I began my reading year on the first of January finishing Having and Being Had, by Eula Biss, on the ferry on the way over to Waiheke, and then again on the ferry sailing back, after a particularly perfect day. I loved this book with the determination Biss has to hold onto her discomfort with her relative prosperity, and her frankness about her feelings and about the finances of her life; The Happiest Man on Earth, author Eddie Jaku, writer Liam Pieper, about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, and about the Nazi era loss of morality, important, always, to remember; Three Rings, by Daniel Mendelsohn, about the composition of his book on the Odyssey which I loved so much, and itself an intricately arranged set of circles, digressions and returns; The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, a well-turned story, set in a somewhat oddly invented Ancient-Greece-in-the-sixteenth-century with guns and pocket-watches and which I was sure was a sequel but no, it is the first of a series I may go on with; In Black and White, Alexandra Wilson, life as a young barrister; Latecomers, by Anita Brookner, a writer whose novels I always find completely absorbing, and frightening, in their depictions of loneliness. This one is less about loneliness than usual though for much of the novel it seems even friends, marriage, children are not enough to save anyone from loneliness, and the long existential crisis that is the life of any Anita Brookner character, still this novel was more consoling than most of hers, and I loved it anyway, for its bleakness as well as the small amount of consolation on offer; I was struck, reading Latecomers, by how much Brookner tells rather than shows, and how intimate the effect is - there are very few scenes as such, very little dialogue, and yet you come to know the characters as if they were members of your own family. In contrast, J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories which I was reading partly at the same time, is nearly all dialogue and gesture, and this, too, I found liberating - just as Brookner seemed to give me permission just to tell things, Salinger offered an example of getting away with long stretches of dialogue. I loved the gestures, too, the details of how characters move and lounge and smoke. But there was something in the combination of sentiment and satire - meanness it felt at times - that made me uncomfortable; Deborah Levy, Things I Don't Want to Know, which comes before the sequel, The Cost of LIving, which I am glad I read first. I liked this, and again, I liked the vivid scenes she set, and structurally it is interesting too in the way the longest section is framed as a story told to one of the other characters, except we are told that we are being given more detail than she could have given when she was telling it, so we never do quite know what the Chinese shop-keeper was told exactly before he kissed her; I am no one you know: stories, Joyce Carol Oates, a different kind of story-writing again, stories of different lengths that all pack a wallop for the length they are and fit in huge amounts of life, and yet, I didn't like reading them, found myself feeling nostalgic for Salinger; Our House Is On Fire, Malena and Beata Ernman, Svante and Greta Thunberg, compulsively readable, partly because of the short, journalistic like entries, the one line paragraphs, the punchy sentence fragments, but also, of course, the human drama of it, a family under pressure, and the urgency of the climate crisis that it addresses; Can You Hear Me? A paramedic's encounters with life and death, Jake Jones, even more journalistic, short vivid accounts; John Le Carre, Agent Running in the Field, which I did not find thrilling, perhaps I should have tried one of his classics; Susan Hill, The Benefit of Hindsight, even less thrilling, a murder mystery with murders but no mystery; Emilie Pine, Notes to Self, personal essays and these truly were thrilling, I found them utterly compelling, in a way that made me wonder why some personal essays are so absorbing and others are not - it isn't particularly the writing, although it must be, but it isn't the rhythms of the sentences in any noticeable way, it is the way she tells a story, the details she releases one by one; The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funcke, a satisfyingly constructed children's story; Or What You Will, Jo Walton, perhaps my favourite book this year, even though when I began it, I thought it would be my least favourite Jo Walton (and perhaps it is and still better than anything else) because of its metafictionality - like the main character (though not the narrator) I am sceptical about the blending of fictional and real worlds even within fiction itself, and the metafictionality of this book also allowed it to be an odd blend of fact and fiction, narrative and essay that I did not think I would like as much as I did but came to love; I, Claudius, Robert Graves, which I hadn't read before, despite borrowing the title, and find moderately interesting to read, though it reads more as a narrativisation of events than a narrative; In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, a memoir in small pieces, each piece taking a different angle or perspective, yet the whole story also compelling, the story of an abusive relationship, very vividly remembered; A Month in Siena, Hisham Matar, a beautifully told account of a time in Siena looking at art and seeing, it seemed to me reading his descriptions, rather more than the paintings necessarily spoke of, reading emotions, thoughts into the inscrutable faces that, when he pointed them out, perhaps you, too, could see, or could imagine you were seeing, but the real beauty of the book is in his own sentences, so measured, so balanced, with clauses so beautifully placed within clauses; On Time and Water, Andri Snaer Magnason, about the difficulty to imagine the climate change emergency as the emergency it is, and offering a range of approaches. The chapter "The Words We Do Not Understand" is particularly important on this subject, but the chapter "The all-encompassing silence of God's great expanse" is perhaps the greatest of all the chapters with its brilliant historical contextualising of one particular example of a terrible environmental loss; How We Live Now, Bill Hayes, an updating of Susan Sontag's fictional take on the AIDS epidemic "The Way We Live Now," a brief and community-oriented memoir in small, beautiful formed pieces; Tōku Pāpā, Ruby Solly, her first poetry collection; The Witch's Boy, Kelly Barnhill, rather an odd fragmentary children's story; Where Reason's End, Yiyun Li, a beautiful and terribly sad novel, and told almost all in dialogue, or at least imaginary dialogue, and with no less momentum because of that; Nobody's looking at you, Essays, Janet Malcolm, always good on details; Jenny Erpenbeck, Not a Novel, a selection of essays and talks, some more forgettable than others, the best transfigured by some kind of formal patterning such as her list of inheritances from her mother, or just from the vividness of memory, the nostalgia for her childhood in an East Germany that no longer exists, or not as it was; Ordinary People, a novel by Diana Evans, very good on the ordinary unhappinesses of marriage, ambiguous or maybe ambivalent is the word for whether it is better to leave or to stay, and so concerned with the details of everyone's life it feels strangely centrifugal at times but all the apparent digressions, or most of them, were brought back into the fold of the main narrative by the end, which is unrealisitic perhaps but aesthetically a relief; No one belongs here more than you, Miranda July - I took this book off the shelf looking for something to re-read, and found I didn't remember any of the stories, yet I am sure I have read them already, and why would I have put the book away unread, yet how could I possibly have forgotten such vivid and distinctive stories, especially the last wonderful story about the little girl Lyon, which should have left me feeling devastatingly sad, though in fact I read it with a brisk efficiency; Jo Walton, The King's Peace, because I will read anything of hers, but this was her first novel, and although it has its charms - it is a kind of version of the Arthurian years but defamiliarised not into more mysticism (though we do get a little eventually) but into an historical-feeling realism, the strangeness of really distant history comes through, and particularly an historical time in which cultures are overlapping and clashing, the Romans having left but leaving behind such a transformative cultural heritage that exists alongside the indigenous cultures and the invading Norse cultures - in fact I've completely talked myself back round to this novel which did engross me, but which was also very slow moving, certainly not one I can include as part of my study of brevity; Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs, an argument for reading writers from the past which obviously I agree with, so I hardly needed to read the book, and I felt a bit resistant to being so taught at, though no one was making me keep reading; Say, Say, Say, a novel by Lila Savage, about the emotional aspect of caregiving, a novel I found very moving; Reading Chekhov: A critical journey, Janet Malcolm, the criticism of Chekhov was less interesting than the criticism of Chekhov's biographers, especially over the accounts of his death, but most interesting were the very digressive details of her travelling, though they illuminated nothing, really; The Master, Colm Toibin's novelisation of Henry James's later life, beautifully written, wonderful in all its details, but after a time a little lacking in momentum, so that it felt like reading an unusually intimate biography, which was interesting for thinking about momentum; The Heirs of Locksley, Carrie Vaughn, a sequel of sorts to the first book about Robin Hood's children, a nice little book; Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo, which I didn't want to read for so long because of it being one sentence, I'd been told, and imagined it being difficult, dense and literary, but it wasn't at all, it isn't one sentence, it just uses space as punctuation, which is not at all strange to someone who reads poetry, and it uses punctuation conventionally within clauses too, but more importantly, it tells such rich stories of women's lives, very simply, in small novel-like chapters, or novella-like chapters, that do build together into some larger picture, which I liked more and more the more of it I read; Mantel Pieces, collected LRB reviews by Hilary Mantel, witty etc but they don't gain in depth by being collected, I tired of the show-offy acerbic wit, and in the end preferred the essay about her hospital stay to any of the reviews; The Shadow Grave, Andi Buchanan, a well crafted little novella; Robert Graves, Difficult Questions, Easy Answers, completely mad, and sometimes awful, but I did like the essay about human civilisation as coming about by our imitation of birds; The Lord of Stariel, A. J. Lancaster; To Hell and Back: Essays, Tim Parks; Magpie Lane, Lucy Atkins, gripping and interestingly ambiguous - I wondered if it would have been better without the epilogue, more open to interpretation, but perhaps too open; The Eustace Diamonds, Antony Trollope, good as always on chance and how it shapes a life, but one of his more cynical novels and I prefer the more sentimental, the cynicism seems to go with a more drawn out plot, too drawn out for me; The Group, Lara Feigel, a novel about a group of friends, telling their stories in turn, stories about being women and coming to your middle age, reassessing lives that seem now to be fixed in place, very resonant with me although my children are older than theirs, my life a little further on, but the reassessment continues; Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro, perhaps my favourite of all writers, and I loved this from beginning to end, sad like all Ishiguro's novels but sadness perhaps necessarily comes with love, and this is one of the sweetest novels about love, full of sunlight; A Nurse's Story, told by Louise Curtis, written with Sarah Johnson, and the prose did have a certain anonymous feel, which was ideal, for a book I was reading so as not to go straight on from Ishiguro to another work of fiction; Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults, as compelling as the Friend novels, I read it all day long and through the night, perhaps the best ever account of the absolute necessity of giving in to desire, so that you really want this wrong surrender even more than you want it resisted, and so the novel's ending could not be more earned; All the Wrong Moves, Sasha Chapin on playing chess, very cute, I liked it; Tim Parks, Teach us to sit still, on pains and prostrate trouble, a book I read some years ago but remembered and had to read again and found terribly funny this time, the flailing around from denial to dread and the search for diagnoses, the attempts to psychoanalyse, the trialling of one cure after another, exactly how I have been with my sore neck, and so I hoped the neck could also be solved, as his pains are, with meditation, though it isn't working yet; Tusiata Avia, The Savage Coloniser Book; Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo; Nick Hornby, State of the Union, the story of a marriage breaking down (but perhaps not!) told all in dialogue, in ten scenes all taking place before the marriage therapy sessions we never get to see, a structure that works brilliantly; My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Otessa Moshfegh, very funny, sometimes alarming, oddly optimistic, and for a book about sleeping, surprisingly gripping; This is Not a Pipe, a brilliantly strange and stimulating graphic novel by Tara Black; Meghan Daum, Unspeakable, a collection of wonderfully open and enquiring essays, with a particularly welcome defence of staying in your comfort zone, a zone worth plumbing to its depths, though perhaps not the depths of Otessa Moshfegh's heroine; Maybe the Horse Will Talk, a very funny novel by Elliot Perlman, with brilliant characters and a gripping story that I was imagining as the TV series of the book even as I was reading it; The Death of Mrs Westaway, Ruth Ware - this I found somewhat plodding; Naked Cinema, Sally Potter, completely enthralling, a detailed account of the work of directing, terrifically interesting about the work, and also just about how to live and how to be; Learn Chess Quick, by Brian Byfield and Alan Orpin, though what I really need is Learn Life Quick; October Man, Ben Aaronovitch, a fairly generic police procedural although because there is magic the procedures are...peculiar; The Art of Rest, Claudia Hammond, was quite restful to read; The Disinvent Movement, Susannah Grendall, part of my (purposeless) study of brevity, small pieces that are almost prose poems and perhaps work better singly than as a whole book; The Believers, Zoe Heller, a sprawling solid novel, that I began to love and began to tire of almost simultaneously, also I had the odd feeling, possibly true, that I'd read it before; The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson, which I have certainly read before at least once, but which remains completely compelling, exhilarating, the exact combination of memoir and analysis, thinking and story-telling, that I love most; Molly McCully Brown, Places I've Taken My Body, another book I read compulsively, loving her detailed accounts of living with a body in pain, travelling as a writer, poetry and faith; Orlando, Virginia Woolf, fast and slow, silly and brilliant, elaborite and concise, all at once, and a book that is just as good however many times I read it; Nigel Nicolson, A Portrait of a Marriage, the quite extraordinary story of Vita Sackville-West's affairs, mostly in her words; Alexandra Harris, Virginia Woolf, a brief and efficient biography; Spin the Dawn and Unravel the Dusk, YA fairy-story-type fantasy by Elizabeth Lim, exactly the absorbing distraction I needed; Siege and Storm, the next in Leigh Bardugo's trilogy, satisfyingly unpredictable; Kay Ryan, Synthesising Gravity, brilliant essays on poetry and on writing and on proximity and empty spaces; Suzanne Raitt, Vita and Virginia, not especially memorable; Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf; Orchards, Vita Sackville-West's pretty forgettable poetry; No Signposts in the Sea, Vita Sackville-West, anti-semitic, racist, and as empty of plot as the sea, but a little bit interesting in its fragmentary structure, the use of asterisks and the movement between meditation and narrative; Quick Takes: Transgender Cinema, too quick a take to be interesting; Radical Acts of Love, Janie Brown, about her relationships with people who are dying, small intense stories; Desiring Women: The partnerships of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, brilliant analysis, beautifully written, full of wonderful anecdotes; Whereabouts, Jumpha Lahiri, originally written in Italian then translated by herself into English, and with a spareness to it that adds to the sense of resonance the everyday details have; Leigh Bardugo, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising, the other two books in the Grishaverse series, had to find out what was going to happen to the Darkling, and I liked Nikolai turning into a bird/monster creature for a while; Deborah Levy, Real Estate, the third and I think the best of the essay-memoirs, with the same combination of analysis and narrative I liked but also some really good characters including the banana tree; The Roaring Girl, Dekker and MIddleton, from the Renaissance, a fabulous proto-neo-Victorian heroine Moll Cutpurse shoe-horned into a marriage-plot (not her marriage though) city-comedy genre but not really because the middle section just burst out of the play's seams; The Betrayals, Bridget Collins, extends the world of Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, and again the game itself, I think is meant seriously? but is also quite comic to read about, because of the way the descriptions work by vaulting over the gaps in imagination about how the game actually works, anyway I loved it; Airini Beautrais, Bug Week, vivid scenes in rather bleak stories; P D James, A Mind to Murder, interest ing to return to such a vivid evocation of midcentury life, and I like Adam Dalgliesh, but murder mysteries always involve a murder, and only Dalgliesh himself comes across as very likeable in a world full of mostly pretty awful people; Greta and Valdin, Rebecca K Reilly's completely glorious, gorgeous, funny, sharp, complicated novel in which everything is allowed to work out, and just as well beause you love all the characters so much; Recollections of my non-existence, Rebecca Solnit, hypnotically beautiful writing, about writing, and the way a life and a self can be built around writing, though also about gender, male violence and female vulnerability, annihilation and resilience; Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, a detailed narrative of a fairly eccentric education in acting, told scene by scene, mostly in dialogue, so very readable; Dear Life, Karen Hitchcock, a powerfully felt argument against the rationing of hospital treatments for the elderly, taking pretty much the opposite position to Atal Gawande's also wonderful Being Mortal, and equally if not more persuasive, compassionate and humane, full of moving case histories, or stories really, about people who have been in her care, a wonderful book that I really loved; The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates, a book probably more fun to write than to read, a tremendous amount of scaffolding around one or two brilliant scenes; Blueberries, Elena Savage, essays that made little impression; Umberto Eco, Confessions of a Young Novelist, good on textual determinacy and why interpretation isn't open, and on how we can know fictional characters more fully than real people; Cassandra Clare and Wesley Chu, The Red Scrolls of Magic; Mael Renouard, Fragments of an Infinite Memory, a selection of thoughts about the internet, often interesting, especially when I was reading some of it thinking it was by Patricia Lockwood, a weird effect; Patricia Lockwood, No One is Talking About This, brilliant in pieces, with some completely brilliant ways of describing how social media works and feels to participate in, and though the effect wears off as the fragments accumulate, at the same time, overall the novel does amount to more than the sum of the parts, even as in between the two levels somehow it amounts to less; Ben Aaronovitch, Foxglove Summer, a return to that combination of police procedural with wildly inventive magical elements, including, in this case, carnivorous unicorns; and also by him, What Abigail Did That Summer, this one a children's novel, so even better, and including talking foxes; Hanif Kureishi, The Body, a disturbing and gripping fable about what you might give up to be young again, in a collection of powerful stories, all haunting; Bridget Collins, The Binding, unusual, fairy-tale like fantasy, which got me through a dark night; Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes, a strange, bleak, dream-like novel about an eventual late-life flowering, written (as it is translated) in a wonderfully spare style; Nina Mingya Powles, Small Bodies of Water, beautiful essays on homesickness and finding homes in languages and places, and in swimming and eating; Suzannah Dunn, Commencing our Descent, full of details I'd forgotten from when I read it fifteen years ago, but giving me the exact same reading experience, mirroring the affair it is about, of falling compulsively in love with the book, not wanting to put it down, even as it begins to make me sadder and sadder until it is almost unbearable to continue; Danyl McLachlan, The Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, light relief after the Suzannah Dunn, as good as the sequel which I read first, and excellent lockdown reading; Things I learned at Art School, Megan Dunn, essays piecing together a memoir, becoming about the place of art in a life and in the world, my favourite topic, though mermaids are another good topic that the book covers; The Empathy Diaries, Sherry Turkle, good title, and promising the combination of memoir and analysis I love and was so unusually but brilliant achieved by Megan Dunn, but this autobiography didn't quite lift off from the details it is made up of; Robert Dessaix, The Time of our Lives, about mortality but really more about friendship and most of all about conversation, conversational itself in its style and - I suppose - in that way of combining analysis and experience; Pisces, Melissa Broder, funny, mean, and much more captivating than I thought it might be, but I did hope this wouldn't be yet another novel in which the dog has to die to illustrate the female protagonist's emotional inadequacy (see also Baby, The Mistake, The New Arrivals, etc, etc); Everybody, Olivia Laing, both intricate and magisterial and tremendously interesting, weaving together complicated histories of the body and the politics of identity in the 20th century, and about the various ways the mind and body interact, of considerable interest to me in a year my own body has been demanding attention; Letters to a Young Artist, Anna Deavere Smith, about presence and position; Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies, Leah Garces, a book I actually really loved, as much for the revelation of effective tactics used by the more radical activists as for its overall message and set of strategies for creating allies and finding cooperative ways of working with those in power, full of good stories about real people, including good people who can be involved in quite terrible businesses, inspiring and moving, and important in so many ways; How Do We look: the Eye of Faith, Mary Beard, a promising subject, and fully illustrated, but to as interesting as I would have expected; The Six of Crows and The Crooked Kingdom, good pacy story-telling and well worked through world-building by Leigh Bardugo, good escapist reading for difficult times; Dart, Alice Oswald, which I can see is wonderful but which doesn't resonate with me the way her other works do; Serpentine, Philip Pullman; Coventry, Rachel Cusk; Wolf Wilder, Katherine Rundell; Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith, for her strangely estranged writing voice; Charlotte Grimshaw, The Mirror Book, both intense and spacious somehow, not just her solutions to the memory conundrums she grapples with but the process, which is what gives the memoir its drama; Temporary, Hillary Leichter, brilliantly funny piece by piece but somehow not particularly compelling overall; Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women, also somehow less than the sum of its parts, the individual stories haunting in their flat-voiced way, but somehow cancelling each other out a bit as a collection; In the City of Love's Sleep, Lavinia Greenlaw, the book I have most loved reading this year perhaps, a book which has that touchstone feel that Suzannah Dunn's Commencing Our Descent and Jane Gardam's A Long Way From Verona have had for me, a beautifully pieced together extended story of a slow falling in love, or a slowness of action, a necessary slowness perhaps, balancing a sense of inevitability with an awareness of contingency and chance, a book with a strong sense of atmosphere for me but without seeming at all dreamlike, seeming in fact particularly real, or extra realist; Second Place, Rachel Cusk, which I found really intriguing for the voice of the narrator, very much a contrived voice, of a character you are not quite sure how closely you should align your views with, and yet whose narrative seems full of insights, almost accidentally produced it seems, or produced independently of how they guide her own behaviour or insight into her own life; The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, more purposeful life, Marc E. Agronin, because if I do end up living a long life I want to look forward to it and make the most of it, and anyway, I loved the stories of lives well lived and second chances taken after all might have looked lost; Fool's Gold, Philippa Gregory; Becoming, Michelle Obama, especially interesting for me when she has secured a career in law but decides to find work that is more meaningful to her; Erik Eriksson, Identity and the Life Cycle, on the work of identity formation at different stages of the life, all of which Obama's autobiography illustrates perfectly, with the ideal of arriving at integrity, rather than despair; Beginners, Tom Vanderbilt, a (and large print!) book about learning new skills as an adult, interesting even when about juggling, and surfing, but particularly inspirational (for me) on singing and drawing; She's a Killer, Kirsten McDougall's brilliant novel set in an alarmingly-near-future climate change-altered society, billed as a thriller and it does become thrilling but is also about character and relationships and the ordinary strangenesses of living; The Sea Walks Into A Wall, Anne Kennedy, a rereading for the second time but I'm not sure I recorded the first time, and it is wonderful, line by line wonderful but also with a sense of a fluid architecture to the collection as a whole; Sweet Mammalian Issue 8, as good as ever; Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland, good reminders about what art-making is like and how best to orient yourself as an artist towards your practice; Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, which I feel defensive about, so strangely written in terms of narrative point of view, and I have so much to think about the emails between the friends and the exposure they represent, I am so interested in this novel and in its construction; A M Homes, The MIstress's Daughter, a compelling memoir and very hard not to believe every word is true, even while I'm also at the moment thinking about the flaws and contradictions of memory and narratives within families; Sigrid Nunez, "It Will Come Back To You," which I read half way through reading the Homes memoir, and it was so strangely complementary - like a mirror image or reverse narrative of the memoir - that I was momentarily confused and transposed the characters from one into the other; Leigh Bardugo, The King of Scars and Rule of Wolves, another visit to the Grishaverse, just because; Sophie Ward, Love and Other Experiments, utterly completely brilliant, as stories and as thought experiments and as one extended thought experiment, the chapter from the point of view of the ant (who becomes the god of the whole story) the most wonderful of all; Hot Milk, Deborah Levy, the first of her novels I've read and completely compelling, partly because of the subject matter - hysterical illness, and fraught mother/daughter relations - but also just so evocative and so distinctive in terms of voice, and by voice, as much as anything I suppose I mean what a character notices? how they see the world?