2020 Review and 2021 Resolution

Greetings, blog readers!

We are at the point where we can say our goodbyes to 2020, which many of us are quite eager to do, with the hopes that 2021 brings something better, kinder and more secure. For us, 2020 has been eventful and dramatic, to say the least, the Covid pandemic affected both Nelly and myself and our personal and professional lives had to change, which was reflected in our erratic reading and publishing over the year. We are most grateful to you for sticking with us and continuing to show your support, which has been one of our guiding stars during these turbulent times.

But lets start form the beginning. 2020 did start with a positive bang, when Nelly came to visit me in the UK for the first time since forever. We did a brief tour of the north of England, sampled a myriad of veggie and vegan venues which have been cropping up all over like mushrooms, took a ton of photos and we went to see the live reading of the No Sleep podcast in Manchester! The memory is even more precious now that public events have all but disappeared. It was our first review of a literary event, which was very different from our usual solitary reading process, and very inspiring for that!

Once Nelly was safely home, and the pandemic raised its ugly crowned head in earnest, we reviewed Kissed by God, our first Bulgarian title for the year. Yavor Tsanev had some big hits and some misses with his collection of short stories, and I had some very mixed feelings on his work, especially his borrowings from Western short story classicists, whist Nelly was much more receptive of his attempts. Both of us agreed we need more contemporary authors like Tsanev, who experiment, but who also, hopefully, develop their own style and carve their own place in literature.

It was at this point the pandemic hit most European countries in full force, and our reviewing plans went to the gutter. Jobs changed from office-based to remote, homes changed to office spaces, pets got happier that we were about all the time, and reading, sadly, swiftly went out of the window for a little while, as we juggled our new lives, mental health and the constant bombardment of death counts, infection rates, lock downs… yeah, you know the lot. By May, we had just about settled into more of a routine, and reviewed The Monk of Hilendar by Dimitar Talev – a skillfully written and well researched book, the first of a few aiming to shine light on Bulgaria’s troubled past and to bring up the national identity of Bulgarians. It was Nelly’s favourite title of the year, and I certainly see why.

In June and July we broke off from the main theme of Bulgarian literature we had for this year with Dracul by Dacre Stoker and Morse Code Wrens from Station X by Anne Glynn-Jones respectively. Dracul hit a spot of comfort and familiarity with its Gothic themes, and even if the modern story telling of Dacre Stoker was notable both Nelly and myself enjoyed it greatly. Anne Glynn-Jones’ memoir of the time she served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) during WWII transported us into a completely different time – I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the daily life of a woman from that period, and am very grateful Nelly suggested we pick this book up!

Back to our main aim of educating ourselves on contemporary Bulgarian literature, we reviewed The Stricken by Teodora Dimova, which looks at the lives of five women and their families during the transition from a monarchy to a communist state in 1944 and the following years. It was a curious comparison with the previous title, with very few parallels I could draw, despite the years which the two books cover.

I would love to see The Stricken be translated to English, as I think it will be an interesting read to many of my English speaking friends, but even more than that I would like to see Transki Stories and Balkan Suite by Petar Delchev make its way to the world market. The short stories are masterfully written with vivid renditions of the Bulgarian country side, varied and colourful characters and gripping plots. If I had to choose one, this would be my favourite book of the year.

With a final shift out of Bulgarian literature, next we reviewed Lavondyss, the second title by Robert Holdstock in his Mythago Wood series. We reviewed the first title the previous year, and so were familiar with Ryhope Wood and the world Holdstock has so masterfully woven, but this was a fresh rendition of the woods, one seen through the eyes of the 12 year old Tallis, who tries to get to grips with her brother’s disappearance and her and her family’s grief. This was another excellent title, which both of us heartily recommend, even if you haven’t read the first book, you will be able to enjoy the surreal world of the mythagos.

Another returning author was Laura Purcell and her third Gothic novel, Bone China. It was an easy and enjoyable read, which took us through another well-researched and carefully set mystery bordering on the unreal. And even though we wished the author had spent more time unfolding the ending, it was still intense and gripping.

Back to Bulgarian literature, and back to the time where the Communist party gathers strength with Blaga Dimitrova’s poem Liliana. Named after Liliana Dimitrova (unrelated to the author with the same surname), the poem follows through in more than plentiful detail with the life of the young activist, who fought for better rights for the working class, and did all she could to unite and uplift the hardworking backbone of Bulgarian society. Blaga Dimitrova romanticizes the character of Liliana a great deal, and perhaps because of this she depicts a warm, bright girl, full of passion and drive, and humanizes her more than any history book ever could. Liliana does not live to see what becomes of her dream, perhaps for the better.

Taking a small step back in time, next we reviewed Zara by Evgeniya Dimitrova, which gave us another well fleshed out main character, even if fictional this time, who felt close, one you could almost talk to. And, boy, did both Nelly and myself have some things to tell Zara, if only we could! This was an odd book, in itself it was pleasant enough to read, but the historical circumstances of its publication show how groundbreaking it was for its time.

Finally, with the curtain ready to fall, we went back to before Bulgaria was founded as a country and reviewed Tohol, the first title in the series Tangra, by Tokoraz Isto. I am grateful we read this book, despite the struggle it proved to be due to the writing style and nationalistic tone, because of the long discussions which emerged from it between Nelly and me, some of which we mention in the review. This book is certainly divisive amongst its readers, some taking it very close to heart and others – with a fair few pinches of salt.

And on such a contradictory title we leave 2020, which seems quite fitting, as the year itself has been full of intense, conflicting emotions and events.

Book covers of the titles we aim to read for 2021, please note the exact editions may differ

2021 Resolution

Halfway through the year, in full pandemic spirit, we had a marvelous idea – to make the topic of 2021’s titles revolve around the many variations of what the future of human society may look like – will it be an utopia, or a dystopia? Will we survive the seemingly inevitable end of the world, man-made or alien delivered? Drum roll please, for the list of titles we will aim to review during 2021.

We’ve included some classics we simply could not have done without – 1984, The Handmaids Tale, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World. Perhaps you’ve read them, maybe recently or as a child, or perhaps you’ve had them on your shelf or electronic reader for a while now, mustering the strength to pick them up, or – like me – you’ve done a mixture of both; but without a doubt you’ve heard references made to them, whatever the conversation. There were many other classics we could have picked, but our aim was to pick newer titles as well as ones by a wider range of authors.

The two Russian titles – The Slynx and Metro 2033 both look at a post nuclear future. I am curious to see how two very different authors from the same country tackle the topic, and I will make sure to draw some parallels as well as note the differences in their approaches as I read.

Falling in Love with Hominids is this year’s choice for a collection of short stories. The post-apocalyptic genre is predominated with novels, as the setting and lifestyle of a different future deserve a detailed explanation and analysis, and I wonder how Hopkinson deals with this in the format of short stories.

Blindness and The Day of the Triffids form another pair of novels, this time presenting a future where mass blindness afflicts humanity. The origins of the disaster differs, but what I am interested in the most is how the two authors handle such a disability, and their ideas for how mankind can survive sightless in a world built around visual perception.

Parable of the Sower, written in 1933, has its events play out in the 2020s, when corporate greed, inequality and climate change force the collapse of society, and seeks the salvation of humanity on other planets. It will be very interesting to me to see how the author imagines the 2020s a century earlier, and how many of her predictions have come true.

Another sci-fi title, The Three-Body Problem leans heavily into the genre, which in my experience can be a blessing and a curse – whilst explanations of how the physics work can provide a good grounding for the more extreme ideas an author has, they can shift the focus away from the human and the humane. I am curious to see how Cixin tackles this balance.

Our final pick is Who Fears Death, where the post apocalyptic plays only a background for the discussion of a number of present day problems – race, rape, sexism, and others. The premise promises a lot, and heavy as the topic may seem, I am eager to learn what Okorafor has in store for us.

For me, reading is not only a pleasant past-time, in the past and during this year it has also been a coping mechanism. It may seem contradictory that we decided to theme next year’s titles around dystopian literature, when reading is one of our ways to escape from the present, but just like writing and publishing post apocalyptic literature increased around the time of the two world wars and the economic crisis which went with them, we also turn to literature as a safe ground for speculation and experimentation. What could the future hold? I hope you will join us in finding out!

Stay safe, and read on!