2020 really hasn’t been the year that any of us suspected it would be. Do you remember back in January when we all had hope for the future? Little did we know that the future would entail being shut inside. Of course, as awful as the last 12 months have been, there were some upsides to the constant lockdowns and shielding. In 2019, I set myself a fairly modest reading target of 50. I assumed that I would beat it but not by much. In 2019, I beat my target of 50 by 9. I had no reason to believe that I would do much better but I was secretly aiming to get through 2 books a week. Still, I decided to give myself a realistic target and not feel like I was pushing myself too far. So, the question was, did I manage to keep the momentum going this year and smash my goal?
It’s nearly the end of 2017 and, as is customary at this time, I am looking back over my literary year. I can’t say that I’ve read a great deal this year but, having never set a reading goal for myself, I consider every book finished to be a victory in itself. 2017 has been a year of great reading slumps and hard slogs through difficult books. If we’re talking stats, I finished 26 book at this point but, fingers crossed, I’ll get another one out of the way before midnight on December 31st. I managed to read 4 of the 17 books on my Most Anticipated Books of 2017 list. I own less than I did from my 2016 list at this point but, more importantly, I actually one more of them. I guess that’s a step in the right direction. Anyway, as I was looking back over the past 12 months, I was faced with an Instagram prompt that demanded I pick my top 5 books of the year. It wasn’t as tough as I expected. I’ve read a lot of good books this year but only a handful of great ones. Almost exactly 10 as it turns out. What a happy, happy coincidence.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders : I have to admit that the order of these books is subject to change at any time. I’ve changed my mind even in the few hours between posting a photo of my top 5 to Instagram and starting this post. However, one thing that is never going to change is my number 1. Lincoln in the Bardo is a reading experience unlike any other that I’ve ever had. It’s well written, original and absolutely captivating. There is real emotion at its very core but, thanks to the large cast of characters, has enough light-hearted moments to keep it moving. I loved this book from start to finish and I am really glad that I didn’t listen to my gut and ignore it. Although, if I’m being honest, this book was made for me because of the audiobook. I really do think it’s the definitive way to approach this tale. You get more of a sense of the characters and it really comes to life. I know some people who weren’t happy about the outcome of the Man Booker 2017 but I will always think this was a worthy winner.
- First Love by Gwendoline Riley : When I reviewed this book on my blog way back in the first half of the year, I admitted that it had faults. There are some things about the narrative and its scope that just didn’t work for me. However, Gwendoline Riley’s writing is absolutely beautiful. I was stunned from the first word. It’s a tough read about characters that you’ll never really like but the language is something you can’t miss. I nearly read this book cover to cover on a train ride to London. There hasn’t been another book all year that has been so easy to get through.
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman : Another book that I “read” as an audiobook but there is something about hearing Neil Gaiman speaking these tales that make them click. These retellings of the classic Norse myths don’t necessarily flow as easily as a Neil Gaiman original but he manages to bring his own sense of charm to the well-known stories. These are a fabulous thing to dip in and out of. He really captures the spirit of the original tales whilst adding a cheeky modern interpretation to some aspects. It’s got things that lovers of both Gaiman and his subject matter will enjoy.
- Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead : Part of me feels unoriginal by putting this in my top 5 considering it’s one of the books of 2017. However, I can’t deny that this is a powerful and incredible read. I don’t think its a flawless read, as I pointed out in my review here on the blog, but Colson Whitehead is a great writer. His unique take on this important aspect of American history is as captivating as it is tragic. I still think he could have taken it a bit further but his ability to create characters that you believe in and care about is astounding. Out of all of my top 5, this is probably the one I’d be least likely to reread but I’m very glad I finally read it.
- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie : This is only as far down the list because it was a rereading and it didn’t seem fair placing it higher. I’m a huge Christie fan and this novel really is one of the best pieces of crime fiction ever written. She crafted such an intricate and surprising narrative within these pages that means it is still entertaining when you know who the killer is. She creates memorable and interesting characters. This is a must read for fans and newbies alike.
- The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet : One of the books from my Most Anticipated List that actually made the cut. I’m so happy! Despite the fact that this novel took me so fucking long to finish I absolutely adored it. This is the book that almost changed my top 5 after my Instagram post. However, this is such a niche and difficult book that I felt it had to sit just outside the greatest of the year. It’s an incredibly original and well-crafted book that expertly mixed historical fact with fiction. It’s funnier than a book on semiotics really has any right to be. It’s also a dense and fairly intense read. Before I read it, I kinda wanted it to be Roland Barthes meets The Da Vinci Code. Upon reading it, I found it too closely resembled the former at times and often felt like I was sitting back in my second year Literary Criticism seminar. Still, if you have the inclination and are interested in French philosophers and critics, then I’d say give it a go.
- The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker : Another book on the list has made it into the top 10. Hooray! I did really like this book but, as I mentioned in my review, I had some issues with it. It was Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel and, at times, it felt really obvious. It was an interesting study of two women’s friendship and their passion for the art. The characterisation was incredible and I really like Whitaker’s gritty style of writing. However, there was far too much going on and I just lost it at times. The narrative was crammed to the rafters and it became difficult to engage. I also found the lengthy descriptions of animated sequences, though integral to the plot, rather awkward. The visual nature of the one medium mixing with the descriptive nature of the other didn’t sit well with me. However, this book was exciting enough that I’ll pick up her next book.
- New Cemetery by Simon Armitage : The only book of poetry that made it onto the list. I have a difficult and complex relationship with Simon Armitage. Part of me finds him really irritating for a reason I can neither explain nor really understand. The other part appreciates the way he can weave words together. This small collection really was beautiful. If it hadn’t been for the heft price tag, it probably would have been higher on the list. What can I say? I’m trying to be frugal over here.
- Autumn by Ali Smith : Don’t really want to say too much about this because I plan on posting my proper review on Wednesday. I only finished this read a couple of days ago but I really enjoyed it. Ali Smith is a wonderfully readable writer, which sounds way worse than it should. She elevates her simple narrative with stunning language and interesting narrative structure. It’s a really deceptive book. It’s high literature posing as lower literature (again that choice of words has all sorts of resonances that I didn’t intend). Unlike the person I saw on Instagram complaining about it, I don’t think it deserved to win the Man Booker but Ali Smith deserves to be recognised for the fucking great talent that she is. My blog isn’t exactly the best place to start but it’s something.
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad : Once again, this is a position not for the book itself but for the audiobook. Not that I have anything against Heart of Darkness. I love it, which is why I was so eager to “read” the story again. It’s a fantastic tale of obsession and the human spirit that deserves its place in literary history. It still wouldn’t have made it into my top 10, however, if it hadn’t been for the Kenneth Branagh Audible exclusive performance. I love Kenny B and his interpretation of this text was amazing. I mean aside from his dodgy female voice at the end.