Ode to joy (and gasps, and thinking)

Here are some of this year’s books that have made me gasp, think, or just brought me joy. Because we can all do with more of that.

Sven Lindquist’s Exterminate All the Brutes (Granta) takes the infamous phrase uttered by the mad Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and uses it as the starting point for a journey across the heart of Africa. In calm, clear prose Lindquist sets out the brutal history on which Europe built its wealth. Gripping and essential.

Toni Morrison died in August, but left us an awe-inspiring body of work; Mouthful of Blood (Chatto & Windus) the collection of her essays and speeches from over 40 years, ranges across American history, as well as discussing the details of her writing process. I particularly loved her insights on writing Beloved, the 1988 novel that won her the Pulitzer prize.

I’m always looking for useful writing advice, and two books stood out for me this year: The Writer’s Eye (Macmillan) by Amy Weldon; and The Multimodal Writer (Macmillan International) by Josie Barnard. Weldon argues that the skill of close observation is key to good writing. A generous writer, she is unafraid to share her own successes and failures; her book is a great resource for writers at all stages. Barnard’s concern is how writers can survive and thrive in the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’. With clear and practical advice and exercises, she explains the concept of the ‘multimodal writer’, writing across platforms and genres, and how to become one. It’s not as daunting as it sounds – many of us are already doing it, and this book is a helpful introduction.

Even under the cosh of a deadline there’s always time to read a short story; one of the collections I’ve enjoyed most this year is May We Borrow Your Country (Linen Press) by the Whole Kahani, a collective of female British writers of South Asian origin. In a rich mix of poetry and prose they illuminate the experience of displacement, whether between countries, or inside a new and strange city. In a strong collection, stories by Reshma Ruia and CG Menon, and poetry by Mona Dash, stood out for me.

Apparently poetry is enjoying a revival – on my bookshelf it’s never gone away. In the wonderful anthology She is Fierce (Macmillan) editor Ana Sampson has collated a truly eclectic selection, from well-known names such as Elizabeth Jennings to newer voices like Hollie McNish. Every time I open it, I find new inspiration.

I’ve had little time to read for pleasure, but three novels made it to the top of the TBR pile. Late to the party I know, but I was blown away by Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under (Vintage) – her twisty tale of a mother/ daughter relationship, but so much more than that. Her depiction of canal boat dwellers’ lives and the natural world – the river becoming a character itself – is extraordinary. I’m looking forward to her next book, Sisters, out next year.

At 89, Edna O’Brien is still tackling difficult subjects with rigour and elegance; she recently received the David Cohen prize, widely regarded as the precursor to the Nobel. Her latest novel, Girl (Faber & Faber) tells the story of a young woman abducted and married into Boko Haram. It’s a tour de force by one of our greatest writers, still demonstrating the courage and empathy which have made her books fierce advocates for women everywhere.

Ben Lerner has been receiving rave reviews for his latest novel The Topeka School (Granta) and it doesn’t disappoint. In multiple viewpoints and shifting timelines this skilled writer examines a white family’s attempt to come to terms with the cult of toxic masculinity. Not an easy read, but a rewarding – and topical – one.

The other list I’m writing is my Christmas wish list, and top of that is The Jewel (Head of Zeus) by Neil Hegarty. I’m looking forward to curling up with this multi-layered story of a mysterious artwork and its legacy, and enjoying Hegarty’s precise and graceful prose.

Happy holidays – and good reading!

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