I do appear to have read quite a lot of books in the first half of 2021… And this isn’t quite everything – I’ve left out one or two re-reads, one or two very academic books that I read solely for purposes of my thesis, and one or two that were just such a waste of time to read that I couldn’t be bothered to waste further time saying how rubbish they were. Not that everything I list here was marvellous, but there is a difference, I would say, between noting my issues with, e.g., Ian McEwan’s Solar, and slating a random thriller that I got for 99p off Amazon. I’m reasonably discriminating in my acquisitions, so it’s rare that there are more than a couple of utter duds. And ultimately, the reason I write about what I read is to share the good stuff, to infect other people with my own enthusiasms, and big up the writers who’ve given me pleasure and enlightenment.
I’ve split fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is in strictly alphabetical author order, not grouped by genre. Non-fiction is grouped, very roughly, by topic. I’ve included links to reviews where they’re not too spoilery but as always, caveat lector.
Eric Ambler – The Mask of Dimitrios. A cracking thriller, set in the tense period before the outbreak of WWII, and pitting a writer of detective novels against an international network of crime, from Istanbul to Paris. Ambler was hugely influential, particularly on Graham Greene, and his perspective is politically informed and leftist.
James Baldwin – Another Country/Just Above my Head. I read the former as a teenager, and it is just as bleakly powerful half a century later. The latter is new to me, and I gather is not regarded as one of his best but I loved it, loving the rhythms of the prose and the dialogue, the elegiac tone, the immersion in the church and in music. I’ve been absorbed in Baldwin’s life and work over the last couple of years, his essays and novels, an excellent biography (see below), and Raoul Peck’s remarkable film, I Am Not Your Negro. Plus he cropped up in a Radio 4 programme hosted by Clarke Peters, about the 1987 performance of his play, The Amen Corner. Everything I read, hear, watch makes me admire and love Baldwin more.
Belinda Bauer – Exit. I’ve been a fan of Bauer’s sharp, off-beat crime novels for several years now, and this is terrific. It’s very funny, in a dark way, and it keeps on surprising the reader without resorting to the kind of twists for twists’ sake that too many thriller writers employ in lieu of convincing characterisation and intelligent plotting…
Mark Billingham – Cry Baby – another excellent crime writer. This is a Tom Thorne novel, but a prequel, going back to the time before the start of the series (Sleepyhead). Thorne is a not a rookie here though, he’s already got ten years (and associated traumas) under his belt, and this case is a brute.
William Boyd – Ordinary Thunderstorms. One never knows what to expect with Boyd. This starts off in seemingly very familiar territory – in fact, we’re in The 39 Steps territory. From there on we go all over the shop really, big pharma conspiracies, London’s marginalised communities of illegal migrants, sex workers and the homeless, hit-men and a good man on the run. It doesn’t entirely hold together, but it’s a great read and – being Boyd – beautifully written.
Geraldine Brooks – Year of Wonders. Historical fiction this time, and the setting is a village in Derbyshire, in the year of the Great Plague. It’s based (at least in the set-up) on the true story of Eyam, familiar to anyone who grew up in Notts/Derbyshire/South Yorkshire, the story of the vicar who persuaded his parishioners to quarantine themselves after a case of plague in the village. This is dramatic and remarkable enough but Brooks then takes the plot in even more dramatic and unexpected directions… Oddly, one of the reviews seemed to be saying that the Eyam story was itself melodramatic and improbable. Clearly didn’t go to school in our neck of the woods…
Anthony Burgess – Nothing Like the Sun. Fascinating to read this so soon after reading Orlando (see below), as it connects so powerfully with the Elizabethan section of the latter. The language is exuberantly, extravagantly Shakespearian, but it subtly evolves over the life of the writer, who as a boy plays with language that goes beyond his understanding, but learns its power, and the limits of that power.
James Lee Burke – A Private Cathedral. I’ve really enjoyed the Dave Robicheaux series but this one was odd. It all got a bit supernatural, and whilst there’s always been that undercurrent, with Robicheaux having dream-like visions of the past, this takes it to another level and I’m not sure I’m convinced…
Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist. Another one that didn’t quite convince me. The historical setting and detail were great, but, as with the Burke, there was a supernatural element that didn’t quite work (for me) and the way the feminist/gay/racial strands of the plot were handled felt anachronistic and a bit artificial.
Michel Butor – Passing Time. Of course I’ve read this book this year, as I have every year for the last 15. I’m including it this time because I’ve unusually spent a lot of time immersed in the English translation, which I’ve been helping to revise for a new edition, out now…
Peter Carey – True History of the Kelly Gang. I’ve read most of Carey’s novels, and I love them. The language of this one took a bit of getting into (though no more than Illywhacker, say) because it is all in Ned Kelly’s voice, but once I was comfortable with that, it was a riot. It’s ‘true history’ but one should note that there is no definite or indefinite article in the title, which alerts us that Carey, as always, tells stories that are ‘playful, shape-changing’. The story is remarkable enough, as is Ned himself, who as we are constantly reminded in the narrative, is just a boy, and Carey makes it vivid and viscerally immediate.
M R Carey – The Girl with All the Gifts. Excellent – whenever you think the ‘zombie’ idea has been done, as it were, to death, there’s a new take on it that creates new possibilities not just for drama but for emotional heft.
Candice Carty-Williams – Queenie. Funny, perceptive, heartbreaking. My daughter is Queenie’s age, and that undoubtedly made my emotional response more intense – I wanted to hold that girl and keep her from harm, keep her from harming herself.
Jane Casey – The Killing Kind. A stand-alone thriller by one of my favourite contemporary crime writers, it had me gripped from the start, and kind of scared too, that prickling feeling at the back of the neck, that sense of unease was pervasive, and not entirely resolved at the end of the novel…
Harlan Coben – The Boy from the Woods/The Stranger. Coben’s thrillers are reliably slick page turners, even if one doesn’t look to them for in-depth characterisation (and it does sometimes grate that all of his protagonists are both rich AND gorgeous…). I do like to have one or two on my Kindle to turn to between more demanding reads.
Jonathan Coe – The Rain before it Falls. Beautiful and moving. I’ve read several of Coe’s including his trilogy (The Rotters’ Club/The Closed Circle/Middle England) and he writes with warmth, understanding and compassion about even the less sympathetic of his characters, as well as incisively and with humour about the world we live in. Here we are taken back into the past life of an elderly woman through the series of cassette tapes she leaves for the benefit of an elusive legatee, a story told through a series of photographs. This is clever stuff, but it’s never merely clever. It is, as the Guardian reviewer said, ‘a brief, sad, often very moving story of mothers and daughters, of pain passed on through generations, and of deep and abiding loneliness’.
Suzanne Collins – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I knew this was linked to the Hunger Games trilogy, but hadn’t twigged that it was a prequel so was mightily confused for a while… Once I’d grasped that it was the origin story of Coriolanus Snow, that obviously coloured the way I understood the protagonist, but not so much that it destroyed any suspense, and not so much that one didn’t occasionally sympathise with him (to a point). The book wasn’t necessary in any way, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Jeanine Cummins – American Dirt. This attracted some controversy, which I don’t think was entirely fair. OK, Cummins relied on research rather than shared experience or background to create the world of the refugees, but isn’t that what novelists do? Should they only write what they know? And Cummins is very aware of this issue, and it is clear that her migrants are not presented as being representative, that this is one story, albeit one that touches on a lot of other stories. I found it a totally compelling read, had to keep reminding myself to breathe…
Tsitsi Dangarembga – Nervous Conditions/The Book of Not/This Mournable Body. I read these in the wrong order by mistake (1, 3, 2…)! Nervous Conditions was the first novel by a Zimbabwean woman to be published in English, and This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the Booker. The novels explore the intersections between race, colonialism and gender in a way that’s engaging and moving.
A A Dhand – Streets of Darkness. Bradford set crime novel, the first in a series. I loved the setting, but found the plot a tad melodramatic, and the over-use of ‘dark secrets from the past’ a bit wearisome. Will give it another go, this had a lot to recommend it even with those caveats.
Charles Dickens – Mugby Junction. I thought I’d read all Dickens but I’d missed this short story, part of a collection, featuring a few by Dickens and then stories by other contributors. I haven’t yet tracked down an edition with all of the stories, so read this primarily for Mugby Junction itself. The opening sequence, a man arriving at a railway station late at night, got me hooked, though the plot subsequently veered towards Dickens’ more sentimental side.
Louise Doughty – Black Water. The setting is Indonesia, in 1965 and 1998, and it is a tense political thriller, rooted in character and tackling head-on the complex moral dilemmas of those times. Doughty may be best known for Apple Tree Yard, which is excellent, but her work is incredibly varied – I would always put Fires in the Dark, a harrowing and important novel that addresses the Romani Holocaust, as my top Doughty but I also loved the recent Platform 7 which was different again.
Sebastian Faulks – Engleby. We’re not left in any doubt that our eponymous protagonist is odd, an outsider, but as we see things through his eyes (until late in the novel), we don’t entirely realise who he is and what he is capable of. Our sympathies gradually detach from him as we see him more clearly, and Faulks lets us hear what others say about Engleby through diary entries etc. I doubt that any reader would be shocked and amazed by the major plot development, of which I will say nothing, however, in case I am mistaken.
Helen Fields – Perfect Silence. Book 4 in her DI Luc Callanach series, tense and well plotted.
Nicci French – Frieda Klein series. I binged these over Christmas/New Year. Eight books, starting with Blue Monday and ending with Day of the Dead. Proper edge of the seat stuff, though I had some plot issues, about which I can say no more without spoilers.
Tana French – The Searcher. A stand-alone from the author of the superb Dublin Murders series. Rural Irish noir with an ex-Chicago cop as protagonist, and a host of references to the Western genre. Very enjoyable, if not quite French’s best.
Amitav Ghosh – Sea of Poppies/River of Smoke. Books 1 and 2 of the Ibis Trilogy, and book 3 will feature in my end of year list, as I am looking forward to it enormously. Ghosh’s canvas here is vast – the setting is early 19th century, and the story ranges across India, Mauritius, Canton and Hong Kong, as a cast of diverse and fascinating individuals are drawn together directly or indirectly by the opium trade, and the ship, the Ibis, on which they all find themselves at some point. There is a Babel of different languages, not just the native languages of the Bihari, Bengali, Parsi, Cantonese, English and Americans, but the nautical languages, the ‘pidgin’ languages developed to enable trade between these diverse peoples. It’s glorious and exhilarating.
Isabelle Grey – Out of Sight. This is a stand-alone novel from the author of the DI Grace Fisher series, and it was actually her fictional debut. It’s a psychological thriller, which builds the emotional tension with great skill.
Elly Griffiths – The Night Hawks. The latest Ruth Galloway and another highly enjoyable read. Griffiths is great at creating atmosphere and tension, and her characters (both the familiar ones, who are old friends now, and the new characters) are fully real.
Sophie Hannah – Haven’t They Grown. Psychological thriller that presents us right at the start with something impossible, even crazy, that the protagonist – and the reader – have to try to figure out. It’s very twisty, and I couldn’t see how on earth Hannah was going to resolve it all, but she does, and it’s all hugely enjoyable.
Jane Harper – The Survivors. Harper’s four crime novels are all exceptionally strong on landscape and location. Here the setting is a coastal community in Tasmania, far from the scorching heat of The Lost Man, where storms at sea are part of the local history whilst resonating in the present. There’s real tragedy here, coming from human frailty and fear rather than from evil.
Sarah Hilary – Fragile. A stand-alone thriller from the author of the Marnie Rome series. This is not just about secrets and lies (without secrets and lies there would be very little fiction of any genre, after all), it’s about responsibility and guilt and how even when everything is known, there is no absolute truth, and no complete absolution. The sense of place is potent, and the characters subtly drawn, with compassion and understanding.
Joe Hill – NOS4A2. Son of King. And this is very King, which is not a criticism, because I love King, though on the strength of this I would say that ‘son of’ shares not only the best qualities but also some of the flaws of his father. No matter, this was a cracking read, with real terror, and an excellent protagonist, a teenage girl whose life becomes entangled with evil.
Dorothy Hughes – In A Lonely Place. This is noir, very noir. (There’s a 1950 Nicholas Ray film based on the book, which, however, changes the central premise.) It’s brilliant, and I’m baffled as to why Hughes is not better known. (Well, perhaps not entirely baffled, but it’s a grave injustice in any case.)
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Buried Giant. Ishiguro wrongfoots his readers once again, with this venture into the historical/mythical Dark Ages, with giants and dragons and Arthurian knights, through which he explores old age, memory, loss, love and war, and a huge ethical question about forgetting and healing.
Peter James – Dead Simple. The first in the DI Roy Grace series, recently televised with John Simm in the lead role. A great plot, though I was less taken with DI Grace himself – I will persevere and hope to warm to him a little more (I might watch the TV one – if John Simm doesn’t win me over it’s probably a lost cause).
Stephen King – Later. The latest in his Hard Case Crime series. There is crime, but as King reminds us from time to time, this is horror. Sometimes King loses his grasp of plot and things get a bit baggy and muddled but not here – it’s taut and tense and gripping. As the Washington Post reviewer said, ‘The next time you see a dog look twice at a bench, or watch a baby cry for no obvious reason, this novel will be right there behind you, its hand on your shoulder, its whisper so close to your ear you might cringe a little, and then smile, because you’re in the hands of a master storyteller’.
John le Carré – A Most Wanted Man. Only a few more unread le Carrés, sadly. Hari Kunzru in The Guardian called it ‘one of the most sophisticated fictional responses to the war on terror yet published, a humane novel which takes on the world’s latest binarism and exposes troubling shades of grey’.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – The First Woman. A coming-of-age story from Idi Amin’s Uganda, which moves back in time to explore the lives of earlier generations of women, with diversions into feminist origin myths, as the protagonist tries to navigate a complicated and feud-ridden family life. There’s lots of humour and warmth here, and it is ultimately celebratory, with a final scene that gave me goose-bumps and a huge lump in my throat.
Val McDermid – Killing the Shadows/The Grave Tattoo/Still Life. Three very different McDermids. Killing the Shadows is a highly ingenious serial killer story, with a twist, that the killer is targeting crime writers. It’s done very cleverly, and with self-aware dark humour. The Grave Tattoo gives us a crime that connects with 18th century history and literature. These two are both stand-alones, and in neither case is the protagonist a detective. The third, Still Life, published in 2020, is book 6 in the excellent Karen Pirie series
Ian McEwan – Solar. Hmm. Sometimes acerbically funny, sometimes merely farcical. None of the characters was particularly convincing, and I found it wearying to see yet again the trope of a male protagonist who is made as unappealing (physically and morally) as possible and yet still pulls attractive, younger women. Yaawwwnn. I also was a bit gobsmacked by the reviewer who claimed that McEwan had ‘swotted up to PhD level in Physics’ for the purposes of this book. Even if he had started off with a strong scientific background, I cannot see how he could have done this on any plausible time frame. So, it had its moments, but overall it was too annoying to be enjoyable.
Jon McGregor – Lean Fall Stand. Fiction book of the year (so far, but it will take quite something to dislodge it). McGregor is possibly my favourite contemporary novelist – each of his books has had quite an extraordinary impact on me, subtle and delicate and brutal and compelling. Reviewers tended to all praise the first section but then to favour one or other of the other two sections. I can see why – I felt a sense of regret as each section ended and I realised that the perspective, and the style, had shifted, but then was quickly won over by the brilliance and beauty of the writing. I read it, as I read most things, in too much of a rush and immediately started again at the beginning, taking it slow, savouring it.
Dervla McTiernan – The Scholar. Sequel to The Ruin and featuring the same detective, Cormac O’Reilly. It’s even better than its predecessor, I would say, and I very much enjoyed The Ruin – well-drawn characters, a very clever and thoroughly worked out plot with a lot of tension.
Maaza Mengiste – The Shadow King. Set in Ethiopia in 1935, during the Italian invasion. It’s a very intense read, violent and dark, absolutely fascinating, with a focus on the women soldiers who fought to defend their homeland against the invaders.
Denise Mina – The Less Dead is a crime novel which wants to challenge the way we tell the stories of the victims of crime, particularly those whose chaotic lives make them both more vulnerable to violence and more likely to be blamed for their own demise, marginalised in both life and death. The story in itself was powerful and of course it chimed with one of last year’s reads, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, and with The Thirteen too…
Sarah Moss – Summerwater. I love Sarah Moss’s books and this one will repay an early re-read to appreciate its subtleties (see my remarks re Jon McGregor). There is, throughout, a sense of unease, something not quite right, that the occupants of these loch-side cabins are not as they appear through the eyes of their neighbours or even to their closest family.
Thomas Mullen – Midnight Atlanta. The third in a superb series along with Darktown and The Lightning Men, set in Atlanta in the 1950s with racial politics absolutely at the heart of the action.
Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies. The invulnerability of youth, friendship, aging and mortality. The first half was gloriously funny, the second broke me.
Caryl Phillips – Crossing the River. Fragments of the history of the African diaspora, linked by a (not literal) familial connection. We start on a West African shore as a man acknowledges his guilt and grief over his children, sold into slavery. We join those lost children in Liberia, as a freed slave endeavours to take the gospel and ‘civilisation’ back to Africa, in Colorado as a slave, freed after the Civil War, dreams of finding her own lost child, and some kind of real freedom, and in Yorkshire where a black GI and a local woman recognise each other’s lostness. And we have the journal of the man to whom those lost children were sold. The chronologies do not make sense, historical plausibility is not the priority here. They are powerful narratives, different voices persuasively rendered, moments that stay with you.
John Preston – The Dig. Lightly fictionalised version of the Sutton Hoo dig. It’s the people that interest Preston, rather than their discoveries, and not those who are most prominent in the official narrative but those who were overshadowed, due to their own natural reticence or the prejudices of others. A lovely, poignant read.
Ian Rankin – A Song for the Dark Times. The latest Rebus. Rebus is still splendidly Rebus and has not allowed his retirement to in any way constrain his mission to annoy the hell out of the establishment.
C J Sansom – Tombland. I was slightly disappointed with the last one I read in the Shardlake series due to some clunky writing but thoroughly enjoyed this, partly because the setting was very different – we’re in Norfolk, at the time of Kett’s Rebellion, and it’s a gripping story (there’s a murder mystery here, but the context is just as compelling as the crime).
Francis Spufford – Light Perpetual. A wonderful book. The opening is a tour de force, and that force propels us through the lives of five children, lives that might not have been. The Guardian calls it ‘both a requiem and a giving of life’. And it’s profoundly musical too, whether in its subject matter or in the way that these five lives interweave in harmony or dissonance.
Elizabeth Strout – Olive Again. Olive Kitteridge is, I think, Strout’s finest creation. She’s not a comfortable person, she’s abrasive and clumsy. But she’s utterly convincing, and fascinating. As is Strout’s usual approach, she gives us a series of short stories, with recurring characters, so that we see some of the same events from different perspectives. Olive Again is unflinching in its portrayal of ageing, its indignities and regrets, but it is somehow hopeful, that we can still change, still love.
Graham Swift – Here We Are. This is kind of magical. The Guardian said: ‘This is a beautiful, gentle, intricate novella, the kind of book that stays with you despite not appearing to do anything particularly new or special. In fact, perhaps that’s what makes it so very good: Here We Are smuggles within the pages of a seemingly commonplace tale depths of emotion and narrative complexity that take the breath away.’
Antal Szerb – Journey by Moonlight. This is the great Hungarian novel, and it’s quite something. Written in 1937, its author was murdered by the Nazis during the last months of the war. The book is hard to describe – it reminded me at times of Sebald and at others of Ishiguro. This fascinating article describes it as ‘a brief reprieve from the logic according to which happiness and sadness are opposed to one another’. What that quote doesn’t convey perhaps is that it’s often very funny.
Sylvia Townsend Warner – The Corner that Held Them. Warner is a most intriguing writer. About this novel, published in 1948 and set in a convent at the time of the Black Death (I know…), she apparently said, ‘I am still inclined to call it People Growing Old. It has no conversations and no pictures, it has no plot, and the characters are innumerable and insignificant’. This curiously compelling, and often drily humorous novel is about history as ‘a tangle of events’; about a community, rather than about the individuals who comprise that community.
Dorothy Whipple – Greenbanks. I’d not even heard of Whipple until the last year or so (I do apologise to her) but during the plague times I think many people turned back to some of the literature of the interwar period (this is from 1932), and Whipple’s name just kept coming up in recommendations from friends and acquaintances. So, I have now Whippled and I will assuredly do so again, because Greenbanks was lovely. And by that I don’t mean it was all cosy comfort, far from it. It leaves the younger of the two main protagonists with much about her life and future happiness unresolved, and its male characters are portrayed incisively, their ‘pretensions and presumptions’ exposed and punctured. The writing is absolutely delicious.
Christa Wolf – Cassandra. Published in 1983, this is a retelling of the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of the woman cursed to prophesy and not be believed. There are many resonances with life in the GDR, and the book was censored when first published. It’s also got a strong theme of the marginalisation of women’s lives, the lack of choice and agency (even for the daughter of a King).
Virginia Woolf – Orlando. I’d been meaning to read this for years, having tried and failed to read other Woolf novels. This was the one to break that pattern, it’s quite extraordinary, a wild ride through the centuries, through English literary history, with a male protagonist who quite suddenly becomes a female protagonist, albeit one who presents as male when it suits her purposes, and who takes male and female lovers. Glorious.
Peter Jones – Little Piece of Harm. I read poetry a lot less often than I intend to. What tempts me to go there is usually a new publication from Longbarrow Press, and this one was a gem. It’s ‘a narrative sequence that focuses on 24 hours in the life of a city that has been shut down in the aftermath of a shooting. As this act of violence ramifies outwards, the sequence explores the geographical reach of Sheffield – its urban settings and its rural landmarks – and eavesdrops on the city’s conversations.’
David Leeming – James Baldwin. A wonderful biography, from someone who knew Baldwin well. I was immersed in this, so much so that I felt quite overwhelmed at his death, as if he was someone I’d known. This isn’t a hagiography – Baldwin was a complicated and often difficult man, who fell out with a lot of people over the years, a man who never worked out how to love himself, who saw himself as ugly, who never found the true love that he wanted. But he’s a towering figure, his vision and passion are so powerfully articulated in his fiction and essays as well as in interviews. Charisma and intellect in such abundance.
W E B Dubois – The Souls of Black Folk. Dubois’ work obviously influenced Baldwin, as it did all of the writers who’ve talked about race in the twentieth century, and into our own. Dubois’ style seems a bit florid (it is of its time, 1903) but nonetheless it is clear and lucid and passionate. He talks about the veil between the black and white worlds, he talks about how it feels to ‘be a problem’. He says it so well that it is no wonder that by the time Baldwin is saying similar things, in a very different style, 60-70 years later, he is angry and weary that they still need saying. They still do.
David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count. Baddiel follows his powerful documentary on Holocaust denial with this passionate, funny, angry account of how Jews are somehow omitted from consideration so often when racial prejudice is under discussion. It’s quite shattering – so many things that I had seen out of the corner of my eye, in a way, but not confronted, in my own thinking about race and in the way it is written and spoken about. Groundbreaking.
Alexandra Wilson – In Black and White Wilson came to attention with a piece in the Guardian, recounting a day in which she, a barrister, on three separate occasions had to persuade court officials that she was not, in fact, the defendant… This sets those incidents in the context of her career in the law, and of the way in which race and class affect the way in which people fare in the legal system.
Susi Bechhofer – Rosa’s Child. The account of a child of the Kindertransport, who came to England with her sister, was fostered with a couple who tried to erase all memory and knowledge of their previous life, and who only discovered the fate of her mother in middle age. W G Sebald used (without her permission) many elements of her story in Austerlitz.
Rachel Clifford – Survivors. Clifford’s study of child survivors of the Holocaust (specifically, those who were in camps, or in hiding, or who otherwise lived out the war in Europe) is fascinating, particularly in its exploration of how understanding of trauma developed over the post-war period.
Miriam Darvas – Farewell to Prague. Somewhat breathlessly written (perhaps for a YA readership), it’s nonetheless a gripping and powerful story.
Hadley Freeman – The House of Glass. A meticulously researched and emotionally powerful family history, driven by the need to understand her grandmother, and to know what happened to the wider family, who survived the Holocaust and how, who didn’t and why.
Saul Friedlander – The Years of Extermination. Volume 2 of Friedlander’s history of Nazi Germany and the Jews. What can one say – it is exhaustive and relentless, and as always one is struck by the sheer mad obsession of that hatred, that led the Nazis to continue searching for, rounding up and transporting Jewish men, women and children to their deaths, even as the Allies were closing in on Berlin.
Lillian Furst – Random Destinations. A study of various fictionalised accounts of the lives of those who escaped the Holocaust, and how these narratives could face some of the darker aspects of those lives, marked by trauma, struggling with their own sense of identity, with their Jewishness, with their exile, aspects that have sometimes been neglected due to the focus on the successes of the more prominent survivors.
Anna Hajkova – The Last Ghetto. A detailed and fascinating study of Theresienstadt, the town that became a ghetto prison, and then a Potemkin village to delude the Red Cross into believing that the occupants were well looked after, a place where many died of disease and from which many more were deported to Auschwitz. Hajkova talks about the way in which the ghetto was organised, the hierarchies and power balances between the inhabitants, putting the brief episode with the Red Cross into context rather than making it the centre of the narrative.
Michael Rosen – The Missing. Like Freeman, Rosen set out to find out what happened to the ‘missing’ members of his family. This account is aimed at children/young adults, but does not pull its punches. Rosen incorporates poems and source documents to help readers understand both the facts and their emotional weight. It’s a moving read for adults who feel they know this stuff already, too.
Anne Applebaum – The Twilight of Democracy. I read a while ago Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, which was excellent. This one is different, because it is intensely personal, as well as being rigorously analytical. It’s the account of how, at the start of the millennium, she and her friends (in the US, the UK, in Poland and elsewhere in Europe) were in broad agreement about the future of democracy and how, in the years since, many of those friends have moved so far to the nationalist right that she and they no longer speak.
Adam Hothschild – King Leopold’s Ghost. The horrific story of the exploitation of the Congo Free State (which included the whole of what is now DRC) by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908. Leopold exploited the land and its natural resources, but most appallingly its people, who were treated as entirely expendable, and who were, in vast numbers, mutilated, tortured and killed. Those who want to defend colonialism will argue that this is an extreme case, and it is, but the mentality behind it – greed, combined with the deep rooted belief that the African people were inferior beings – can be seen in even the most benign colonial regimes.
Barrack Obama – Promised Land. Volume 1 of his presidential memoirs and it’s huge… I have to admit that some of the detail lost me – I don’t have quite sufficient grasp of the mechanics and structures of the US system to follow it all – but it was (as one would expect from Obama) beautifully and lucidly written, and critical as much of himself as of others.
Shirley Williams – Climbing the Bookshelves. A very engaging memoir that I reached for from my TBR pile when I heard of her death. I’ve always liked and admired Williams, though her politics and mine don’t entirely align – she was always a tad to the right of my natural position, though that would not preclude major areas of agreement. Most of all, she was a politician of complete integrity and that’s a rare and valuable commodity these days. We need more of her ilk.
Andrew Biswell – The Real Life of Anthony Burgess. Highly entertaining – a rambunctious literary life, and a seriously unreliable autobiographer – as Biswell sifts reality from contradictory self-mythologising and explores the work itself. It makes me want to read more Burgess (but selectively).
Richard Coles – Fathomless Riches/Bringing in the Sheaves/The Madness of Grief. The fascination of Volume 1 of this trilogy of memoirs is Coles’ involvement in the music scene, with the Communards, but it is particularly powerful on the AIDs epidemic, to which he lost many friends. He is very honest, self-deprecating and often extremely funny. Vol. 2 covers his life in the church and is very oriented around the church year – I did find this harder to enjoy, although he is a lovely writer and person, as although I was brought up as a Christian, my experiences were in Methodist and ‘charismatic’ church communities, very different to the higher end of the CofE, and it felt quite alien. My atheism remains unshaken. Vol. 3 is about the death of Coles’ husband and it is a heartbreaking and, again, brutally honest account. I loved the bit about the group of widows who saw him in a café and embraced him, physically and with comforting chat, from the perspective of those who know what it is to lose one’s other half and yet go on.
Pamela des Barres – I’m With the Band. I’d always been intrigued by this and it was quite a surprising read. Obviously, a lot of sex was had. But mostly what comes across is the breathless romanticism of des Barres: she isn’t so much adding notches to her bedpost as falling in love with one after another of the rock gods she encounters, each time of course facing disillusionment as they move on to another town and other girls. She does care a lot and know a lot about the music – it isn’t just the fame that turns her on.
Jackie Kay – Bessie Smith. Not a straight biography, more a prose poem. It’s thoroughly researched, but feels as much personal as it is scholarly. The Guardian describes it is ‘a joyous and formally daring undertaking. … an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognised her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and “beautiful black face”.
James Young – Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio. An account of the author’s travels with Nico on various UK and European tours in the years leading up to her death. Often grim, and often grimly funny.
Rachel Clarke – Breathtaking. Having read Dear Life, I knew Clarke could write beautifully about mortality and compassion, and here she covers the Covid pandemic and the experience of the medics called upon to take huge risks and work beyond exhaustion to try to keep people alive in those deadly days (days we hope we won’t see again). I also read Dominic Pimenta’s Duty of Care – like Clarke, Pimenta was taken out of his normal work to treat Covid patients, and to help organise resources to deal with the crisis. Both of them are at times incandescent with anger about the failure of government to recognise what needed to be done and to act quickly, to protect NHS staff with adequate PPE, to protect the vulnerable in care homes and in hospital wards.
Daniel Levitin – The Changing Mind. Levitin argues that, contrary to what we’re often told, we don’t lose the capacity to learn and change as we age. We’re likely to get worse at some things, but potentially better at others, and exercising our minds (not just by doing sudokus) has huge benefits in keeping us well into old age.
Bessel van der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score, is a fascinating study of how trauma is realised physically, and what that means for therapeutic solutions.
I may not have travelled much in the last six months IRL, but I’ve crossed continents and centuries through the books I’ve read. As always, I am so very grateful to the writers who have taken me to all of these times and places, who have moved, entertained, enlightened and informed me.
I do this to share the good stuff, as I said at the beginning. I hope some readers will find things here that they go on to enjoy, maybe to discover a new writer or to venture into a different genre. If you do, I’d love to know. If you have recommendations for me, feel free to share them. If you hate something I love, fair enough, but I take no responsibility…
I will wait until I’ve got a full year’s reading under my belt before I pick any ‘Best of’ but Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand will be a tough act to beat…
About fifteen years ago I started reading a 1950s French novel by someone I’d only just heard of, right at the start of my part-time undergraduate degree studies. Nothing remarkable there, except that I’m still reading it.
It drew me in, intrigued by the idea of a young French novelist writing about Manchester, and by the first few pages with their blend of ‘grim up north’ dry humour, poetry and dark foreboding. And then things got more confusing, and more intriguing. It’s an account of mundane events (dreadful weather and even worse food) – and of murder, betrayal and revenge. Bleston, which stands in for Manchester (specifically and as the archetypal northern industrial city) in the novel, is both recognisable and realistically described (street names and bus timetables) and also a fantastical place, a monster, a labyrinth.
People who know I’ve been studying this book for such a long time often ask me what it’s about. I still don’t have a definitive answer for that. It’s not that kind of a book – and I can’t imagine I’d have spent all these years obsessing about it, reading about it, researching it, and writing about it, if it had been. Every time I open it I see something I hadn’t seen before. It’s almost as if it’s shapeshifting, it grows and alters as I read.
Michel Butor is often labelled as part of the nouveau roman group, which was never actually a group and of which he never felt he was a part. He has a lot more in common with Proust than with any of the writers associated with the nouveau roman, and this novel in particular is a quest for lost time, as Revel, the diarist/narrator, feeling himself overwhelmed by the city and its fogs, tries to set down on paper everything that has happened since his arrival in the town eight months previously. He feels that he’s in a labyrinth, disorientating and tricksy, a trap from which he might never escape – but he ends up creating a labyrinth with his diary entries, as the time line starts to loop back on itself, the present day intruding on the attempt to chronologically record the past, and he finds he has to revisit earlier events to explain what’s happening now.
If Passing Time looks back to Proust, it also looks forward, to the work of W G Sebald. Sebald read the novel when he arrived in Manchester, fifteen years after Butor and it resonated through his writing, from the early poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, through to his final work, Austerlitz. He picked up on the dark undercurrents in Butor’s work, the hauntedness, the theme of exile and displacement, and the sense that wherever we are in Bleston, we are not just in Bleston.
I’ve been not only reading Butor but writing about Butor, and about the connections between this novel and W G Sebald, for a very long time now. The title of this blog is obviously a reference to Butor – if I’ve posted less Butor stuff over recent years its because all of that is going into my PhD thesis, but there’s still plenty here, if you search for Butor or Sebald, and on a range of themes, from music to maps to Manchester, and to the labyrinth, which is the unifying motif in my thesis, one that recurs throughout Passing Time, and Sebald’s oeuvre.
When Butor died in 2016, I posted a tribute here, and said at the end:
It is sad that Jean Stewart’s English translation is currently only available at prices that would deter all but the most dedicated readers. Perhaps, when the British press gets around to noticing Butor’s passing and commemorating it appropriately, some enterprising publisher will take a punt on reissuing it, and giving a new generation of readers the chance to explore those rainy streets and lose themselves in Bleston.https://cathannabel.blog/2016/08/29/butor-in-manchester/
And that is, pretty much, exactly what happened. Manchester-based Pariah Press are publishing a new edition of Jean Stewart’s excellent translation, in paperback, in May. It is a thing of beauty and I’d urge anyone who is interested in twentieth-century postwar fiction, in Manchester and/or the mythology of the northern city, in displacement and exile, in the detective novel, in labyrinths, in time and memory, in non-linear narratives and unreliable narrators, to pre-order it now…
Suddenly there were a lot of lights. … I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark window-pane covered on the outside with raindrops, a myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling.Michel Butor, Passing Time, trans. Jean Stewart
Go on. You can thank me (and Pariah Press) later…
Be the light in the darkness is an affirmation and a call to action for everyone marking HMD. This theme asks us to consider different kinds of ‘darkness’, for example, identity-based persecution, misinformation, denial of justice; and different ways of ‘being the light’, for example, resistance, acts of solidarity, rescue and illuminating mistruths.https://www.hmd.org.uk/what-is-holocaust-memorial-day/this-years-theme/
For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.Amanda Gorman, ‘The Hill We Climb’
The darkness that overwhelmed Europe’s Jews under Nazi persecution has engulfed so many since then, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Cambodia and Darfur. And today in China and in Myanmar, Uighur and Rohingya Muslims face the threat of genocide. We’ve been here before, again and again, and every time, when it’s over, we pledge that we will never again allow hatred to triumph. But at the point when the world could make that pledge real, could stop genocide in its tracks, then we hesitate, fatally. Now is that point, yet again, when we need to name what is happening, with all of the implications and responsibilities that carries, to shine a light on what is happening now, rather than afterwards.
And the darkness creeps back again too, when far right activists wear their Holocaust denial openly. We’ve seen the swastika flag flown in Charlottesville. The ‘Camp Auschwitz’ T shirt in the Capitol Building. The British Union of Fascists banner in Trafalgar Square. It’s not that we haven’t seen it in daylight before – it has never really gone away. But the murky corners of the internet have proved to be the ideal environment for conspiracy theories to grow, to be shared, to ensnare more and more people. People who start off as 9-11 truthers, anti-vaxxers, Covid-hoax activists, almost any conspiracy theory you care to mention, will find Holocaust denial thriving on the websites and forums. And it spills out, and where it isn’t opposed, it gains confidence and feels emboldened, legitimised, empowered. It is, as David Baddiel says, ‘the archetypal lie in our culture, from which all the other lies fan out’. It is so very hard to counter. Facts, evidence, personal testimony, all seem to bounce off without leaving any mark. But we have to speak the truth anyway, we have to offer the facts, the evidence, the personal testimony, the common sense to counter the fantasy, the rigour to expose the lies. We have to call it out whenever and wherever we encounter it. Baddiel’s superb documentary did just that, with passion and clarity.
I don’t have my own story to tell. So I will carry on reading and sharing both the scholarship and the personal testimonies, of those whose accounts shine light not only on what happened at those other times and in those other places but what is happening now.
My 2020/21 Reading List
- Susi Bechhofer – Rosa’s Child: One Woman’s Search for her Past
- Miriam Darvas – Farewell to Prague
- Saul Friedlander – Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination
- Anna Hajkova – The Last Ghetto: An Every History of Theresienstadt
- Heda Margolius Kovaly – Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968
- Eva Noack-Mosse – Last Days of Theresienstadt
- Michael Rosen – The Missing: The True Story of My Family in World War II
Normally, as New Year’s Eve approaches, I post some reflections on the year just passed, hopes for the next one, that sort of thing. This year, there seems to be nothing I can say about the year that I haven’t already said, or that others have not said better. I wrote about the loss of my lovely brother here, I bade au revoir to the EU here, I said my piece, for what it’s worth, on #BLM here, and I’ve referred to the pandemic, directly or indirectly, in most of my posts since March.
2020 was wretched, for all of us, to different degrees (we may have all been in the same storm, but not in the same boat…). Let’s not rehash that now. And if we ever thought we could embark on a New Year blithely confident in what lay ahead, the last few years, and especially this last one, have disabused us rather brutally. So I won’t look ahead much either, except in very general terms.
I do, though, want to celebrate the people who’ve made this year a little bit better, directly or indirectly.
NHS staff – and by that I mean not only GPs, consultants, doctors, midwives and nurses, but health care assistants, the staff who clean the wards, who feed the patients, who provide the services that underpin front-line patient care. I know that many of those staff have paid a price this year, in stress and anxiety, in their own losses and grief, in sickness and, in a tragically large number of cases, with their lives.
The people who keep essential basic services going – the bin collectors, the postal workers, the supermarket staff (I know from chatting to staff at the till that they have at times been subjected to abuse from customers when supplies run short or queues are long), the bus drivers, the lorry drivers moving supplies around the country… We tend not to think about them, until something we take for granted doesn’t happen.
The international teams of scientists and researchers who’ve been battling to find out everything they can about the virus, how it spreads, how to treat it and how we can protect ourselves against it. And many have been battling too to counter the relentless tide of misinformation and conspiracy theories that flows on social media. (Shout out to Prof. Carl Smythe (Professor of Cell Biology) at the University of Sheffield, who’s been refuting arrant (and lethal) nonsense on a daily basis for the last nine months… )
The people who’ve helped out, whenever and wherever. Khalsa Aid, a Sikh charity (who also sprang into action during the Somerset floods a few years ago), one of a number of organisations who delivered provisions to lorry drivers stranded at Dover because of the border closures. And the cafés, shops, pubs and other small businesses (many struggling themselves during the pandemic) who nonetheless stepped up to offer free meals for schoolchildren during school hols when the government declined to do so.
Some people who have brightened our world, or my life in particular, in absolutely no order: The Doctor, Marcus Rashford (and his Mum), Jacinda Ardern, Pariah Press, Angela Davis, Ruth Arnold, Jackie Kay, David Olusoga, Persephone Books, The Good Place, Greg Fell, Songhoy Blues, Caroline Shaw, Michael Rosen, Hilary Mantel, Music Planet, Céline Sciamma, Lissa Evans, Inspiration for Life, Alyn Shipton, Jean-Luc Picard, Ensemble 360, John le Carré, J to Z, Stephen King, Brian Lewis’s Lockdown Walks. You’ve made me smile, given me hope, made me dance around the kitchen, informed and challenged me, brought me books and films and music to inspire and delight me. Love and gratitude to all of you.
And whatever is around the corner, we can keep our eyes on two beacons of hope.
Firstly, there are the vaccines, which will save lives and reunite us with our friends and families – oh, the hugs that will be hugged.
And then there’s the inauguration of a new US President and VP. Whatever their flaws, and whatever difficulties the GOP will place in their path, once again this major power will be led by people with intelligence, integrity, concern for the powerless at home and abroad, and a commitment to engage positively with the world.
Some stuff that gives me a glimmer of hope and optimism, that I hang on to in the bleak nights:
First off, I refer you to the project I’ve been involved with in recent weeks. Inspiration for Life is the charity I helped to set up in 2012, and then chaired until last month, which raises funds for cancer charities. Our major fundraiser has always been the 24 Hour Inspire, a 24-hour lecture marathon, which was, obviously, impossible to run in the midst of a pandemic. So instead, we offered 24 Reasons to be Cheerful, our on-line Advent Calendar. There’s some lovely stuff – music from Fay Hield, Ayusp, the Cancer Choir and the Creating Hope choir, plus comedy, art and craft, a bit of science, and contributions from our partner charities. If you feel moved to donate a few quids, that would be lovely.
One of the films is a reading of the poem ‘Sometimes’, by Sheenagh Pugh, which I usually include in my NYE post. This time I’ll let you hear Ruth Arnold reading it.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day
Theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man…
Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars
(Billy Bragg, Between the Wars)
We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.
(Flobots – We are Winning)
The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.
(Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl)
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
(Joss Whedon – Angel)
Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. … Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.
(The 12th Doctor, Twice Upon a Time)
Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
(Bertrand Russell, Face to Face interview, 1959)
Last time I posted these, we had no thoughts of a pandemic, of health care workers dying, of care home occupants separated from their families, of theatres, concert halls, football grounds, churches empty of people, of pubs and restaurants with doors closed to customers, of facemasks and R numbers and shielding and bubbles.
Nonetheless, they hold true. And they’re worth holding on to.
And maybe, just maybe, there will be blue skies ahead…
Normally, there’s quite a bit about cinema in this review of the year on screen. This year was, obviously, different, and whilst I could have watched more films on screen via DVD, for a host of reasons I found refuge in telly, in short bursts of drama rather than longer forms. My concentration was shot in the first part of the year, with the loss of my brother, and the onset of the pandemic.
I got used to the latter, to the extent that those of us who weren’t directly affected got used to it (finding new routines involving lots of local walks and evenings in, as we had the luxury of no work or financial pressures, plenty of space indoors and out, and no one close to us being ill).
As for the former, grieving isn’t a linear process, one can seem to be fine and then walk into a wall that wasn’t there before, one can seem to be fine and then be ambushed by a memory, an image, a word. So there are things we’ve avoided watching because, well, why deliberately provoke it? The exception to this was Little Women, of which more below, which we saw at the cinema very early in 2020, in full knowledge of how it would foreshadow the inevitable loss that we were facing.
The Small Screen
Please note: this reflects what we have watched in 2020, and thus includes old stuff that is circling eternally on ITV 3 and Drama, stuff from 2019 that was still sitting on our BT Vision Box as the year turned, as well as this year’s TV. This is the telly that has diverted, amused, intrigued, enlightened, moved and informed us during 2020. I’ve missed out the things that we started watching and then decided life was simply too short to waste time on, but, whilst I don’t normally spend much time talking about things I haven’t liked, there are a few dishonourable mentions here, mainly for things that I expected to like and in the end was very cross with. I’ve linked to some reviews, where they are not too spoilery, but as always, caveat lector.
You know you’ve watched too many episodes of Midsomer Murders when the ITV 3 intro causes eruptions of rage every single time it invites us to go to the ‘infamous village of Midsomer where only one thing’s for certain’. As any fule no, Midsomer is not a village but a county. I mean, that body count would be just too improbable in just one village, wouldn’t it? Another clue is when you overhear someone saying ‘Oh, hello, what are you doing here?’ and turn abruptly, expecting imminent violence with a pitchfork or perhaps a giant cheese. It’s very silly, and the writing is variable but at its best, it knows exactly what it’s doing, and there are lots of little in-jokes about the bloodthirsty nature of these picturesque villages (like the incoming DS from the Met who is shocked at the carnage). We’ve re-watched all the Nettles series, which allows us to marvel every episode at how Joyce manages to get involved in every single case, because she is a member of every single committee, book club, art class, choir, am dram group, and so forth in the entire county. I have my suspicions that she is actually the mastermind behind the whole murderous business.
There were lots more weighty contenders, of course. Foreign language offerings included Nordic crime from Twin, Before We Die, Wisting, and Below the Surface, and best of all The Bridge, whose first two series we had missed when they were first shown (I know! What were we thinking?) and enjoyed very much, whilst concluding that the plot, especially perhaps in Season 2, was a little too complex for its own good and if one was being picky one might mention a couple of possible holes. But one won’t, and one is now re-watching series 3 and 4. Saga is, of course, a most wonderful creation.
Wallander is obviously Nordic but Young Wallander is in English. It’s an oddity – if we hadn’t been alerted before watching we would have been most bemused by the contemporary setting. There are nods to ‘our’ Wallander (the father who paints the same scene over and over again, the girlfriend called Mona) but clearly this is not the equivalent of Endeavour. It was enjoyable, if not unmissable. Van der Valk is a remake of a 70s series which we never watched – again it’s in English but set in Amsterdam. The setting was, I fear, the best thing about it. The plots were ludicrously baroque, the motivation of the culprits unconvincing, the script clichéd – and if anyone wonders how I dare level such criticisms when I’ve just admitted to a fondness for Midsomer Murders, MM has a lightness, a touch of humour, that VdV lacked.
The latest series of Spiral had us shouting at the telly, primarily at Laure and Gilou. Excellent stuff – our deeply flawed heroes may be infuriating but they’re convincing and won our hearts a long while back, and the plot was gripping and tense. The other French offering was The Other Mother, based on Michel Bussi’s novel Maman a tort, which was also excellent – the plot was complex but just the right side of incomprehensible. The Team was a multinational European offering – it’s series 2 but with no characters in common from series 1, just the concept of a multinational team pulled together from different EU nations to solve a crime.
We also watched the movie Goldstone, which is linked to the Australian crime series Murder Road, whose new series is awaiting our attention, and the much lighter-weight but diverting Harrow, about an Aussie pathologist, the sort of pathologist who investigates crime, not the sort that gets called in when there’s a corpse and says ‘I’ll know more when I get him on the slab’ and then eats his sandwiches whilst foraging about in someone’s insides – see MM, Vera, et al. They know their place, unlike Harrow.
We visited the frozen landscapes of Canada for another dark and dour series of Cardinal, and back to the US for The Sinner (this was series 2, with only Bill Pullman in common with series 1). A much more unusual setting for Baghdad Central – an excellent, tautly plotted thriller with powerful performances by Waleed Zuaiter and Bertie Carvel. And we visited the past – Vienna in the 1900s -for Vienna Blood. The protagonists are an ‘unlikely duo’ of a brash young medical student and disciple of Freud, and a battered older cop, the production is very Sherlockian, and altogether it was slightly daft, but enjoyable, with a darker undercurrent running through it, of the endemic antisemitism of the time and the place, whose consequences we know too well.
Back in the UK, we enjoyed the Agatha Christie dramatization of The Pale Horse, with Rufus Sewell; Guilt, a blackly comic take on murder, with the always engaging Mark Bonnar; and McDonald & Dodds, with Jason Watkins, another lighter weight crime series, with good enough performances and writing to be worth catching when it returns. We watched Judge John Deed, which turned into a montage of 90s conspiracy theories about phone masts and the like, with improbable legal scenarios, and a protagonist whose compulsion to seduce every attractive woman he meets (key witness, fellow barrister, ex-wife, his therapist) becomes tiresome and frankly a bit creepy. Actually, all of the characters are intensely annoying, and one watched it mainly to be infuriated with it. Series 2 of Bancroft was just as ludicrous as the first.
The really good stuff:
Strike, Series 4 – charismatic leads, great plots, thoroughly enjoyable series, weaving the personal narratives of Strike and Robin in with the investigations very skilfully.
Hidden, Series 2 – Welsh noir – very, very noir – with an excellent female lead. As with the first series, the ending brings a very compromised and uncomfortable resolution.
Deadwater Fell – dark psychological drama, excellent cast, very unsettling.
Elizabeth is Missing – based on the book by Emma Healey. The lead character, Maud, has dementia, so when she insists that her friend Elizabeth is missing, no one takes her very seriously. Her recent memories keep getting mixed up with much older ones, of a much older disappearance. Glenda Jackson’s performance is absolutely mesmerisingly brilliant.
Dublin Murders – based on the first two books of the Tana French series. The plots are interwoven in a way that perhaps didn’t totally work, but the quality of the writing and the performances carried the day.
Endeavour – the penultimate series, apparently. The quality of the writing continues to be an absolute joy. The interplay between Morse, Strange, Thursday and Bright is so well played, often very emotionally powerful even though (or perhaps all the more because) none of them speak easily about their feelings.
Vera – Brenda Blethyn is a fine-looking woman, and so somewhat at odds with the descriptions in the novels, but she gets the character beautifully. The way in which the relationship with Joe’s replacement as DS is developed is convincing and touching (I particularly like the way he kneels to help her put on her crime scene shoe covers. As an older woman with dodgy knees I can so identify).
The Capture – about surveillance and deep fake images and whether or not we can trust what we see… A nicely paranoid atmosphere and a gradual blurring of the lines between right and wrong
Giri/Haji – my pick of the year, without a doubt. That it didn’t get commissioned for a second season speaks to a certain cowardice amongst the decision makers, but as the Independent’s reviewer says, it is pretty much faultless as it stands, so maybe it doesn’t need a sequel. This was stylish, often audacious, bloody, darkly humorous – really striking and memorable telly. Applause to all concerned.
Homeland returned for the last time. The final series was an encapsulation of everything that we’ve seen over its whole run, very consciously a drawing together of many of the threads from all the previous series, satisfying without being oversimplified. As a jazz fan I was delighted that Carrie’s love of jazz, rather forgotten about in recent series, was foregrounded in the final scenes, as the wonderful Kamasi Washington performed live on stage.
Deutschland 86 took us to the brink, everything in place for the collapse of the GDR and the destruction of the Wall. I hope we get one more series, to take these characters, and us, through those momentous events.
We would not normally have thought of watching The New Pope. The trailer, rather bafflingly, showed Jude Law in tiny (very tiny) Speedos walking along a beach, as women gazed, and fainted away, on either side. Hmmm. However, we knew that my brother had a moment on screen as one of the Cardinals gathered at a funeral, and we had to watch – and watch with full attention – to ensure we didn’t miss him. I’m glad we did – it was bonkers but beautiful. (So we got to see both of my brothers on screen this year, strangely enough, our Aidan in purple robes in The New Pope, and our Greg in an orange trackie at a football match over 40 years ago – see below.)
Philharmonia was bonkers too – the orchestral setting was unusual, and it was enjoyable, even if one didn’t ever believe a word of it.
The Accident was grim, and some of the plotting was a little bit careless, I thought – or maybe setting up for a second series where other things come to light? No idea. I just felt that – without giving too much away – a character was introduced who played a key role in events, but that role never seemed to be properly explored, and the images at the very end seemed, almost, to suggest that the truth was something other than the established official version. I may have imagined it! There were some powerful performances, from Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Scanlan in particular.
The Plot against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire) from Philip Roth’s alt history, in which Charles Lindbergh, running on an America First ticket, wins the 1940 US election rather than FDR. It is, of course, incredibly topical (more so than the novel, which came out in 2004, when the events of 2016 could not have been imagined). It was powerful, incredibly tense, and subtle when it needed to be. Its final moments – and this is where it differed significantly from the book – with the central characters tensely awaiting the outcome of another election, hoping and fearing the outcome, kept coming back into my mind in November.
We’re saving up Small Axe. Looking forward so much to this.
Let’s draw a veil over the awful Batwoman. Wooden acting, clunky scripts, a plot that made no sense at all.
Devs – sci fi that’s about ideas, as much as it’s about tech. There was no predicting where this one was heading, or where it ended up. Whether it entirely made sense, I’m not sure, but it was, as the Guardian reviewer put it, a ‘deep, dark, wild ride’.
Dracula – yet another take on the Stoker original, this one was about as faithful as any of the others, but it really went for it, with conviction and style. As Lucy Mangan in the Guardian put it, ‘It’s a proper job […] And that means proper scares. No spoilers, but the one in the [redacted] when the [redacted] suddenly [redacted] had me clinging to the ceiling. I advise parental supervision at all times. My dad was annoyed at having to come over, but needs must when the devil calls and starts emanating from your screen.’
His Dark Materials – As always with a screen version of a book/series that I have loved with a real passion, I was anxious that the adaptation would mess it up. I needn’t have worried. The performances are grand, the visuals stunning, and it’s powerful stuff. We loved it, and are looking forward to Series 2.
Star Trek: Discovery – we’re through the wormhole now, and it’s Trek, Jim, but not as we know it. This allows for real character development, though if I were to be picky I’d ask them to rein in the reaction shots of awe and wonderment and so forth. No idea where we’re headed but we’re now liberated from the need to be consistent with the existing series, which is pretty exciting, if you’re a long-term Trekker.
Star Trek: Picard – it’s a good time to be into Trek! Not only Discovery, but Picard too. My love for Jean-Luc is undimmed and he carried this very effectively. Some lovely shout-backs to NG, but its not pure nostalgia for the fans.
The Walking Dead – The first part of the season ended prematurely due to the pandemic – we only got the finale in October and now have to wait till next year for the second half. The series has come back strongly from quite a long slump, and whilst some of the regular gripes (apocalyptic battles which end up with only one peripheral character being killed, regular characters behaving with untypical stupidity to bring about some new peril, that sort of thing) are ever present, it’s back to being essential after a period where it was a mere duty watch.
Doctor Who – This year’s series was controversial amongst some Whovians, for seeming to change some of what we thought we knew about the Doctor’s origins. But did it? After all, our main source was the Master, who, as we know, lies… We will see. The Doctor did make a few appearances later in the year from her Judoon cell, to give us hopeful and inspiring messages about coping with lockdown isolation, which, I have to admit, brought a tear to my eye. She’ll be back on 1 January 2021, and let’s hope that the Tardis is a harbinger of hope for a better year ahead.
Some films watched on TV: Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom was perfect New Year’s Day fare. And the general stress of lockdown drew us to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The first I rather enjoyed – the script was just clever enough, with some neat historical references buried in amongst the improbable action. The second, well, once we had chuckled at the Bennett girls practising martial arts and strapping lethal weapons to their stockinged legs, it was slightly thin stuff. Last but not least in this category, the only superhero movie we watched this year, very unusually, was Deadpool, which was, to say the least, different… Very funny, very rude.
We’re saving up Agents of Shield (the last ever series) and Series 2 of His Dark Materials – some things to look forward to early in 2021.
We caught up with Modern Family, which we’d abandoned at the end of series 4, for no good reason. I found myself laughing loud and often. The characters don’t develop, not really, but when the writing and the performances are this good, there’s plenty of comic mileage to be had. We discovered Friday Night Dinner (only series 1 so far) which also made us laugh a lot.
The Good Place managed to be both very, very funny and profound. It made full use of its fantasy license, regularly wrongfooting us in ways that made us shout out something along the lines of WTF, and its final couple of episodes reduced me to real sobs, not just ‘something in my eye’ but full-on weeping. And yet, right up to the end, it was very, very funny too. A fabulous achievement.
We enjoyed the ebullient and charismatic Stuart Copeland in a couple of docs, his own Adventures in Music series, and his episode of Guitar, Drums, Bass (Lenny Kaye and Tina Weymouth represented the other instruments). We enjoyed the Lennon at 80 radio programme hosted by Sean Lennon, and a documentary about John and Yoko, Above Us Only Sky. The film Matanga/Maya/MIA was fascinating, though it left me somewhat dubious about her, not so much musically as politically. K T Tunstall presented an absolutely charming documentary about Ivor Cutler. A number of classical documentaries featured members of the remarkable Kanneh-Mason family: an Imagine programme, This House is Full of Music, Young, Gifted and Classical, focusing on cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who cropped up too in the excellent Black Classical Music, fronted by Lenny Henry and Suzie Klein, which introduced us to a number of composers we had not heard of previously. This last programme tied in with Black History Month, as did Gospel According to Mica, in which the singer explored the history of the genre through six songs, taking us from slavery days through the civil rights struggle to our own time. Soul America charted some of the same history, though taking a much narrower slice of history, broadly from the transmutation of gospel into soul, through the socially conscious sounds of the late 60s, to the sexual healing of the ’70s. Music, Money & Madness was a fascinating look at the background to Rainbow Bridge, the incoherent mess of a film that features Hendrix’s excellent 1970 gig in Maui, Hawaii.
Afua Hirsch presented African Renaissance (on African art), and co-presented with Samuel L Jackson the outstanding and at times overwhelming Enslaved. David Olusoga’s Africa Turns a Page put the spotlight on African writers, some familiar, others less so (see my books blog for some contemporary African fiction).
I Am Not Your Negro is an extraordinary film. It’s a 2016 documentary directed by Raoul Peck, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. It explores the history of racism in the US through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Baldwin was one of the African American writers who I discovered in my teens and who inspired and challenged me. The film left me feeling quite shaken, such is the power of the images and Baldwin’s words.
France 1939: One Last Summer – A poignant compilation of home movies from France, from the summer of 1939. Impossible to see even the most carefree moments without the foreshadowing of what was to happen.
Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel was thoughtful, intelligent and impassioned.
On a somewhat (much) lighter note, Rome Unpacked was a lovely corollary to our recent visit, reminding us of how much we had yet to see (looking forward to our next trip, in the after-times…). I also fell somewhat (quite a bit) in love with Giorgio Locatelli. One quibble however – they visited the Jewish Ghetto and talked about the history of medieval antisemitism, without mentioning that the Ghetto’s inhabitants were deported and murdered by the Nazis in 1943. It’s not that I wanted the programme to delve into that in any detail – it just needed a one sentence coda to that section of the programme, rather than leaving the impression that murderous anti-semitism was something from the distant past.
A documentary about Nottingham Forest’s 1970s European Cup successes turned out to be a much more emotional experience than I’d been anticipating, when I caught sight of my lovely kid brother, who died in February, on one of the clips. He’d been a ball-boy at the first-round match against Liverpool in our 1979 Euro cup campaign, and was caught on camera at the end, clapping the team off the pitch and then punching the air in celebration. I sobbed for quite some time after that.
The Big Screen
2020 cinema began shortly after New Year, with Little Women. I knew what was coming, of course, having known the books for most of my life, but it didn’t stop Beth’s death being devastating, as I knew how soon I would be losing my little brother. I have the DVD but will need to brace myself before rewatching, particularly the bits where… well, if you’ve seen it, or any of the previous versions or read the book, you won’t need me to spell out the parts of the film which will break me on the rewatch. In fact, I won’t even say any more now, just refer you to Rick Burin’s review. Hell, it broke him, and as he says, ‘I’m northern and into football and stuff, but I just kept crying’.
And then a two-film day in mid-March, watching Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (second time round for me) with Liz at the Showroom, and then in the afternoon Sciamma’s newest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with Martyn. I loved both films, I found Girlhood just as powerful as I had the first time, with several moments that are firmly lodged in my mind, and Portrait definitely requires a re-watch. I wrote about both films for this year’s International Women’s Day blog but I’m going to send you to read Rick Burin again, as he reviews all of Sciamma’s films and much better than I can.
Note that the films I did see in 2020 totally kicked the Bechdel test‘s ass.
And that was it. No more cinema – they did reopen, of course, for a while, but as we have been super-cautious throughout the pandemic, we did not take advantage (I renewed my Showroom membership, as a gesture of support).
Can’t talk about cinema in 2020 without noting the tragically early death of Chadwick Boseman. I only knew him as Black Panther but that role alone was enough to imprint him on my consciousness – it was a performance of grace and power, as well as huge cultural significance. Will look out for chances to see Boseman’s other movies.
Previous years’ cultural highlights have included Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre. Obviously, since March, the pandemic has put paid to that. In fact, I’d had to drop out before that – I could not attend the three productions in January/February as my brother’s condition worsened and I knew both that I needed to be available to see him whenever I could, and that I really couldn’t commit to producing a review in a reasonable timescale, or at all. I had no idea when I made that decision that my stint as an opera reviewer would have come to an end for the foreseeable future. I loved doing the reviews, and had a marvellous time seeing superb productions of works from Monteverdi to Britten and all points in between.
The move to on-line cultural activities, devastating as it was to the future of live performance, offered some delights. The Sheffield Classical Music Festival in May gave us access to some joyous and uplifting chamber music, as members of Ensemble 360 filmed performances in their gardens and living rooms. It was fabulous, even if it made us miss Music in the Round in the Crucible Studio even more.
Other online treats were Ian Dunt talking about being a liberal, David Olusoga talking about Black and British in Black History Month, Kit de Waal talking about My Name is Leon (all three talks part of Sheffield’s annual Off the Shelf festival), Sarah Churchwell and Bonnie Greer talking about the US election outcome (part of the national Being Human festival) – and two chances to hear and see someone who was an idol during my teenage years, the awesome and inspiring Angela Davis, first in her own South Bank lecture, and then in conversation with Jackie Kay (as part of Manchester Literary Festival). I might, theoretically, have got to the Off the Shelf events in normal circs. But I wouldn’t have made it to the South Bank, or the University of London, or even across the Pennines to Manchester.
But I long to get back to live chamber music and theatre at the Crucible, live opera at Leeds Grand Theatre, arty French movies at the Showroom and blockbusters at the IMAX… We’ll get there, thanks to the vaccine(s). And it will be so very lovely when we do. I may, just possibly, weep.
Screens, in general, have been our lifeline in the plague times. Not just the entertainment and enlightenment of what our television channels offer, but the Zoom/Messenger/Facetime link ups with the people we love, who we can’t be with. It’s not the same, obviously, and in the early days at least it made me feel, briefly, sadder once we’d waved goodbye and blown kisses to the small figures on our laptop screens. But our isolation has been less stark, less absolute, and at best those virtual encounters have made us feel hope, made us feel loved, given us the chance to support each other.
Reading has taken me out of lockdown, out of Tier 3, out of my own postcode. As a quick perusal of the titles below will show, it’s hardly been six months of escapism – that’s not the point. The point is that as life closed in, books were always there to take me to different places, different times, where I could hear different voices telling fresh new stories, or old, old stories in a new voice. I’ve been in Ancient Greece, in Finland at the start of the twentieth century, and in the dustbowl of Oklahoma. My fascination with WWII has taken me to besieged Malta, to the Burma railroad, and to the home front and the Blitz. I’ve travelled to India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, West Africa, the Caribbean, postwar Vienna and Prague. I’ve listened to a diversity of voices and a diversity of ideas. I’ve read for pleasure and diversion, and for enlightenment, and I’ve found plenty of both (often in the same books).
As always, the few things I read that weren’t up to much I have simply ignored – I want to share the good stuff, to enthuse other people about the books that have enthused me. I’ve linked to reviews where they’re not too spoilery, but click with care! I may come back to this after I’ve published it, to add on whatever I read between publication and midnight on 31 December – there’s a fair bit of reading time between now and then. I hope that something on this list might inspire you to read and enjoy. Do tell me, if so. (If you read something on my list and hate it, I do apologise, but don’t feel you have to tell me…)
Ben Aaronovitch – I’ve continued to devour the Rivers of London novels, and have kept up with the series this autumn/winter by reading October Man (a novella), False Value, and a very tasty collection of short stories, Tales from the Folly.
Arvand Adiga – The White Tiger. Booker Prize winner from 2008. I didn’t love this, but I was gripped by it. I found it difficult to engage with the narrator – not that I always have to identify with, let alone like, the protagonist – but it was vivid and visceral and compelling.
Claire Askew – What You Pay For. A thriller in which the fact that we know or can work out early on some of the twists and turns of the plot doesn’t matter, because the strength of it lies with the two interweaving voices through whom it is told. An excellent follow-up to All The Hidden Truths, featuring the same detective but a very different story, focusing on a school shooting.
Nadeem Aslam – Maps for Lost Lovers. This is remarkable. It’s profoundly melancholy, sensual, full of colours (the fabrics, the birds and butterflies), smells of perfume and spices, sounds (jazz, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn). We’re in an English town, called Dasht-e-Tanhaii, at least by the Pakistani communities who live there, and who’ve given the streets their own names too. It’s their home but they don’t feel at home there, constantly reminded that they do not belong. The book does not shy away from the brutality of the harsh orthodoxy that means everyone lives in fear of transgression, but, as Kamila Shamsie says, ‘love never steps out of the picture’.
Margaret Atwood – The Penelopiad. A funny, dark, feminist retelling of the story of Odysseus, from the point of view of the wife who waited – and the handmaids who were hanged on Odysseus’ return…
Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister the Serial Killer. One of my top crime books. Described as ‘a morbidly funny slashfest’ by the Guardian’s reviewer, which is fair enough. One of the best openings of anything I’ve read for a while.
Jane Casey – Silent Kill. A Maeve Kerrigan novella, from the perspective of one of the secondary characters in the main series. Nicely done – as well as standing alone from a plot point of view, for afficionados of the series it sheds light both on the main protagonist here but on many of the other characters who we’ve not seen from this angle before.
Christopher Cleave – Everyone Brave is Forgiven. I wept my way through this. It took me by surprise, firstly because the two books I’ve read (and loved) by Cleave have had contemporary settings, and this one is WWII, secondly because at first I thought the clipped and brittle dialogue might become wearing. But the setting was beautifully described and the way the characters spoke was as revealing as it was meant to be concealing. It got under my skin and the more passionately I cared about those characters, the more I longed for them to be safe and happy and the more I grieved when bad stuff happened. (Spoiler: it did)
Ann Cleeves – I had a major catch-up with her Vera and Shetland series, and binged all the ones that I’d not read yet over the course of a week or so. I’ve also discovered and binged the Inspector Ramsey books, published in the 1990s and recently revived as e-books. Ramsey rapidly grew on me – one reviewer described him as ‘quiet, puzzled, human’, which is quite right.
Kit de Waal – My Name is Leon. I read The Trick to Time last year, and loved it. This was brilliant too. The voice is that of what we would now call a ‘looked-after’ child – never sure if that is a euphemistic term, or just a naively optimistic one… It’s another book that I wept through and hardly dared to read on at some points, as I so badly wanted Leon to be OK. It’s compassionate and warm and based in real knowledge of the care sector. It’s hopeful too, although de Waal noted in a recent interview (for Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival) that we leave him aged nine, with his most turbulent years to come and the odds are stacked against him.
Elizabeth de Waal – no relation to Kit, to the best of my knowledge. Elizabeth was part of the Ephrussi family, who lived in the eponymous palace in Vienna until the Anschluss. Their story forms part of Elizabeth’s grandson Edmund de Waal’s enthralling The Hare with the Amber Eyes. The Exiles Return is full of melancholy, and of humour. It was unpublished in Elizabeth’s lifetime, and has been brought out by Persephone Press, and is as beautiful to look at as all of their publications.
Helen Dunmore – The House of Orphans. I honestly thought I’d read all of Dunmore’s fiction, so it was a very welcome surprise to find this one. It isn’t my favourite of hers, but it was a compelling read and the setting was new to me (Finland in 1902)
Esi Edugyan – Washington Black. I read Half-Blood Blues a few years back and this is even better. The horrors of the plantation were familiar territory from other reading (Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, to name but two recent reads, but going back to Alex Haley’s Roots), but Edugyan’s narrative takes off (literally) from there. It’s extraordinary, breathtaking and audacious.
Lissa Evans – V for Victory/Their Finest. I discovered Evans earlier this year, and had already read Spencer’s List, Old Baggage and Crooked Heart. I was waiting eagerly for V for Victory and it did not disappoint, funny and moving and beautifully written. As was Their Finest. Both, as the titles suggest, are set in WWII and paint a vivid picture of the home front, with the kind of sharp observation that is totally convincing. But most of all, the characters live and breathe and stay with you long after the book has ended.
Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other. Richly deserving of its awards, this is a glorious polyphony, the voices weave in and out of each other’s stories, each having its moment in the spotlight, so that we see the people we meet from different points of view, including their own.
Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North. A harrowing read. The descriptions of life in the PoW camps and the building of the Burma railway are hard to cope with. But truly, where one’s heart breaks is in the lives that the survivors have afterwards, the weight they have to carry from their experiences, the impossibility of anyone actually understanding.
Aminatta Forna – Happiness. I’d previously only read Forna’s memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water, in which she writes of her childhood and the fate of her father, a political prisoner in Sierra Leone. This is a wonderful novel, which makes us see the night time Londoners that are so often invisible to us, whether that’s the urban foxes or the migrant security staff and bin men. All of the characters are in some way exiled, displaced or nomadic (a Ghanaian specialist in PTSD and an American wildlife biologist are at the heart of it). It’s beautiful and hopeful and melancholy.
Robert Galbraith – Troubled Blood. I wish it were possible to review this without any reference to Rowling’s views on trans rights. She made it impossible, by including a character who dresses as a woman to seem unthreatening to women he intends to kill. As many reviewers have said, that is tone deaf at best, and tends to reinforce the feeling that she has become sadly obsessed with this aspect of the trans issue. For the record, I disagree profoundly with her. However. This is a gripping – albeit very long – crime thriller, which kept me on tenterhooks to the end, and continues the development both of Strike and Robin’s characters and of their relationship.
Amitav Ghosh – Gun Island is about climate change, about human and animal migration. The Guardian said that it ‘brims with implausibility; outlandish coincidences and chance meetings blend with ancient myth and folklore, tales of heroism and the supernatural.’ I wasn’t sure at first, but decided to go with the flow, and I loved it.
Isabelle Grey – The Special Girls/Wrong Way Home/Shot through the Heart. I began this excellent series, featuring DI Grace Fisher, with Good Girls Don’t Die earlier this year, and binged these later titles more recently.
Elly Griffiths – The Postscript Murders. Sequel to The Stranger Diaries, featuring DS Harbinder Kaur. This is a delight, albeit a delight with a high body count…
Mohsin Hamid – Exit West. Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, blends fable and realism (there are moments when I thought of The Underground Railroad) in its account of refugees – what drives them to flee, what becomes of them.
Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills. Ishiguro reckoned that this, his debut, didn’t quite work. ‘I do think it’s too baffling. The ending is almost like a puzzle. I see nothing artistically to be gained by puzzling people to that extent. That was just inexperience—misjudging what is too obvious and what is subtle. Even at the time the ending felt unsatisfactory.’ Nonetheless, it is compelling, and very unsettling (something Ishiguro is rather good at – I was completely discombobulated by The Unconsoled, as if I was trapped in an anxiety dream).
Tayari Jones – An American Marriage. In some ways this is a contemporary take on James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk – the young married couple, the wrongful arrest, the judicial system weighted against him, the long wait. And speaking of the waiting wife, oddly and by pure coincidence, the book I picked up after this was Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad… The narrative is constructed through the voices of the husband, the wife, and later on, the friend, so we see the same events from those different perspectives, which adds depth and nuance. Compelling and moving.
Meena Kandasamy – When I Hit You. This was another tough read, an autobiographical account of domestic violence, ‘a meditation on the art of writing about desire, abuse and trauma’.
Philip Kerr – Hitler’s Peace. I’ve read most of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, so was interested in this slice of alt history. As always with Kerr, it’s scrupulously researched – the scenario is startling but robustly established, and there’s that same sense of impossible moral choices that pervades the Gunther series. Gripping, and troubling.
Heda Margolius Kovaly – Innocence. Kovaly is fascinating – earlier this year I read her memoir Under a Cruel Star, which records her life through the Holocaust and Stalinist repression in post-war Czechoslovakia. She later became a translator, with a particular fondness for Raymond Chandler, which feeds into this crime novel set in Prague in 1951, and drawing on her own experiences.
Nella Larsen – Passing. I’d seen her name but had never realised she was an American writer of colour. The clue is in the book’s title – it’s about those who can ‘pass’ as white, and what it does to them, the insecurity, the fear of the consequences should their identity be exposed. Will explore her work further. Passing was published in 1929, and Larsen is one of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
John le Carré – Agent Running in the Field. Le Carré never fails me. Elegantly satirical writing, taut plotting, and a dash of righteous indignation. This is his most recent novel, from 2019.
And as it turned out, it was his last. He’d said as much in a October 2019 interview, but there was no reason to suppose he might not go on for years. His recent novels were elegiac in tone, and often raging (about Brexit, Trump, the calibre of the current crop of political leaders), as sharp as ever, as funny as ever, as gripping as ever. I started reading him in my early teens, and never really stopped. I’ve five more to read, and then I think I will start again at the beginning, and our introduction to George Smiley, in Call for the Dead.
Laura Lipmann – The Power of Three. One of Lipmann’s earlier stand-alones, from 2005. Secrets, friendships, betrayals…
Attica Locke – Bluebird, Bluebird/Heaven my Home. Having read the two Jay Porter novels (Black Water Rising and Pleasantville) I turned to the two Highway 59 titles. The protagonist is a black Texas Ranger, and race is the tension that’s humming away constantly, relentlessly, in everything that happens. Brilliantly done.
Richard Mathieson – I am Legend. I’d seen the Will Smith movie, but the book is very different, both in the initial premiss and the way the plot unfolds. Mathieson’s vampires are not only unlike those in the movie, but unlike those in the Buffy universe, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and the daddy of them all, Dracula. They don’t work to the same rules. His protagonist is utterly alone and utterly lonely, working out not only how to survive but how it all works, and applying a ruthlessly scientific approach to the process.
Denise Mina – Conviction Never know quite what you’re going to get with Mina. This one is a very twisty thriller, described by The Scotsman as almost Hitchcockian in its evocation of paranoia and doubt.
Abir Mukherjee – Death in the East. I dived into the Sam Wyndham series with the most recent title, but will go back and read its predecessors with great enthusiasm. This one is a classic locked room mystery, a case that began in Whitechapel in 1905 and resurfaces unexpectedly in India in 1922. The racial politics of immigrant London and colonial India are vividly and often uncomfortably conveyed.
Joyce Carol Oates – A Book of American Martyrs. Two men, two families and the fall-out from a crime, the killing of a doctor by an anti-abortion fundamentalist. The focus moves from the killer and the victim to the wives and the children, struggling to work out who they can be without the men who have defined them. There was a fascinating synergy between this and Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (see above).
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust A poetic, complex novel of contemporary Kenya. ‘At the core of Owuor’s novel … is a moral concern to forgive past wrongs. … Dust is a fine, compassionate novel that relishes the complexity of human relations. It is written in a language that is often beautifully observant, and is alert in its insight and sympathy.’
Laksmi Pamuntjak – The Birdwoman’s Palate. This is a strange one! It’s about an epidemiological investigation (avian flu), and a culinary road trip. I’m not completely convinced that it all fitted together, but even if it didn’t, both elements were interesting and attractively written (Pamuntjak is a poet and a food writer)
Sara Paretsky – Indemnity Only/Body Work. I’ve read a few V I Warshawskis over the years, in no particular order, but not these two – turns out Indemnity Only is the very first in the series. Lots more in that series for me to enjoy.
Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends. Admired rather than loved. I preferred Normal People, I think. I found the protagonists here frustrating, opaque even whilst so much of their inner and external lives was laid out for me.
Liz Rosenberg – The Laws of Gravity. I nearly stopped reading this when I realised that cancer was going to be a major driver of the plot. That made it a tougher read, this year of all years, than it would otherwise have been – but Rosenberg’s writing is warm, compassionate, empathetic, and unsparing.
Sunjeev Sahota – The Year of the Runaways. The precariousness of a life on the margins, a life in which the most minor misfortune can be catastrophic, and in which choice is an illusion, a luxury. The ‘runaways’ have all ended up in Sheffield, which is where we first meet them, for a variety of reasons which we then discover. Some are in more desperate straits than others but the gulf between the life they live and the life they hoped for is vast and unbridgeable. ‘Sahota moves some of the most urgent political questions of the day away from rhetorical posturing and contested statistics into the realm of humanity.’
Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire/Burnt Shadows. Both excellent. But the take on Antigone in Home Fire passed me by somewhat, and Burnt Shadows is the one that stays with me, from the opening sequence in 1945 Nagasaki onwards, as it sweeps across countries, continents and decades. As Shamsie says, ‘History had blown them all off course, no one ending – or even middling, where they had begun’, and that’s turned out to be quite a theme of this year’s reading.
Ali Smith – Autumn. Whenever I read Ali Smith I remind myself I must read more Ali Smith. For some reason, I hadn’t embarked yet on her seasonal quartet and at a few pages in, already I was saying to myself that I must read everything Ali Smith has written.
Zadie Smith – NW. My first Zadie Smith, and I wasn’t quite sure about it. It seemed jumpy, fragmented, and whilst some sections or voices were convincing others weren’t quite. Adam Mars Smith’s review said that the real mystery of the book is that ‘it falls so far short of being a successful novel, though it contains the makings of three or four’. However, I will certainly read more of her work – when it works it works astoundingly well.
Cath Staincliffe – Quiet Acts of Violence. Staincliffe doesn’t deal in baroque serial killers, but in messy lives and messy crimes. Her speciality perhaps is the way in which the ripples from the crime spread out and touch other lives, and she tells these stories with humanity and compassion, whilst maintaining a powerful sense of tension. The crime is investigated by DI Donna Bell and DC Jade Bradshaw, who were introduced in Girl in the Green Dress and who I’m delighted to meet again here.
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, I know it’s a classic and I should have read it decades ago but hey, there are a lot of books out there, and I just hadn’t got round to this one, OK? I found the dialogue took quite a lot of concentration before I could ‘hear’ it in my head, but the narrative is relentless and powerful. Maybe I should read some other Steinbeck…
Lesley Thomson – The Detective’s Secret. The third in the Detective’s Daughter series, whose protagonists are untypical, to say the least – a cleaner (the detective’s daughter herself) and a train driver, both of them drawn into the investigation of crimes through a mix of chance and compulsion. The plot is complex and skilfully constructed, and, as with the earlier volumes in the series, it’s gripping stuff. Perhaps it’s a series best read in order as the back story of the two main characters is complex in itself.
Sylvia Townsend Warner – English Climate. Stories of England in wartime – the Home Front, gossip and judgement and boredom, Mothers’ Union and knitting circles, ordinary lives made extraordinary. Another Persephone publication. ‘Funny, brilliantly written, at times utterly heart-breaking, delightfully sharp, dry, intelligent and full of memorable characters’
Jeffrey Boakye – Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored
I’m grouping these three together because I read them in fairly quick succession, and found that they were exploring quite similar territory, albeit with very distinct voices – the experience of being black and British, the stereotypes and prejudices (explicit and implicit) they’ve faced. Hirsch and Boakye both have Ghanaian heritage, Akala Caribbean. All three reflect on gender, and how that intersects with race. All three tell their stories and make their arguments with humour, grace and passion.
Jackie Kay – Red Dust Road. Poet Jackie Kay has a somewhat different story to tell, that of an adopted child with a Nigerian father, growing up in a deeply loving and warm white family and needing, as an adult, to find her birth parents. It’s beautiful, and moving without ever being merely sentimental.
Nikesh Shukla – The Good Immigrant. Shukla brings together a collection of 21 short reflections by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers working across literature and the media on ‘what it means to be a person of colour’ in Britain today.
James Baldwin – Selected Essays. Some of these I read back in my teens when I was immersing myself in the literature of the civil rights movement, some are new to me. His writing is so compelling – having just seen the film I Am Not Your Negro I can see and hear him as I read.
Kamala Harris – The Truths we Hold: An American Journey. Read whilst waiting for news of the US election result to emerge, waiting, and hoping… That Harris will shortly become the first woman VP, the first woman of colour at the highest level of US politics, the first South Asian-American… and so on, and so on, is inspiring and wonderful. For Bonnie Greer it is even more deeply significant than Obama’s presidency.
Margot Lee Shetterley – Hidden Figures. This fascinating account gives far more depth to the remarkable Afro-American women ‘who helped win the space race’ than the film was able to do. It also gave much more weight to the science, which in the film came across as a kind of magic (inevitably, I guess).
Rachel Clarke – Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss. Why on earth did I choose to read a book about death, about the end of life, in the year that my darling kid brother died of cancer? Well, perhaps there was method in my madness. It is a very honest book, tough and unsparing. But it’s also tender and loving – the love is both for the dying and for those who are close to them (and for the doctors and nurses who help them in those last days and hours). It’s not just about dying, but ‘about living, loving, learning how to say goodbye’. And thus it is supremely life-affirming.
Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. That’s it, the subtitle says it really. What follows is a whole series of examples, taken from all sorts of environments which show not only that women have been invisible to planners, designers and policy makers, but that designing for the ‘default male’ results not only in annoyance and frustration but puts women’s physical and mental health at risk, whether from PPE that simply doesn’t fit the female shape, or from the misdiagnosis of heart failure because it presents differently in women. Some of the examples are relatively familiar, others startling. All are enraging.
Hallie Rubenhold – The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. Inevitably, as I read this, I thought of other women, victims of another so-called Ripper. I could not have guessed that soon after I finished this brilliant, rigorous and compassionate account, the death of that other Ripper would have triggered news reports and analyses, many of which did try at least to right the wrongs done to the murdered women, by saying their names, and telling their stories. It was about time. Rubenhold’s account gives a richly detailed account of the life and precarious times of each of the ‘canonical’ Ripper victims, showing how their lives might have been different, as well as how and why things went wrong. It’s a vital, heartbreaking piece of work. I hope, some time, for another volume that restores to ‘the thirteen’ the stories of their lives, not merely of their deaths.
Daniel Trilling – Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe. So many of the novels I read this year (and in recent years) have been preoccupied with migration, with the forces that make individuals take huge risks in search of a better life (whether that is better economically or simply the chance of survival). Trilling visits the places where ‘the “fault lines” in Europe’s asylum system are clearest’ and talks to refugees and those who work with and try to help them, and his account is both thoroughly researched and compellingly human.
Rowena Edlin-White (ed.) – Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers. This goes way beyond the usual suspects (Byron, Sillitoe, Lawrence). From Walter Hilton, b. 1340, to writers still very much with us and publishing in a variety of genres. The accounts of their lives and works give us some fascinating social history of the region, and whilst some of the writers may be of historical interest only, others would seem well worth tracking down.
Rob Hindle – The Grail Roads. From my favourite poetry publisher, Longbarrow Press, whose virtues include not only an excellent and varied collection of contemporary poetry, but also books that are beautiful to behold as well as to read and a delivery system that (for those of us in the right postcodes) involves the publisher arriving at one’s front door, seemingly only hours after the order is placed, and handing over a package with the book and a handwritten thank you. This volume blends first hand accounts from WWI soldiers with Arthurian myth, and it’s a powerful piece of work, one that I know I will return to.
Owen Booth – What We’re Teaching our Sons. I don’t know how to categorise this book, so I won’t. I’ll just say that it is funny, observant, and touching. The Irish Times reviewer commented: ‘With the emotional depth of a novel mixed with the breezier form of a parenting manual, Booth has written a remarkable debut whose profound documenting of family life is achieved in less than 200 pages.’
You can find my account of the first half of 2020 here.
Postscript: Obviously, I didn’t stop reading once I’d posted this, so here’s what I read during the remainder of 2020.
Louise Penny – The Nature of the Beast and A Great Reckoning: two more from her always readable and engaging Inspector Gamache series
Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo – Roseanna, the first in their Martin Beck series. I’ve seen the TV adaptation but hadn’t read anything by them before – I was prompted to after a friend commented on their absence from my 100 top crime novels list!
Two more John le Carrés – The Russia House and The Secret Pilgrim.
Lee Jackson – The Welfare of the Dead, a Victorian-set crime novel by a new author to me.
Val McDermid – Place of Execution. Excellent stand-alone, completely gripping and very cleverly plotted.
Arnold Bennett – These Twain. The third in the Clayhanger trilogy (though it turns out there’s a fourth). Much less interesting than its predecessor, Hilda Lessways.
Nicci French – Blue Monday and Tuesday’s Gone. The first two in the Frieda Klein series.
- Wilma McCann (1975)
- Emily Jackson (1976)
- Irene Richardson (1977)
- Patricia “Tina” Atkinson (1977)
- Jayne MacDonald (1977)
- Jean Jordan (1977)
- Yvonne Pearson (1978)
- Helen Rytka (1978)
- Vera Millward (1978)
- Josephine Whitaker (1979)
- Barbara Leach (1979)
- Marguerite Walls (1980)
- Jacqueline Hill (1980)
All of these woman were brutally killed. All had people who loved them and whose lives could never be the same afterwards. Most were regarded with contempt by those charged with finding their killer and defamed by the newspapers who reported their deaths.
They were not the only victims. These women survived, all with physical and mental trauma. Several gave valuable information to the police – information that could have prevented further attacks – but were not taken seriously.
- unnamed woman (1969)
- Anna Rogulskyj (1975)
- Olive Smelt (1975)
- Tracy Browne (1975)
- Marcella Claxton (1976)
- Maureen Long (1977)
- Marilyn Moore (1977)
- Upadhya Bandara (1980)
- Maureen Lea (1980)
- Theresa Sykes (1980)
There may be others, whose stories have never, and almost certainly will never be told, whose names are not and never will be known.
And all of us, the girls and women who woke in terror in the night, who felt that terror on the streets of Yorkshire cities. We stopped going out, if we had the option, or made sure we were accompanied, if we had the option. We felt watched, exposed, judged if we went out, trapped if we did not.
Those were dark, dark years. The misogyny and the arrogance that derailed the investigation and delayed the identification of the killer still haunt us now. Much has changed – the West Yorkshire police force have apologised for the language used to describe the women who were murdered, and Radio 4 listed their names and made no distinction between those who were sex workers and those who were not. But not enough has changed, as Joan Smith’s article makes clear.
And so today I will not use the name of the man whose death has just been announced. The names above are the ones that matter.
I do love a list. And so I seized upon Dead Good’s list of the 100 best crime novels of all time, as chosen by their readers. I was surprised by how many were completely unfamiliar to me, and by how many of my favourite writers and novels didn’t feature at all.
So, obviously, I had no choice but to put together my own list…
Not ranked, just in alphabetical order of author’s names, only one title per author allowed. Many are in series, and I have been completely inconsistent in whether I cite the first in the series, or the latest, or just one I happen to particularly care for. I’ve linked to reviews, where they are not too spoilery.
The stories span the centuries – from 1327 to some time in the future – and the continents. Whilst most are set in the UK or the US, we also travel around Europe, and to Africa. It’s a pretty white list, only three black writers, to my chagrin. To my ‘read more black writers’ resolution I will add the postscript, ‘and more black crime writers’… About half the writers are women – and more than half if we just take contemporary writers.
Not all of these are whodunnits – in some we know who from the start, in others there may be uncertainty even on the final page, or the ‘who’ may simply not be the point. The protagonists may be coppers or PIs, perpetrators or victims. Not all feature police procedure or private detectives or lawyers. But all have crime at the heart of the story.
So. My top 100:
Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho. My favourite (because jazz) from the brilliant Rivers of London series.
Kate Atkinson – Case Histories. First in the excellent Jackson Brodie series.
Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister, the Serial Killer. Audacious Lagos-set novel. Evidently not a whodunnit…
Chris Brookmyre – Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre does scifi. Crime scifi.
James Lee Burke – The Neon Rain. First in the Dave Robicheaux series, set in Louisiana.
Michel Bussi – Maman a tort. A highly complex and twisty French thriller, which really messes with your head. In English translation as The Wrong Mother and recently on the telly as The Other Mother…
Helen Cadbury – To Catch a Rabbit. First of three Sean Denton police procedurals, set in South Yorkshire, gritty and gripping.
Andrea Camilleri – August Heat. The late Andrea Camilleri’s tenth Inspector Montalbano novel. Plenty of humour and forthright political commentary too.
Jane Casey – The Cutting Place. Latest in the Maeve Kerrigan series, which just gets better and better.
Raymond Chandler – The Long Goodbye. Stone cold classic.
Agatha Christie – Sleeping Murder. I always liked the Miss Marple ones best. Something about her beady-eyed take on the world made the murders creepier and this is one of my favourites.
W H Clarke – An End to a Silence. First in a trilogy, part 3 still eagerly awaited.
Ann Cleeves – Harbour Street. A Vera Stanhope title (I was torn, could have chosen a Shetland, but there you go, and I do like Vera a lot).
Harlan Coben – Home. The first of his that I read. Slick but very skilful.
Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White. Arguably one of the earliest detective novels. A brilliant story, with a great female character in Marian Hascombe.
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent. A political thriller, featuring Chief Inspector Heat, the precursor of so many dogged coppers in pursuit of criminals of various stripes.
Patricia Cornwell – Postmortem. The first Scarpetta novel.
Didier Daeninckz – Meurtres pour memoire (Murder in Memoriam). A contemporary crime leads back to a suppressed atrocity in 1961 and back further to war crimes under the Vichy government.
Jill Dawson – Fred and Edie. Based on the true story of Edie Thompson & Fred Bywater, who conspired to murder Edie’s husband, and were both hanged for the crime.
Colin Dexter – Last Bus to Woodstock. The first Morse.
Charles Dickens – Bleak House. Another early detective, Inspector Bucket, possibly based on real-life detective Jack Whicher (see Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher). It’s also the finest novel in the English language, BTW.
Eva Dolan – Long Way Home. First in a series featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira from the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit.
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime & Punishment.
Arthur Conan Doyle – Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I read these as a child, in the bound volumes of the Strand Magazine that my grandfather had owned. ‘The Speckled Band’ in particular haunted me.
Theodore Dreiser – An American Tragedy Based on a 1906 real-life murder.
Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose. “Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told”. Postmodernism, semiotics and murder.
Gillian Flynn – Dark Places
John Fowles – The Collector. Fowles’ disturbing literary debut.
Tana French – Broken Harbour. In the excellent Dublin Murders series. This one got thoroughly under my skin.
Frances Fyfield – Perfectly Pure and Good. A crime writer who doesn’t get enough attention these days – I read her a lot in the 80s and 90s. This is one of a series featuring lawyer Sarah Fortune.
Robert Galbraith – The Cuckoo’s Calling. First in J K Rowling’s pseudonymous crime series.
Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness. First in her Alice Madison series.
Andrea Gillies – The White Lie . I came across this writer with her moving account of life with a family member with dementia. Themes and preoccupations recur…
Lesley Glaister – Honour thy Father. The first of Glaister’s novels that I read, I think. Gothic, murdery, full of secrets.
Graham Greene – Brighton Rock. Damnation and justice. Ida Arnold fighting crime, not because it’s her job but because it’s the right thing to do.
Isabelle Grey – Good Girls Don’t Die. First in the DI Grace Fisher series
Elly Griffiths – The Crossing Places. First in the splendid Ruth Galloway series. Read them all, and Griffiths’ other series too. You’ll thank me later.
Jane Harper – The Lost Man. Third novel from Harper and the strongest, I think. The landscape – in this case, the Australian outback, where the scorching heat itself is a ruthless killer – is a powerful part of the narrative, almost a protagonist.
Joanne Harris – Different Class. Darkly funny and a bit bonkers.
Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy. The story of the Dreyfus affair and the officer who fought to prove his innocence
Thomas Harris – Red Dragon. A baroque serial killer and an FBI profiler, precursor to Silence of the Lambs
John Harvey – Cold in Hand. The penultimate novel in John Harvey’s wonderful Resnick series
Mick Herron – Slow Horses First in a series about a department of MI5 rejects – acerbically funny but without pulling any emotional punches.
Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train
Lynn Hightower – Flashpoint. First in the Sonora Blair series.
Sarah Hilary – Never be Broken. The most recent Marnie Rome.
Reginald Hill – On Beulah Heights. The best Dalziel & Pascoe.
Susan Hill – The Betrayal of Trust. One of the best of a fascinating series, featuring DCI Simon Serrailler.
P D James – Cover Her Face. The first Adam Dalgliesh novel.
Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale. Bernie Gunther’s eighth outing. As always, Kerr walks a fine line, integrating Nazi atrocities with the mechanics of the thriller. But he does it superbly well.
Stephen King – Mr Mercedes. First in a trilogy (see also Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) with characters who recur in other recent King novels.
Stieg Larson – Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
John Le Carré – Call for the Dead. Our first encounter with one George Smiley…
Ira Levin – A Kiss before Dying. Less well-known than some of Levin’s other titles, but an absolutely cracking thriller.
Attica Locke – Pleasantville. Sequel to Black Water Rising
Henning Mankell – Sidetracked. Wallander no. 5
Peter May – The Blackhouse. First of the Lewis trilogy
Ed McBain – Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man. 26th in the 87th Precinct series, and the third to feature their most challenging adversary, the eponymous Deaf Man.
Alexander McCall Smith – No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
Val McDermid – The Distant Echo. The first in the DI Karen Pirie series
Adrian McKinty – The Cold Cold Ground. First of his Belfast-set Sean Duffy crime series
Denise Mina – The Long Drop. Based on a real 1950s Glasgow murder case
Sara Paretsky – Indemnity Only. Our introduction to the redoubtable V I Warshawski
Nii Ayikwei Parks – Tail of the Blue Bird. Set in the Ghanaian ‘hinterland’, the storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories.
Louise Penny – A Fatal Grace. The second in the Inspector Gamache series, set in a small Québécois town. Not at the gritty end of crime fiction but that doesn’t mean they’re superficial or cliched.
Ian Rankin – The Naming of the Dead. The 16th Rebus
Danuta Reah – Silent Playgrounds. Atmospheric thriller, set in Sheffield
Ruth Rendell – Judgement in Stone. Generally reckoned to be one of her greatest works. Adapted for the cinema by Claude Chabrol, no less.
C J Sansom – Dark Fire. Second title in the Tudor-set Shardlake series. If you’ve been missing Thomas Cromwell since finishing The Mirror & the Light, he’s here.
Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison. Probably my favourite of the Lord Peter Wimseys, which I have read and re-read for decades. Always loved Harriet Vane. Shout out, BTW, to the late Jill Paton Walsh who wrote a series of four Wimseys, which are very good indeed.
Lynn Shepherd – Tom All Alone’s. ‘Literary’, postmodern crime – this one riffs primarily on Bleak House (see above), and there’s a slice of The Woman in White in here as well.
Cath Staincliffe – The Girl in the Green Dress. Staincliffe is always concerned not just with the crime and its solution but the ripples that flow out from the crime, and her novels carry real emotional heft. This one is devastating.
Susie Steiner – Remain Silent. The latest in the Manon Bradshaw series, featuring a tremendous, real, abrasive central character.
Lesley Thomson – The Detective’s Daughter. The start of a most intriguing series. Thomson has been compared to Rendell, and to Kate Atkinson.
Of course, if I were to do this again in a few years, some of these titles would have been superseded. But I am inclined to think many of the authors will still be there.
This genre has so much potential. The titles I’ve picked not only give us plot and character, suspense and tension. They also address issues of morality and mortality, class and race and gender, politics and psychology and sociology – the whole rich tapestry of human life is here. And human death, obviously…
Words failed me when I heard of this latest tragedy. They haven’t failed Phil Davis, whose writing about refugees is always passionate and based on first-hand knowledge.
Earlier this week Rasoul Iran-Nejad, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, Anita and Armin drowned in the English Channel, attempting to cross from France in order to seek asylum from Iran.
Home secretary Priti Patel issued a statement.
“I am truly saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life in French waters this morning. My thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones at this time… This tragic news highlights the dangers that come with crossing the Channel and I will do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people.”
There is a political and policy response to this, but first lets pause and remember 4 people -two adults and 2 children, dead. Underlying all of this is a human tragedy.
I’m sure Priti Patel genuinely mourns them too. She’s no cartoon monster. This tragedy, to an extent, demonstrates the broken asylum and immigration system that she has…
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I’ve been trying to write this piece for weeks now. Hesitating because, after all, why would anyone need to read the thoughts of a white, middle-aged, middle-class English woman about something she has never experienced, and could never experience? But nonetheless this post has been buzzing around in my head for so long, and I know that the only way to stop that is to write.
And, this morning, I woke as so many did to the awful news that Chadwick Boseman, the actor best known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther, has died at only 43 years old. I remembered how I felt in the cinema watching that film, how exhilarating it was to see the large screen filled with powerful, beautiful black people, in control of their destinies, white people largely irrelevant. And how I thought of what that must have felt like to people of colour, those who’ve seen movie after movie where they are absent, or peripheral, or victimised, or expendable. And those who have been waiting, whether they knew it or not, for a super hero who resembled them.
Some disclaimers. I’m not trying to prove anything here, not trying to get approval or validation. I’m talking, primarily, to other white people, about how we can learn and listen, how we can recognise and take account of our privilege, and know when to speak and when to STFU. If I get something wrong feel free to tell me (but I’m not asking you to educate me, that’s my responsibility). I’m a work in progress, still, at 63. I expect and hope that I’ll still be learning, expanding my understanding, for the rest of my life, whilst my faculties are intact at least.
So, where am I from? No, where am I really from? My upbringing was very different to that of anyone I went to school with in Chatham or Mansfield in the late 60s/early to mid 70s, very different to that of my cousins and other wider family. It shaped my response to the racial politics of the UK in that era and beyond. It influenced what I read, and what I watched.
When I was three years old, we (my parents, myself and my two younger siblings) flew to a new life in Ghana, West Africa. Of course we were massively privileged in our lives there, in the immediate aftermath of independence, living on the University campus in Kumasi, where my father taught Physics and Maths. We were ‘expats’, not immigrants. No one expected us to integrate, to assimilate, to adopt Ghanaian dress or diet, or to learn the language. My school teachers were all British, my classmates included Ghanaian children, but also British, American, Canadian. (When we moved to Northern Nigeria, there were no African children in my class. Not one.)
That upbringing did not give me a means to understand what it is to be black in Britain. My white skin gave me privilege as a member of an ethnic minority in West Africa as it does here where it makes me part of the norm. But those childhood experiences did broaden my horizons, expand my consciousness and my sympathies, and gave me a wealth of experiences against which to measure the attitudes and assumptions I encountered back home.
I think first of all, of the Door of No Return. Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, two of the forts on the Ghanaian coast which were the point of departure for the slaves, the last place they saw before they were crammed into the holds of the ships for the Atlantic crossing. I don’t recall in detail what my parents told me about their history when we visited, but I still recall the place, and the association with horror, the chill, even in the humid heat of Ghana.
I remember the first time I heard a white person say something casually racist. I remember not so much shock or offence, but bafflement. It seemed to me so incomprehensibly stupid, to generalise in that way. It made no sense to me then, that first time, in Africa, any more than it did later, in Chatham or Mansfield. I never knew how to respond – where do you begin, with something so incomprehensibly stupid?
My memories of Ghana are vivid, warm, happy. I know I can lay no claim to Ghana as part of my heritage – I lived there for just five – albeit formative – years. When I use my Ashanti day name, Abena (girl born on a Tuesday) as part of my Facebook name, when I use an image of kente cloth as the background to my Twitter profile, am I, as I hope and intend, honouring a part of my life for which I am immensely and profoundly grateful, or am I appropriating something to which I have no right? But those things (and my support for the Ghana national football team, and my love of West African music) feel like part of me.
Our parents taught us well. At an early age (before we came home to England, so before I was ten years old) I knew that whilst other ‘expats’ were planning, in light of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Nigeria, to move to jobs in Rhodesia or South Africa, my parents never would. And they taught me why. (Their passionate opposition to those regimes would probably have made them persona non grata anyway.)
I knew that Martin Luther King was an important man, a good man, who represented the values that my parents were teaching us, and they had taught me well enough that I knew by the time I was ten years old that his murder was a terrible thing, a huge loss to the world.
As a teenager, I was drawn to the American civil rights struggles, and I read everything I could get hold of. I read MLK, Angela Davis, George Jackson, James Baldwin, Malcolm X.
But one of the most powerful books for me was by a white man. John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, disguised his skin with a combination of medication (anti-vitiligo treatment), tanning and cosmetics, and went South. He was motivated by the recognition that the only way to know what it was like to be black in the USA, was to become black in the USA. Of course it wasn’t the same – he had an exit strategy (although he was subjected to threats and a near-fatal attack when the book was published and his identity revealed), and he had experienced most of his life up to the point of his self-transformation as a white man with all the privileges that entails. But his account is viscerally compelling. What stayed with me from my first reading was the ‘hate stare’ – something I would never experience, almost certainly never witness.
Alex Haley’s Roots (whether it is fiction or history, or a blending of the two) gave me a black epic, a story that spanned centuries and continents, that took up the story of the people who had been herded through the Door of No Return, and did not flinch from the brutality of slavery and of the injustice that persisted for so long after.
I almost never talked about my interest in the politics of race, not to my schoolfriends. I feared discovering that their response would make friendship problematic, or impossible. And, to be honest, as a teenager desperate to fit in, I feared being regarded as nerdy or odd. We talked about pop music, telly and boys, not about politics. And the strange culture of the times meant that one tribe listened to virtually no black music (though they allowed a free pass to Hendrix), whilst another listened to mainly African-American and Caribbean music, whilst being associated with prejudice against people of South Asian origin, and with the nascent National Front. It was dangerous territory, even though in my grammar school there was, throughout my years there, just one non-white girl (from India, as I recall), and in the Mansfield area at the time, the largest immigrant community was Polish. I kept reading though, just didn’t talk about it.
I read a number of the Heinemann African Writers series from my parents’ bookshelves (Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Camara Laye, Wole Soyinka). I read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, and Trevor Hudleston’s Naught for your Comfort. I read E R Braithwaite’s Please Sir (a whole heck of a lot less soppy than the film) and Paid Servant.
And those books, and world events, led me on to Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, to Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, to Kwame Anthony Appiah, David Dabydeen and more recently to Reni Eddo Lodge and David Olusoga.
Meantime, the sound of Ghana, the highlife music that had wafted over from the student residences to our home on campus, was part of me. I was prepped to respond to black American music, to Motown and Stax and Philly, and to ska and reggae. And then I heard Osibisa, and that started a journey of exploration of African music – music from all over that continent, but finding the sounds of Mali and Senegal took hold of me in a way that no other music did. I still feel that way.
For all this, I realised part way through this year, as I nerdily compiled my list of what I’d read, that it was disappointingly, dispiritingly, shamefully white. Somehow I’d kept on gravitating (during what, to be fair, has been a brutal year, full of loss and sadness) towards familiar voices, familiar histories, familiar settings. That this realisation coincided with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd is no coincidence at all.
However well I have been taught, however widely I have read and listened, my life can still be told (if one skips those few years in ‘darkest Africa’, as my grandfather always referred to it) without reference to my race. My journey through school and work, marriage and parenthood, has been untroubled by the colour of my skin. I have experienced prejudice, sure, as a woman in the workplace, and as a girl and woman in public spaces. I can extrapolate from those experiences, but it’s not enough, nowhere near.
So I need to read black writers, to hear those voices, those experiences and to let them expand my ideas, my sympathies, my knowledge. It’s powerful, and sometimes uncomfortable. But it’s a process that started when I was 5 or 6 years old, looking out of the Door of No Return.
Black lives matter. Of course they do. As the wonderful Dolly Parton put it, “…of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No.” My words will make no real difference, I have few illusions on that front. But perhaps I will prompt someone to read more widely, to read more stuff by people who don’t look like they do, to risk being made uncomfortable, being challenged to rethink their assumptions, their bias, the language they use. Perhaps.
And would I take the knee? It’s a beautiful gesture, one of honour and respect. I wasn’t sure at first why it moved me so much, till I saw the photos of MLK and remembered. Yes, I’d take the knee, in a heartbeat. It might take a bit longer for me to get up again though…
My 2020 Reading List (so far):
- Chimamanda Adichie – Dear Ijeowole
- Arvind Adiga – The White Tiger
- Jeffrey Boakye – Black: Listed
- NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names
- Angela Davis – Women, Race and Class
- Nicole Dennis Benn – Patsy
- Jason Diakite – A Drop of Midnight
- Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other
- Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing
- Mohsin Hamid – Exit West
- Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish)
- Meena Kandasamy – When I Hit You
- Andrea Levy – The Long Song
- Attica Locke – Pleasantville
- Kenan Malik – From Fatwa to Jihad
- Yvonne Adhimabo Owuor – Dust
- Laksmi Pamuntjiak – The Birdwoman’s Palate
- Johnny Pitts – Afropean
- Sunjeev Sahota – The Year of the Runaways
- Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire
- Margot Lee Shetterley – Hidden Figures
- Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – The Good Immigrant
- Ron Stallworth – Black Klansman
- Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys