With the luxury of retirement, I’ve done a lot of reading. These days, though, I’m more likely to put a book to one side, temporarily (if I know it’s good but I just can’t quite get into it right now) or permanently, if the writing is clunky and/or clichéd. The pile of ‘to read’ books by my bed seems never to be dented by my voracious reading, and that doesn’t even take account of what’s stored on my Kindle. Life is simply too short to read bad books. Not when there are so many good books waiting to be read – by which I emphatically do not mean just serious, literary books, let alone ‘improving’ books, but books that expand the reader’s sympathies, take them to other places, make them care, compel them to read on and read more.
My policy with this annual blog – eagerly awaited, I know, by my loyal readers – is to make no reference at all to the bad books. I want to recommend, to share my enthusiasms, not to knock anyone’s work.
So these are the books that I loved this year.
In non-fiction two titles on current politics stand out. The first is Jason Burke’s The New Threat from Islamic Militancy. Not an encouraging read, but immensely informative and enlightening, and it seems to me that we need to understand the nature of that new threat, if we are to have a chance of defeating it. The second is Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in Dark Times, recommended to me via the That’s Where the Light Gets In blog, and a real tonic at a time when it almost seems that the battle is not worth joining, that there is nothing we could do in the face of the tide of unreason and prejudice.
I discovered Paddy Ashdown’s WW2 histories, thoroughly researched and thrillingly written. Game of Spies told the extraordinary story of a spy triangle in wartime Bordeaux, involving a secret agent, a right wing Resistance leader, and a Nazi officer, whilst Cruel Victory was a very human story of the Resistance uprising on the Vercors plateau after the D Day landings.
I found myself without any particular plan to do so, reading a succession of accounts of long walks. Really, really long walks. Poet Simon Armitage walked the Pennine Way in reverse, Nicholas Crane undertook a seventeen-month journey along the chain of mountains which stretches across Europe from Cape Finisterre to Istanbul, and Cheryl Strayed walked the eleven-hundred miles of the west coast of America alone. None of them were entirely well prepared or equipped for their journeys, all of them were at times injured, miserable, lost. All three write compellingly and with both poetry and humour about the landscapes and the people they encountered. Much as I loved reading about their journeys, I did not feel moved to emulate any of them.
Another book about wandering came from the Fife Psychogeographical Society, whose blog has delighted me for a long time. From Hill to Sea describes various meanderings around Fife and further afield, with poetry and photographs and even a playlist of the music that accompanied the walks. This wasn’t about walking as a challenge, clocking up the miles or the peaks, but about detours and details, spotting the anomalous, the unexplained.
From the countryside to the city, and Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities. This is ‘creative non-fiction’, which draws upon a vast range of texts and cultural artefacts to explore ‘the metropolis and the imagination, … mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife, where time runs backwards or which float among the clouds.‘ An exhilarating read.
Ian Clayton’s Bringing it all Back Home talks about music the way I think about music. How the music you love becomes woven into your life, your loves and losses, the places you live in, encounter and remember. It’s moving and funny throughout, but the coda will break your heart.
And First Light, an anthology of articles in tribute to Alan Garner, whose books have been part of my life since I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child of probably 7 or 8 and it scared the living daylights out of me. Garner’s writing is spare and stark and beautiful. Philip Pullman says of him that he explores ‘the mysterious subterranean links between the present and the past, between psychology and landscape, between the real and the dream. If the rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs and dens of the land of Britain had a voice, it would sound like Alan Garner telling a story.’ This collection brings together celebrations of his work from writers/readers including Margaret Atwood, Susan Cooper, Neil Gaiman, David Almond and Helen Dunmore.
In fiction this year I finally got round to some classics that I’d either never read before, or had read so long ago that I could come to them afresh. My reading of Conrad’s The Secret Agent was prompted by the TV adaptation, and of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Sam Baker’s excellent modern take on the narrative. Anne Bronte led me to Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, a story familiar in broad outline but rich in unexpected detail, even if reading it now one cannot help but be aware of the things that could not then be said.
And two French classics, Les Liaisons dangereuses, and Vercors’ Le Silence du mer.
The former is an 18th century epistolary novel, and an extraordinary one. Where this literary device was usually used to give the sense that one is being admitted to the protagonist’s innermost thoughts, here we find each writer presenting radically different versions of events and motivations depending on who they are writing to. These are highly unreliable narrators, and it is up to the reader to try to tease out the truth, if indeed it is there to be found. Are they immoral, embracing transgression for its own sake, or amoral, indifferent to everything except the games they play?
Le Silence was published clandestinely in 1942, during the Nazi Occupation of France. Jean Bruller’s novel, published under the pseudonym Vercors, is a call to mental resistance to the enemy, written before much organised armed resistance was underway. It describes a household forced to take in a German officer, where the father and daughter maintain silence in the face of the officer’s attempts to communicate with them, and to show them that he is a cultured and civilised man.
In contemporary fiction, I enjoyed new work by writers who feature most years in my ‘best of’ lists.
Stephen King completed his Mr Mercedes trilogy with the excellent End of Watch, and also produced a selection of short stories (as always with King’s collections, they’re of mixed merit, but there are some crackers in there).
Cath Staincliffe’s The Silence between Breaths was one of the tensest narratives I’ve read all year. Read it. Just perhaps don’t read it as I did whilst on a train.
I’d read some of Louise Doughty’s books before (Apple Tree Yard and Whatever You Love) and thoroughly enjoyed them. Fires in the Dark was something else again. The narrative takes us from the late ‘20s in Bohemia to the final days of WW2 in Prague, through the lives of a Romany family. Doughty inducts us into their rich culture as well as drawing compelling and complex characters, so that as the darkness of oppression gathers around them and little by little everything is taken from them, we feel it. Harrowing and very moving, and immensely enriching. Her other Roma novel, Stone Cradle tells the story of a family in Britain, through the changes and challenges of the twentieth century, focusing on the lives of two remarkable women.
I found myself drawn to re-read Chris Mullins’ A Very British Coup, which I knew from the TV adaptation years ago with Ray McAnally. Quite unnerving, sometimes the text could be ripped from today’s papers, but in other respects (the risk of a left-wing Labour leader becoming PM, for example) it seems incredible…
New writers to me –
Deborah Levy’s unsettling Swimming Home
Lynn Alexander’s The Sister, based on the life of diarist Alice, sister of Henry and William James
Walter Kempowski’s account of the chaotic days of the end of WW2, through the eyes of a German family, All for Nothing
Elizabeth Wein’s Codename Verity and Rose Under Fire were powerful and moving YA novels of WW2, with female protagonists, not shrinking from horror but focusing on friendship, courage and love
In Patrick Gale’s wonderful Notes from an Exhibition the notes, part of an imagined posthumous exhibition of an artist’s work, build her story and that of her family, non-sequentially, a bit like a patchwork or kaleidoscope.
Glenn Patterson’s The International is a novel about the Troubles that ends before the Troubles begin, but sets the scene vividly and with black humour
And as always, there’s been a fair amount of murder.
Some old favourites (Rebus, Wallander, Dalziel & Pascoe, Ann Cleeve’s Shetland series), more from some more recent discoveries (Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome, and Allan Massie’s Bordeaux novels set in WW2).
I’ll be following up on Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series, which I discovered after reading her stand-alone novel, The Missing. Another discovery was Michel Bussi, whose Maman a tort was a satisfyingly complex and compelling psychological thriller. And finally, W H Clark’s An End to a Silence was a riveting read, whose sequels I look forward to immensely.
And my novel of the year is Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. I knew several of her other novels, but this one was just dizzying, overwhelming, enthralling. I read it twice, I had to, and will read it again. Its sequel, A God in Ruins, was a different experience and a troubling one, about which I can say nothing except to urge you to read on because somehow it all comes together in a most remarkable way.
A notable omission. I’m stuck on Proust – about an eighth of the way into the penultimate novel of A la Recherche. So my objective for next year, as well as making at least a dent in the ‘to read’ pile, and discovering lots of wonderful new writers, and re-reading some of my favourites, is to bloody well finish Proust…
Lynne Alexander – The Sister
Darran Anderson – Imaginary Cities
Simon Armitage – Walking Home
Paddy Ashdown – Game of Spies, The Cruel Victory
Kate Atkinson – Life after Life, A God in Ruins
Sam Baker – The Woman Who Ran
Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Jason Burke – The New Threat from Islamic State
Michel Bussi – Maman a tort
Ian Carlton – Bringing it all Back Home
Jane Casey – The Missing, The Burning, The Reckoning
W H Clark – An End to a Silence
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent
Nicholas Crane – Clear Water Rising
Louise Doughty – Fires in the Dark, Stone Cradle
Fife Psychogeographical Society – From Hill to Sea
Patrick Gale – Notes from an Exhibition
Elizabeth Gaskell – Life of Charlotte Bronte
Sarah Hilary – Tastes like Fear
Walter Kempowski – All for Nothing
Stephen King – Bazaar of Bad Dreams, End of Watch
Choderlos de Laclos – Les Liaisons dangereuses
Deborah Levy – Swimming Home
Laura Lippman – Hush Hush
Allan Massie – Endgames in Bordeaux
Chris Mullins – A Very British Coup
Glenn Patterson – The International
Rebecca Solnit – Hope in the Dark
Cath Staincliffe – The Silence Between Breaths
Cheryl Strayed – Wild
Vercors – Le Silence de la mer
Erica Wagner (ed.) – First Light
Elizabeth Wein – Codename Verity, Rose Under Fire