We’re halfway through this strange, sad year. In theory, there’s been more time for reading since lockdown. But at times this year, not just due to Covid, I haven’t found it easy to focus on a book. Nonetheless, I’ve read a lot, and these are some of the highlights. In general, they reflect my need for what the brilliant Attica Locke recently described (in a tweet about Nicole Dennis Benn’s lovely novel Patsy, which I am reading at present) as ‘uplift with heft’. Too cosy and too obviously intended to be ‘heartwarming’ and I get angry, because life isn’t cosy, things don’t always work out OK, people die, people are sick, people are broken. Too grim and I just can’t bear it, not now, not in the midst of all this. There has to be something that lifts me up, some element of hope, the possibility of change for the better, the capacity of people to exceed one’s expectations, to be better and to do better.
There’s only one title here that specifically references the pandemic. But several of the fiction and non-fiction titles reflect my realisation part way through the year that my reading so far had been dismayingly white. It seemed appropriate, in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter protests worldwide, to address that.
This isn’t everything I’ve read. I’ve missed a few re-reads, and I have, as I always do, omitted things I found mediocre, or clunky. This is the good stuff.
Melanie Abrams – Meadowlark. A bow drawn at a venture, and a thoroughly good read. Like Glaister’s Chosen, it’s exploring the world of closed communities (aka cults), how seductive and deadly they are.
Belinda Bauer – The Shut Eye. A missing child mystery that doesn’t follow the path you expect, that is troubling and puzzling and shocking in all sorts of ways. Bauer is described by the Independent as ‘either so quirkily idiosyncratic – or just plain bloody-minded – that [her] books resolutely resist conforming to whatever the latest modishness is’.
Nicole Dennis-Benn – Patsy. I’m reading this on the recommendation of Attica Locke, as mentioned above. Patsy is a Jamaican immigrant in New York, living the precarious life of the undocumented, a life that separates her not only from her home and family, but from the hopes that brought her here.
Alan Bennett – The Uncommon Reader. This made me laugh, rather a lot, at a time when laughter was in short supply. Brilliantly witty and sharp, it also manages to be oddly touching.
Arnold Bennett – Hilda Lessways. This is Part 2 of his Clayhanger series, written in 1911, set in the Midlands in the late 19th century, with a female protagonist who blazes off the page.
William Boyd – Love is Blind. This is a tour de force, and my favourite of his books so far. It’s clever, but never just clever. ‘Audaciously unpredictable’ as the Guardian put it. The narrative takes us from Victorian Scotland to Paris to Russia and to the Bay of Bengal, it’s romantic and vivid, and totally engaging.
NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names. Fine, powerful writing – and with humour amongst the grim. The trajectory is familiar – the African diaspora, in this case from Zimbabwe to the USA, but the voice is fresh.
Jane Casey – The Cutting Place. The latest Maeve Kerrigan, and quite possibly the best yet (I probably say that each time, but the series really does keep upping its game).
Lissa Evans – Old Baggage. A writer I’ve discovered only recently. I read Spencer’s List earlier this year, and after Old Baggage, I read its sequel, Crooked Heart, and eagerly await V for Victory in August. Funny and moving, with characters that get under your skin and into your head and your heart.
Nicci French – The Lying Room. This is the first I’ve read from the husband and wife team of Nicci Gerrard (who I know as a campaigner for dementia patients in hospital, and author of the powerful and moving What Dementia Teaches us about Love) and Sean French. And very good it is too – steeped in secrets and lies. I will read more.
Tana French – The Trespasser. Latest in the splendid Dublin Murders series. Though we call it a series, French’s distinctive technique is to shift the focus from novel to novel, so that a peripheral character in one becomes the main protagonist in the next.
Patrick Gale – Take Nothing with You. One of his best. And the writing about music is so vivid that I could almost hear it as I read.
Lesley Glaister – Chosen. The latest from a favourite writer whose work I’ve been following for many years, a gripping and intense psychological thriller, like Meadlowlark, exploring a closed community. Very twisty.
Elizabeth Goudge – The Bird in the Tree / The Herb of Grace / The Heart
of the Family. First read when I was a teenager, and returned to in the hope of ‘uplift with heft’, The Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy is mystical, romantic, intense – all about hope, and the redemptive power of place
to heal broken humans.
Elly Griffiths – The Lantern Men. The new Ruth Galloway. Always feel like I’m meeting up with a friend when I read these, I’d love to go down the pub with Ruth (when that sort of thing becomes normal again, obviously). And of course, there’s a splendid mystery, and the cast of supporting characters is drawn with humour, insight and affection.
Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing. I’ve had this one in my TBR pile for a while, but it felt as though this was the time to open it. It’s a complex narrative, on a huge scale (centuries, continents). It starts, though, in places that resonate with my own childhood in Ghana in the early 60s – Cape Coast Castle and Kumasi. Often harrowing, always compelling.
Emma Healey – Whistle in the Dark. By the author of the excellent Elizabeth is Missing, a mystery with an ending that is both terrifying and moving.
Mick Herron – Dead Lions. Second in his Slow Horses series, about a department of MI5 rejects – acerbically funny but without pulling any emotional punches.
Susan Hill – The Benefits of Hindsight. The latest in her excellent Simon Serailler detective series, as always musing on mortality and morality whilst solving the crime.
Judith Kerr – Out of the Hitler Time. This is a trilogy of lightly fictionalised autobiography by the late and dearly beloved author of Mog and The Tiger who Came to Tea, starting with the Kerr family’s narrow escape from Nazi Germany.
Philip Kerr – Metropolis. Sadly the last in the brilliant Bernie Gunther series of detective novels set before, during and after the Nazi era.
Stephen King – If It Bleeds. This guy is unstoppable. A collection of short stories, two of which are kind of standard King – which is still a very good thing – and two of which are classic King which is brilliant.
John le Carré – Legacy of Spies. One more, probably last, Smiley novel from the master. It has an elegiac tone, including a final eulogy to the dream of European collaboration and unity.
Andrea Levy – The Long Song. Very powerful and moving. I loved the storyteller’s voice, the dialogue and the ongoing arguments between her and the person who’s pressing her to tell the story, the gaps that can’t be filled.
Laura Lippman – The Lady in the Lake. Another excellent psychological thriller from Lippman, a polyphonic narrative, using glimpses of events from a number of different points of view to complement or contradict the protagonist’s perspective.
Attica Locke – Pleasantville. Sequel to Black Water Rising, which I read last year, it picks up the story of black Texas lawyer Jay Porter fifteen years after the events of that book. It’s a riveting plot, with a great cast of complex characters and the ability to move between state politics and the domestic exigencies of single parenthood with grace and perception.
Adrian McKinty – The Cold, Cold Ground. First of his Belfast-set Sean Duffy crime series, which I will definitely be following up.
Denise Mina – Still Midnight. Starts with an Asian family facing a home invasion, doesn’t go where you expect it to, gets hold of you and doesn’t let you go till the last page.
Sarah Moss – The Tidal Zone. I properly got into Moss last year and this year have read The Ghost Wall and this one, which is entirely different again (one never does know quite what to expect with Moss). As the Guardian says, this is a novel about the NHS, which makes it rather timely, and about parental anxiety, but also about art, and ideas.
Maggie O’Farrell – This Must be the Place. Always brilliant. Not my top O’Farrell but excellent. As the Guardian says, she is ‘a deft and compelling chronicler of human relationships’.
Louise Penny – A Fatal Grace. The second in the Inspector Gamache series, set in a small Québécois town. They’re not at the gritty end of crime fiction (it’s been said that they’re modelled on the classic British whodunit) but that doesn’t mean they’re superficial or cliched.
Susie Steiner – Remain Silent. We’ve had a long wait for the new Manon Bradshaw but it was worth it. Manon is a tremendous, real, often abrasive and annoying central character. And one can’t be unaffected by the knowledge that Steiner has been undergoing treatment for a brain tumour, and that the latest news is not good.
Elizabeth Strout – Olive Kitteridge. I read Abide with Me last year, and this is the third Strout I’ve read this year. Exceptionally good, deeply empathetic, a novel in interlinked short stories (like Anything is Possible).
Meg Waite-Clayton – Beautiful Exiles. This is a fascinating novel about the formidable Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn hated being described as the third Mrs Hemingway, so I did wish that Waite-Clayton had continued the story after she finally dumped Hemingway…
Elizabeth Wein – The Enigma Game Another brilliant WWII YA novel from the author of Code Name Verity. Thrilling and moving stuff.
Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys. This one I think even surpasses The Underground Railroad. It’s devastating. Brilliantly constructed, and with a twist that’s no gimmick, and a protagonist who you want so very badly to be OK whilst knowing the odds against that…
Chimanada Ngozi Adichie – Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. My favourite contemporary African writer, passing on her thoughts on feminism to a friend, who’s asked her advice on raising a daughter. The feminism itself isn’t revelatory but Adichie is writing from within the Nigerian Igbo culture that she and her friend share, and that makes it fresh and engaging.
Angela Davis – Women, Race and Class. Davis was one of my heroines, when I was educating myself about the civil rights movement as a teenager. She was, and is, awesome. This was written in 1983, and it’s ahead of the game in terms of what we would now call intersectionality, tracing the connections between the abolitionist movement, the suffragists, and the civil rights struggle to show how those priorities, those needs, coincided or conflicted.
Dorothy Day – The Long Loneliness. I knew absolutely nothing about Day until my son discovered her, whilst doing an MA in American History. She was a remarkable woman – a Catholic socialist anarchist, a journalist and activist, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, and faced controversy for her refusal to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War. This autobiography was published in 1954 (she died in 1980). As baffling as I find her religious faith, her account of the social and political upheavals in which she was involved is fascinating.
Jason Diakite – A Drop of Midnight. Another fascinating memoir from someone I hadn’t heard of! Diakite is a black Swedish rapper, and here he explores his family history and his father’s roots in the American south, and musing on music, race, and the importance of shiny shoes.
Lara Feigel – The Love Charm of Bombs. The Blitz through the eyes of writers (including Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen) who lived through it and did their bit in some way (air-raid wardens, ambulance drivers, etc). The most interesting, actually, is the exiled Austrian novelist Hilde Spiel.
Alan Garner – Where Shall we Run to? A beautiful, brief memoir of growing up in a landscape that’s steeped in history (ancient and family) and in mythology, the landscape that inspired Garner’s novels, from his children’s book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to his most recent novel, Boneland.
Atul Gawande – Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. These are essays written whilst Gawande was doing his general surgery residency, focusing on fallibility, mystery and ethics. Honest, inspiring and terrifying.
Heda Margolius Kovaly – Under a Cruel Star. Cruel indeed – Kovaly survived the Łódź ghetto and Auschwitz, and escaped the death march to Belsen, but under the postwar regime in Czechoslovakia, her husband was murdered in one of Stalin’s show trials – the Slansky trial, which mainly targeted Jews, and she, tainted by association with a ‘traitor’, struggled to survive before escaping west in 1968.
Diarmaid MacCulloch – Thomas Cromwell. Homework, if you like, for my reading of The Mirror and the Light. It’s notable how much respect is given here to Mantel’s grasp of the history. It’s a hefty tome, but fascinating. I can’t pretend I was equipped to really appreciate the finer points of Tudor politics, but I got a lot from the book, nonetheless.
Ben MacIntyre – Double Cross. Another extraordinary account of WWII espionage. If this was a novel one might accuse it in places of implausibility – a cast of extraordinary characters and plots of extraordinary audacity, on which millions of lives depended.
Kenan Malik – From Fatwa to Jihad. The updated version of Malik’s 2010 exploration of how the Rushdie affair transformed the debate worldwide on multiculturalism, tolerance and free speech, helped fuel the rise of radical Islam and pointed the way to the horrors of 9/11, 7/7, Charlie Hebdo…
Lucy Mangan – Bookworm. This memoir of a childhood spent reading, voraciously, obsessively, constantly reading, really spoke to me… Mangan is a lot younger, and so some of the books that she devoured were too young for me by the time they came out, but she read everything, so there’s a lot of common ground. Very funny, absolutely delightful.
Eva Noack-Mosse – Last Days of Theresienstadt. Noack-Mosse was deported in early 1945 to the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Working in the camp office, she compiled endless lists for the SS, but also her own clandestine statistics and observations. Postwar, this evidence not only helped to reconnect displaced people with their family and friends (or at least to know their fates) but also contributed to war crimes trials.
Marcus O’Dair – Different Every Time. Authorised biography of wonderful musician Robert Wyatt. Affectionate and admiring, but clear-sighted, it’s a fascinating insight into the music and, with it being Wyatt, the politics.
Maggie O’Farrell – I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. The only writer to crop up in both the fiction and non-fiction sections of this blog. Incredibly tense, these encounters with death are nonetheless about life. O’Farrell was inspired to write it because of her daughter’s severe immune disorder and the experience of facing down death with and vicariously through her daughter.
Pete Paphides – Broken Greek. In a way, this is the musical equivalent of Lucy Mangan’s memoir. It’s the account of a childhood where music – the pop music of the era, as naff as it often was – had overwhelming power and significance. It’s also a story of chip shops, where his Greek-Cypriot parents worked to support their family, and of colliding cultures. It’s very funny, and joyful.
Johnny Pitts – Afropean. I was always going to want to read an exploration of blackness and European identity that starts in my own home town of Sheffield, before heading out to Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Lisbon, Moscow… Whether or not Pitts finds his tribe on this quest, as the Guardian puts it, ‘Afropean announces the arrival of an impassioned author able to deftly navigate and illuminate a black world that for many would otherwise have remained unseen’.
Rebecca Solnit – Men Explain Things to Me. A 2014 collection of essays, of which the title essay is the earliest (2008) and is credited with launching the concept of ‘mansplaining’ (not the term, which Solnit doesn’t use or like). Solnit is witty, clear, and absolutely furious. Excellent stuff.
Laura Spinney – Pale Rider. This could hardly be more pertinent – a study of the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918-19, how it spread, how it was treated, how different governments responded. Lots of parallels, of course, with our own time. Where we are lucky is that our own pandemic does not follow directly on one of the most destructive wars in history, with populations exhausted, malnourished, displaced. We could have learned a lot, though, if the right people had been interested in learning rather than posturing…
Ron Stallworth – Black Klansman. The story behind Spike Lee’s brilliant BlacKkKlansman, a story which one might have assumed to be a parable rather than reality. Stallworth himself didn’t tell how he infiltrated the KKK until 2006, and this account was only published in 2014. It’s fascinating and astonishing. It’s not just about the Klan, of course, it’s about what it was to be a black cop in the 1970s in the USA.
Under lockdown, I’ve travelled through time and around the globe. I’ve been back to 16th century England, 18th century Ghana, 19th century France and Russia, Nazi Berlin, Iron Curtain Prague. I’ve been to Jamaica, the Andaman Islands, Zimbabwe, Nigeria. I’ve been all over the US – Baltimore and Texas, Maine and Florida, Colorado and South Carolina, New York and Detroit. I’ve been all over my own homeland too. I’ve shared lives and experiences that are close to my own, and others that are so utterly different that I could never have imagined them.
Thanks to all of the writers who’ve opened those doors to me. Whatever else the second half of 2020 brings, there will be more books, more doors into other lives and experiences. I’ll let you know what I find.