OK, I take anyone else doing this kind of list (looking at you, Guardian) as a personal challenge. So I have felt compelled to put together my own selection. Now, I’m not seriously claiming these are ‘the best books of the century’, that would be silly, given the randomness of what I’ve read and not read. The Guardian can draw upon the views of a range of reviewers; I can only draw upon my own. Over the course of this century I’ve been working, studying, running a charity, reviewing operas, bringing up a family, listening to music, as well as reading.
Nonetheless, I do read a LOT. Always have done. And these are the books from the last almost 20 years that have had a real impact on me, that have stayed with me after I’ve read them, that have offered the most enjoyment, enlightenment, hope – whatever their genre.
When we get to the end of this century (if we do…) the list will look very different. And of course you will disagree with me, and be horrified by both omissions and inclusions, and that’s fine!
I went through the Guardian list and added some of their titles to my long list, but then deleted them again (I’ve annotated the titles below which do still overlap), because I realised that whilst they were good, I’d not given them a thought since reading them, I’d not gone out and bought all of the author’s other books, or prioritised a re-read. All of the titles below have led me somewhere, if you like.
I’ve only allowed myself one per author otherwise certain favourite authors would have squeezed lots of other excellent books out. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order of author’s surname, rather than ranking them because I can’t be doing with that, but I’ve picked out my top three, books I’ve already read several times and will undoubtedly read again, and that I’ve insisted everyone I know reads.
Here we go…
Cath’s top books of the 21st century so far (with all the above caveats and disclaimers):
Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho is my favourite so far of the brilliant and bonkers Rivers of London series. They’re a mad mash-up of fantasy and crime and are a delight. This one has a jazz theme which is probably why it has a particular place in my heart.
Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. This memoir from a key member of The Slits is just so fascinating, so funny, and at times so desperately sad, that even if I hadn’t been a fan of the band I’d have loved every minute of it.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power is brilliant sci-fi, powerful and chilling. Its ‘book within a book’ structure adds a whole other level, and the writing is superb. The Guardian called it ‘an instant classic of speculative fiction’ and noted how devastatingly it inverts the status quo. Put very simply, what if men were afraid of us?
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Kwame Anthony Appiah is a Ghanaian-British philosopher, based at New York University, himself the epitome of cosmopolitanism. (His father was a leading dissident under the Nkrumah regime in Ghana, and his mother the daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps.) Appiah has written elsewhere about political and moral theory, and the philosophy of language and mind. This is a timely, accessible, and vitally important work.
Levels of Life. I haven’t loved the other things I’ve read by Julian Barnes, I’ve felt kind of detached from them. This one did get to me. The book’s three sections seem entirely separate but somehow they’re not, they’re connected in a marvellously subtle and moving way. And the third part will break the heart of anyone who has one to break. (Guardian top 100 title)
Robicheaux: You Know my Name is the 21st in James Lee Burke‘s series of novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. It’s so dark, haunted and haunting. The Louisiana landscape and culture is a vital part of the narrative, and the eponymous hero is flawed and fascinating, a good man wrestling with inner demons as well as the bad guys.
Carmen Callil’s Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland is a gripping bit of WWII French history, with a very personal source. Callil (one of the founders of Virago Books) uncovered the story of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix after the death (possibly by suicide) of her therapist, his daughter. Darquier was one of the most repellent figures in Vichy France, a vicious and entirely unrepentant anti-Semite, a fraud and a crook. It’s not just his story, it’s the story of how the Nazi occupation enabled and legitimised the vilest views and the vilest people and its importance goes way beyond the family history it describes.
Cruel Acts is the latest in Jane Casey‘s splendid series featuring detective Maeve Kerrigan. Maeve is an engaging protagonist, whose internal battles (about status and authority, complex personal and professional relationships), both enrich and complicate the police procedural plotting. These books get stronger and twistier and more compelling as the series continues.
Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life and Others includes the story that inspired the film Arrival, one of my top films of all time, an extraordinarily beautiful bit of sci-fi. These stories are marvellous in their own right – proper philosophical, speculative fiction, with a particular interest (as in Arrival) in language. They’re diverse in style and approach, and whilst ‘Story of Your Life’ stands out, several others challenge it, for the strength of the concept, the beauty of the writing, and the emotional impact. (Guardian top 100 title)
Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club appealed to me straight away. A ’70s adolescence, and the musical references (Hatfield & the North’s album, which gave the novel its title, plus the protagonists’ prog rock aspirations) gave it immense charm for anyone who shared those reference points. Apparently, it contains a sentence of 13,955 words, which I don’t remember even noticing when I read it, though thinking back I can guess when it occurs. It’s not just funny and charming, it skewers the politics of the time, and confronts real, brutal tragedy.
I’ve been reading Stevie Davies since the ’80s, and Awakening is one of my favourites. It’s set in Wiltshire in 1860, just after the publication of The Origin of Species, and it’s about science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion. It’s very moving, but also acerbically funny in its portrayal of the excesses of evangelical zeal – but the focus of the novel is on ‘sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal’.
Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is family memoir and art history intertwined. I was lucky enough to hear de Waal talking about this story when he came to Sheffield University to present a gift of a piece of art called ‘fetched home’, the title taken from a poem by Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan on the subject of homelessness and displacement. (Guardian top 100 title)
When I read Emma Donoghue’s Room I could not have imagined it as a film. Of course, it was filmed, and brilliantly, with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, and it’s hard now to disentangle the book from that film. But I do remember the experience of reading it, of how it did my head in, gradually understanding the world that’s being described, and its terrifying implications.
Fires in the Dark is not what one might expect from Louise Doughty, if one came to it from Apple Tree Yard. This one takes us into the dark heart of the Romani genocide, also known as the Porajmos (the Devouring). Doughty draws the reader into the rich and complex culture of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into the lives of one family and the kumpania to which they belong, and then shows how this world was targeted for destruction.
Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. I could have picked several other Dunmores. I nearly picked her last published novel, Birdcage Walk, but I honestly can’t untangle my response to that from my sense of loss at her death. The Siege stands outside of that, on its own. Its setting is the siege of Leningrad, and it makes that experience viscerally real and moving. (Guardian top 100 title)
Interpreters was Sue Eckstein‘s second novel, and sadly her last – she died of cancer in 2013. It takes us across several generations of a family divided by the past, by what’s hidden and what’s remembered. It’s about memory and loss, and the continued resonance of the last world war. This is subtly done, and has all the more impact for that.
Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m no longer Talking to White People about Race is not a comfortable read for one of the aforesaid white people. Fair enough, I don’t expect to be comforted. What I want, and what Eddo-Lodge offers, is insight that I can translate into awareness that can inform what I say and do. Essential reading.
Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s debut novel, could have been designed to interest me. Jazz, and Nazi occupied France… It’s an extraordinary story, and problematic in some ways, as the Guardian review points out (it’s a very spoilery review, so avoid if you haven’t read the book and want to encounter it unspoiled!). But superbly written, and fascinating.
In The Bitter Taste of Victory Lara Feigel takes us into the ruined cities of Germany after the end of WW2, seen through the eyes of the journalists and writers (Hemingway, Gellhorn, Orwell, West and others) who went out there to try to figure out how to address the challenges of peace, and the complexities of guilt and culpability at all levels. A lot of the accounts Feigel presents were new to me, and truly compelling (and relevant to my research).
Will Ferguson’s 419 is a thriller, about the kind of scam where a Nigerian prince or such like emails you to say you can have millions if you just let them have your bank details, or send them a bit of cash up front to arrange the deal. It starts with a suicide, an elderly man in Canada. Then the action moves to Lagos and to the Nigerian Delta, and it’s all so much more complex than we might have imagined, as the scam finds its context in the messy politics of Nigeria. Riveting.
I imagine everyone by now has read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and/or seen the film. Quite right too. When you first read it, that twist takes you by surprise, but when you re-read you’re looking to see just how the writer sets that up so cleverly (rather like when you re-watch The Sixth Sense). It’s an excellent thriller, and it’s not Flynn’s fault if every publisher has jumped on the bandwagon and published endless sub-Gone Girls! (Guardian top 100 title)
In The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest, Aminatta Forna takes us to Sierra Leone, where she spent part of her childhood, and where her father was imprisoned and executed for treason. It’s both memoir and investigation, a search for truth, and it was a quest that changed her irrevocably.
Broken Harbour is the fourth in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and is really remarkable. It’s an unusual series, in that the main protagonist shifts with each book, so that a secondary character in book 1 becomes central in book 2, and so on. This one is extraordinarily unsettling and quite impossible to put down.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. OK, we all now know that this is J K Rowling. Reading the Harry Potters, one sees her growing as a writer, in confidence and skill, as the series progresses, and her post-Potter work has been excellent. The Casual Vacancy was terrific social satire (or if you’re the Daily Mail, ‘more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature’…), and the Cormoran Strike series (this was the first) is complex, often dark, often funny, detective fiction, with the thoroughly engaging duo of Strike and Robin. (The Guardian picked Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)
Notes from an Exhibition was the first of Patrick Gale’s that I read, and still a favourite. It uses the device of, literally, notes from an exhibition, a posthumous exhibition of work from throughout an artist’s life, which allows Gale to tell her story in a non-linear fashion through different voices from different parts of that life. What marks Gale’s work out, apart from the beauty and the skill of the writing, is his warmth and compassion for all of his characters, however flawed.
Boneland is Alan Garner’s very belated return to the world of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, published in the ‘60s, which I read as a child and which have stayed with me ever since. Stylistically, Boneland is closer to Garner’s later work, particularly to Red Shift. It’s dreamlike, fragmented, pared back, haunted and haunting.
Nicci Gerrard’s What Dementia Teaches us about Love is a memoir, a personal account of supporting a parent with dementia. But it’s more than that – it’s a manifesto for the campaign that Gerrard launched, together with Julia Jones, to improve support in hospitals for dementia sufferers and, crucially, to allow their carers to be part of that support, not just ‘visitors’ who can be shooed out as if they’re in the way. This is a tremendously moving book – so close to home that it was almost unbearable at times. But it’s inspiring too, and hugely important.
Sweet After Death is the latest in Valentina Giambanco’s series featuring Seattle Detective Alice Madison. She’s an excellent protagonist, steely and complicated. And there are passages of vivid and economical writing that made me think of Chandler (without being pastichy). It is one hell of a read, and the series gets stronger with each book.
Andrea Gillies’ Keeper is another dementia memoir, and an exploration of the nature of the disease. It’s often grimly funny as well as sad, but ultimately the latter predominates. Gillies scrupulously records her own naivety, in thinking that they could cope, that love would be enough. And – horrifyingly, given what she does record of her mother in law’s behaviour in the grip of the disease, she says that she held a lot back… There’s no comfort here, if one is caring for someone with dementia, although our experience was much milder, if equally sad, but there’s insight and understanding.
Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets. The Squeeze is no exception. It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman. But connect they do.
Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann, is the history of a crime. What happens when some in the Osage Native American community in Oklahoma in the 1920s turn out to have lucrative oil on their land? Do they get to enjoy financial security? Are you kidding? This is a horrifying coda to the history of genocide against the Native American nations during the previous century, compellingly written and richly fascinating.
The Stone Circle is the latest in Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, featuring not a detective but an archaeologist, who’s drawn into criminal investigations whenever old bones are unearthed. Ruth is a brilliant character; she’s clever and funny, she’s not young or gorgeous or slim, but isn’t tortured about any of those things. The other characters are equally well drawn. There’s more than a touch of the Gothic, and the Norfolk landscape is much more than a setting, it’s a pervasive atmosphere. This series is a delight.
Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake tells one hundred years of German history through one house, through its history during decades of staggering and traumatic change, different regimes and bureaucracies, and through the stories of the families who lived there. Harding’s family owned it once, but lost it when the Nazis took power. The Guardian reviewer said that ‘It is Harding’s great achievement that he has painted a large canvas of history, but done so with glinting individual stories. He has persevered in listening to those “quiet voices”.’
Jane Harper’s The Lost Man is another crime novel where 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. Harper’s debut, The Dry, won all sorts of awards, and this is actually even better.
In An Officer and a Spy Robert Harris takes us back to the Dreyfus affair, the ripples from which spread out over many decades of French and European history – and still do. The focus is less on Dreyfus himself than on the young officer, Picquart, who despite being as anti-semitic as the next chap, had a sense of fairness and justice that was outraged by the framing of Dreyfus and by the refusal to right the wrong, even after the forger had confessed. Harris is always a great read, and this is a period of history and a subject that fascinate me (reading Proust made me realise how ‘The Affair’ was the Brexit of its day – dividing friends and families, into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard, no middle ground).
Cold in Hand is the penultimate novel in John Harvey‘s wonderful series about Charlie Resnick, who fights crime on the mean streets of Nottingham. We had to wait a further five years for the coda to the series (Darkness, Darkness), but it was worth it. These aren’t stories of baroque serial murders, but of chaotic crimes committed by people with chaotic lives, and Charlie himself is a tremendous creation.
Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is a rarity – a novel whose protagonist has dementia. Maud is coping with her dementia in ways that were very familiar to me – writing herself notes that she then loses, rediscovers later and can’t remember writing, going to the shops and buying tinned peaches because she’s forgotten what she actually went in for. But mainly she’s preoccupied with the disappearance of her friend, Elizabeth. Through the course of the novel we uncover another disappearance, much longer ago and we also see Maud’s grip on memory and reality slipping more and more. This is reflected in her narrative voice – it’s quite a tour de force, touching and often very funny.
If this is a Woman is a tough read, as it should be. It’s historian Sarah Helm’s account of Ravensbrück concentration camp, all of whose inmates were women. Its history is less well known than that of many other camps, and Helm spares us none of the horrors inflicted upon the women, drawing upon the accounts of survivors, several of whom went on to testify at the Nuremberg trials. It’s vitally important, particularly as those survivor voices fall silent, to know what happened there. As the Guardian‘s reviewer said, ‘As you read this 768-page book, it never feels too long. You will the women of Ravensbrück to live’.
Never be Broken is the latest in Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome detective series. It’s probably the best, but I tend to think that of each new addition to the series. As Val McDermid says, ‘it isn’t all about the murders’ – it’s about social divisions, about mental health, about guilt and grief. And murder.
The Various Haunts of Men is the first in Susan Hill’s series featuring detective Simon Serailler. I read Hill’s earlier novels many years ago – Strange Meeting, In the Springtime of the Year and others – and having loved those, and loving crime fiction (that may have become evident already), I seized on these with enthusiasm and was not disappointed. Serailler is an interesting protagonist, and the supporting cast is well drawn. Hill explores issues of faith and morality, and her writing is always subtle and clever.
Mortality was published posthumously, after what Christopher Hitchens himself might have called ‘a long and brave struggle with mortality’ (he hated the rhetoric of ‘fighting cancer’). Mortality is a brief book – too brief, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in this context. It starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and explores what follows from that in a clear-sighted, unsentimental and unsparing manner. The thread running through it is what he calls ‘an arduous awareness’ and it’s ultimately uplifting.
Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is undefinably creepy from the start. We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why. We’re not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from the master of unease, Stephen King. The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith. There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides. Is it a horror novel? It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go is about mortality and humanity. It’s dystopian sci-fi, thoughtful and horrifying. We take a while to realise what’s happening here, because the protagonists can’t tell us – they’ve been fed lies throughout their lives, and continue to be fed rumours and to clutch at seemingly hopeful straws. (Guardian top 100 title)
Cultural Amnesia, Clive James’ collection of brief pieces about various cultural figures (musicians, philosophers, novelists, politicians), made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid. Rather, I felt inspired to go away and read the stuff he’s talking about. It’s truly wide-ranging – people he loathes as well as people he admires, acerbically funny, which is not always easy to pull off whilst being erudite, and it’s a book that I will go back to again and again for enlightenment, for brilliantly pithy comments, and for the impetus to read stuff that I haven’t yet braved.
In Postwar, the late Tony Judt examined the history of Europe from the end of WW2 to 2005. Acclaimed as one of the best works on modern European history, its breadth is hugely impressive, and as reviewers at the time acknowledged, it’s an achievement that’s unlikely to be surpassed. (Guardian top 100 title)
11/22/63 is one of my favourite 21st century Stephen Kings. I started reading him back in the ‘80s, having been put off for a while by the schlocky covers his books had back then, and by a degree of snobbery on my part. I’ve read them all, I think, and despite having announced his retirement from writing years ago after a serious accident, he’s still producing the goods. (His latest, The Institute, is a cracker.) 11/22/63 explores the idea of going back in time to change a past event. Now what could possibly go wrong with that? (The Guardian picked his brilliant On Writing, which is also well worth reading.)
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is, on one level, a Holocaust memoir. Otto Dov Kulka was deported as a child to Terezin, and from there to Auschwitz. It is also, ‘Reflections on Memory and Imagination’. It challenges Kulka’s own choice, ‘to sever the biographical from the historical past’, in his previous work as a historian. The book is ‘neither historical testimony nor autobiographical memoir, but the reflections […] of memory and imagination that have remained from the world of the wondering child of ten to eleven that I had once been’.
Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels were all published posthumously, as the Millennium Trilogy. Other authors have since expanded the series. Aside from being gripping and complex thrillers, they’re notable for two intriguing protagonists – journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and hacker Lisbeth Salander. Larsson can’t be blamed for the proliferation of pale imitations since these were published (and filmed), and he could be said to have launched Scandi Noir, which on the whole is A Good Thing. (Guardian top 100 title)
John le Carré has been publishing beautifully written, complex thrillers for decades now. Though he might be thought to be an establishment figure, given his Security Service background, he’s still fuelled by a righteous anger, and nowhere more so than in The Constant Gardener. This deals with the murder of an activist in Kenya, and the uncovering of corruption on a huge scale by pharmaceutical companies and governments. Based on a real case, le Carré says that his plot is pretty tame compared to what actually happened. (Guardian top 100 title)
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is an interesting one to place, timewise. Published in 2015, it seems clear now that it was in fact a first draft of, rather than a sequel to, To Kill a Mockingbird. There were controversies about its publication, about whether Lee fully had capacity to approve its appearance. And the narrative itself was troubling, for those of us who’d grown up seeing Atticus Finch as a hero (whether in the pages of the book, or on screen as portrayed by Gregory Peck). In Go Set a Watchman, the reader who loved To Kill a Mockingbird shares the disillusionment and shock of Scout as her idealised version of her father is shaken and fractured. Like her, we move gradually to a deeper, more nuanced understanding. It’s about growing up, really.
Andrea Levy’s Small Island tells interweaving stories of Jamaican immigration to Britain, centred on 1948 but going back to the lives of the central characters (two Jamaican, two British) during the war years. ‘A thoughtful mosaic depicting the complex beginnings of Britain’s multicultural society’, according to the Guardian reviewer. (Guardian top 100 title)
I’ve read loads of Laura Lippman‘s books, all of her Tess Monaghan series (a young, female PI based in Baltimore) and most if not all of her standalone thrillers, most recently Sunburn. Lippman described this one as her first venture into ‘noir’ and ‘noir’ it certainly is. Her work typically features dark secrets but this one is steeped in them, and in obsession, desire, and violence. But she never forgets the humanity of her characters, as messed up as they may be, and the gradual revelation of who they are and how they got here keeps us gripped to the final page.
Black Water Rising is set in the 1980s, in Texas, and its protagonist is a struggling black lawyer who gets caught up in a conspiracy when he witnesses a crime. Attica Locke is a powerful writer, and the racial politics give it a fascinating context and added tension. There’s a sequel, Pleasantville, set 15 years later.
I didn’t expect Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to be such a page-turner. I expected it to be enlightening and stimulating, sure, but it’s a huge achievement that it was genuinely difficult to put the book down. I wanted to find out ‘what happened next’, how through the centuries and the continents the human race grappled with the big questions of what it is to be good.
Wolf Hall was the Guardian’s top 21st century book. It doesn’t actually make my top three, but it’s a deserving choice nonetheless. Hilary Mantel is one of the most versatile writers around, and one never knows quite what to expect from her – at least until she began her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, since when all of her readers have been focused on the wait for the final volume. To read Wolf Hall is ‘to step into the stream of her irresistibly authoritative present tense and find oneself looking out from behind her hero’s eyes’ – a powerful and immersive experience. (Guardian top 100 title)
The Road is relentlessly grim but extraordinary. Cormac McCarthy forces the reader to inhabit this bleak world, and to accept how it works – ultimately to choose whether and when to trust. Whilst the notion of surviving in a post-apocalypse world is familiar in fiction and film, it’s unusual for the survivor group to have shrunk down to two, parent and child, which ramps up the tension and the terror. (Guardian top 100 title)
Ian McEwan’s Atonement is several novels in one. It’s a pre-war country house story about class and desire and adolescence. It’s a story of war and loss. And it’s the story of a story, about memory and guilt. There’s a revelation at the end which floored and shocked me but which on re-reading made perfect, desolate sense. (Guardian top 100 title)
Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruin opens with a scene that neither the reader, nor the young policeman who witnesses it, will forget in a hurry. And when we move forward in time the mystery of that scene, and its emotional fall-out, are still potent and compelling. The follow-up, The Scholar, features the same detective and I will be sure to read that as soon as I can.
Succession is the first in Livi Michael’s trilogy about the Wars of the Roses. Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, of major players and very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us. I would also highly recommend her earlier adult novels, and her children’s series about Frank the intrepid hamster…
China Mieville’s The City and the City combines the police procedural with ‘weird fiction’, with a murder investigation across two separate cities that happen to occupy the same space. It’s a brilliant and unsettling concept, and requires concentration from the reader to hold on to it as the plot develops. It’s worth the effort, the narrative works on both levels (which demonstrates Mieville’s focus and discipline). Is this an allegory, or as the Guardian‘s reviewer puts it, a ‘police mystery dealing with extraordinary circumstances’? Or both?
Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a venture into true crime, the story of notorious serial killer Peter Manuel. She meets the challenge of how to create tension when the outcome of the story is already known, focusing on bit part players, whose perspective is fresh and unfamiliar. The Scotsman’s review said that ‘Above all, it is a story about telling stories. Everyone is a narrator, everyone is literary critic, assessing and judging the veracity and the honesty of the stories that eddy through the book.’
Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman is, as anyone familiar with Moran’s writing will expect, proper funny, and proper rude (NSFW, seriously, and NSF public transport too). It’s proper inspirational too, made me want to stand on a chair and cheer, punch the air, as well as laugh (and, at times, made me cry because it’s not all jokey, there’s stuff that hits you where it hurts). The Independent said that How to be a Woman ‘is engaging, brave and consistently, cleverly, naughtily funny’. And Moran also makes the very important point that one can’t change the world whilst wearing uncomfortable undergarments.
I read one of Sarah Moss‘s novels (Cold Earth) a couple of years back and made a note to self to read more by her. Bodies of Light is a brilliant and compelling narrative, set in Victorian Manchester. It went to some dark places; at times I almost didn’t want to go on, I was afraid for the protagonists. There’s a sequel, Signs for Lost Children, and a related title, Nightwaking, which was published before Bodies of Light but can be read at any point in the ‘trilogy’. (BTW, Josephine Butler features in the narrative – if you want to know more about her, read Helen Mathers’ excellent biography.)
Thomas Mullen sets Darktown in 1948 Atlanta, and gives us a pair of fictional black cops – amongst the first of the city’s African-American police officers. These officers had many constraints to work within: they only patrolled African-American neighborhoods, could not arrest white people, and while they were given guns, it was understood that they could not fire them. This is a brilliant crime thriller with a context that makes every detail hum with tension. There’s a sequel, Lightning Men.
As one blurb for Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife puts it, this is the story of Clare and Henry, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. It’s a fresh take on the kind of time travel paradoxes that make one’s head hurt – this makes one’s heart hurt as well. A sequel is in the offing, and Nifenegger’s second book, Her Fearful Symmetry, is excellent too.
2006, when The Audacity of Hope was published, seems so very long ago. Barack Obama was still a Senator, and hadn’t yet announced his campaign to be the Democratic presidential candidate. It is in many ways his manifesto and thus, as the Guardian reviewer at the time said, cautious in a way that his personal memoir, Dreams from my Father, didn’t have to be. It would be impossible to re-read it now, without hindsight and without the constant horror of the inevitable comparison between this eloquent, thoughtful writer and his successor in the White House. I don’t think I can quite bear to do so. But at the time, apart from setting out Obama’s political priorities and convictions it represented hope – the mad hope that there might be a black PoTUS, someone with integrity and empathy, and what that could mean for the US and the world.
I wasn’t sure which of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels to pick. And I could easily be talked into Instructions for a Heatwave, or her debut, After You’d Gone. But I settled on The Hand that first Held Mine. Her writing is always perceptive and subtle and in this novel she skilfully weaves together two different timelines – the 1950s and the present day – in a haunting study of memory and motherhood.
In Black and British, David Olusoga tells us of a ‘forgotten history’. To some extent this is not so much forgotten as ignored. No one is suggesting that in previous centuries our society was quite as diverse as it is today, but so much more so than it is usually represented – and every time a writer tries to represent the reality, which as Bill Potts says in Doctor Who is ‘a bit more black than they show in the movies’, there are howls of protest and shouts of ‘PC gone mad’. The history is there, and clear, and it’s absolutely fascinating. Olusoga presents so much that is new to me, even though I thought I knew a bit about this stuff, and some of it runs counter to assumptions that I might have previously made. It also brought back some very early childhood memories, of visits to the forts on the Ghanaian coast, places where slaves were held before they were loaded into the ships to cross the Atlantic.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash. And it’s a delight. 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. Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends. He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.
Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is set in eastern Norway,and focuses on the events of the summer of 1948. Beautifully constructed, beautifully written. As the Independent‘s review said, ‘unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other’, both for the protagonist, and for the reader.
The first two volumes in Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy fall outside the remit of this list, but the third just makes it. The Amber Spyglass (Guardian top 100 title). I re-read the original trilogy some weeks ago, in preparation for the new trilogy (the first volume of which, La Belle Sauvage, is wonderful and the second is due any day now), and they blew me away all over again. This is boldly imaginative fantasy, philosophical and literary, without the narrative ever losing impetus. As Pullman says, ‘the only thing that is interesting about fantasy is if you can use it to say something truthful and realistic about human nature’.
The Naming of the Dead is the 16th in Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus series. Rebus is as stroppy and infuriating as ever (but we wouldn’t want him any other way). The setting is the 2005 G8 summit, and Rankin weaves the events surrounding the summit (protests, the award of the 2012 Olympics to London, and the 7 July London bombings) into this story of murder and corruption.
I never expected to fall for Keith Richards. I read his autobiography, Life, because it had had such positive reviews, and obviously because of my interest in the music. But what surprised me is what an engaging writer he is. A lot of it is very funny indeed, and he writes beautifully, perceptively and passionately about music. About the people, particularly Brian Jones and Jagger, he can be harsh (as he often is about himself), but he’s often also generous and gracious. His attitudes to women may be relatively unreconstructed but he clearly likes them, rather than just wanting to have them. Reading about his wilder years, it’s pretty amazing that he’s still here, but I’m glad he hung around at least long enough to write this vivid account of an era and a career that one really couldn’t make up.
Sally Rooney is just getting started as a novelist, but her first two books have both generated an enormous amount of attention and praise. Normal People is her second – I’ve only read this once though I will undoubtedly go back to it (and will read Conversations with Friends, her debut). The ‘normal people’ of the title are, of course, not quite normal. Connell can pass for normal in his home and school environment, but only by hiding a lot of what he feels and thinks, and away from home he struggles to work out who he is and how he fits in. Marianne is regarded by her peers at school as weird, but comes into her own away from a damaging home environment. Their relationship is compelling and troubling – certainly not a conventional love affair – and Rooney doesn’t let us have a tidy or comfortable resolution.
I came across Liz Rosenberg’s Indigo Hill by chance as a Kindle offer, and loved it. It doesn’t seem to have been widely reviewed, although she’s a fairly prolific writer, with children’s books and poetry as well as novels on her CV. Indigo Hill is about families, secrets and memories – and it’s beautifully written (one might have guessed that she was a poet).
In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross writes brilliantly and beautifully about the century when ‘classical’ music got difficult. He demythologises without ever dumbing down, and has a gift for the description or metaphor that makes something difficult suddenly clear, and for illuminating the context in which this music was composed. It isn’t, despite the title, about all twentieth-century music – jazz and rock and pop don’t get much of a look in except where they overlap with classical. But one book can’t do everything, and in shedding light on music that is often perceived to be impenetrable, he’s doing something wonderful, particularly for those of us who want to open our minds to it and yet still struggle sometimes.
The Plot against America is Philip Roth’s 2004 venture into alt-history or counter history, where he proposes that the 1940 US election returned Charles Lindbergh rather than Roosevelt to the White House. Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame. We see the tragic consequences unfold through one Jewish family (modelled on Roth’s own). Contemporary parallels are all too easy to draw… (Guardian top 100 title)
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea gives us three stories, three protagonists, and then brings them together in the final part of the novel in ways that one could not have anticipated. With each story the tone changes, and Ryan skilfully takes us from lyricism to black comedy and everywhere in between. (I also loved his earlier The Thing about December. There too is humour and tragedy, and a lonely young man trying to work out how to be a man, how to be a good person, how to connect with the world and the people in it.) ‘Filled with love and righteous anger’, as the Guardian reviewer of From a Low and Quiet Sea puts it.
Philippe Sands’ East West Street weaves his own family history into the development of the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity which were so crucial to the judgments at Nuremberg and to our response to such crimes in the decades that followed. He makes the connection with his grandfather’s home in Lemberg (aka Lwów or L’viv) which was also where Lauterpacht and Lemberg, the two Jewish lawyers who were so instrumental in giving us the legal framework, grew up and were educated – and who are Sands’ own antecedents too, in his life as an international human rights lawyer.
Looking for Transwonderland is Noo Saro-Wiwa’s memoir of her return to Nigeria. She visits places that I saw as a child in the north of the country (Jos, Kano, Yankari Game Reserve) as well as parts of the country I never knew (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja). Her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa is a powerful (and unsentimentally portrayed) presence throughout, both at the personal level and in terms of the politics that led to his murder. Nonetheless the book is full of humour, and ultimately of a deep affection for the country, with all its chaos, corruption and division.
I don’t know where to begin with W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (Guardian top 100 title). Sebald is at the heart of my PhD thesis, and so trying to say something succinct when I’m so immersed is hard. It also means that a lot of the reviews annoy me quite a bit. I would probably have selected The Emigrants to represent Sebald’s work, but Austerlitz is the only one of his four ‘novels’ that falls within the twenty-first century, and it was his last – he died in a car accident not long after its publication. It’s about time, place and memory, and about a life that intersects with and is shaped by the darkest period of European history. It’s the most problematic of his novels, but endlessly, obsessively compelling.
Les Parisiennes is Anne Sebba’s fascinating account of the lives of women during the Nazi occupation of Paris, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between. Sebba draws on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaves them all into a rich tapestry which shows how life in Occupied Paris was both normal and entirely abnormal at the same time, depending on who and where you were.
I was drawn to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go at first just for the title. But then I was blown away by the opening chapter, and as the narrative pulled back from that minute detail, that moment by moment evocation of a man looking out at his garden, realising that he is about to die, the breadth of the locations and the expanding cast in no way diluted the power of the writing. I did not realise at first that I was reading it aloud in my head, the way I read a novel in French, rather than hoovering up a page in one go as I normally do. In this case it wasn’t in order to understand it, but in order to feel the rhythm of the text. This is a poem as much as it is a novel.
Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a cracking alternative history, where the Allies lost WWII, set in the Welsh valleys. It evokes something of Vercors’ Le Silence de la mer, or Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française in the portrayal of the interaction between occupying troops and the local population, but is also firmly rooted in the particular landscape and history of its setting.
Lynn Shepherd’s Tom All Alone’s is the second of her ‘literary’, postmodern crime novels. Her first, Murder at Mansfield Park, turned that classic upside down in a most entertaining way. I approached this one with caution because it riffs primarily on Bleak House, the best novel in the English language, and just as I am hypercritical of cover versions of songs I particularly love, so I am sceptical at least about anyone messing with my favourite novels. However, Shepherd recreates the atmosphere of Dickens’ London, even while she subverts his characters. It’s a gripping tale, darker – dare I say, bleaker – than anything Dickens could have published back in the day. There’s a slice of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in here as well.
I’ve read most of Anita Shreve‘s novels, including her last (she died last year) The Stars are Fire. But it had been a while, and when I thought about her work, the one that I knew had to be my choice was The Last Time they Met. There’s a link between this and an earlier work, The Weight of Water, in the central character, Thomas Janes. The Last Time they Met uses a reverse chronologicy to unravel the story of a relationship, and past and present are interwoven skilfully as in so many of Shreve’s books. This one is particularly heartbreaking and I still remember the sense of shock at its ending.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Guardian top 100) tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black American who died in agony of cancer in a ‘coloured’ hospital ward in 1951. This is about medical and scientific history – but also about race. Henrietta did not know her cells were being taken, nor did her family – and there’s a murky history of black hospital patients being treated as experimental subjects without informed consent. Billions have been made from these ‘HeLa’ cells, which showed extraordinary capacity to multiply and were used around the world to develop new drugs. But Skloot tells the story not just of ‘HeLa’ but of Henrietta’s life and death, and of her surviving children, and their struggles after her death.
I love Patti Smith as a musician, but I think even more as a writer. Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is warm, and funny, and touching, and a vivid portrait of the cultural life of the city. In her later memoir, M Train, she talks about life post-Mapplethorpe, life with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (ex MC5), and of the losses that marked those years (not just Mapplethorpe, but brother Todd, and Fred). Again her warmth and humour permeates every page.
Ali Smith’s Hotel World is glorious. It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity. The Guardian picked her novel Autumn, which I haven’t read, but will.
Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark (Guardian top 100 title) finds hope in activism, and in the notion of the Angel of alternate history. This is based on the angel Clarence in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a man in despair sees what the world would look like if he hadn’t been born. We may never know what difference we made, or might have made. If the threats that we perceive at present come to nothing it will be easy for us and others to say, see, we were over-reacting. If not it will be easy for us and others to say that our words and actions failed to achieve what we hoped. We could just as well say in the first instance that we helped in our small ways, collectively and individually, to defuse that threat, and in the second that things could have been worse. Because we won’t have Clarence to show us the effect of our acts, all we can do is to do the best we can.
Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon is an eloquent and rigorous account of depression. It comes from his own experience of this crippling illness and he tells his own story here, with painful honesty, but also explores the nature of depression, in terms of the science, the sociology, and how it is treated. ‘That Solomon has shaped a richly eloquent testament from his own seasons in hell kindles something like hope’.
I’ve read most, if not all, of Cath Staincliffe‘s work – her Sal Kilkenny PI series, the Scott & Bailey and Blue Murder novels, and her stand-alone titles, which, whilst they centre on a crime, are more concerned with the ripples from that crime as they spread out to victims and perpetrators and families. The Silence Between Breaths is a superlative example. I shall say nothing about the plot, but if you remember to breathe whilst reading it you will be doing better than I did. It’s gripping but also compassionate and moving. I’d highly recommend also The Girl in the Green Dress.
Another of the posse of brilliant young female crime writers whose books have given me so much enjoyment this century is Susie Steiner. Her detective is Manon Bradshaw, who made her debut in Missing, Presumed. What marks Steiner and her contemporaries out is the emphasis on character, rather than just on plot. Manon is a brilliant protagonist, but all of the secondary characters, whether colleagues or victims or their families, are subtly drawn too, with humour and empathy. There’s a sequel, Persons Unknown, and a new Manon title out next year.
The Hillsborough tragedy had a huge impact on me, even though I wasn’t there, and knew no one who died there. That afternoon and evening, watching the casualty count rise, trying to understand, are still so vivid in my memory. Since that day I’ve blogged regularly about it, as the fight for truth and justice for the victims and their families went on. Adrian Tempany’s And the Sun Shines Now is both a personal account of that day and what followed, and an exploration of the broader picture in contemporary football.
Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found Her, Restoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). The Gustav Sonata is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written. The Guardian reviewer called it ‘a perfect novel about life’s imperfection’, which is quite an accolade. The setting is Switzerland during the Second World War, which allows an exploration of the notion of neutrality. This quote, which comes towards the end and gives nothing away of the plot, goes to the heart of things: ‘We have to become the people we always should have been’.
Of all the Sarah Waters novels that I have read, Night Watch in particular stayed with me (The Guardian picked Fingersmith). It’s another tale told in reverse, but the Blitz is at the heart of everything that happens here. Gradually, as the story unfolds, we understand the characters, war and world weary, and the puzzling events that open the novel.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Guardian top 100 title) begins as a historical novel, telling with extraordinary and brutal power of the live of slaves in the American deep south. We’ve been here before, or so we may think. And then Whitehead swerves into a different kind of fiction altogether, without leaving behind the real stories of slaves, masters and abolitionists, but allowing us to see it afresh, from a different angle.
Having read Oranges are the Only Fruit, I thought I knew a bit about Jeanette Winterson‘s upbringing. But whilst that is moving and even devastating, it doesn’t convey the full awfulness, the full damage of that childhood and adolescence. Why be Happy when you could be Normal? pulls no punches. But it also has passages of great joy, particularly as the young Jeanette gains access to books, libraries of books, that open up new worlds to her. The story of her later life is devastating too, but throughout there is humour and self-awareness and compassion. One of the finest memoirs I have read.
And my three top books of the century are:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve read it several times and its impact never lessens. It’s personal, in a way, in that I lived in Nigeria at the time and during the events that she describes. The central characters begin in a period of peace and plenty, academics, privileged members of the wealthy Lagos business community, and ‘expats’. Gradually, as the country descends into pogroms and civil war, everything they have is gradually taken, their homes, their comforts, their food, their security. It’s an intensely powerful narrative – and it’s also about who gets to tell the story.
I love Kate Atkinson‘s work, her Jackson Brodie crime novels and, well, all of it really. But Life after Life is in a class of its own. Her writing is so perceptive, so piercing, often very funny, and often heartbreakingly sad. It’s a contender for my Desert Island book, in that I could conceive of reading it over and over again (alongside the Bible and Shakespeare).
Jon McGregor is an extraordinary author – If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things breaks my heart, no matter how often I read it. Reservoir 13 is not a detective novel, despite the familiar opening scenes – a missing girl, a community in shock, a search. The reader becomes part of the rhythm of time and the seasons which continue to pass whether or not we find her. The voices and lives of the community interweave – life and death, grief, betrayal, loss, love, warmth, joy. The cliché is that when something terrible happens, ‘life goes on’. That’s what Reservoir 13 is about.
So there we are. It’s a very personal list – it reflects not only my general preferences (history, crime), but my particular interests (French World War II history, West Africa, music). So literally no one else is likely to pick the same 100 titles. And nor will I, if I repeat this exercise twenty years from now…
If this list turns you on to an author you didn’t know, or a book you hadn’t tried, I’d love to know, and will be absolutely delighted. If I haven’t included an author or a book that you think should be there, do tell me (note that I respond better to recommendations than to reproofs for not having read your favourites!). If I include things you hate, or think unworthy, that’s fine, but no need to tell me, there’s plenty of room for your tastes and mine. Nothing on this list is here because I think it ought to be here, I’m not trying to prove anything, just to share some of the joy I’ve found in reading in the 21st century.