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2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“There is more, but the handwriting is difficult to interpret.” @mjohnharrison @commapress

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Settling the World: Selected Stories by M. John Harrison

M. John Harrison should need no introduction here, as he’s an author I’ve regularly lauded on the Ramblings. I first read his work back in my early twenties, when I was looking for something else which would feed my addiction for anything like Mervyn Peake. A random review sent me in the direction of the Viriconium books (which I don’t think are anything like Peake, to be honest – nothing is like Peake…), and I was an instant Harrison obsessive, gathering everything I could by him – which was not so easy at the time. As you’ll be able to see from a picture further down this post, I have any number of old crumbly editions of his work, picked up with great excitement in second hand shops in those pre-Internet days, plus quite a few sci fi anthologies featuring his stories. I’ve been reading him ever since, and took great joy in reconnecting with his work on the blog back at the start of 2016. A number of his works have appeared here since, most recently his latest novel “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again”, which I covered for Shiny New Books.

I was naturally very excited, therefore, when I heard that Comma Press were issuing a selection of his short stories (particularly as I rate his work in this form very highly indeed). They’ve previously released a marvellous collection called “You Should Come With Me Now” back in 2017, gathering recent stories; however, the new book is a ‘selected’ volume entitled “Settling the World”. Crucially, this is a career-spanning anthology, and I was delighted when the publishers kindly provided a copy for review!

Harrison’s work first began appearing in print in the 1960s, initially in magazines and anthologies; the first published collection was “The Machine in Shaft Ten” in 1975 (which I reviewed here). Harrison is a prolific writer of short works, and actually keeping track can be complicated as there are so many, and published in many different places. I have a sort of checklist but it’s by no means complete. Add in that the stories have often changed over the years depending on where they appear, and you can see that reading M. John Harrison is always an interesting experience!

Anyway! Enough waffle and on to the book. “Settling the World” contains seventeen stories; the earliest is “The Causeway” from 1971, and the most recent are from our current very troubled year of 2020. The book helpfully gives at the start the original publication date and location, and it fascinates me to see how during a career of over 50 years of writing, Harrison has produced work of such quality which never fails to intrigue and unnerve.

Every day, as we ingest our untailored paste of environmental microplastics, hormones and other transformative pollutants, we move a little further in, losing a little more of what it used to mean to be human and gaining a little more of what it means now.

I was, of course, particularly pleased to see some stories from “Machine…” resurface, as I rate that collection very highly. However, the collection “The Ice Monkey” from 1983 is well represented too, and these stories are particularly stunning. The title story is especially memorable, mixing elements of the unexplained and climbing, two strands of interest in Harrison’s work which often converge. To be honest, he rarely writes what would be called a conventional narrative (which is one of the things I love about his work); and even when something starts out like that (“The Course of the Heart”, perhaps) it doesn’t stay like that. I was also really pleased about the inclusion of the excellent and rather spooky “Doe Lea” which I read and reviewed in chapbook form last year; it’s a wonderfully disconcerting piece of work and deserves a wider audience.

The stories here, like all Harrison’s work, defy classification; there are sci fi influenced stories like the title one, where God has been rediscovered and towed back to Earth, but is not what you might originally think; or “The Crisis” from 2017, which features a kind of jelly-like alien entity focusing its visits to our world on the financial centres. Then there are tales like “The Incalling” from 1978 with strange occult undertones and unexplained rituals; or “The East” from 1996, a story centred on a refugee – but from *what* ‘East’? Then, of course, there is “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, a story which has appeared in numerous MJH anthologies or collections, and even been subject to a change in title and focus which might be considered startling…

The rest of my MJH collection (apart from a Viriconium anthology currently loaned to Eldest Child…)

Well, you get the picture. The joy of reading M. John Harrison is that nothing is ever what it seems, and even those stories which could notionally be called sci fi are never that straightforward. Interestingly, reading this wonderful mixture of old and new I sensed resonances between a number of the stories and other works by MJH. “The Incalling”, for example, hints at events in “The Course of the Heart” and seemed to me to have echoes in “The Sunken Land…

Much of the crescent was untenanted. In company with the surrounding streets it had been built as a genteel transit camp and matured as a ghetto. Now it was a long declining dream. I stood at the door of Mrs Sprake’s house, staring at the cracked flags, the forgotten net curtains bunched and sagging like dirty ectoplasm, the tilted first-floor balconies with their strange repetitive wrought-iron figures, and wondering if it might not be better to leave now before anyone had time to answer the bell. All the other doors were boarded up. Old paint hung like shredded wallpaper from the inner curve of an arched window. Across the road one whole building was missing from the terrace – fireplaces and outlines of extinct rooms clung to the walls of the flanking houses.

And one element I picked up on whilst reading this stories was the sheer skill of Harrison’s writing. His prose is excellent, often stopping you short at some marvellous juxtapositions; but I particularly noticed his sense of place and the landscapes he uses in his stories. His characters often occupy marginal spaces, parts of cities or places which are often in a state of complete entropy. Harrison lived in London during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when areas of it were still being rebuilt (and the pre-gentifrication areas are conjured brilliantly). In fact, as someone who can remember the 1970s well and the 1960s a bit, I recognised these outlands; the edges of towns and cities where the old tenements were being demolished and replaced by tower blocks; and those almost primitive, decaying areas are vivid settings for his stories.

In truth, this exemplary collection could more accurately be titled “Unsettling the World”; Harrison’s stories disturb our everyday placidity, and his characters, existing in liminal areas which seem to straddle our world and another stranger one, often experience unexplained events which are the stuff of nightmares. “Settling the World” is a marvellous collection in every sense of the word; it’s an excellent introduction to the range of M. John Harrison’s writing over the length of his career; and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

(Review copy kind provided by Comma Press, for which many thanks! You can get a copy of the book direct from the publisher here)

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