’s day, sat in a garden marquee while it pissed down outside. Even though I didn’t know a lot of the bands, the tale is really one of man versus the elements. It’s well worth reading – and definitely essential for anyone who’s idly thought, “I reckon we should put on a festival”.

Purple People Publication!

Exciting post this week: Kate Bulpitt’s novel Purple People has arrived!

In an effort to tackle dispiriting, spiralling levels of crime and anti-social behaviour, the government has a new solution: to dye offenders purple

Kate describes the book as a ‘jolly dystopia’, which is a lovely phrase. She’s certainly pulled off a very different type of dystopia. It’s sinister but also comforting and English. I mean, it’s easy to write moody, scary scenarios. Kate has written something light without making it unserious.

Purple People was produced through a crowdfunding campaign, which means I originally ordered the book back in October 2017. One of the things I love about crowdfunding is that it is not just about buying a book, it’s also about the excitement of seeing it come together. I’ve loved watching the hard work Kate put into writing and promoting this book.

I was also lucky enough to be one of the book’s beta-readers (which is how I can be so confident about promoting the book when the e-book only dropped in a few days ago). I read it back in February, and it’s been interesting how much it resonates with the current state of the world.

Kate’s also had enthusiastic responses from people like Emma Jane Unsworth (“Purple People is JOYOUS… warm, witty, wildly imaginative and utterly original”) and David Quantick (“that rare thing, a warm-hearted satire… it has teeth AND a heart.”).

The best thing about Purple People is that it is original. I read a lot of dystopian fiction over the years and have become a little jaded with the genre. The deceptive lightness of this book is refreshing. It’s now available on amazon (just £3.99 on kindle) and you should give it a try.

I love putting friend’s books on my shelves. Here’s Kate’s book in its new home, between Burroughs and Bronte, with Borges, Brautigan and Richard Blandford just near by.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

If Emily St John Mandel’s novel The Glass Hotel is not my favourite book of 2020 I will be surprised. I’ll also be delighted, because books this good are not as common as I’d like. Mandel’s previous novel, Station Eleven, is a wonderful story about the survivors of a flu pandemic. This latest one was described in a Guardian review as being about “the global financial crisis as a ghost story“. I couldn’t resist the idea of such a book that included finance, shipping and luxury hotels.

The book tells the story of a number of characters whose lives are entangled. The sweep of lives and time reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad. The writing is fantastic, building empathy for the characters as well as including some great epigrams (“luxury is a weakness” or “there’s a difference between being intelligent and knowing what to do with your life”).

Much of the book follows a young woman called Vincent through a life of sudden luxury. She finds this a strange fantasyland, saying to one character “I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country“.

Vincent is fully aware of how her life has changed, from working in a bar to being rich. “What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life

Throughout the book there is a sense of growing doom. Early in the book, one character asks another “Do you find yourself sort of secretly hoping that civilization collapses just so that something will happen?” One character and his partner are financially ruined, and he grapples with “an unspoken understanding: neither of them would leave this continent again”.

None of which captures how strange this book is. The incursions of weirdness in the the characters’ lives is subtle, and the real elements feel almost as haunting; like that feeling you get walking through quiet hotels: “he didn’t feel alone in all this space, all of these empty corridors and rooms. It was as though the hotel were haunted, but in the most benign sense: the rooms still held an air of presence, a sense of occupation, as if at any moment the boat might pull in with new guests and Raphael might walk out of his office complaining about the latest staffing problem.

This haunting also comes through in the discussions of shipping and the infrastructure that holds the world together; magically keeping the shelves stocked, notably only when it fails. “there are tens of thousands of ships at sea at any given moment and he liked to imagine each one as a point of light, converging into rivers of electric brilliance over the night oceans, flowing through the narrow channels of the Suez and Panama Canals, the Strait of Gibraltar, around the edges of continents and out into the oceans, an unceasing movement that drove countries, a secret world that he loved so much”.

The Glass Hotel contains links to Station Eleven, one being that the same flu virus is present in both books, but the outbreak is only mentioned briefly as being under control in the Glass Hotel. And while The Glass Hotel has little overt connection to the current moment, it felt like the perfect book for thr current time. As Mandel said in an interview at the University of Florida, “You can make an argument that the world’s become more bleak, but I feel like we always think we’re living at the end of the world. When have we ever felt like it wasn’t going to be catastrophic?