My top twenty books of 2015

1144This year, I read 166 books for pleasure. (My definition of ‘pleasure’ here includes background reading for new modules, research projects, reader’s reports, reviews, blurbs, etc, as well as ploughing through books that have been cluttering up the house for years – or decades – before donating them to the local charity shop; hence I am surprised to find four of my top twenty were actually published in 2015).

Portnoy compliance data:
All of the world except… = 87
…straight white men writing in English = 74
plus multi-authored in ways too complex to divide = 5
(but only about 40 by women)

Top twenty titles (excluding books I’ve read before)

Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots (2008)
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (1993)
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (1979)
Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (2008)
Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement (2009)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers (1953)
Sapphire, Push (1996)
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (1956)

Short stories
Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun (2015)
Nerine Dorman, ed, Terra Incognita: New Speculative Fiction from Africa (2015)
Abdelfattah Kilito, The Clash of Images (1995)
China Miéville, Three Moments of An Explosion (2015)
Sam Selvon, Ways of Sunlight (1957)

Sam Greenlee, Ammunition! (1975)

Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, Concrete Park: You Send Me (2014)
–. Concrete Park: R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (2015)
Gene Luen Yang, Boxers (2013)

Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (1954)
— The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-29 (1959)
The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40 (1963)

The full list of books I read this year
Brian Aldiss, Bury My Heart at WH Smith’s
Helliconia Summer
The Twinkling of an Eye
Michelle Alexander and Jeanne Long, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: The Universal Don’ts of Dating
Monica Ali, Brick Lane
Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side
Grant Allen, The Woman Who Did
Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke
Guillermo Arriaga, The Guillotine Squad
Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg, eds, Cosmic Critiques: How and Why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work
Marc Augé, The Future

JG Ballard, High Rise (film reviewed)
The Drowned World
Lynne Reid Banks, The L-Shaped Room
René Barjavel, Ashes, Ashes
Steven Barnes, Streetlethal
Walter Besant, The Revolt of Man
Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way
David Bischoff, Young Sun Ra and the Strange Celestial Roads
Andy Boot, Fragments of Fear: An Illustrated History of British Horror Films
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day
Dennis Broe, Maverick
Michael Bronski, Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps
Keith Brooke, ed., Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction
Octavia Butler, Dawn
Adulthood Rites

Brian Chikwava, Harare North
Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger
Teju Cole, Open City
Warwick Collins, Gents
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
Richard Cowper, The Custodians, and Other Stories
The Twilight of Briareus

Chris Darke, La jetée
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921
— The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsksy 1921-29
The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40
Bernard F Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures
Joan Didion, Where I Was From
Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun
Brian Dooley, Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America
Nerine Dorman, ed, Terra Incognita: New Speculative Fiction from Africa
Fyodor Dostoevksy, Notes from Underground
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
–. Uncle Bernac: A Memory of the Empire
David Duffy, Losing the Head of Philip K Dick
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
Nell Dunn, Up the Junction

Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia, eds, China Miéville: Critical Essays
George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Fails
David Eggers, A Hologram for the King
Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots
Allen Eyles, House of Horror: The Complete Hammer Films Story

Michael Fabre, Under the Skin
Hans Fallada, Tales from the Underworld
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
Eric Flint, Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett, 1636: The Kremlin Games
Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Norton, 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K Le Guin
Carl Freedman, Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville

Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
William Gibson, The Peripheral
Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism
Robert SC Gordon, Bicycle Thieves
Joe Gores, Hammett
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Karl Taro Greenfield, Speed Tribes: Children of the Japanese Bubble
Sam Greenlee, Ammunition!
Walter Greenwood, Love on the Dole
John Grindrod, Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain

Joe Haldeman, The Long Habit of Living
Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army
Knut Hamsun, Hunger
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Mark Harris, Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood
Ivor W Hartmann, ed., AfroSF, volume 2 
Brett Harvey, The Fifties: A Woman’s Oral History
Mary Higgs, Glimpses into the Abyss
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
Andrew Holleran, Dancer from the Dance
Tendai Huchu, The Maestro, the Magician and the Mathematician
Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

CLR James, Letters from London
James Joyce, Dubliners

Anton Kaes, M
Sue Kaufman, The Diary of a Mad Housewife
Gerald Kersh, Night and the City (here and here)
Abdelfattah Kilito, The Clash of Images
Stephen King, Doctor Sleep
The Shining
Cyril M Kornbluth, Not this August
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future
Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin
Henry Kuttner, Elak of Atlantis

George Lamming, The Emigrants
Andrea Levy, Small Island
Marina Lewycka, Two Caravans
Megan Lindholm, Wizard of the Pigeons
Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners
Jack London, The People of the Abyss

Neil McAleer, Odyssey: The Authorised Biography of Arthur C Clarke
Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan
The Three Impostors
The Terror
Colin Macinnes, Absolute Beginners
City of Spades
Katherine Mansfield, In a German Pension
Richard Marsh, The Chase of the Ruby
The Datchet Diamonds
Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami, or the Secret History of a Scoundrel
Quentin Meillassoux, Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction
China Miéville, This Census Taker
Three Moments of An Explosion
Rick Moody, The Ice Storm
Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, volume one
Susanna Moore, In the Cut

VS Naipaul, The Mimic Men
Frank Norris, Blix
Moran of the Lady Letty
Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, eds, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis

Liam O’Flaherty, The Informer
Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret

Félix J Palma, The Map of Time
Richard Powers, Generosity
Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, Concrete Park: You Send Me
–. Concrete Park: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Raymond Queneau, Zazie in the Metro

Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers
Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made
David S. Roh, Betsey Huang and Greta A. Niu, eds, Techno-Orientalism: Imaging Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media
Satyajit Ray, The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Sunjeev Sahota, Ours are the Streets
Sapphire, Push
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners
–. Ways of Sunlight
Khairy Shalaby, The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets
Patrick Sheeran, The Informer
Anne River Siddons, The House Next Door
Sister Souljah, The Coldest Winter Ever
Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye
The Girls of Slender Means
Colin Spencer, Homosexuality: A History
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net
Herbert Strang, Round the World in Seven Days
The Old Man of the Mountain
Mrs Herbert Strang, The Girl Crusoes
Neil Strauss, ed., Radiotext(e)
Boris and Arkaday Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God (film reviewed)
Preston and Sandy Sturges, Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges

Rose Tremain, The Road Home

Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation
Dai Vaughan, Odd Man Out
Jules Verne, The Sphinx of the Ice Realm

HG Wells, The Autocracy of Mr Parham
The Time Machine
Brian Willems, Shooting the Moon
Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Gene Luen Yang, Boxers
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
Benjamin Zephaniah, Refugee Boy

Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots (2008)

9780141031521It takes a while to get your head around the generic cues and fictional world of this comical and fantastical neo-slave narrative. It flickers between an alternate history and (race) role-reversal satire, each seeming to conflict with the other. A long succession of gags about Africanised London place names – gags which are not particularly funny (such as Mayfah, Paddinto, Golda’s Green, Brixtane and, settled by Chinese seamen, To Ten Ha Ma) but which ultimately pay off with a geological reference to the Essex massif – clashes with a growing certainty that this Londolo is not in the country called England. And so you turn back to the map in the front-matter and everything becomes clear.

Blonde Roots is not a role-reversal narrative in which everything stays the same apart from race relations, as in, say, Desmond Nakano’s 1995 film, White Man’s Burden. Nor is it an alternate history like, say, Steven Barnes’ Insh’Allah novels (2002–3), in which some not-unreasonable extrapolation underpins a relatively rigorously worked-out world dominated by an Islamic Africa for two millennia, and in which Europeans are the victims of an alternative Triangular Trade, abducted and sold into slavery in Bilalistan (as North America is called).

No, what that map reveals is an alternative terrestrial geography.

An island shaped like Britain (unaccompanied by Ireland), but perhaps larger and called the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa spans the equator off the western coast of north Africa, which is also located further south than in our world. It is not quite clear what has happened to the rest of Africa since it is squeezed off the edge of the map by a Europe, here called Europa, displaced to the south of the Gulf of Guinea. England and Wales, but not Scotland, are wedged into the gap between this relocated northwest Europe and Scandinavia.

While it is entertaining to imagine a seasoned sf pro labouring to establish some geophysical perturbation causing this alternative dispersal of the Pangaea supercontinent, and in turn leading to this inverted social order, that is not where Bernadine Evaristo’s interests lie – nor is doing so as much fun as reading the novel itself.

A comedy about slavery is no easy thing to pull off, as the disastrously misogynist and not terribly funny French timeslip comedy Case départ (2011), directed by Lional Steketee and its co-starring co-writers Fabrice Eboué and Thomas N’Gijol, demonstrates. But it is by no means impossible. Ishmael Reed manages it (more or less) in Flight to Canada (1976), as does Charles Johnson (less than more) in Middle Passage (1990).

From the outset, Blonde Roots has some nice comic touches – in its world, the West Indies are called the ‘West Japanese Islands … because when the “great” explorer and adventurer, Chinua Chikwuemeka, was trying to find a new route to Asia, he mistook those islands for the legendary isles of Japan, and the name stuck’ (5) – but sometimes the comedy sits a little uneasily. For example, the protagonist, Doris Snagglethorpe, abducted from the Cabbage Coast (i.e., Yorkshire), transported to Great Ambossa, sold into slavery and renamed Omorenomwara, is branded with the initials of her owner, Kaga Konata Katamba, and his daughter, her first mistress, Panyin Ige Ghika.

Omorenomwara, who hates Panyin, no doubt gets the PIG half the joke, but the KKK half – and the entire joke, if a white slave being branded KKK PIG is a joke – only works for the reader.

Role reversals and inversions come thick and fast to begin with – monogamy is condemned by the polygamous Ambossans as ‘uneconomical, selfish, typically hypocritical and just plain backwards’ (19); house slaves are known as ‘wiggers’ (24); prosperous Ambrossan urban centres are known as ‘Chocolate Cities’ and ‘the tumbledown ghettos on the outskirts’ where ‘free whytes’ live in ‘squalor’ are called ‘Vanilla Suburbs’ (29) – but as the world is established and the narrative begins to come together, the comedy becomes less gag-oriented and  Evaristo expands her comic vision to capture also the pain and tragedy. Misgivings fade.

The novel switches between three strands: Omorenomwara’s present, as she attempts to flee on the Underground Railroad but ends up exiled to a West Japanese sugar plantation and must try to make some kind of life for herself there; Omorenomwara’s memories of her life as Doris and of her years as a house wigger; and an autobiographical pamphlet by Kaga Konata Katamba which includes his justifications for enslaving the self-evidently inferior Caucasians.

Families and lovers long separated by the slave system reunite, sometimes only fleetingly, and a sense of community thrives among brutalised slaves because they are dependent on each other. And in this final section of the novel, Evaristo gets the tone perfect. She reproduces that tired old cliché of slaves singing together in the fields, but makes it clear they do so out of mutual care and to support each other, not because they are happy. She shows them singing on command to welcome their visiting owner, and counterpoints it with them singing for themselves. And she includes the eleven-year-old slave Dingiswayo, ‘strutt[ing] about the quarter in a pair of outsized, hand-me-down cotton pants worn so that the waist hung (somehow) beneath his bum’ (204).

There is always a danger with role-reversal satire that the reader or viewer’s sense of injustice will be aroused for the wrong reason. Not by patriarchy and misogyny, but because men are being treated like women. Not by slavery and racism, but because people of pallor are being treated like people of colour. Blonde Roots’ fractured structure of narrators and temporalities helps it to avoid this pitfall, but for me there was something else, something curious, going on.

I kept forgetting that the slave characters were white.

I suppose this is because the novel mostly uses their Ambossan slave names, rather than their European names; and because so much of the cultural imagery around slavery features enslaved Africans; and because, being a novel rather than a film, there was an absence of concrete visual detail to fix their appearance.

Then every few pages I was brought up short as I remembered, as this potent anamnesis – this remembering of things forgotten – swept over me.

I have no idea whether the novel will work in this way for other people, and I have yet to figure out what it means. But it was powerful and disorientating. The way a good book should affect you.