As ever, my poetry reviews can be boiled down to ‘nice words here’s my faves’, but anywhere, here are said faves in my review of Kat Sinclair’s poetry collection Very Authentic Person:
Very good poems: I loved the combination of personal and political and pop cultural and public transport and little references, and the thinking about poetry but not in a self indulgent way. My favourite words were “I am floppy disk years old” and “But I’m really getting there with the rainbow paintbrush / this meritocratic omelette, all the good names being taken / when all of our pets have pets” (because I am predictable about old computer stuff in poetry) and I enjoyed all the little references but also the sounds of the poems too.
I was excited to read this collection as I loved Sean Wai Keung’s poem in the Haunted Voices anthology, and it did not disappoint! The format of focusing on different Glasgow restaurants to explore identity, language, and authenticity worked really well (‘tinto tapas’ was one of my favourite poems in the collection and was very much on this theme) and gave a sense of travelling through the collection around Glasgow, thinking about who you are and where you belong. Some of the poems also explore lockdown, in terms of food and getting outside and also pandemic racism, and they had a wry yet relatable approach (especially ‘wing rush’ which is about whether anyone knows if you’ve already been out once that day) which I also really liked.
I love Sean Wai Keung’s poetic style and these poems were clever and enjoyable, a fresh take on identity and what is authentic (cuisine or otherwise).
Teeth in the Back of my Neck is a collection of poetry that focuses on anger and sadness, on identity and history, and on the societal structures that hold us. Split into two parts—’The Teeth’ and ‘The Neck’—the poems explore things the violence and trauma that women face, the way women’s bodies are seen, and how race and belonging are constructed and viewed in society.
The collection manages to feel varied whilst having clear themes, and the poems are written in an immediate and forthright way that gets across the anger and power behind them. Poems like ‘Hell Will Fall Apart for You’ and ‘A Few Brown Bodies’ look at how people react and how to get angry (or not) about things, and how to enact change, feeling immediate and memorable. The second half of the collection focuses even more on personal identity, history, and people’s relation to others in how these are built. I found the poems that explore the importance of names (‘Jane’) and the idea of DNA testing and the self (’23andme’) particularly interesting, questioning what makes a person and how other people react to that.
It’s hard, despite the pun, not to call Teeth in the Back of my Neck poems with bite, because that’s what they feel like: they’re sharp, witty, and emotional, and even just looking quickly back through the book to write this review makes me want to read them again and again.
I guess here’s where I’m meant to write that it’s been a strange year and all. Anyway, passing over that, here’s my usual list of my favourite books that came out this year. I’ve been quite picky with what I’ve included (and split into fiction, poetry and drama, and non-fiction) as I’ve read a lot of ‘good’ books this year, but I really wanted to highlight the best ones.
Books not published in 2020 are going to come separately, so my top books I’ve read this year are basically split into ‘stuff I’ve reviewed’ (this post) and ‘other things’ (the non-2020 publication lot). Links are to full reviews if you’re interested.
The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers – Biting look at what happens when two brothers with a big age gap both come out.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed – YA mystery through the streets of Paris as teenage Khayyam tries to solve an art history puzzle (with bonus Byron as my real selling point).
Homes and Experiences by Liam Williams – Email epistolary novel satirising gentrification and millennial culture and guilt, with a bittersweet narrative.
Wonderland by Juno Dawson – The final of her three books in a loose trilogy (following Clean and Meat Market), this one is Alice in Wonderland retold as a fall into an elite world of ‘old money’ teenage parties. Dark, thrilling, and hard hitting, it’s my favourite of the three.
Loveless by Alice Oseman – Working out asexuality whilst adjusting to weird university life and realising there’s not ‘one’ experience for everyone – just the sort of book I’m glad teenagers now have.
Poor by Caleb Femi – Witty and cutting poetry and photography about growing up on a Peckham estate and the reality of geography and gentrification with class and race.
The Girl and the Goddess by Nikita Gill – A novel in verse about a girl growing up in India, discovering herself, and interacting with gods and goddesses, whilst considering the power of storytelling.
The Reality Game by Samuel Woolley – Good primer on online disinformation and technology.
Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein – How to think about data science from an intersectional perspective.
So Hormonal from Monstrous Regiment – Collection of essays about how hormones impact people’s lives, full of a vast range of eye-opening experiences.
White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad – A look at how white feminism affects women of colour and how important intersectionality is (technically this first came out in 2019, but I read an edition out in 2020 so I’m saying it counts here).
Poor is a collection of poetry and photography exploring a Peckham estate and what it is like to grow up as Black boy surrounded by concrete. It is a powerful, fast-paced collection split into sections and broken up with photographs taken by Femi to illustrate the estate and the people found throughout the poems.
So many of the poems have really memorable lines and turns of phrase, witty and cutting deep to the truth of reality on topics like class, race, and gentrification. The ongoing theme of the impact of concrete and the design of estates is really interesting, whether in found poetry or through a clever look at the make up of concrete.
Reading Poor, you get a real sense of the importance of the world you grow up in, the good, the bad, and the mythologising. It is a brilliantly written collection that feels immediate and emotional and explores how where you live can live and breathe too.
The Girl and the Goddess is a novel in (mostly) verse that tells the story of a girl growing up in India, discovering herself, and finding support from gods and goddesses. It tells the story of Paro, a girl who is born in Kashmir, moves with her parents to Delhi, learns how being female changes things when her brother is born, and looks for friends and love as a teenager and into adulthood. Along the way, stories and Hindu mythology teach her how to deal with the light and darkness in her life: trauma, sexuality, and the legacy of colonial rule.
Gill combines poetry, prose, and illustrations to tell Paro’s story, and the result is a book that is compulsive and readable, bringing different fragments of Paro’s life and also interweaving the stories that inspire and comfort her, as gods and goddesses appear to her. It has a great cast of characters and the format gives you real insight into Paro’s thoughts, particularly by having poems that are ‘written’ by Paro and thinking about what we create and when writing about something isn’t easy. The pieces covering her working out her bisexuality and then telling stories from Hindu mythology that show that sexuality and gender aren’t as rigid as might seem are particularly powerful, but the whole book is emotional and compelling.
There’s a lot of great novels in verse coming out at the moment, and The Girl and the Goddess shows how the form can be used to think about storytelling and mythology whilst also telling a hard hitting coming-of-age tale. I read it as an ebook which worked well, but I imagine the hard copy looks particularly good with the illustrations. I’d heard of Nikita Gill but not read any of her writing before, and from this I’ll definitely be reading more.
My Darling from the Lions is a debut collection of poetry full of short, storytelling poems that are vivid and clever. Split into three sections, the topics range from family to race, sexual politics to growing up, and a range of other moments, with some hilariously sharp lines and insightful ways of phrasing things that’ll make you think ‘oh yeah, that’s it’. Some of the imagery and comments from the poems will stay with me for a while, particularly ‘Sandwiches’ and ‘Interview with B. Tape II’.
The poems are approachable and readable, making this a great collection to read and share, and they create a real sense of person and life even within very short poems. Powerful messages are combined with witty storytelling to bring a really enjoyable collection of poetry.
Tongues of Fire a collection of poetry that focuses on viewing life through nature, on physicality and reality but also the sacred and untouchable, and on grief, loss, and illness. The poems are mostly short lyric poems, weaving together ideas of nature, belief, and personal connection. What is particularly vivid as you read the collection is the ways in which the natural world is returned to, and offers an escape from the world, and how the poems show this through moments and details of plants and settings as ways of encapsulating feelings, from sex and desire to sadness and grief. This felt particularly notable in poems like ‘Adoration’, which moves from a nature walk to a Berlin club and back again, and it really gives a sense of how the personal can also be part of something much larger about life and earth.
These poems feel like an escape into the tiny details of outside, a kind of mechanism of looking for the natural and the meaning when things seem random or difficult. This was a great collection to sit down with and become immersed in the senses and physicality, but also the emotions of the poems.
The Martian’s Regress is a book of poetry about a single Martian who returns to Earth, focusing on origin stories, future, and the environment. It is split into separate short poems, but it is also a single work exploring the martian’s present life and the previous history of his people. This is poetry that tells stories and reflects on the stories told by others, and on how you keep going when alone. The martian’s exploration of the now broken and empty Earth is a highlight, as various poems/sections consider the reality of the emptiness.
There are obvious modern themes, from the environmentalism and look at the future of the planet, to the currently weirdly relevant look at being isolated, and the collection has an eerie sense at times, as if you’re also with the Martian. At the same time, it can be light hearted, and also shows how poetry and science fiction can come together in interesting ways to create certain atmospheres. It is a book to read all at once, rather than taking in separate poems, to fully immerse in the story and setting.
For Every One is a blast of positivity that is ideal to read and share. It is a letter in poem form to everyone who has ever had a dream, addressing the difficulty of adapting your dream, getting older, and keeping the fire alive. Short and punchy, it reminds everyone to keep going and keep believing in having something you want to do or achieve, and it accepts all dreams.