Favourites at the Year’s End

We are now at the end of a very long and very disruptive year, and though we have not yet come out the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least that other side is now visible. The first people to take the new vaccine(s) have been vaccinated, the US election has been definitively decided, and (in Singapore, at least) restrictions are now being eased as we progress into Phase 3 of the so-called Circuit Breaker.

The end of the year is always a time of introspection and looking back, and that is especially apposite this year. The world has irrevocably changed because of the events of 2020, but I’m hopeful that 2021 will be a period of reconstruction and recovery where, even if we don’t get back to “normal”, we can return to something approaching the Before Times.

But now, to shift to something lighter. I subscribe to an email newsletter from Belletrist, a site celebrating books that might have slipped through the cracks or which are not getting a big marketing push from their publishers. Every so often, they do a quick-fire interview with an author about their favourite things, and I like this format so much that I am shamelessly pinching it for my own purposes.

1. What are your five favourite books that you read in the last year, and why?

According to Goodreads, I only read 42 books this year, which makes sense; the pandemic made it very difficult to concentrate on pleasure reading, especially since reading novels is my day job. But there were some definite gems in that list.

I came a bit late to The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, but it both delighted and devastated me. Its absurdist premise is tragic and its examination of loss broke my heart thoroughly.

Ken Liu’s second collection, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, was one of the few short story collections I read this year, and it did not disappoint. Full of Ken’s fierce imagination and empathy, the book’s pieces showcase an intrinsic understanding of humanity’s direction, and very likely posthuman future.

I’ve been a fan of Zadie Smith since the first publication of White Teeth, and so the release of Intimations, a slim of-the-moment collection of personal essays written during the Covid-19 lockdown, was a wonderful surprise. Her keen thoughtfulness is on full display, and it was a pleasure to see her discuss its genesis during the 2020 Singapore Writers Festival.

I re-read Terri’s Windling’s first (and so far only) novel The Wood Wife, having forgotten much of the book’s plot since I first came across it over twenty years ago. And this was the best way to re-view it, because I fell in love with the protagonist and her new desert home, and also the rabbit girl Thumper, all over again. Terri’s always been a strong influence on my career as a writer and editor, and she’s more recently become an important and valued friend, so I’m incredibly excited that she’s now hard at work on a sequel.

And finally, I tend to not single out books that I edit for Epigram Books, because it then puts those books in competition (and all the books I edit hold a special place in my heart), but I particularly enjoyed A Good True Thai by Sunisa Manning, which was a finalist for the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. It’s a phenomenally human story amid tense student protests and epic love triangles, and it was an utter pleasure to work on.

(Okay, the rest of these answers will be much shorter. Sorry about that.)

2. What book are you especially looking forward to reading in the year ahead?

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu. I adore her short fiction, and can’t wait to crack open her debut novel.

3. What is your favourite bookstore?

Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC. I’m also inordinately fond of The Strand in New York City, and Kinokuniya here in Singapore.

4. What are three things you cannot do without?

My Strand messenger bag (a gift from my sister, which is now sold out, making it doubly precious), my iPhone 8 (a constant companion, to my occasional dismay), and the love of my daughter, family and friends (sappy but true).

5. What is one podcast you highly recommend?

I don’t listen regularly to podcasts these days since I now work from home, but I quite enjoy David Tennant Does a Podcast. Tennant is my Doctor (the 10th on Doctor Who), and a fantastic actor in whatever project he takes on, but he’s also a superb interviewer. His conversations, very often with other entertainers, are always enlightening.

6. What are you currently watching?

Right now: Hilda S2, Star Trek: Discovery S3, The Legend of Korra S1, Big Mouth S4, Song Exploder S2; and recently: The Crown S4, Mank!, Bumblebee, and the sublime The Queen’s Gambit. These are all on Netflix, but when Disney+ comes to Singapore in February 2021, I will watch all the things.

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