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.