A heavy work schedule has prevented me from reading as much as I’d have liked to this year, along with restricting reading to academic texts. That has not been helped by starting a few books and leaving them midway (they have not been listed here). I’m hoping to make amends in 2019. In the meantime, here is the annual list, in the usual format, and with the usual caveats. The one exception to the general reading disappointment of 2018 was perhaps speculative fiction, where I got to read a wide variety of work from different parts of the globe – from Jordan, to Nigeria, to Bangladesh.
- Arundhathi Subramaniam, When God is a Traveler (Poetry) (****): I bought this on a recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint. Taut verse, striking imagery, and a contained emotion that never spills over. I’ve not found much of contemporary Indian-English poetry to my taste, but this was a notable exception.
- U.R. Anantamurthy, Bara (****): Short – but excellent – novel set in a drought-hit village, featuring calculating politicians and a do-gooder IAS officer from the city. It was written during the Emergency, so that adds a bit of extra spice to proceedings.
- Volga, The Liberation of Sita (***): Here’s the Ramayana told from the perspective of Sita. I have a soft spot for just these kinds of retellings, and this is among the better ones. Volga’s own brilliant life history provides an even more intriguing framework to the story.
- Benyamin, Jasmine Days (****): Benyamin’s first novel, Goat Days, was a brilliant – if harrowing – read, and this one keeps up the standard. Jasmine Days is set in a fictional Arab dictatorship, during the peak of the Arab Spring, and told from the perspective of a migrant worker (a radio jockey) from Kerala. It is, like Goat Days, a harsh and unsparing novel, and all the better for that.
- Amitabha Bagchi, Half the Night is Gone (** and a 1/2): I loved the premise of this book – set in a mansion in Delhi in the 1940s – and I loved some of the writing, but in the end, I was left disappointed; it seemed to promise much, but fall tantalisingly short.
Hispanic/Latin American Writing
- Antonio Munoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow (***): You’d think that a novel that follows the parallel plot-lines of Martin Luther King’s murderer fleeing through Europe, and the author traveling in Lisbon to visit a past self, would make for a spectacularly good novel; this one felt a little bit of a let-down, though. Meandering and fragmented to a point where it was difficult to make sense of. That said, some absolutely superb passages, and probably worth reading just for that. I’d extract them, but they cover many pages.
- Juan Gabriel Vasquez, The Secret History of Costaguana (****): He comes from Colombia, and he writes back against Gabriel Garcia Marquez – you couldn’t have written the script! This book is (part-)historical fiction about the independence and creation of Panama, and is written almost as a rebuke to One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is also an excellent read. (Reviewed on the blog).
- Adonis, Concerto al-Quds (****): Adonis’ latest book of poetry has, as always, passages of absolute beauty, and passages that go a few miles over your head.
- Rabih Alameddin, An Unnecessary Woman (***): You’d think that trying to write from the perspective of an ageing woman walling herself away with books would be a tough sell, but Alameddin pulls it off quite well.
- Beirut39 (** and a 1/2): A collection of thirty-nine pieces of short fiction or poetry from upcoming writers from the Arab world. This underwhelmed me a little – I felt that either the translations didn’t do the originals justice, or the pieces picked didn’t do the writers justice.
- Elias Khoury, My Name is Adam (***): Ever since I read Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury has been my favourite novelist, and I wait for new work by him as one would for an event that comes around once every few years. My Name is Adam is set in 1948, at the time of the Nakba, and covers the fall of the city of Lod, and the experiences of its Palestinian citizens in refugee camps. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of Gate of the Sun (honestly, what could?) or even The Broken Mirrors, but it does have moments of vintage Khoury, and of course, the theme is vitally important, especially in the present day.
- Africa39 (****): Found this at Blossom, Bangalore, of all places, and this is an excellent collection. Some of the excerpts – Rusty Bell and Season of Crimson Blossoms – were enough to make me buy and read the whole works. Really, really high – and consistent – quality.
- Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Season of Crimson Blossoms (****): A powerful and remarkable novel, exploring sexual taboos and sexual awakening in a strife-torn Nigerian town. Remarkable, particularly, in how it manages to be unsparing, and yet withhold judgment, at the same time.
- Soni Lab’ou Tansi, Life and a Half (***): A dark and bleak work, part of the dictator novel genre, and written as a response to political repression in Congo. The violence is often stomach-curling, but there are moments of dark humour that remind one of Ngugi’s The Wizard of the Crow. Lab’ou Tansi’s own life as a ground-breaking Congolese novelist, once again, constitutes a layered backdrop to this.
- Nthikeng Mohlele, Rusty Bell (***): And a totally different theme and tone – a raucous – and sometimes, meta – coming-of-age story set in contemporary South Africa, with some absolutely incandescent passages of writing.
- Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language (****): Another recommendation, and this was a delightful read. Involving a trans-continental conspiracy-cum-murder mystery featuring all the big-name post-structuralist philosophers of the post-1970s, and cameo appearances from the likes of Mitterand. Brilliantly witty, and even better if the in-jokes are broadly familiar.
- Paul Blackburn (ed.), Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry (***): A great collection, although, of course, the troubadour poets are not always easy to enjoy, because of the gulf of centuries. That said, as always, some of the verse resonates beautifully. For example: “Our love is like top/branches that creak/on the hawthorn at night/stiff from ice/ or shaking from rain. And tomorrow, the sun/spreads its living warmth through the branches and through the green leaves on the trees.”
The United Kingdom
- Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (** and a 1/2): This will probably sound blasphemous, but I’m not a fan. This, to me, was too obviously written for a Western audience, and appealing to a very specific moment of time, with an attendant set of concerns and insecurities, prevailing in some of the Western countries.
- Saad Hossain, Djinn City (*** and a 1/2): Bangladeshi SF! This was a really nice, fun novel alternating between Dhaka and the Djinn world, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Reviewed it for Scroll.
- Fadi Zaghmout, Heaven on Earth (*** and a 1/2): From Dhaka to Amman! This Jordanian SF novel about the discovery of an anti-ageing drug – and the moral dilemmas that it throws up – was an equally fine read. Reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
- Odafe Otagun, Taduno’s Song (****): A haunting and beautiful novel, based on the life of Fela Kuti, about a man whose music terrifies the dictator.
- Leigh Mathews, Colony (*** and a 1/2): A solid piece of Martian SF meets Solaris. Reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
- Juliet Kemp, A Glimmer of Silver (*** and a 1/2): Another heavily-Solaris themed SF novel, this one set on a Planet that’s entirely Ocean. A little strange and a little sad. Reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
- Tade Thompson, Rosewater (****): Uff! Such a well-paced, thrilling, and hands-in-the-ground novel, dealing with the after-effects of First Contact, and set in Nigeria. The premise is brilliant, and I’m looking forward to the continuation of the series.
- Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (*** and a 1/2): The retelling of the Frankenstein story in occupied, war-ravaged Baghdad. Black humour, so much tragedy, and a great read.
- Shadreck Chikoti, Azotus the Kingdom (***): An SF novel set in a future, privatised African country, with some resemblances to Brave New World. A little raw, but a tremendously bold premise, which alone makes it worth the read.
- L. Timmel Duchamp, Chercher La Femme (***): Gender-bending novel (another one reminiscent of Solaris) about a planet where men enter and refuse to leave – but women do not.
- Annalee Newitz, Autonomous (***): My close-out SF novel of the year was this excellent, Cory Doctorow-esque tale of a corporation-dominated world, intellectual property Robin Hood-style piracy, and AI. Worth it just for the excellent world-building.
- Jens Hanssen & Max Weiss (eds.), Arabic Thought against the Authoritarian Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Present (*****): My book of the year. I learnt so very much from these brilliant essays – ranging from Iraqi Jews writing in Arabic in Israel, labour movements in Egypt, feminist struggles in Lebanon, and so on. There’s so much that we simply don’t know or aren’t exposed to, about how, even in the most wretched of circumstances, there will always be people thinking about, writing, and struggling for freedom and equality. A standing warning against dismissing regions or peoples as inherently authoritarian or unsuitable for democracy.
- Dan Waddell, Field of Shadows: The English Cricket Tour of Nazi Germany, 1937 (*** and a 1/2): This was a gift. I’m not a cricket fan, but this was a very enjoyable read about a rag-tag German cricket team that hosted the English, in the shadow of World War II. Some very moving moments.
- Charlie English, The Book Smugglers of Timbucktoo (*** and a 1/2): A fascinating read about an organised and systematic attempt to save Timbucktoo’s manuscripts from Boko Haram – with some doubts in the validity of the story!
- Eric Hazan, A Walk through Paris (*****): Another of my favourite books of the year. Hazan’s a brilliant historian and political geographer, and his book is a walk through the radical history of Paris. It begins in Ivry-Sur-Seine, with a look at a socialist housing commune, takes you right through Paris, and ends at a left-wing Saint-Denis bookshop. I spent three days in Paris, walking with this book in my hand, getting drenched in summer rain and going into bookshops without knowing a word of the language – all of which made it extra-special.
- Elaine Mokhtefi, Algiers: Third World Capital (****): A fascinating story about post-colonial Algiers, home to the Black Panthers, and to revolutionary movements throughout the world. Mokhtefi was at the events that she chronicles, and they bring alive an era of great excitement and hope. This doesn’t get five-stars simply because of some annoying apologia from time to time. Probably best read as a companion memoir alongside Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs. (Reviewed on the blog).